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Friday, July 27, 2007

Emphasizing Words

Should you underline, italicize or all-cap words for emphasis within dialogue?

Sparingly, sure. A reader is not going to have a fit if you underline or italicize a word to place emphasis on it. And sometimes, it’s hard to avoid. Writers know that focusing on a particular word in a sentence can change the meaning entirely.

Harriet: Marcus, it’s time that you knew, this is not your child!

She holds out a freakish creature, wrapped in a blanket.


Harriet: Marcus, it’s time you that knew, this is not your child!

She beckons Marcus’ brother Cedrick to step forward.


Harriet: Marcus, it’s time you know, this is not your child!

She points to the baby in the stroller nearby.


We have talked before about ALL-CAPPING words for emphasis and we know that can be very effective in action lines. But in dialogue, use an all-cap emphasis extremely rarely. Here is an example with no emphasis, an italicized word and an all-cap. Each one has a slightly different intonation.

Lawrence: Deirdre, I am on fire tonight!

Lawrence: Deirdre, I am on fire tonight!

Lawrence: Deirdre, I am on FIRE tonight!

Place emphasis on words in your dialogue is all right here and there. Sparingly. It is not absolutely verboten, which is the misconception most writers labor under. But do take it easy. Don’t lean on it. Write your scenes with such clarity of context that there would never be a doubt as to whether Lawrence is aflame and in need of medical attention or whether he was aflame with desire.

Words are like musical notes, we use hyphens, ellipses, italics, underlines or all-caps to direct the eye and the attention to where we want it. Used sparingly, it’s no problem for a reader. It just might help you make your point in a funnier, scarier or more urgent way.

Over use of any of these condiments will absolutely mark you as an amateur though. Do not use more than one per page for dialogue and no more than two or three per page in your action lines. That's not a hard-and-fast rule, there is no Reader Issue Word Emphasis-o-Meter, but writers, particularly less experienced ones, should be quite judicious with this.

I recently read a script by a very good writer who had a PEASANT CLANG a large BELL loudly THREE TIMES until the SOLDIERS arrived along with the GENERAL and just as he arrived a SPEAR hit the dirt in front of him, all turned and the WARRIOR KING stood PROUDLY.

Lemme tell ya - it's exhausting and it makes you look like you're shouting. And as a reader, all I am seeing is the all-capped words. It's like playing Wheel of Fortune instead of staying with the action.

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screen scribe said...

What about sounds? Is it necessary to capitalize a sound in an action line? Case in point: the lock CLICKED open.

moonbros said...

Some scripts use all-caps every time a character is mentioned. However, as you pointed out, this can get to be a little too much.

As screenplay collaborators, we tend to follow the method of capitalizing character names only the first time they are introduced into the script.

As for capitalizing sound effects... We try to use these sparingly. But we do tend to use capital letters if we hear GUNFIRE, or when a character RINGS a bell. (Hopefully not in the same sentence, of course)

From a reader’s point of view, what’s your take on capitalizing sound effects?

Julie Gray said...

capitalizing sounds or sound effects is effective and not at all objectionable. It really makes your action line POP when you use it. Definitely CLICK and POW and SHATTER away but when you're done, run your eyes over the action lines or the whole page or scene for that matter and just make sure you haven't overdone it. Too much makes it hard to read, just a little draws attention and adds drama. Find the balance.