Ask the Expert: Parenthetical or Personal Directions

Question: What is the proper use of parentheticals?

They are to be enclosed in parenthesis, non-capitalized and used very sparingly and pertain only to the character speaking. Their right margin is 3 inches in from the right side and their left margin is 3 inches from the left side of the paper. Keep them short and sweet, no more than a couple of lines long. These are some acceptable examples:



Hi. Glad you could make it.




How you doing?

Never end a dialogue section on a parenthetical. Do NOT do this:


(indicates her book)

Who’s this guy? Somebody I should


(takes the book and

flips to see Bob Dylan on the cover)

The strikeouts represent what I’ll do to your script if you end a dialogue section on a parenthetical. You have to end on a line of dialogue and then use screen directions to explain whatever physical actions come after the dialogue.

Here’s the right way:


(indicates her book)

Who’s this guy? Somebody I should know?

He takes the book, flips it over and sees Bob Dylan on the cover.

Again be very stingy with these because you don’t want to be accused of trying to direct the actors from the page. Do NOT do this:


(takes the book back,

wipes off some smudges,

carefully places it

back into her bag and

places it on the chair

next to her. She fixes

him with a haughty


He doesn’t set his amps at “11”, so you probably never heard of him.

WHOA!! T.M.I.! First, it’s too long for a parenthetical. Second, you can’t cram two sentences into a parenthetical. Third, it’s too much precise info to try and relay. You’re not directing, you’re writing! Try this:

She takes back the book, cleans it and puts it in her bag.


(smiling haughtily)

He doesn’t set his amps at “11”, so you probably never heard of him.

Also, don’t try to relay what’s going on in the character’s mind by telling me directly:

He chuckles and picks up a menu to look it over.


So … have you given any thought about taking over my class?


(hesitates — wants to do it but is afraid

that he won’t be any good at it)

I have. I’m a bit nervous though.

WRONG! This is what you get to write:



I have. I’m a bit nervous though.


You’ll be fine. Students are pussycats.

You just have to clean out the catboxes

of their minds.


William Pace received his MFA in Film from NYU, has written four produced feature films ­ one of which he directed – and several TV episodes. He teaches screenwriting at NYC’s The New School and is its Screenwriting Advisor. And believe it or not, he’s listed in the book Celebrities in Hell.

2 thoughts on “Ask the Expert: Parenthetical or Personal Directions

  1. trump

    Hi, I am new. This is great. I have many questions and this answered one, also (related) I keep getting bogged down with continued re- looks at format. It’s cost me months on my first script

  2. Harvey Jacobs

    Hi Bill,

    To be honest, I would try not use use any parentheticals at all. You can cover ninety-percent of those in your example by in dialogue or action. I have been taught never to tell the actor how to act or the director how to direct and that parentheticals should only ever be used when the action contradicts the dialogue.

    What do you think?