Screenwriting Parentheticals | Script Formatting

by John Finnegan |

Parentheticals are rarely used well in scripts. This is the small section between the character's name and the dialogue in the centre of the page. Many people use them as a way to dictate how an actor should deliver a line of dialogue or to refer to a precise movement, such as a turn of a head or a growing expression. But, it can also be used as a way to maintain the pace of a scene by working beats of action into the dialogue sections.


In this short article, I'll walk you through some examples of best-practice and show you that there's far more to this area than just telling the actor or director how to do their job.


Industry Examples


As with all our formatting posts, let's see how the industry veterans do it:


The first few examples come from Christopher Nolan's Inception script.


Figure 1.

In the opening scene of Inception, protagonist Cobb is brought before an ageing Saito. One of the guards is speaking Japanese to the elderly man and so the language of their exchange is noted in the parentheticals. They don't do this for every line of dialogue in the scene. Once the conversation permanently shifts to English, it's no longer important to note it.


You can also see that Nolan uses a parenthetical in the first line of the dialogue to indicate who characters are speaking to as well. Here, the attendant character speaks to the elderly man and then turns to the security guard to give an order. Rather than interrupting the flow of the scene by giving a separate line to this order, it's just included in that initial section.


Figure 2.

Here is another example from later in the script where Nolan is maintaining the flow of the scene by incorporating action into the parentheticals.


Sure, Nolan could have put the line "Cobb stops" as it's own line of action, but by including it in the dialogue section, it doesn't disrupt the pace of the scene. That isn't to say that you should overuse this technique. Doing so can make the scenes incomprehensible. However, a simple beat of action such as Cobb stopping in his tracks to hear the next line is totally fine worked into the dialogue section like so.


It's worth noting that Nolan very rarely uses parentheticals in this script. Inception is a long screenplay (and film for that matter) and yet I struggled to find many examples. Something to keep in mind.


Figure 3.

Figure 3 is an excerpt from Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation. This is the famous "lip-them" scene. Here, the female visitor's voice is noted in parentheticals, almost like a character note given by a director. This is a trend throughout the script.


Figure 4.

Figure 4, also from this script, shows another director's note (of sorts).


This is not a problem in and of itself but can be misleading for first-time screenwriters who think this is a free pass to dictate the overall direction of performance.


Conclusion


These examples should give a good idea of how to use parentheticals in a screenplay. One important thing to note is that these examples I've shown are few and far between in their respective scripts. The majority of dialogue in both scripts is written without such notes.


This is to say, don't overuse this element in your script.


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Happy writing!

John Finnegan is an Executive Producer at The Script Department and a Senior Lecturer in screenwriting at Falmouth University. Find him @johnfinnegan247