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The Curse of Quirky Parentheticals

By Christina Hamlett

When I was a young aspiring writer, I had a strong aversion to the use of "said" in a story. My justification was that it was blah. It was uninspired. It was pedestrian. Why use "said," I rationalized, when there were so many other words in the English language that were way more expressive? Throughout high school composition classes, my characters squeaked, pontificated, reflected, mused and accused. As if that weren't enough to spice up their conversations with one another, I was also generous in my deployment of adverbs. After all, who's going to make for a scarier villain: the one who "growls menacingly" or the one who says, "If you don't give me the map, I'll kill you"?

By the time I started publishing my work, I was fortunate to have editors who pointed out that my habit of euphemizing the word "said" was actually to the detriment of the dialogue. Its quiet obscurity, they explained to me, was what allowed readers to skip over it and pay attention to what the characters were trying to communicate. Throw a word like "elucidated" into the mix and it either sends a reader running to the nearest dictionary or else colors her view that the author is a snob and makes her close the book completely and walk off.

Likewise, I had editors who eschewed the use of parentheses, likening these "whispered asides" to speed-bumps that slow down a narrative's momentum. Little did I know I'd one day work in a medium that not only makes liberal use of these rounded brackets but also marries them to modifiers in ways that defy interpretation. How, for instance, does one "blanch uncontrollably," "smile successfully" or "swear gracefully"?

These are the same writers, of course, who find nothing weird about directions that read, "The expedition recoils when they come into the clearing and discover a poached rhino"; "Dave's eyes fall to the floor and remain there even as he turns away"; "A menacing noise comes from Vanessa's rear"; and "Suddenly the door opens slowly."

Oh, what tangled webs we weave instructing others to perceive!

Hold that Thought

When a script starts tipping the scale and exceeding the two-hour standard, the page-gobblers can invariably be traced to one or more of the following:

  • Extraneous conversations
  • Explicit character descriptions
  • Detailed scene descriptions
  • Excessive camera and lighting directions
  • Parentheticals ad nauseum

It's the last of these, I've found, that writers are the most reluctant to let go of. The argument that an actor wouldn't otherwise know how a line should be spoken negates the reality that the context of a scene itself provides the framework relative to the emotions, dialogue and action contained within it. If the subtext is consistent with the context, we already know the character's intentions and, accordingly, how his or her words support them.

For the most part, parentheticals in screenplays are not only overused but also misused. Consider, for instance, how many times you've ever inserted (beat), (pause), (pregnant pause), (after a while), (a moment later), (extended beat) or (long silence) in a script. Even worse, how many times have you also thrown in a succession of ellipses? Yes, we know you were only trying to draw out the dramatic suspense but how long is it going to take an agent to read:

I think the time has come to make a decision.

Vs.

I...
(beat)
...think the time...
(long pause)
...has come to...
(after a while)
...make a...
(pause)
...decision.

Solution: Go through your script and circle every incident where you have used a parenthetical to indicate a passage of time within a dialogue block. Unless the absence of the parenthetical would skew the intent of the scene, delete it. In doing so, you can recover lots of extra line space which - over the course of a script - will reduce your page count. Eliminate, too, any parentheticals that contain these words:

  • Thinking
  • Remembering
  • Reflecting
  • Realizing
  • Pondering
  • Believing
  • Wondering
  • Feeling

Their purpose may be to slow down the delivery but they're not filmable concepts unless you're utilizing voiceovers or thought bubbles.

Hiding the Clues

Another common misuse of parentheticals is to indicate entrances and exits as well as embed action lines, some of which may instead be associated with characters other than the one who's speaking.

Example:
HOLLY
(enters the room, much to everyone's
surprise and amazement)
Hi, everyone!
(she goes to the bar, makes herself
a dry martini, checks her appearance
in the mirror above the bar and then
goes to sit next to Evan who is eating
a sandwich and playing Nintendo on
the living room couch)
What's new?

This is problematic on several levels. Just like master scenes that reveal each time a camera is moved to a new location or returned to a previous one, action lines tell a director and her cast who is coming and going in each scene and the significant bits of stage business they're engaged in.

If this were Holly's first appearance in the story, she has literally snuck up on us without any warning. Writers who resort to this device are also often guilty of including character descriptions long after that person's first lines of dialogue have been delivered. Even if we've already been introduced to Holly, she still needs to make her comings and goings via actions set up at the left slug line. Further, the description of what she does after she arrives takes up six separate lines as opposed to:

She makes a martini at the bar, checks her appearance, and goes to sit by Evan.

As for Evan, he will have missed whatever he's supposed to be doing on the couch because - like most actors - he's only paying attention to his own lines. Nor will the other guests in the room know that they're supposed to be surprised or amazed by Holly's arrival because their reaction was buried as a parenthetical under Holly's name.

Solution: Go through your script and highlight every instance where a character arrives or departs within the dialogue block; lose the parentheticals and turn these into action lines. Highlight any parenthetical stage business contained in dialogue that belongs to someone other than the speaker; change these into action lines. Circle any parenthetical actions that run longer than two lines; your script will be smoother - and shorter - to read if these are moved to the left slug line.

Lost in Translation

I recently reviewed a contest script in which the writer delineated by the use of parenthetical asterisks on the first page what language the characters should speak for each of their lines. It looked something like this:

(*) = English
(**) = Splanglish
(***) = Spanish
(****) = English mixed with Spanglish

I'm assuming the writer meant to be enormously helpful but you can imagine how headache-inducing it is to read pages and pages of dialogue that resemble this:

BOB
(*)
Blah blah blah!

CAROL
(****)
Blah blah?

TED
(**)
Blah blah blah...
(pause, then ***)
Blah.

ALICE
(*)
Blah!!!

Solution: If some of your characters speak a foreign language, you need only explain after their first appearance: "All of So-and-So's dialogue is spoken in such-and such." thereafter write their dialogue normally and sans all the parenthetical insertions. In this example where there's a mix of English/Spanish/Splanglish, you can leave the actual assignment of dialects and delivery to a director's discretion. Another alternative is to indicate at the start of a conversation that "the dialogue here is spoken entirely in Spanish." Just as you do in an intercut scene, you then specify when the Spanish portion ends. The same holds true for subtitled material.

Musing Perceptibly

To return full circle to the humble use of "said," there's something about screenwriters that they just can't leave well enough alone. Instead of a character simply saying a line, there seems to be an unwritten rule that they have to say the line with lots of embellishment. In honesty, I've sometimes spent more time trying to decipher their parentheticals than following the dialogue itself.

With the exception of the first two entries - which hold a record for the most frequent appearances in scripts - here's a list of some of the oddest directions I've encountered, an amusing testament to the fact that sometimes "said" isn't such a bad thing after all.

1. laughing maniacally
2. cackling hysterically
3. sniffling furtively
4. laughing satirically
5. smiling aggressively
6. whistling angrily
7. blushing fiercely
8. glaring impassively
9. staring aimlessly
10. blanching uncontrollably
11. swallowing lazily
12. chuckling wistfully
13. shouting hesitantly
14. seething wholeheartedly
15. coughing defiantly
16. chuckling contagiously
17. leering mightily
18. shouting orgasmically
19. blinking rhythmically
20. shrugging moronically
21. smiling soberly
22. staring wildly
23. sighing incessantly
24. yawning cavernously
25. gloating boldly
26. sneering leerily
27. sighing soulfully
28. smirking ruefully
29. groaning disparagingly
30. nodding emphatically
31. stretching indifferently
32. smiling rhetorically
33. fainting forcefully
34. sneezing emphatically
35. smiling successfully
36. smiling diagonally
37. whispering haughtily
38. yawning seductively
39. grinning gnashingly
40. breathing darkly
41. thinking sporadically
42. whimpering mincingly
43. scowling convincingly
44. chirping amicably
45. fidgeting wildly
46. guessing blindly
47. grinning indifferently
48. listening suggestively
49. barking congestedly
50. swearing gracefully
51. blinking embryonically
52. gesticulating dramatically
53. pointing stupidly
54. wheezing weakly
55. deciding definitely
56. retorting repetitively
57. laughing suspiciously
58. plotting purposefully
59. murmuring dejectedly
60. singing hauntingly
61. sneering smugly
62. replying avuncularly
63. gushing falsely
64. staring imperceptibly
65. exploding unexpectedly
66. sighing sensitively
67. crying needlessly
68. parroting annoyingly
69. accusing hotly
70. reminiscing stoically
71. badgering bullishly
72. snickering silently
73. needling relentlessly
74. pausing mysteriously
75. imploding sporadically
76. grinning gregariously
77. spewing effusively
78. thinking desperately
79. gazing majestically
80. looking dangerously
81. lisping angrily
82. weeping woefully
83. responding effectively
84. exclaiming spasmodically
85. reacting plausibly
86. answering painfully
87. replying snootily
88. arguing uncompromisingly
89. threatening forebodingly
90. squealing rowdily
91. quipping facetiously
92. whispering mischievously
93. shouting softly
94. pleading sinfully
95. giggling whimsically
96. digesting ardently
97. demanding truthfully
98. confessing unenthusiastically
99. screaming half-heartedly
100. guffawing bawdily

Solution: Take a highlighter pen to every parenthetical in your script that instructs an actor how to deliver the line. Invite your friends to act out these cues in order for you to determine if (1) they're really necessary and (2) they're even humanly possible. Better yet, just introduce my own list of 100 as a party game at your next get-together and let the hilarity ensue.

Meet the Author: Christina Hamlett

Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning writer, instructor and script consultant whose credits to date include 26 books, 133 plays, 5 optioned feature films, and hundreds of articles that appear in trade publications throughout the world. She is also a ghostwriter for The Penn Group in Manhattan.