Punk and Punctuation

(One of the novels Jane Austen never got round to writing.)

I recently had one of my occasional arguments with Bill Tordoff.  These are conducted in an atmosphere of good-natured grumpiness (on both sides), but are, in my view, worthwhile for forcing me to clarify my thinking on a subject.  In this case, the issue was punctuation, particularly the punctuation of stage directions.  Bill was so incensed by my habit of putting full stops (period marks, if you punctuate in American English) at the end of directions that he did a survey of other publishers to find out what they did.  He found a wide variety of things, including italics, various shapes of brackets, sentence case, lower case, and even directions in margins.  What Bill didn’t find was any other publishers habitually using full stops.  On the other hand, I did (in the first book off my shelf – Orton’s complete plays, published by Methuen Drama).  The point here is that there isn’t a right or wrong way of doing it, but each script (and each publishing house) has to be consistent.Bookshelf
Exasperated, Bill pointed to the following (in his abridgement of Johnson’s Volpone):

Volpone:      (Rising and fondling artefacts.)  Let me kiss with adoration every relic!

As Bill (elegantly) put it, directions like that are not sentences “they are participial phrases because they don’t contain a finite verb, and should therefore end with a comma, if anything, and not a full stop.”  Grammatically, he is entirely correct.  However, the function that fragment performs is to stand in for a sentence.  (A sentence like “Volpone rises and fondles the artefacts.”)  That it omits a main verb (and even, arguably, a subject) is a consequence of the imperative to keep directions as brief as possible.  It is certainly not part of the (spoken) sentence that follows it and therefore (in the way I lay down the rules for scripts published by Lazy Bee) it should be punctuated as separate from the spoken sentence and not continuous with it.
On the other hand, directions within a single sentence should be punctuated as part of the sentence.  Consider this (from the same source):

Voltore:      This lewd woman here (indicating Celia) has long been known […]

Formatting of stage directions – and even speeches in a play script isn’t easy.  Just take a look at the start of a line of speech.  It starts with a character name, but that character name is not part of the speech, therefore the speech itself starts with a capital letter, even though the preceding words did not form a (closed-off) sentence.
A few guidelines (from the Lazy Bee Scripts perspective):

  • If a direction comes at the start of a speech, punctuate the direction as a sentence (start with a capital letter, end with a full stop).  Start the speech with a capital letter.
  • If a direction comes between two sentences of a speech, punctuate the direction as a sentence.
  • If a direction comes within a sentence, punctuate it as if it formed part of the sentence.
  • Directions are part of the speech, not part of the character name (so the layout is as per Volpone’s speech above, with a separator between the character name and the direction).
  • Directions should be written for the cast, not from the point of view of the audience.  Instead of “A young man enters…” write “Tom enters…”
  • With the exception of scene-setting directions, they should be immediate (telling the cast or crew to do something during the show, not what they should have done to prepare).
  • Keep it short.

As I say, this is from a Lazy Bee Scripts perspective.  Other publishers will take different views.  In all cases, the first imperative is to be consistent.

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