Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Sam wrote in with a question:

When did people start hating parentheticals so much? In older scripts I read like Chinatown and Godfather they're used in almost a quarter of all dialogue but now it seems people are of the opinion that you should never use them. Is this really the case with readers? Does the very site of a parenthetical immediately turn them off from a script even if used appropriately?

First, a word about these formatting rules because they tend to turn into the most heated threads on this site. I notice a lot of people who hate the idea of learning any formatting in screenwriting tend to phrase their grievances as an "all or nothing" sort of question. In other words, they might ask, "No sane person would really throw out my script just because I underlined and italicized every word, would they?"

No. But that would be a pretty big clue that the writer didn't know the first thing about how a script is supposed to look - or that they don't give a fuck about finding out. And let me tell you, writers like that often haven't figured out what makes a good story or how to tell a good story.

To put it another way - if I pass you on the street and you're unshaven, unbathed, wearing ratty clothes and seem to be moving erratically, I might not know for sure if you're homeless, but you're certainly wearing the uniform well.

So that's why guys like us make a big deal about this formatting stuff. And just so you don't think I'm beating up on Sam, these remarks aren't aimed so much at him as they are at the people who tend to get aggressive in the comments for articles like these.

Anyway - parentheticals. Beyond the reason stated above, there are a few other things to consider. If you're writing strong dialogue, you rarely will need to tell us how it's sad. The intent should fairly clear if you've done your job in establishing both the context and the character. As an example, let's say you've written a scene where a nervous rookie cop just pulls over a guy because his tail light is out. As soon as he comes up to the stopped car, the guy inside shoots at him, barely missing. The car takes off down the road as our hero goes after him. A chase ensues, during which our hero nearly hits several pedestrians and other cars, and nearly collides with his quarry before the fugitive rams a light pole and finds himself trapped in the car.

Our rookie cop gets out of his car, gun drawn. He runs over to his new prisoner and says, "Well, that was a lot of fun."

Do you really need a parenthetical to tell us that he's delivering the line sarcastically?

The other thing to remember is actors. Actors HATE being told how to deliver a line. If you go overboard with parentheticals not only are you constraining their interpretation, but you're sending a message that you think they are utter idiots if they can't figure out the tone for themselves (see the above example.)

Basically, if you're writing your dialogue properly you won't need more than five or six parentheticals in a screenplay. And if you're noticing that people are having trouble deciphering your tone, subtext or intent without those parentheticals, it might point to a larger problem in your writing (one that an experienced reader will probably notice even if there weren't 200 parentheticals tipping him off that the writer might be a newbie.)


  1. I have had an actor say a line completely wrong for the context - so I had a quiet word with the Director and the Director had a quiet word with the actor...

    However I completely agree. And sometimes an actor will surprise you by saying it differently to the way you expect - but exactly right.

  2. Well, this is good to know. I can admit I have a liking for the action parenthetical but never even noticed till now as I look over previous work. That's a habit I'll kill starting today.

  3. Interesting. This is an old quote, and it is from an established professional, but it illustrates the difference between the script that is to go to production, and what amounts to the sales piece that the "suits" read:

    Screenwriter, Judith Rascoe, (A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, WHO’LL STOP THE RAIN, HAVANA) in her interview in American Screenwriters, p. 146, “...I’ve been browbeaten into putting in... description. I’m always being told more, more. Is this being said with a smile? Does he stare at her when he says this? I’m actually encouraged to write the performance. I’d think it would make the director and the actor crazy, but I know what’s happening is that, first of all, there are a lot of studio executives. They need storyboards. They sure need parentheticals. And I’ve seen in rehearsals that lots of actors are not going to bear down on the right words in that sentence unless it’s underlined. And if they misread it, the line won’t make sense... Sometimes, even with very solid actors, there are misreadings.”

    Spec scripts especially, are sales documents. They have to get stuff across to people who are more comfortable reading P/Ls than they are literature with deliberate subtleties and sub-text. Specs don't have the benefit of performance, the visual frame, direction, music, editing, etc. All of those create a totality that can "say" what, on paper, isn't necessarily clear unless spelled out by things like parentheticals. Nonetheless, I would err on having less, rather than more. So I support the suggestion that no more than 5-6 in a script is probably wise.

  4. I read a lot of television scripts for reference and it varies by show. Knots Landing scripts had a lot of parentheicals and Dollhouse didn't. I guess it can also vary by the cast you're working with as they get to know the characters.

  5. I feel like a good rule of thumb is that you should only use parentheticals if you feel there is a strong chance the line will be misread and misunderstood.

  6. I've also seen parentheticals used to to replace an action description in the middle of dialogue. It's economical and saves space.

  7. LFGabel - it's also a complete misuse of parentheticals. Parentheticals are for dialogue-related functions only. Direction like "He lifts a glass and drinks" is something that belongs on an action line.

  8. Bitter.

    I find myself using parentheticals as actions all too often. Like:

    (he points), (to her), (laughs), (to Robert), and (pause).

    I guess most of these guide the dialogue, but do you, as a reader, prefer reading it all in an action line?

    I tend to use them more for cutting down space.

  9. If it relates to dialogue - such as delivery, indicating to whom the line is address, a pause or a laugh, then it's fair game.

    "He points" probably belongs on its own action line, though.

  10. Examples from Chinatown:

    I'll pay the rest next trip -- we
    only caught sixty ton of skipjack
    around San Benedict. We hit a
    chubasco, they don't pay you for
    skipjack the way they do for tuna
    or albacore --

    (easing him out of his
    Forget it. I only mention it to
    illustrate a point...

    (glances back, hums, then)
    Mulwray? I thought you said Cross
    owned the department.

    I said horseshit.

    I've noticed in old scripts they do stuff like that in parentheticals a lot.

  11. From what I've read online, parentheticals are not commonly accepted today, though they were previously. Obviously, Chinatown had a great script, but it's also not being made today.

    We keep hearing: less is more. Less is more.

    Less pages. Less parentheticals. If readers/studios don't want them, I'll take their advice.

  12. The best example I've found of a line that needs a parenthetical is from The West Wing. The Palestinian president is talking to Bartlet and saying that all Palestinians condemn the bombing that killed Bartlet's friend. He says "Not the perpetrators, Mr President". The actor says the line in a distinctly weary way that I'll bet was mentioned in the script. Without any parenthetical it would play as simple anger or maybe a bit of black humour.