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10 Rules For Using Parentheticals Nov 23

First, what are they?

Parentheticals, or actor/character directions, or “wrylies,” are those little descriptions that sometimes appear after a character’s name, in dialogue blocks, to spell out tone, intent or action.

In the poorly written example below (see Rule #1), the parentheticals are “(breathlessly)” and “(confused)”:

The Loyal Squire bursts through the door. Collapses on the ground. Pulls a bloodied envelope from his pocket.

LOYAL SQUIRE

(breathlessly)

I may not live... to see tomorrow my liege... But I die knowing... that I have served thee well.

KING

(confused)

I’m sorry. Who are you?

10 Rules for Using Parentheticals

1. Don’t use parentheticals when it’s redundant or obvious

It’s a common mistake to use parentheticals in places where the emotion or intent of the dialogue is already obvious (my example above, for instance).

Many actors dislike parentheticals — it’s their job to interpret the emotion, etc. of the scene based on the dialogue provided. So it’s very important to use them sparingly for emotional cues, and only when it would otherwise be unclear…

2. Use parentheticals to avoid confusion

Take the following dialogue, for example:

GRANNY

How did you like my stew? It’s an old family recipe.

BILL

I hated it.

That’s very different than the following (especially when developing a character):

GRANNY

How did you like my stew? It’s an old family recipe.

BILL

(sarcastically)

I hated it.

3. Don’t use parentheticals  to direct minor actions

Similar to Rule #1 (where you’re needlessly directing an actor’s emotions), it’s also a faux pas to overuse them for an actor’s actions.

Example of POOR usage:

DOUG

(index finger massages his right temple)

There must be a way out of here. We have to think.

ELANOR

(purses lips)

I can’t come up with anything.

DOUG

(scratching neck)

Have you tried opening the door?

ELANOR

(shaking head)

No, not yet.

Leave the decisions of those minor actions up to the actor. In the example above, all of the parentheticals should be removed.

Note: If your character has a specific quirk, that’s pivotal to your story, you have a bit more leeway in this regard. But even then, you may be better off including such mannerisms in a line of description.

4. Use parentheticals for quick, significant actions

Often times, you can save several lines by slipping quick and significant actions into the dialogue block. And since some execs only read the dialogue blocks of a script to save time, this practice can even provide some much-needed clarity.

Example of GOOD usage:

GARY

Son of a bitch. You got blood on my shirt!

(kicks the body)

And now my shoe!

5. Parentheticals should never come at the end of a dialogue block

Example of INCORRECT usage:

SCOTT

I told you not to disturb me!

(throws pen at the door)

If the action follows the dialogue, simply pull it out and make it a separate line of description:

SCOTT

I told you not to disturb me!

He throws his pen at the door. It rebounds. Hits him in the eye.

6. Don’t use parentheticals for the actions of a different character

While one actor is speaking, you can’t describe another actor’s actions.

Example of INCORRECT usage:

PETE

There are ninjas all over the place!

(Bruno steps to the window)

What are we gonna do, man?

Instead, you would use:

PETE

There are ninjas all over the place!

Bruno steps to the window. Stares bug-eyed.

PETE

What are we gonna do, man?!

7. Don’t use parentheticals for sounds or camera directions

Example of INCORRECT usage:

FRED

(WIND HOWLS)

We need to get to that house on the hill!

SHAGGY

(steps INTO FRAME)

Like, you mean that creepy one everyone said was haunted?!

Instead you would write something like:

The WIND HOWLS. Whips at the group’s hair and clothes.

FRED

We need to get to that house on the hill!

SHAGGY

Like, you mean that creepy one everyone said was haunted?!

I left out the “steps INTO FRAME” part. Don’t specify camera directions (in your spec script) unless they’re critical to the comprehension of your scene. Leave that up to the director. (See The 5 key differences between spec and shooting scripts)

8. Don’t capitalize the first letter of parentheticals

Example or INCORRECT usage:

BRAD

(Gritting his teeth)

I couldn’t be happier.

Example of CORRECT usage:

BRAD

(gritting his teeth)

I couldn’t be happier.

9. Use correct punctuation in parentheticals

In those rare cases where you need to specify multiple actions in your parenthetical, don’t use periods, dashes or ellipses.

Example of INCORRECT usage:

WOLFGANG

(looks up from clipboard... smiles -- waves them through with gun.)

Don’t worry. I will not waste my time with you.

First of all, that’s a lot to put in the parenthetical. The first two parts, if not all the parts, should probably have been written as scene description. But for purposes of this exercise, semi-colons are the answer…

Example of CORRECT usage:

WOLFGANG

(looks up from clipboard; smiles; waves them through with gun)

Don’t worry. I will not waste my time with you.

10. Don’t use a pronoun to start the parenthetical

Example of INCORRECT usage:

DAVE

(he winks at Betty)

Sure, Sarah, I’ve always thought you were the prettiest.

Instead, you would simply write:

DAVE

(winks at Betty)

Sure, Sarah, I’ve always thought you were the prettiest.

For an expanded investigation of the correct way to use parentheticals, I highly recommend the following Amazon books:

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11 Responses
  1. […] For more juicy insight on this absolutely fascinating topic (not really), please check out my 10 rules for using parentheticals. […]

  2. Gareth says:

    I’m just wondering. In a spec script, how are you to describe in parentheticals if there is a lot of looking at other characters. An example would be (look to Jenson). Or would this be written in the action. I’m not sure.

  3. Trevor Mayes says:

    Hi Gareth. It depends. If you need to use more than a few words, then an action line would be best, otherwise a parenthetical is just fine.

    If you’re merely trying to tell the audience who a character is speaking to, the standard is to simply write: (to Jenson)

  4. Marcus Moreland says:

    Hello, I’m trying to become a screenplay writer and i really need some help with a couple similar scenes I’m trying to write. in every scene a specific character is in, i never want his face to be shown. I don’t want to write a SHOT because that is just one angle and i feel like i would have to write way to many of them. I don’t want one SHOT that doesn’t reveal his face i want every scene he is in to not reveal his face. How can i accomplish this?

  5. Trevor Mayes says:

    Hi Marcus,

    I’d say in your case, you’d write a reader’s note. Simply put something in your script like this (let’s suppose your character’s named Damien):

    READER’S NOTE: Damien’s face is NEVER SEEN until specifically indicated.

    Depending on when the reveal comes, you could then pepper the script with reminders that we’re not seeing his face:

    Damien, his face obscured by the branches, marches toward her with a knife.

    Hope that helps!

  6. Marcus moreland says:

    Thank you! Such a simple fix to a big problem of mine. I will be coming back here next time I’m in a slump.

  7. ALEX says:

    I’m been warned to be aware of spelling and grammar, I do not know how to give an character his own personality or his own way of saying words without messing some spelling. help.

  8. Trevor Mayes says:

    Hi Alex, sounds like you need some proofreading assistance. I’m happy to help. Please check out the services on my proofreading page:

    http://scriptwrecked.com/script-proofreading/

  9. Edwin says:

    Is it possible to have two more more parenthetical in the one line of dialogue. For example:

    SAM
    (to John)
    Where’s the car?
    (then to Alex)
    Where’d you park it, Alex?
    (frustrated)
    You guys are hopeless!

    If I try to do this in Final Draft it automatically puts a space between the parenthetical lines.

  10. Trevor Mayes says:

    Hi, Edwin. Yes, that’s perfectly valid… although you don’t want to overuse parentheticals. Like that last one — we understand from the dialogue that he’s frustrated. No need to spell it out.

    I’m not sure what you mean by Final Draft putting a space between the parenthetical lines. Perhaps you could clarify the issue. Final Draft should let you format in the manner you described.

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