top of page
  • Writer's pictureMic

How to Write With the Screen in Mind (part 2 - parentheticals)

Last week, we went over some of the basics of writing action description that's just detailed enough to allow another creative person working on your movie to fulfil the vision you had in mind.

I also mentioned to look for these warning signs that your script is too descriptive:

Looking over your screenplay, if you're noticing a lot of minute details like: - how to frame a shot (cinematographer's job) - parentheticals that explain the delivery of dialogue (director's job) - staging + actions the scene already calls for (actor's job) - full descriptions of a character's wardrobe (costume designer's job) - very specific aspects of how a location looks (set designer's job then stop coming for these people's gigs!!! 

We already went over how to imply the framing of a shot, now let's get into the next point: "parentheticals that explain the delivery of dialogue."


Unnecessary Parentheticals

This is the easiest thing to fix, but often the hardest thing for writers to let go of.

Why is it so difficult?

Because newer writers are less confident in their work, to the point where they don't trust the audience to understand the material without excess guidance.

Writing well is about having confidence that the words on the page will translate to a clear image in the reader's mind.

And it's a lot easier than you may think, and definitely requires less words than you think.

Take a look at this example scene:

An example scene with action description, dialogue, and only one necessary parenthetical

There's a lot we can infer from this scene without the use of parentheticals explaining how each of these lines is delivered (we'll get to the "mouth full" one in a second!)

I could've written out exactly how I imagined these lines would be delivered, like this:

An example scene with several unnecessary parentheticals explaining how the dialogue should be read.

But, when you read this without parentheticals, wasn't the way these characters were feeling already pretty clear?

That's because of the context clues provided in the scene itself.

Parentheticals should only be used when the delivery or context of a line would NOT be clear without it.

For example, based on the way I wrote in the action description that Jack is on his lunch break, we wouldn't know that he's currently eating his lunch when he responds to Barista.

This is why the "(mouth full)" part is important. It changes the delivery of the line in a way we otherwise wouldn't have known.

Yes, in the description I could have said "Barista storms towards JACK (20s), who's mid-bite in a huge chocolate croissant."

But then we wouldn't know if he had enough time to swallow before responding, and to me it's funnier if he's trying to explain this situation with a bunch of food in his mouth.

You also could add another line of action just before Jack's line that explains he just took a bite of a chocolate croissant -- but do we really need to add a full action block just for that?

Even though both are technically one line, the spacing of an action block is double that of a parenthetical.

Standard paragraph spacing for action description blocks in a screenplay

Standard paragraph spacing for parentheticals in a screenplay

Which is why, in this case, I opted for a parenthetical.

So, why are all those other parentheticals not necessary?

Let's look at this example scene line-by-line:

WOMAN Is Jack here?

Removed parenthetical: (angry)

This dialogue alone could be said many different ways. It's a simple question that has no clear context behind it in the line itself.

The woman could be worried; maybe she hasn't heard from her friend Jack in a few days, so she's checking to see if he's at work.

Maybe she's a potential love interest who wants to see her hot barista crush.

She could even be a disgruntled customer that got her super specific drink made incorrectly by Jack last time she was there.

So how do we know how she'd be saying this line without her and Jack's backstory being explained on the page?

With this:

WOMAN (30s) cuts in front of a line of people to get to the counter.

This action block shows Woman acting in a way only an angry person would.

We know by reading this action description that Woman is NOT happy with Jack, and she doesn't care who she cuts in line to get to him.

We don't know her relationship to him yet, but that's not important right this second.

Take a look at the next line:

BARISTA Who's asking?

Removed parenthetical: (suspicious)

I would argue the phrasing of the line itself implies how it would be said.

If someone asked you where your coworker was, the only reason you'd respond in this way is if you were suspicious of that person.

But to make it even clearer how this question is being asked, we can refer to the context clues in the action description:

The BARISTA (20s) raises his eyebrow.

This action implies his feelings of suspicion.

Because of this and the phrasing of the dialogue itself, we can safely assume the Barista is unsure about Woman's intentions.

Moving on:

WOMAN His wife.

Removed parenthetical: (matter-of-fact)

The punctuation makes it clear how the line is being delivered.

We know Woman is angry, but we can tell she isn't screaming or exclaiming because this sentence ends with a period.

Ending a sentence with a period typically indicates something is being said in a matter-of-fact way (or sarcastic, but more on that later).

But to make it extra extra clear, I also included this action block:

Woman points to a diamond ring on her hand.

This action implies her matter-of-fact delivery, because pointing to her hand like that means she thinks it should be obvious who she is and why the hell she's asking for Jack.

Next line:

BARISTA Hm. Yeah. Let me go get him.

Removed parenthetical: (hiding anger)

The word choice is doing the heavy-lifting here.

By starting this off with "Hm," it implies shock. Based on just this two-letter word, we know Barista had no idea Jack had a wife, and he isn't happy about it.

This in conjunction with "Yeah" implies a layer of contempt that Barista is doing their best to mask in the moment.

If Barista wasn't personally connected to Jack, he would respond differently here -- probably in a more polite way.

Because he responds so curtly, we know there's more to the story.

Again, we don't know what exactly that is yet, but it's not important right this second.

Next line:

BARISTA Your wife is out there.

Removed parenthetical: (pissed)

How do we know Barista is pissed off about this? Mainly, based on the context clues we've learned up to this point.

But also this:

Barista storms towards JACK (30s), on his lunch break.

The word "storms" implies that Barista is angry, and he wants Jack to know it!

And the final line:

JACK (mouth full) Daniel, I can explain --

Removed parenthetical: (desperate)

This one line answers all the other questions that have been unanswered up to this point.

We now know Barista is upset about Jack having a wife because he and Jack were in a relationship.

And because of that revelation, we know exactly why Woman is here and demanding to speak to Jack.

Now based on this information, we know that Jack would be pretty desperate to talk his way out of this situation.

And based on the fact his mouth is full and he literally can't talk his way out it but is still trying to, we know he says the line desperately.


That's it for this week's "How to Write With the Screen in Mind!" You better:

So you can be ready for next week's post. ;)



Apr 27

Girl I was waiting for more about the sarcastic thing and you never went there

Apr 27
Replying to

LMAOOOO i didnt even notice 😭 basically what i wouldve said is:

sometimes sarcasm can read as genuine without a parenthetical denoting the intention. this is particularly an issue when we're first being introduced to a character who uses sarcasm, or in moments where a character could be interpreted as legitimately meaning the sarcastic thing that's being said. unless it's cleared up by other means (a response from another character, an action the character takes that goes against what they're saying, etc.), it's best to indicate in a parenthetical when something is sarcastic if it otherwise could come across as serious.

  • Youtube
  • Instagram
  • LinkedIn
  • X
bottom of page