I know. I have been tragically neglecting you. Bad me. But I have a class of baby writers over on Gotham/Zoetrope that is parenthetical happy so I’m sharing with you what I shared with them.
Newer screenwriters often get parenthetical happy. It’s one of the things I have to combat and sort of beat out of them. “Don’t get parenthetical happy.” There’s this urge, apparently, to direct the emotion behind every delivered line of dialogue. Another to shove all sorts of physical action into parentheticals. That graphic is what some of the pages that come in tend to look like. Though without the red, I stuck that in there for emphasis. Oh nos! Red text gone wild! Ooops. Anyway –
I made the graphic up, it’s not actually accurate because it’s hard for me to write with parentheticals. I just don’t use them very much. But it is an approximation. And has a lot less parentheticals than I sometimes see on pages coming in from newer screenwriters just starting out who are in the grip of parenthetic frenzy. Um. Oops.
The reason using too many parentheticals to direct how dialogue should be delivered is a problem is apparent if you think about movie stars and actors and who is going to be delivering those lines. Robert DeNiro probably believes he can act and maybe doesn’t need you telling him how to deliver every single line of dialogue on the page. Forget what a morass it is to read through a page that has every line of dialogue tagged with a delivery instruction. But there is more too it than the actor sitch and just allowing your actors to actually interpret lines and act.
There’s the action stuffed into parentheticals sitch too.
Physical action should be placed in scene description, not in parentheticals. Sometimes, reading scripts, you will see a pro writer put physical action in a parenthetical. When it happens, though, it is extremely brief physical action. Like a wink, or tipping a hat. Newer writers who get parenthetical happy though tend to put all sorts of action in parentheticals. Sometimes ALL action. Opening doors, taking off coats, walking across rooms — it can become so extreme, an entire script page is littered with parentheticals describing physical action and has little to no scene description. That doesn’t work. First, because it’s extremely hard on readers, who are used to reading scripts with action to the side and dialogue running down the center of a page. Now, instead of natural back and forth eye movement and seeing what a reader expects to see where a reader expects to see it, a reader has to mentally jerk back and forth in his or her head between dialogue and action while reading straight down the middle of the page. It is extremely uncomfortable for anyone used to reading scripts to read pages written this way, and gets more uncomfortable the more pages there are to get through.
Writing scene description in parentheticals is also a handicap to a writer. After writing a script it’s often a good idea to read dialogue alone for specific characters. You can’t do that if there is a bunch of action crammed into dialogue parentheticals. It’s also helpful to go through a script just reading the action, ignoring the dialogue, to see how the action is working alone by itself. Again, you can’t do that if action is crammed into dialogue parentheticals because action isn’t where it’s supposed to be on the page, separate from dialogue.
Parentheticals are a solid tool if used [very] sparingly. They tell someone the emotional emphasis of a line that might be ambiguous without the tag. For example, if “Great!” is being delivered sarcastically, that’s something you might want to tag in a parethetical. Not for the actors and not really for a majority of readers. But for the suits, who tend to read too fast and without a lot of nuance. If parentheticals are overused, though, they will become a handicap and damage the writing and the read. Not to mention piss off anctresses and actors who think they can act and maybe don’t need to be kindergarten cross walked through dialogue delivery on every line on every page.