questionmarkWhen I write dialogue, I tend to use the parenthetical a lot to describe the mood of my characters or the change in their mood. Also when I have a scene with two characters talking a lot, I tend to put lines of action between the dialogue describing the characters actions while they talk, such as shrugging, smiling, etc. How do you feel about this? Should I just let the actor find out how to react or should I control it by writing more specifically their actions during dialogue?

–Øystein Håland

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, parentheticals are small bits of scene description within blocks of dialogue. For example:

NATALIE

(reeling)

Did Pete ask you to ask me if I wanted to get married?

DYLAN

No! No.

(beat; casually)

He hasn’t said anything to you?

The (reeling) and (beat, causally) are parentheticals. They help communicate the pacing and intention of the dialogue. Without them, the lines read very differently.

Some actors have been known to automatically cross out all parenthetical comments in their scripts, lest their performance be shackled by the writer’s limited vision. If that makes the actor feel better, fine. But there’s nothing inherently awful about the parenthetical. Properly and judiciously used, these comments are an important writing tool.

Screenplays are meant to be read-by directors, producers, editors and countless other creative types-and it’s the screenwriter’s job to communicate crucial details about how the movie looks, sounds and feels.

But that doesn’t mean you script every look, every turn, every smile. Screenwriting is the art of economy, and overusing parenthetical comments will not only break the flow of the dialogue, they’ll drive the reader crazy. If you find you’re using three or more per page, look at whether the dialogue itself is giving enough emotional information. If characters are obviously arguing in a scene, an (angrily) comment is probably unneeded, but you might need to highlight a line that is (sympathetic) or (withering) when it could read either way.

Sometimes these little bits of description end up as free-standing sentences (or fragments), rather than in parentheses. I’ve never heard a good name for these snippets of interjectory description, but every script has them:

Turning to Jason...

Finding the key...

She hands him the disk.

Generally, these little text chunks communicate some important piece of action. What only screenwriters understand is that sometimes you need a bit of screen description to break up a long section of character dialogue, or to give breathing room. In screenplays — unlike stageplays — a page full of only dialogue is considered poor form, so an occasional line of action helps put the reader at ease.