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:
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.
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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