Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #3: Parentheticals

Parentheticals are instructions that screenwriters put in parentheses between a character’s name and his dialogue. Next to ellipses, parentheticals are probably the screenwriting device that script readers hate the most. Screenwriters tend to use these parenthetical instructions to tell actors how to deliver their lines, and that is, as I mentioned in my last post, the best way to piss them off – other than perhaps to photograph them in bad lighting. I have also seen people write action descriptions in parentheticals, which is not at all where those should go. Actions belong in the action description blocks, and nowhere else.
There are exactly three times when it’s okay to use parentheticals. The first is when a character is with several people and you need to let the reader know which specific person he’s talking to. For example:
CHARLIE
(to John)
I thought I told you never to use ellipses
in dialogue, you bastard. Now I have to
kill you.
The second time that you can use parentheticals is when a character needs to deliver a line in a way that is not clear from reading the dialogue, and is usually the opposite of what the reader would expect. For example:
CHARLIE
(smiling)
I thought I told you never to use ellipses
in dialogue, you bastard. Now I have to
kill you.
The keyword here is “need.” I have yet to read a spec script that actually “needed” to use a parenthetical for this reason, but it could happen. If it happens in your script, then you can use a parenthetical. But, again, since many readers have a predisposed bias against parentheticals, why not just put this in an action description instead?
The final time when it’s okay to use parentheticals to let us know that a character is talking on the phone, but even then it’s not necessary. You could just precede a telephone call with, “INTERCUT PHONE CONVERSATION” instead. If you do use a parenthetical for a phone conversation, just do it once at the beginning, rather than repeating it for every piece of dialogue in the conversation. We'll know the character is no longer on the phone when he hangs up.

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