Weekly Writing Memo: Three Ways to use Parentheticals in ScreenwritingPosted: October 27, 2016
A question I hear a lot from beginning screenwriters is “How do I use a parenthetical?” To begin, let’s go over what it is. A parenthetical in screenwriting is the writing that comes in parenthesis after a character’s dialogue tag. It looks like this:
The parenthetical is always in lower case unless it’s a proper noun. It can be located between a character’s name and the dialogue, or between two sections of dialogue for the same character spoken without interruption, like this:
Now that you can identify what a parenthetical looks like, let’s discuss when to use them. There are three main ways to use parentheticals.
How to speak it?
The first and most common use for parentheticals is to tell the actor how a piece of dialogue is spoken. Is it whispered or yelled? Is it sarcastic or serious? Is the character joking or being mean? It can be really easy to think you need to put these parentheticals on everything to mark how it is said, but don’t. Most of the time it’ll be really obvious how the line is supposed to be said so you won’t need to put anything in parentheticals, but whenever you have a line that could be confused you should use one to clarify. For example, if a character is saying a like “Thanks for that.” It could be sarcastic, genuine, or emotionless. Whichever way it is said could change the story, so clarifying how it is said would be useful.
Who to speak it to?
Another way that parentheticals can be used is to clarify who the character is speaking the line of dialogue to if there is a group. Say four people are arguing and the speaker wants to say something to person one without using person one’s name, then you could put person one’s name in a parenthetical to clarify this.
You can also use a parenthetical here to show that a person is speaking the line to themselves. If the speaker is home alone and there is an entire scene where they’re speaking to themselves, then I would use the parenthetical on the first bit of dialogue to show that is the case and not use it after unless another character enters the scene.
What to do while speaking?
The third main use for a parenthetical is to show what action the character is doing simultaneously as they speak. For example, if the character is pointing at someone, or walking away while talking, then using a parenthetical to indicate this can be useful. A lot of this can be shown in action before or after the dialogue, but when it is important that the speech and action happen simultaneously, then show it in a parenthetical.
In general, the rule for parentheticals is to use them as sparingly as possible. Parentheticals are basically like stage directions to the actors. Use too many and it can seem like you’re micromanaging. Your writing should be clear enough that anyone reading your script knows how things should be said, but whenever there is a doubt that it will be clear, use a parenthetical.
Robin Conley offers great writing advice most Wednesdays on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next week to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.