Screenplays are a different beast than a novel or short story. While they are a form of storytelling, scripts aren’t intended to be standalone pieces of work—they are the blueprints for a film or TV show.
This doesn’t mean screenplays should be poorly written. On the contrary, they still need to effectively convey all the key ingredients to tell a good story: from character and plot to theme and atmosphere. When a screenplay really needs to make those elements clear, you might come across a parenthetical.
A parenthetical in screenwriting is a small directional note within a character’s dialogue. Also known as a “wrylie,” a parenthetical helps the actor or reader understand how a line should be said or if there is any sort of physical action to be done during the line.
Parentheticals are so named because they’re written in parentheses between the character’s name and dialogue, or within the dialogue itself, depending on how you’re using it. Screenwriting software such as Final Draft usually has a shortcut that’ll automatically place them in the proper format. But for those using a standard word processor (such as Microsoft Word or Pages), parentheticals should be three inches to the left and three-and-a-half inches to the right.
Parentheticals can be a writer’s secret weapon. When used appropriately, they can add a little bit of zest to your otherwise stellar dialogue. More importantly, they can help the actor or reader visualize the scene the way the writer did.
Types of parentheticals
Emotional direction: Parentheticals are a great way to convey the emotion behind the line. Because screenplays don’t allow readers to get deep inside a character’s head—like in a novel or short story—it can be tough to fully visualize a character’s emotional state. Keep in mind, your reader should be able to glean this from the other elements of the script (i.e., plot, character, mood); but parentheticals come in hand for those rare occasions it needs to be explicitly stated.
Physical direction: The vast majority of character actions will take place in your action lines. However, to keep things moving briskly you can add a brief physical action to your character’s dialogue. Usually, this is something very small that doesn’t require wasting page space. For example, perhaps the writer wants their character, in the middle of the line of dialogue, to take a sip of water, take a drag from their cigarette, cough, or give a wink.
Line delivery: To a degree, this goes hand-in-hand with an emotional direction, but it’s also a little more specific. Here, a writer uses a parenthetical to explicitly convey how they want a line to be read.
For example, sarcasm can be difficult to communicate on the page. Other examples include “singing,” “through gritted teeth,” “quietly,” or “under their breath.”
Pacing: If you ever see the word “beat” in the middle of a line of dialogue, it’s essentially telling the reader that a character is taking a second before continuing their dialogue. This is how writers get away with writing “dramatic pause” without actually writing “dramatic pause.”
This pacing technique is an extension of using parentheticals to dictate line delivery—you’re directing the speed and pace of how a line is said. (You’ll see this often in comedies, where delivery is everything.) “Beat” can also be useful for dramatizing character moments without over-explaining them. That brief pause can indicate everything from a character absorbing shocking news to quickly changing the subject.
Scene clarity: Some scenes contain many characters, and it can be confusing to know who is talking to whom. So writers will use parentheticals to help clarify when dialogue is addressed to a specific character or referring to a particular item. You can also use parentheticals to indicate someone’s reaction to another character’s nonverbal response.
Different languages: If a character speaks a language you aren’t fluent in, you can let the reader know with the parenthetical “in [language], subtitled.” If a character alternates between languages, a parenthetical also marks when the character switches.
The best way to learn how to use a parenthetical correctly is to see examples from produced scripts.
In this scene from “The Social Network,” written by Aaron Sorkin, Mark Zuckerberg and his friends discover that their new site, FaceMash, has taken down the Harvard servers. Sorkin uses the parentheticals here to direct the actors on how the lines should be delivered once the gravity of the situation hits them—especially since the lines themselves could be read and performed in several different ways.
This excerpt from “Tár,” written by Todd Field, sees Lydia Tár reveal to a member of the Berlin Philharmonic’s board, Britta, that she’s been lying to stroke her mentor’s ego. The parenthetical makes Britta’s feelings clear, despite what she actually says in response to the ruse.
This example from “Mud,” written by Jeff Nichols, involves a physical direction. Some might consider this repetitive since we already see the boot print in the action line. However, Nichols wants to draw extra attention to the information being delivered in Ellis’ line, so he adds a quick physical direction for emphasis.
The first scene from “Reservoir Dogs,” written by Quentin Tarantino, is a busy conversation with many new characters introduced. Here, Joe begins his line making a blanket statement to everyone, but then he addresses Mr. White specifically. The parenthetical makes that clear for the reader.
If a parenthetical gets information across for a line of dialogue, then each line should contain a parenthetical, right? Wrong. Parentheticals should always be used sparingly and with intention.
First, including a parenthetical for every single line of dialogue will turn your script into an eyesore and slow the reading down. It’ll also add pages to your script.
More importantly, it isn’t the writer’s job to give scene directions—that’s what the director is for. Filmmaking is a collaborative process. Rarely does the writer’s initial concept match the final product to a tee, and it’s not supposed to. The director and actor will help bring the writer’s written words to life.
Instead, a writer should incorporate a parenthetical with intention. A parenthetical should stand out. This is especially true when it comes to emotion or line delivery. This way, when a reader—be they an executive, actor, or director—reads that parenthetical, they’ll know that it is definitely pretty important. The same goes for any minor physical direction or pause. As you write (and rewrite) your drafts, take a look at every single parenthetical and ask yourself: Does it absolutely need to be there? And if you took it out, would it diminish the experience for the person reading the script?
“Be judicious with parentheticals; only use them when you must,” writes Dave Trottier, screenwriter and author of “The Screenwriter’s Bible.” “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.”
“Some actors have been known to automatically cross out all parenthetical comments in their scripts, lest their performance be shackled by the writer’s limited vision,” says screenwriter John August (“Big Fish”). “If that makes the actor feel better, fine. But there’s nothing inherently awful about the parenthetical. Properly and judiciously used, these comments are an important writing tool.”
If you’re an actor who comes across a parenthetical in a script, here’s some advice:
Try it out. Acting is all about experimenting. Automatically dismissing a parenthetical in a script is rejecting a suggestion without thought. During your first script reads, analysis, and rehearsals, it can’t hurt to try the delivery or emotional state suggested by the parenthetical. You can always go back to the drawing board.
Find the “why” behind the suggestion. Even if you completely disagree with the parenthetical itself, understand that a talented writer put it there for a reason. For example, if you believe your character would be deadpan for a line with the parenthetical “shouting,” take a moment to interrogate why the writer might have included the note—it might give you a deeper understanding of the scene or moment, if not an exact way to play it.
Follow your process. Let’s say you have done the work to develop your character, asked all the right questions, and built the foundations of your performance, but the parenthetical still just does not make sense to you. At the end of the day, you’re the one who has to bring that role to life onstage or onscreen, and you can’t force something that doesn’t feel natural to you.