Updated 2017

So, parentheticals aka ‘wrylies’ have a tendency to turn up in screenplays … and they’re NOT NEEDED. They interrupt the flow of the read and what’s more, seriously ANNOY actors and filmmakers as well as script readers. TRUTH! Don’t believe me? Fine … check these out for size:

Parentheticals are useless

5. You are the writer, NOT the director!

Unless you are the writer/director, the Director and Actors need room to make THEIR interpretation of your screenplay! This is the most-oft quoted case AGAINST parentheticals: if loads of lines of your dialogue tells the actors HOW to say lines “(condescendingly)”, “(pleadingly)”, “(wryly)” or whatever, then how is the Director going to direct?

Personally, when it comes to specs and samples I don’t think a writer should worry too much about this since the likelihood of the script ever getting made is slim, HOWEVER I think writers should avoid isolating the reader by being too prescriptive like this. It’s very wearing to read HOW lines should be said all the time – I think it gives the impression a reader can’t actually read any colour or subtext into what’s being said.

The exceptions to this rule of course should be ambiguous lines – bits of dialogue where the meaning may not be obvious, so “(sarcastic)” or “(deadpan” is obvious, but I think “(whispers)” is okay too, especially when you have a character speaking at the same time as a speech going on or whatever, since otherwise it *could* be confusing.

4. A writer needs to show when a character is laughing, smiling, winking, turning, etc

Yes, sometimes a writer needs to do this – but why not just put it in your scene description? Besides, reserving a parenthetical for something like “(smiles)” just takes up unneccessary space on the page IMHO.

3. You probably don’t need that phone conversation anyway

Phones are massively overused in spec screenplays – I’d wager that 9/10 they can be cut. Basically, a phone call should only ever be put in a script if it contributes to the PLOT and is DRAMATIC. We’re talking ransom demands, bomb tip offs, notifications of dead relatives, that sort of thing. NEVER just day to day phone conversations!

But okay, you really do need a phone conversation … So, do you need to put “(phone)” under every single line of dialogue? Really? I’m unconvinced it’s needed for anywhere other than the first time they answer. In fact, I don’t put “(phone)” at all in my dialogue, since I make it part of scene description.

When it comes to parentheticals and phone conversations, the only time I use them is when a character is on the phone AND talking to someone in the same room as them at the same time, like this:

VICTOR: (on phone) Hang on a sec… (to Jade) … Will you shut up??

It’s a trick I picked up from some scripts I read – and I think it works well. Try it.

2. Hash Marks are better for singing

For years I too put “(sings)” before lines that involved singing.  Then a reader said they didn’t like it, so I tried italics instead, but that didn’t work either. Then, because I watch television with the subtitles on because my kids are foghorns, I noticed subtitles indicate singing like this:

MOLLY: #I can see clearly now, the rain is gone#

Turns out, those little hash marks really work! I did a read-through recently with some actors I purposefully didn’t mention the singing to see what would happen. Not only did the actress actually sing, she sang with gusto!

AND FINALLY, THE NUMBER ONE REASON WHY I THINK PARENTHETICALS ARE USELESS:

1. It’s better to give a flavour of accent, dialogue, voice etc via the way characters actually TALK!

Noooooooooooooooooooo! I hate to see “(Scottish accent)” or whatever under characters’ names and before they speak. what’s the point? You can indicate as a writer what region they’re from:

LUCY: Any road, pass me salt, will you?

TOM: Aye, Lass.

Same goes for dialects or ways of speaking according to age – if your character is seventeen, they might say something like this:

JAKE: Shut up, you emo – it’s well-good!

i) Regional & age-specific words

Again, do use such regional/age-specific words sparingly. There’s nothing worse than reading a script where you have no clue what the hell they’re saying because you’ve never been to that area or place. This is particularly relevant to screenwriters because sometimes American words and phrases won’t mean anything to British script readers (and vice versa!). Same with older and younger writers and readers, too.

This can apply to novels too. I remember reading Movern Callar by Alan Warner“Then the greeting began…” I was like, WTF? She’s just found her boyfriend dead and she’s greeting people??? In the end I had to do a Google search to find out that “greet” in colloquial Scottish actually means “cry”. I just didn’t know. Why would I? I live right at the opposite end of the country!

The same goes for words and phrases from other English-speaking countries. Simply chucking in words like ‘By jove!’ for British characters, ‘G’day’ for Australian characters, or ‘Have a nice day!’ for Americans, or even  is dull and reductive. Instead, think about how these versions of English differ and how culture and geographical location may influence how the characters speak.

ii) Different Languages

I don’t mind parentheticals that say stuff like “(In Chinese)” or “(in Russian)”, since English keyboards would have a hard time typing these sort of characters anyway, even if the writer in question actually new the language since we don’t even have the same alphabet.

However, if writing a European language, why not have a go at the language their character speaks – there’s Free Translation if you want to do it the easy way, or if you happen to know anyone Spanish, French, etc, why not let them cast an eye over your dialogue.

But again, the important thing to remember with this however is to NOT overdo it: you don’t want whole chunks of Spanish, French, etc – just a smattering here and there! Times of stress are good – people are renowned to revert to their Mother Tongue when they’re angry, excited or in other states of high emotion. I got a phone call the other day from an ex-Student of mine, a Spanish lady, who was trying to tell me she was getting married: the only English words that came out were “Guess what… Excellent!” The rest was garbled Spanglish.

iii) Non-Native Speakers

But if languages really aren’t your bag, why not try using a traditional name from that country (another hint!) and representing how s/he is a non-native English speaker, especially a non-fluent one? IF you are going to do this however, you need to really nail it and ensure it doesn’t fall into stereotype or even offensive territory.

When writing diverse characters the problem is never attempting to do something different, but choosing to represent them in such  way that is too obvious, cheesy or simply wrong … In other words, it’s about doing the same as i) on this list, regardless of whether the character is a fluent non-native speaker or not.

I find it useful to consider the ‘classic’ mistakes characters may make, based on the actual languages they speak as natives. As an EFL teacher, I noticed my intermediate German speakers sometimes spoke in the present continuous when they were not fluent English speakers:

PIETER: I am thinking we are here?

(Lots of languages don’t have the same type of perfective aspect English has (perfective being the notion of “to have”), so if you want to show a character is NOT English, then substituting “have” for “make” is an obvious choice since it’s a very clear, albeit small, mistake – especially when used sparingly).

Apparently, Spanish doesn’t have the notion of “picking up” in its language (as in, “I will pick you up at eight”). Instead Spanish Non-Native English people *might* say:

MARIA: I will catch you at your door at eight.

Lots of other languages have no concept of the word, “will” and “shall”, meaning they can’t give a *sense* of the future of what they INTEND to do (though their own language might have a future tense instead):

RUTH: Today I go to town (instead of “Today I WILL go to town.”)

Remember ii) on this list – American and Australian English are different, too. Say “chav” to an American, they have no idea what you’re going on about. Equally, “poorly” generally means nothing to an Australian, apparently. Similarly, they have words us Brits have no concept of.

You can use these to your advantage, don’t worry about translation – as long as you don’t go overboard and don’t get cheesy, it will be fine.

BONUS!!!

You don’t need to use ‘(beat)’ EVER!

Really! Same goes for (pause) or any other variant, as well. Why? Because of number 5 on this list. You are not the director or filmmaker (unless you are).

Find out your own craft issues and FIX THEM asap!

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13 Responses to Top 5 Reasons Why Parentheticals Are Useless

  1. Mr Brainwhispers says:

    An American once told me that his wife had to go on a diet because she had a big fanny.

    I nearly fell over dead.

  2. Lucy says:

    I bet you did! apparently there is (or was) a brand of tights (panty hose to our American friends) called “Fat Fanny” tights… Can’t see ’em selling too well over here.

  3. Adaddinsane says:

    He he he 🙂 Happy Mondays!

    I agree with everything you said … except I wrote a script set in Paris, with French, Polish and English being spoken.

    So I put in a parenthetical at the start of each bit where a character was speaking a certain language, but didn’t mention it again until that character changed language. (So the Brits who couldn’t speak anything foreign never had them.)

    I think this was a decent compromise (mind you, I am reliably informed the script was total pants).

    As a programmer I don’t think I would *ever* trust translation software. Too risky and a waste of energy, if the thing was going to be made they could pay someone who understands meaning and nuance to provide the translations.

    I always remember the translation of “out of sight, out of mind” to Russian and back: “invisible idiot”.

    (Though, thinking about it, it could work if you make a point of running the translated material back to English, and seeing what you got. If it had the same meaning as what you started with then you might be able to trust the translation. I still wouldn’t.)

  4. Lucy says:

    I agree, AD – compromise is everything. If you’re using A LOT of other languages, then it’s best to be as simple as possible. It’s only the odd character here and there it works if you add a *little* flavour of the language. One of the characters Tyrell in my script ECLIPSE is Spanish – and he uses it perhaps 3 times over the whole 90 pages.

    “Invisible idiot” – brilliant! Idioms can be really problematic in any language. One of my spanish students attempted “He is his own biggest fan” in an essay and ended up with “the fan is the biggest of all the men”!!

    Best translation issue that ever happened to me in a script was when I attempted Slovakian with the use of Free Translation and a dodgy phrase book as it turns out.

    What was supposed to be:

    “Jesus Christ, what the hell happened to you?”

    apparently became:

    “You must wear a hell shirt for Jesus.”

  5. Scaramanga says:

    I have a rather embarrasing one.

    When I first arrived in Canada someone gave me a present, it was at a welcome party.

    Anyway someone asked me what I thought of it in front of everyone. I said I was cheesin (scottish meaning extremely happy) well the whole place went quiet.

    Apparently that word means ejaculating in Canada!

    Eek

    Charles

  6. terraling says:

    Wise words Ma’am, although I’d have to take issue with your advice re: foreign languages. The BBC aren’t too dogmatic about formatting etc., but they do specify that short passages etc should be written in English with the language in parentheses – eg.

    TOM
    (in French)
    Do you know the way to the Champs Elysee?

    and for longer passages it should say something like (The following is in French…) with the dialogue itself in English.

    They don’t specify exceptions, but obviously there are cases where you are trying to make a point (or a joke) and would want to write it in the local language, especially exclamations or where the phrase is so common that most English readers would recognise the foreign phrase anyway — eg Do the French like peas? Ermm, un petit pois.

    My RP entry had Spanish, French and Mandarin in the first ten pages. God forbid the formatting scuppered me. Yeah that’s it.

  7. Lucy says:

    When I’ve sent stuff to Aunty, I just wrote in Spanish and put the English underneath in brackets. Just in case ; )

  8. The Z says:

    By putting something like (smiles) in the script instead of placing it the action you save two lines in the script.

    If shorter/tighter is better wouldn't going with the paranthetical be the wiser choice here?

  9. Lucy V says:

    Well, like anything Z it depends on context – and whether you even need (smiles) at all… Very often it's obvious from say, dialogue, what a character is feeling. Parentheticals are so often "fillers" in that regard I find.

  10. The K says:

    I’ve just finished a script about the Turkish community in London. The characters all speak Turkish and English. The Turkish in the film will be subtitled so the audience will understand it. So the reader needs to understand it too.

    The first few times Turkish was spoken I put a parenthetical (in Turkish) and the dialogue in italicised English, and from then on all Turkish was just italicised English.

    Sound like a good solution to you? Would you do it differently?

    • Lucy V Hay says:

      Hi K. Without seeing I couldn’t say, but it certainly sounds fine and as I always say, good script format is not about “rules” as “getting busted”. Whatever works best for the “flow” of the story and/or read! 🙂

  11. jimmyc says:

    Damn! I’ve just submitted a script with some Glaswegian vernacular to the Shore Scripts comp. Hope you don’t read it, Lucy, or I’m buggered.

    • Lucy V Hay says:

      LOL, don’t worry about VERNACULAR, vernacular is what I want … It’s the parentheticals (Scottish Accent) etc that ultimately do my swede in.

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