The Use of Punctuation in Dramatic Dialogue

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  • 0:01 Proper Grammar
  • 0:40 Punctuating Dialogue
  • 1:48 The Dash
  • 2:57 The Ellipsis
  • 3:39 End Punctuation
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

Playwrights use punctuation to tell their actors how to deliver their lines. In this lesson, you'll learn about three types of punctuation and the effects they have when used in dramatic dialogue.

Proper Grammar

'Now class, when you're joining independent clauses in a compound sentence, you must use a comma before your conjunction to avoid creating a run-on.' How many times have you heard something like that from an English teacher? Too many, probably.

Punctuation rules can be hard to memorize and tricky to apply. And if you spent hours learning to pick out and punctuate adverbial phrases, prepare to have your mind blown. In drama, especially in dramatic dialogue, most of those rules go right out the window.

Punctuating Dialogue

In a play, dialogue is just the word we use for the words that the actors speak. When you see it in a script, the words that come after the characters' names - the parts that aren't italicized - are the dialogue. If you're writing an essay for a class, you want to have your punctuation in all the right places so that errors don't distract your reader from the awesome points you're making. In a play, you have a different goal.

Remember, the only people who should be actually reading the scripts are in the play. The audience watches from their seats.

If actors are reading your scripts, then the goal of the punctuation is to help them play their characters. Therefore, the punctuation is there not to meet the standards for correctness but to show actors where to pause, where to place emphasis, and how to express the ideas and emotions of their characters. I'll give you some examples, but let's first look at three types of punctuation that could be used in non-standard ways in a script.

The Dash

First, we have the mighty dash. Let's say you're writing a play and you want your actors to have a slight pause in their dialogue. The pause needs to be longer than the brief pause created by a comma, but it should be shorter than the pause created by a period. Dash to the rescue! The dash is the tool playwrights use to throw in a short pause. Take a look at our sample script.

This is the first scene in a play about circus clowns who are no longer funny. In the first line Chuckles delivers, he says, 'Dude - we really bombed tonight.' The dash helps the actor know that he starts out his line with 'Dude,' then adds some additional information after a short pause, as if he didn't really intend to say all that at first.

Think about the difference created simply by changing that dash to a period or a comma. 'Dude. We really bombed tonight.' That sounds more planned-out and defeated. Changing it to a comma - 'Dude, we really bombed tonight.' - sounds a little lighter, less sad. It's all about the length of the pause.

The Ellipsis

Next, there's the ellipsis. In standard punctuation, you use the ellipsis to show that words have been left out, but in dramatic dialogue, the ellipsis tells the actor that he's supposed to trail off.

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