A classic silver megaphone shape with an orange and blue illustrated parenthetical symbol where the bell would normally be, representing the purpose of the screenwriting tool.

What is a Parenthetical in Screenwriting? Definition and Examples

A screenplay has many essential elements – descriptive scene headings, compelling dialogue, and vivid stage directions.

But you may have also noticed another format element tucked between parentheses next to character names, known as parentheticals or “wrylys“. So what exactly is a parenthetical in screenwriting?

A parenthetical also referred to as a wryly in some screenwriting circles, is a brief phrase written between parentheses that immediately follows a character’s name or character action in a film script.

Parentheticals serve to provide context, subtext, guidance, mood, and clarity on the next line of dialogue for the benefit of the actors and directors who will eventually translate words on the page into dynamic performances on screen.

When to Use Parentheticals in Screenwriting

Parentheticals allow screenwriters to indicate specific tone, delivery pace, volume, dialects, accents, and physical or emotional behaviors that clarify how a line should be performed. Here are some examples of effective ways to use parentheticals:

  • Indicate Tone & Delivery Pace (sarcastically) (imitating) (yelling) (quietly)
  • Convey Physical Actions & Emotions
    (waving papers) (near tears) (menacing) (seductively)
  • Clarify Intentions & Motives (lying) (changing the subject)
    (threatening) (reminiscing happily)
  • Help Interpret Context (still afraid from the lion encounter) (not knowing what “wifi” means) (answering shyly)

When writing parentheticals, the key is to be concise yet communicate useful context and guidance in just a few words.

Overusing parentheticals or including lengthy phrases interrupted the script flow and readability. As a general rule of thumb, if you have written a parenthetical longer than 4-5 words, consider whether that information could be presented more concisely or even excluded.

Let’s look at some examples of effective usage of brief parentheticals in film scripts:

PAT (angrily) I told you to call before coming over.

JESSE (playfully mimicking) “I told you to call before coming over.”

LILLY (sighing deeply) What are we going to do now?

DUSTIN (preoccupied)
Did you remember to email Sarah?

By providing additional context in no more than a few words, the screenwriter assists those eventually embodying these characters by portraying the appropriate emotion, intention, and subtext for the lines to resonate most effectively on screen.

Examples of Effective Parentheticals by Purpose

Let’s analyze some examples of effective parenthetical sentence construction and usage for various purposes:

Conveying Emotion

SAM (fighting tears) I haven’t heard from Nicky in over a week, I’m really worried.

This parenthetical economically expresses the sadness and distress experienced by this character. Using “fighting tears” sets the tone for a worried line of dialogue.

Explaining Motive

JACKSON (lying to hide affair) Of course I was working late at the office again, a big deadline coming up.

Without the context provided after the character’s name, it may not have been clear if Jackson told the truth or had an ulterior motive. Adding the parenthetical helps interpret intentions.

Dictating Volume

TEACHER (whispering) We can’t let the other students know there’s a pop quiz today.

Indicating the teacher lowers her voice to a whisper, conveys an intention for secrecy preparing those performing this scene.

Setting Pace & Tone

JENNY (slowly realizing) You told me the party started at 7, but it’s already in full swing!

The words “slowly realizing” establish the timing and delivery pace planned for this line. Jenny starts unsure but gains awareness by the end.

When Not to Use Parentheticals

While parentheticals serve a useful purpose, there are also many scenarios where they should be avoided:

  1. When the dialogue communicates emotions or intentions already.
  2. Excess usage disrupts script readability and flow.
  3. Irrelevant information that does not advance the story.
  4. Lengthy phrases that would work better as action lines.

It’s also important to note that parentheticals should not include technical information about camera movement or placements, references to editing pace or transitions, or any directing notes.

That responsibility lies with, well, the director! The script narrative and dialogue along with sparingly used parentheticals should provide sufficient insight for performances.

What’s the deal with wryly? A commonly used nickname, “wryly”, refers to parentheticals that indicate expressions a character makes while delivering their lines, such as:

SARA (wry smile) I’m not sure I can make it Saturday anymore.

So if you ever hear the term “wryly” on a film or TV production, it’s likely referring to a parenthetical in the script denoting behavior framing this line of dialogue.

Key Elements of Properly Formatted Parenthetical Sentences

Follow these rules when constructing parentheticals for screenplays:

  • Locate immediately after the character name or action preceding dialogue
  • Enclosed with parentheses on both sides
  • Typically no more than 4-5 words
  • Use present tense action verbs to describe behaviors
  • Employ italics font to match character names

Let’s break down a properly formatted example:

JANE (smiling nervously) Are you sure this place is still open?

The brief, present tense parenthetical follows the italicized character name Jane. It economically conveys useful context about her emotional state during this line reading – smiling nervously.

Common Formatting for Character Name + Parenthetical + Dialogue

If we deconstruct a typical line of dialogue preceded by a parenthetical sentence in a script, it contains these key elements:


The screenwriter has full creative freedom when writing qualifying adjectives for tone and delivery pace, descriptions of physical mannerisms, and explanations of subtext and intention. Just remember brevity!

Common New Screenwriter Mistakes With Parentheticals

  • Overusing parenthetical sentences in descriptions that slow down readability
  • Forgetting the italics font style for the character name and parenthetical
  • Inserting directing notes, technical cues, or editing guidance
  • Misusing parentheticals when dialogue alone would suffice
  • Placing at the end of a line or in the middle
  • Good Screenwriting Practices for Parentheticals

Here are some tips for effectively leveraging parenthetical sentences as a screenwriter:

  • Identify dialogue needing more context
  • Determine emotion, intention, or tone
  • Craft a brief 2-5 word parenthetical
  • Place immediately after the italic character name
  • Validate clarity & relevance

Following these practical techniques will help improve the proper usage of parentheticals!

In Review: Understanding Parenthetical Sentences

We’ve covered a lot regarding the ubiquitous yet often misunderstood screenwriting tool – the parenthetical sentence. To recap:

  • A parenthetical provides interpretive guidance on a character’s dialogue
  • Formatted as brief-phrase between parentheses after names
  • Should not contain directing notes or technical cues
  • Most effective when kept concise at under 5 words
  • Improves context about emotion, cadence, and delivery for actors

So now you’re an expert on precisely what parenthetical sentences are used for in scripts! Use them thoughtfully and appropriately to enrich performances without distracting script flow for maximum impact.

For more techniques on enhancing your descriptions, check out our related posts on crafting engaging scene headings and writing crisp, compelling action lines.

Think outside the parentheticals by immersing yourself in high-caliber film scripts – and happy writing!

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an example of a parenthetical in scriptwriting?

An example of a parenthetical in a script:

JESSE (angrily) I told you not to take my car without asking!

What is an example of a parenthetical citation in a script?

Parenthetical citations are not typically used in scripts. Scripts reference any sources as action lines rather than formal citations.

What are the parentheses in dialogue screenwriting?

In screenwriting, parentheses directly after a character name contain a parenthetical sentence – a brief phrase giving context like tone or physical gestures to inform the dialogue.

What’s the difference between an extension and a parenthetical?

A parenthetical describes how a line is delivered while an extension explains who or where it is directed, usually phrased “(to NAME)” or “(offstage)”.

What is a parenthetical definition example?

A parenthetical definition example:

Parenthetical (adverb phrase placed between em dashes or commas) – provides context on tone or emotion of a sentence’s dialogue.

What are basic parenthetical citations?

Basic parenthetical citations for research papers include the author’s last name, publication year, and page number for the information referenced in parentheses. These are not used in screenplay format.

How do you do a parenthetical citation?

Since scripts do not contain parenthetical citations, no special formatting is required. Relevant sources would be mentioned in scene description action lines instead.

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