Parenthetical directions...

Once thing I spot in most novice scripts: the overuse and improper use of parenthetical direction. These directions are what I refer to as “superfluous and/or awkward bits of business” and “telling the actor how to act.” Let’s take a look at some examples:

I don’t care what he says...
(gesticulating wildly)
He’s wrong!
(clenching his fists)
He’s wrong and I’m going to prove it!

Another example:

Yes, I agree completely...
(stops all of a sudden and smiles)
And I think it’s just wonderful!

Another example:

(cocking head, thinking about it)
Gosh, I guess I shoulda called first.

Another example:

(putting hands on his hips)
I don’t see why I have to do it! I really don’t!

Another example:

(frowning, but resolute)
He might be gone, but I promise you, we’ll get out of this.

Another example:

(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, 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:

(to Dick)
I want that witness in my office by noon tomorrow.
(to Harry)
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:

(to herself)
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.

And finally:

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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Slick said...

This was actually pretty helpful. Thanks, man.

Anonymous said...

Jim, one thing to remember: The Coens wrote the NCFOM adaptation *knowing* they'd direct. When I'm writing a script to direct, I include quite a few things you'd never normally want on the page. The reverse is true, as well. If it's not specifically my project, I'll exclude all but the absolutely necessary stuff, meaning, no camera direction at all, sparing parentheticals, no establishing shots, etc. You know: By the book. When the film & screenplay are yours, however, you can kinda do whatever feels comfortable. Ever seen one of QT's script covers? ;)

Jim Vines said...

Thanks for the comment, Anon. Yes, you're correct, if you're directing your own script, you can pretty much include anything you want. It's only when you're dealing with other directors, producers, etc. that you kinda have to adhere to the "rules."

Anonymous said...

I realize this comment is over a year late, but hoping you'll see it. First off, thank you for the helpful post! Now on to my question.
If I want to show that a speaker is using air quotes on one or two words that are smack dab in the middle of his dialogue, how would you suggest doing this? What I've done so far is break the line of dialogue at the place where I want to insert the parenthetical (air quotes), then resumed the dialogue for the part I want the parenthetical to apply to, but now... What do I do?
Hope I'm not being too confusing here, thanks for any help you may be able to offer!

Jim Vines said...

Well, I think the way you've done it works pretty well. As with most formatting, keep it simple. Readers will get what you're trying to do. Just have the dialogue, then at the point where the character indicates the air quotes, simply insert (indicates air quotes) or even (air quotes) as your parenthetical. That should be just fine.

Anonymous said...

Alright, thank you for your help!

Anonymous said...

This is why I could never be officially a screen writer. I would hate to have my script butchered by an actor who does not know how it's supposed to be. When I write it; I envisioned it a certain way that they may not.