5. The Director and Actors need room to make THEIR interpretation. 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, 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. A writer needs to show a character on the phone. 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 parfentheticals 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. A writer needs to mention a character is singing a line. This is a toughie and for years I too put “(sings)” before lines such as these. 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 #
Those little hash marks work: when 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. A writer needs to indicate a character’s accent and way of talking. 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!
Again, it’s worth remembering that a writer should use such regional 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. A classic example here is Movern Callar, when she says, “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.
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 have the same alphabet. However, if writing a European language, I think it’s a writer’s duty to at least 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, let them cast an eye over your dialogue.
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.
But if languages really aren’t your bag, try using a traditional name from that country (another hint) and representing how a character might speak in BROKEN English. Germans for example often speak in the present continuous when they are not fluent English speakers:
PIETER: I am thinking we are making fun 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 mistake).
Spanish people don’t have the notion of “picking up” in their language (as in, “I will pick you up at eight”). Instead they *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.”)
Even American and Australian English has difficulties. Say “chav” to an American, they have no idea what you’re going on about. Equally, “poorly” generally means nothing to an Australian. 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, it will be fine.
Whilst we’re on the subject, any funny ‘lost in translation’ issues you’ve come across? Over to you…
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