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ASK DR. FORMAT: Perplexed About Parentheticals

When you use a parenthetical, make sure it adds clarity, characterization, or conflict.

“Doctor Format, the wrylies are giving me the willies!” A stupefied screenwriter was expressing his frustration about puzzling parenthetical pointers. I jokingly encouraged him to put the hand gun back in the drawer, and we discussed parentheticals, also known as actor’s direction, personal direction, and wrylies.

Why the nickname “wrylies”? Because years ago, beginning screenwriters used “wryly” as a parenthetical so often that parentheticals became known as wrylies.

Perplexed About Parentheticals - Torch - example

When, how, and how not to use parentheticals

My troubled client informed me he was told to not use them—period; after all, actors cross them out anyway.

Well, you’re not writing for actors. Your main audience is the reader who reads your script and writes a coverage for the producer or agent who requested your script. If the coverage is not favorable, the producer or agent will not read your script. Thus, your screenplay or teleplay must first entertain the reader, and parentheticals can be a useful tool in that prospect.

Even so, be judicious with parentheticals; only use them when you must. That could mean limiting them to one per page or one per three pages; it depends on the script and the needs of the story. Don’t state the obvious. If the character is clearly angry, you don’t need to write “angrily” as a parenthetical for his angry speech. However, if your character says “I love you” in a sarcastic way and the reader would not guess she’s being sarcastic, then include the parenthetical:

Perplexed About Parentheticals - Selma Example

Parentheticals should always begin with a lower-case letter and should never be buried in a speech, but should stand alone with their own left and right margin. (See the above example.) Don’t place one at the end of a dialogue block (that is, after the speech), and don’t describe another character’s action in a wryly.

[ASK DR. FORMAT: Directing the Camera Without Using Camera Directions]

Their primary purpose—convey emotion

Parentheticals were invented to indicate the subtext or underlying emotional meaning of the text (the actual speech) if that emotional meaning is not obvious by the context or situation. In such cases, we often use adverbs: excitedly, sadly, painfully, maternally, and so on.

Sometimes, a wryly is used to indicate delivery, which ties in with the idea of subtext. For example, “feigned concern” implies the character’s duplicitous intent. You can see why a parenthetical is also called actor’s direction. Actors act (through voice tone, gestures, and facial expressions) the underlying emotion of the spoken words, and the “actor’s direction” pinpoints that. The direction also fully informs the reader and helps her get fully involved. “Lying” can be an effective parenthetical when it’s crucial to indicate the lying at a particular moment in the script (and it’s not otherwise apparent). Here are other examples of possible parentheticals that imply delivery and emotion: whispers, amazed, enchanted, snotty.

Perhaps my favorite delivery instruction is from the French toast scene of Kramer vs. Kramer. Ted’s wife just left him and he must now make breakfast for his son, so he wants to sound upbeat and demonstrate that he can handle this new situation. The following is directly from the script by Robert Benton:

Perplexed About Parentheticals - Ted Example

Describing actions

You can indicate non-verbal cues such as actions or reactions that are essential to the speech. In such cases, use only a few words. Here are examples we’ve all seen: tips his hat, looks down (indicating embarrassment or despair), eyes the dancer, strokes her gun, picks his nose, and so on. Notice, I did not use “ing” words like tipping or looking. Also notice the omission of a pronoun, such as “he tips his hat” or “she looks down.” The pronoun is not needed.

Here’s a special type of reaction: “off Bob’s remark.” This is important if the character’s speech is a reaction to what Bob said and if that wouldn’t be apparent unless you included the parenthetical.

[Punctuation & Grammar Guidance for Screenwriters]

Phone calls and beats

With phone calls, a character may pause to listen to the other. Often the word “pause” or “beat” is used as a parenthetical. In my view, that pause or beat often provides an opportunity to characterize your character or the action of your scene, so instead of writing “a beat” as a parenthetical, you could write “nervously” or “bewildered” or “twirls her hair” or “removes his Covid mask and sneezes.” You get the idea. That simply makes the scene a little more interesting, provides a little more character definition, and implies the pause or beat you want. It’s an unbeatable strategy.


Who’s talking to whom?

Finally, let’s imagine a party where many people are conversing. If Lori wants to say something directly to Curly Joe, but that would not be apparent because of the large crowd, use the parenthetical “to Curly Joe.” Also, sometimes a character says something to herself. You can write “to self” or “aside.” Sotto voce is not necessary; you don’t need to use Italian unless you are a music composer.

In summary, when you use a parenthetical, make sure it adds clarity, characterization, or conflict. Make sure it’s really necessary. Most importantly, remember that its primary use is to convey the emotional meaning or undercurrent of a speech, thus helping the reader get more emotionally involved with your characters. Good luck and keep writing! 

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