I don’t care what he says...
(clenching his fists)
He’s wrong and I’m going to prove it!
Yes, I agree completely...
(stops all of a sudden and smiles)
And I think it’s just wonderful!
(cocking head, thinking about it)
Gosh, I guess I shoulda called first.
(putting hands on his hips)
I don’t see why I have to do it! I really don’t!
(frowning, but resolute)
He might be gone, but I promise you, we’ll get out of this.
(sad and emotional)
She meant so much to me. If I could just have one last chance to say I’m sorry.
Are these parentheticals superfluous? Yup.
Could some of these directions be considered awkward? Definitely.
How do you act “frowning, but resolute”? Do we care if Mike put his “hands on his hip” or if Jack “cocks his head”? NO!!
Look, if you’re doing your job properly, you don’t need a lot of parenthetical directions. In fact, you might not need any at all. Your setting, tone of story, characters, their lines of dialogue, etc., should adequately clue us in as to how the character is feeling and how the line is to be read. For instance, here are a few lines from a scene where the wife confronts the husband after the he’s been found sneaking around with his secretary:
It’s not what it looks like, Helen.
It’s not what it looks like? What does it look like, Harold? It looks like you’re having an affair with your secretary!
No parentheticals are necessary in the above example. Alas, many novice writers will write it this way:
(desperately trying to hide the truth)
It’s not what it looks like, Helen.
(pacing back and forth, angrily)
It’s not what it looks like??? What does it look like, Harold? It looks like you’re having an affair with your secretary!!!!!
The above exampled parentheticals are not only unnecessary, they also clog up the page and slow the read. Just give us the lines and let the actor and director do their job.
For what it’s worth, I just read No Country for Old Men, and I didn’t spot a single parenthetical direction in the entire 121 page screenplay. I also recently read the script for Knocked Up. Barely any parenthetical directions in that script.
Now, I’m not saying a screenplay shouldn’t contain any parentheticals whatsoever—cuz an occasional well-placed parenthetical direction can be quite necessary in a screenplay. Now you’re asking, “OK, Jim...so when are parenthetical directions necessary?” Glad you asked. Here are some examples:
Let’s say you have a scene with more than two people, and we need to know who a line is being said to. For instance:
I want that witness in my office by noon tomorrow.
Better get me a cup of coffee, it’s gonna be a long night.
Or maybe a character imitates someone famous, like this:
(a la John Wayne)
Smile when you say that, pilgrim.
Or maybe a character is talking to herself, like this:
Girl, you do some really stupid things sometimes.
Or maybe a lonely man is sitting at a hotel bar and a pretty girl steps over to him, moves right up beside him and:
(a delicious whisper)
I’m in room 207.
Or maybe a character realizes something mid-line, like this:
I don’t know. It could’ve been anyone. It could’ve been –
(dawning on him)
Wait...I know! It was...Tyler Piedmont!
Anyway, I think you’re getting my point here. A well-placed parenthetical is fine. Just use ‘em properly only when absolutely necessary.
Only in Hollywood...
So, a few of my good friends took me out for a birthday dinner last night (my b-day was Sunday). I stopped in at a book store prior to meeting with them. While perusing the DVD section, I saw comedian Jackie Mason strolling through the aisles, cellphone to ear and two rather grim-looking men following close behind. Not sure if they were Secret Service agents or sycophants. Later, I met my friends at a well-known, old-time Hollywood eatery on Santa Monica Boulevard. Comedian Tim Conway was standing near the front entrance. He was so funny on the old Carol Burnett Show. Later in the evening, after leaving a bar at the plush Beverly Wilshire Hotel—where my friends had “adult beverages” and I had my usual cranberry juice—we spotted film director Cameron Crowe and his wife Nancy Wilson (of the rock group Heart) waiting for their car to be retrieved by the parking valet. And oh, my girlfriend and I ran into Howie Mandel at a Thai restaurant in Hollywood a few weeks ago. I’m a big fan of Deal or No Deal (one of the only things I watch on television) and I think Howie is so great on the show. Whatever.
Life in La La Land continues.
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APRIL 2015 ANNOUNCEMENT: My debut novel, Luigi's Chinese Delicatessen, is now available in paperback from Amazon.con and Kindle e-book! You're gonna love it cuz it's all about Hollywood and screenwriting!
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