Screenwriting : The Temptation of Dialogue Parentheticals by Paul Norman Rich

Paul Norman Rich

The Temptation of Dialogue Parentheticals

After learning fairly everything about formatting -- which seems to evolve almost yearly -- the most difficult thing for me is resisting using too many parentheticals to guide the reader and the actor and the director what emotion you intend. For example (angry) (non plussed) (overjoyed) etc. It all boils down to the mantra drilled into screenwriters -- "Don't direct the script! Let the actor interpret or it's the job of the director to instruct the actor." But sometimes a parenthetical to indicate the emotion the character is feeling is essential. Are they hiding their emotions? Are they exposing an emotional truth that reveals something to an accuser that gives them away leading to a future action? Usually the context of the scene dictates what the character should be feeling but not always. But man, the urge is always there for writers to convey the exact emotion the character SHOULD be feeling and all screenwriting software has that parenthetical option. I have learned to use it as sparingly as possible. My earlier scripts were loaded with them.

Anthony Moore

Parentheticals in a screenplay are like salt on food. Too much and you've completely ruined the flavor.

David Karner

I don't use a parenthetical for emotion at all. I use it for audio levels e.g. (sotto), (whispering), (laughing), or dramatic pause (beat), or motion associated with dialogue e.g. (motioning), (slides in). I'm sure one could argue against all parenthetical in a script, but I use them when I want to convey something specific to the drama of the moment.

PJ Edwards

As an actor myself I rarely use parentheticals. I find them annoying and mostly ignore them.

Ally Shina

This thread will be riddled with negativity about parenthenticals because let's be honest, majority of the industry has decided that parentheticals should only be used in desperate times when the script would totally suck without them. But yeah, I fail to avoid using them altogether but I am critical about every single one I use and it has to be a matter of life and death for me to keep them. I don't use them to express emotion, that can be done just fine in the action.

Dan Guardino

I only use them if the actor would not be able to figure out how to say the line from what is happening around them. For example if someone told a joke at a funeral and the actor wouldn't know how to say their line without some help.

Rosalind Winton

Very interesting comments, I have used a few parentheticals in my script, because it's all very emotive, I've been very careful not to use very many and hope that's alright with whoever reads it.

Paul Norman Rich

(lying) (she knows) (faking it)

CJ Walley

I know plenty of long-time working industry members who use them everywhere.

I've had experienced directors ask me to add them in.

The real problem is using them badly.

The number needed is entirely subjective to the content.

Check out the pilot script for LOST for some great use of them.

Dan MaxXx

all the best scripts I've read from Pros & Joes have just enough of everything - unfilmable sentences, cut to, camera direction, transitions, parentheticals, bold & CAP words, underline, action descriptions, unusual format spacing, etc.

Have no idea how many passes/drafts working paid writers go through before it's read by Buyers/Decision Makers, but one thing remains consistent - their voices on the pages.

Dan MaxXx

Claude Gagne They're folks making movies for a living. Somehow, someway you (we) gotta get past bullshit screenplay advice and make bullshit movies - fail upwards so we have a track record, get paid more for the next failure :)

Steven Hopstaken

I don't want it to be a crutch for bad storytelling. It should be obvious in the scene what emotions the actors should have. It should obvious from the action description what is happening in the scene. Parentheticals should be reserved for those times when a character needs to perform an action important to the plot that wouldn't come organically to the actor or director. Or, a hidden emotion the character has because of backstory not yet revealed. Or anytime an action or emotion would be counterintuitive to the actor or director.

Kathryn Mackie

Definitely a tool that should be used very sparingly. Emotion can be communicated through action if you are worried the line isn't clear enough or could be misinterpreted.

Bob's face reddens.

BOB: Ok, fine. We can do it your way.

Bob storms out.

Deneuve Brutus

Showing is greater than telling, as Kathryn displayed.

Phillip "Reflective" Hardy

To me one of the objects of having a clean, easily read script is to rarely use the parenthetical option. I frequently read scripts where the writer uses long ass P's that look awkward and are things that should be included in the action narrative. I do use them mostly for one word emotional descriptions.

Richard P. Alvarez

Load 'em in to your first draft - IF they help YOU understand what's going on. Then in the second draft - work them out. Find the right words to express the emotion. OR Put in the action that shows the emotion. Or remove them because they're just not necessary (most likely).

Only very rarely do I add them - and usually it's a stage direction for clarity. If a character is speaking then, (whispers) something something then (raises his voice). Okay. You can save a bit of page real estate there in the midst of a speech and it flows better. But usually there's a better way to sell it.

Craig D Griffiths

Read ‘Unforgiven’. That has the best use I have ever seen. The brothel owner is telling the sheriff he has to go and get the guy that cut up the prostitute, because he has to make good on the money the brothel owner will be losing.


I have a contract with her.



A contract?

This is a paraphrasing. But the (property) appears in the screenplay. It tells you how the conversation is going. They are not talking about her as a person, but as property and how that line will be performed. Still leaves plenty of room for an actor interpretation.

Jim Boston

Paul, I'm with you...and it's all because of joining Stage 32 and finding out how a modern-day screenplay's supposed to look that I'm learning to cut down the number of dialog parentheticals I use...and restrict them to a single line at that.

All the VERY BEST to you, Paul!

Doug Nelson

Best practice; leave 'em out.

Nick Assunto - Stage32 Script Services

Yeah really the key is to not telegraph that you're an amateur in those first few pages. If you're loaded with unnecessary parentheticals and a ton of ellipses that simply designate beats, it's going to make eyes roll away from reading your script.

Other topics in Screenwriting:

register for stage 32 Register / Log In