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heidi-smallAs a contest judge and script coach, I see all kinds of poor formatting, strange style choices, and grammar errors galore. If I can help you to avoid some of these surprisingly common pitfalls, my judging job will be easier, your script will be better, and it might just move your career forward.

Almost every script I read is overwritten. Writers get caught up in creating a story moment in every detail and start directing from the page. Nothing marks you as an inexperienced writer faster. Overwritten scripts can feel akin to being told how to breathe or walk:

“Jerry puts one foot forward, and then the other. Now be brings the first foot forward again.”

Give your readers some credit for being able to figure out how things work. We’re humans here too.

It’s natural to want to direct from the page. You may actually be a director. At the very least you are creating a world, the people in that world, and the story within which they exist. You’re naturally going to have some control issues here. The beauty (and challenge) of screenwriting is that it’s a collaborative art. Leaving room for a director and actor to bring their interpretations to characters, emotions, and beats is where we get real alchemy on screen.

Parentheticals—Let’s Kill the Wrylies

One of the most common ways writers overwrite and direct from the page is via that enigmatic and oft-misunderstood element, the parenthetical. Nicknamed the Wryly, it seems innocuous enough. Yet its misuse can make your script look clunky and confusing at best, amateurish and not-worth-the-time to read at worst.

A parenthetical is an instruction or description in parentheses that shows up after a character element (someone’s name) and, rarely, mid-dialog. The point of a parenthetical is to clarify the tone or target of the subsequent dialog if it’s not already clear from the context of the scene. That’s it!


One good use of a parenthetical is when the target of a line isn’t clear. For example, if Kara has been speaking with Joe but now she throws an aside to Cindy, I may want to add one like so:

(to Cindy)
Thanks, I already ate.

However, I definitely don’t need to do this if it’s clear to whom she’s speaking, as it would be with:

Cindy, I already ate.

or if, just before Kara’s line, Cindy had walked in and asked if Kara was hungry. Kara’s line is therefore obviously directed at Cindy and you don’t need the parenthetical. Since scripts with a shorter page count automatically warm the heart of the judge faced with a stack of pages, you want to do everything you can to streamline yours as much as possible. Besides, a tight script is a hallmark of a strong writer who’d rather spend time and page space crafting great characters, scenes, and arcs. But sure, consider my feelings too.


This one’s trickier. You can also use a parenthetical if the tone isn’t clear from the context. For example, if everything in this scene up to now has been funny or angry or sad but suddenly Kara is turning sarcastic, it may help to throw in a:

Thanks, I already ate.

But if it’s been established that Kara is a sarcastic character, that’s going to already be clear from context, and it’s likely an actor will chose to deliver that line in a sarcastic tone. This means you don’t have to over-direct from the page and tell them how to say it. Many writers don’t see that they’ve made the context clear and a parenthetical is therefore redundant and a waste of their line space.

Many writers don’t understand the need to leave room for the actor to bring their emotional work to the story. Do you think Meryl Streep needs to be told to say a line (yelling) or (with real emotion)? Of course not. In fact she may surprise you with a whisper that turns out to be far more moving than the shout you had imagined. As a writer, get used to giving up some of that control. The key to the parenthetical use to clarify tone is: we get much more than you think we get. If the scene seems at all clear without adding that parenthetical, leave it out!

No Nos

So this brings us to all the things you do not need to use a parenthetical for:

  • Telling an actor how to move his body.

Something like:

(grabbing the blanket off the chair as he goes to the door)
I said no.

belongs in an action line because it’s an action. Also, something like:

(tents his fingers in thought)
I said no.

is too much directing from the page again. If this is a scene about Joe being deep in thought, let the actors determine how to move their bodies to convey that. Those are the choices they get to make.

  • Telling an actor to use an accent repeatedly.

(with a Russian accent)
I said no.

But you have a coat.

(with a Russian accent)
I want blanket anyway.

Rather than waste many lines telling us this repeatedly, just give a bracket or note at the top of the scene saying [*Note: Joe speaks throughout with a Russian accent.] Then the actor can take that on board and make it happen for you.

  • Telling us why an actor says a line.

(to be funny)
Doc, it hurts when I do this.

Lordy, if the comedy isn’t clear from your scene, there are bigger problems.

I said no.

Just no. Apparently, since the dawn of screenwriting we’ve all been obsessed with wry characters, hence the “Wryly” nickname for parentheticals. Again, this is over-directing from the page. Many actors I know will go through a script and cross out all the Wrylies from the get-go so they can bring their own emotional work to the lines. You’ve already lost that control, writer, so just let it go! Besides, the best scripts are built with muscular, visual nouns and verbs, because adverbs and adjectives tend to be more about telling rather than showing. This is a visual medium. Show me through your scene work that the dancer inspires the audience rather than telling me she’s inspiring. This is true with parentheticals too.

Resist the urge to put an adverb in that parenthetical at all costs, especially ‘wryly’. UNLESS the context isn’t clear from the scene. And even then, ask yourself: can you trust an actor or a director to understand what you’re going for and pull that out in the performance? If the answer is even slightly, possibly, maybe yes, leave off the parenthetical. I promise you directors, actors and script judges everywhere will silently, wryly, thank you for it.