Why ‘Interpreting’ Scripts Is a Dangerous Idea, Pt. I

Photo Source: Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

A writer’s job is to communicate a story or idea to the reader, a job that isn’t always easy.

For the most part, education makes the writer’s job straightforward through the utilization of commonly agreed upon rules, such as spelling, punctuation, grammar, and syntax. But when education standards slip or readers become lazy over time, the writer’s job becomes more difficult and he or she must find new (and often increasingly cumbersome ways) to make previously clear ideas even more obvious.

  • I’m sorry, I can’t help you anymore.
  • I’m sorry I can’t help you anymore.
  • I’m sorry, I can’t help you any more.
  • I’m sorry I can’t help you any more.

If you cannot see the four different meanings in what looks like the same sentence repeated above, then the writer has a problem. The comma indicates an apology followed by a reason for the apology, whereas the version of the line without the comma indicates the regret is reserved for not being able to assist. Further, the adverb ‘anymore’ (referring to an any longer) has an entirely different meaning to the determiner ‘any more’ (indicating even the smallest amount).

If the difference is still unclear to you, consider hearing someone say, ‘I can’t see any more’ versus ‘I can’t see anymore’ after watching three minutes of Donald Trump doing yoga in Spandex. The former means they’ve seen more than enough, the latter means the experience has rendered them blind.

Some would say this is simply interpretation, but no. One translates an exact meaning from Japanese into that exact same meaning (or as close as possible) in English, but the meaning and intention of the thought itself shouldn’t change. The only reason one might change it is if the original meaning has no equivalent in the new language, but even then, ‘Where is the bathroom?’ should never become ’I live in a bathroom’ through interpretation.

In most screenplays, a line either means X or it means Y, but it doesn’t have flexible meaning. ‘My husband and I are divorced’ is either true or not true. Whether the characters are happy or sad about the divorce doesn’t change the line’s inherent meaning, nor should it. ‘My husband and I divorced’ has another meaning entirely. The former uses divorce as a noun and the latter, by dropping the word ‘are’ before divorced, as a verb. Did you even notice the difference?

Although it’s entirely possible the difference is a typographical error, I always assume at first that it’s not. Since our brains are likely to ‘correct’ any perceived errors as we read, I find it essential to read every word slowly at first to ensure I’m reading what’s actually there.

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These nuances are fascinating. They offer a glimpse into the mind of the writer.

I once wrote a scene containing the line, ‘I know. My job is dangerous,’ only to hear the actor deliver it as, ‘I know my job is dangerous,’ which doesn’t make sense in the context of the conversation between the characters because nobody said his job was dangerous before he brought it up. The occupational danger was a revelation to his wife in the scene. This is not just a subjective, interpretable reading of a line. It is incorrect and confusing due to the misreading of a line, and there is no solution that I as a writer can devise that would be more elegant than an actor simply reading what’s on the page, including the punctuation.

What’s frustrating from a writer’s perspective is that if a robot were to read any of the examples above it would make perfect sense of them. That’s not an insult to humans, just a simple statement of fact. Humans interpret, or they take short cuts, and that’s where miscommunications arise.

‘I’ve come to talk, Taylor!’ is what you shout to your friend Taylor when you discover he’s been sleeping with your girlfriend. ‘I’ve come to talk Taylor!’ is something you might proclaim as you kick open the doors at a Taylor Swift fanboy convention. Both lines have different meanings, and the only way a writer can communicate that to you is through the use of commonly accepted and understood symbols of punctuation, in this instance, the comma, and the period in the previous example.

If you ignore or remove the punctuation, you often remove the meaning, and that’s not interpretation, it’s misinterpretation.

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

Paul Barry
Paul Barry is an L.A.-based Australian acting teacher, author of “Choices,” and a Backstage Expert. Barry runs on-camera classes in Santa Monica as well as online worldwide and conducts a six-week program called Dreaming for a Living, coaching actors, writers, and filmmakers in how to generate online incomes to support their art.