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Parentheticals (questioningly)

by | Dec 9, 2014

When and how much should one use parentheticals when writing dialogue in a play? I've always heard that it's overreach to do so, but a mentor of mine has suggested I use more of them. Thoughts?

Started by Bernard Rice on 2014-12-09 at 14:57

So... One of my mentors who's accomplished and very canny made a suggestion that surprised me. He suggested that I needed more parentheticals in my dialogue to tip off directors and actors as to what emotion I, as playwright, intend the character to be experiencing. So, unlike what I've heard emphatically, in no uncertain terms, from many others, it's in fact not condescending nor is it overreach (messing with the actor's honest process) to do so. The problem comes, my mentor avers, when it's done when it's clear from the text and situation that it's unnecessary to do so, and the problem comes also when it's done too often. But from time to time it's very helpful, my mentor tells me, to state an emotion or intention parenthetically so it's clear what I meant when I wrote the line.

In contrast to this advice, I have always resisted any intention to put an emotional note in any parenthetical, to do so only when there's deep irony or sarcasm or insanity happening that would never be gleaned from the text. My plays don't generally have parentheticals at all that suggest emotion.

But if they weren't held in such low regard (my impression) I probably would use them judiciously, just to make my playwright's intentions abundantly clear. It's counting heavily on the actors' themselves to make the same discoveries from my text as I made, and generally it's more important that they make their own such findings. Or so I'm told, was told, until one of my mentors suggested otherwise.


Roger replied...

I think the operative word is "judiciously."

I have no problem at all with specifying emotions in parentheticals if the attack on a line is critical to the overall arc of the dialogue beat -- and if an errant delivery might send the beat spinning off in a direction that doesn't make sense dramatically or with respect to the story. There are hundreds of ways to say "Yes," but unless it's a throwaway line, the actor's delivery will affect how the other actors can reasonably respond. And if it's critical that the playwright specifies "(exultant)" or "(frustrated)" or "(depressed)," so be it.

I try to minimize my use of parentheticals in general and have naturally evolved a practice of not specifying feelings very often. But to set down a rule and say that they are always inappropriate is, to me, itself inappropriate.

Years ago, I was workshopping a one-act play with a director that I'd never worked with before. One of the characters in the play had a line: "I don't blame you," which in the context of the moment should have been hilarious but in the first reading fell completely flat because the actor was delivering it with the wrong emotional take. The problem was that he delivered it as if his character were taking the blame for something that had happened rather than deflecting blame to someone else. At lunch after the first rehearsal, I said to the director, "When he says that, he's not actually taking the blame." The director burst out laughing, because he suddenly got the joke, and I inserted a parenthetical to define the attack on the line, so that it would be clear from that point on.

I advocate using parentheticals sparingly, in part, so that when they are used, the actors pay attention to them, because they're seen as important. And I don't think of them as in-the-moment instructions along the lines of "Say it this way right now"; I think of them as signposts in the journey of the play, where I'm saying to the actors, "Make sure you get to this internal place by this point in the beat."

Bernard Rice replied...

Thank you, Roger, for your useful, practical response. The example you give is perfect, and clarifies the matter for me. Of course parentheticals are important once in a great while, but I think I'll resist the advice from my other mentor to facilitate the director and actors in their discovery of my text by throwing up signposts when most of the time I'd much prefer they find their own truths in the moments.



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