Quirks of dialogue
Parentheticals, Numbers, and Mispronunciations
Mispronouncing a word
If you intend for a character to mispronounce a word in dialogue, spell out his mispronunciation phonetically (using English phonetics — not IPA).
If you feel your intent isn’t clear, quotation marks may help, but make sure the reader still understands if the character means to mispronounce the word, or if it is done unknowingly.
A parenthetical may help here, or in extreme cases, an action line explanation can be used.
RYAN (purposeful) That shirt from the "Tar-jay" spring collection?
Numbers in dialogue
For dialogue, a screenwriter should use as few numbers as possible, and write them out unless it’s cumbersome to do so.
“We’ve got nineteen calls on hold.”
“That joke’s got to be a hundred years old.”
“Alaska may be the forty-ninth state, but it’s first in awesome.”
“We have an unidentified craft, bearing thirty-one mark nine.”
“This suit cost me five thousand. You stole yours from a hobo, I’m guessing.”
Use numbers for things like dates, codes and phone numbers:
“According to this, he was born March 10th, 1970. That means he’s already forty.”
“The combination is 21…34…17.”
“Just call this number: 555-764-2002.”
In action lines, I generally spell out numbers less than ten. But I’ll happily break that rule if it looks better on the page.
I never start a line with a numeral, and will favor unspecific counts when possible: a thousand stars rather than 1,000 stars.
For those who are unfamiliar with the term, parentheticals are small bits of scene description within blocks of dialogue. For example:
NATALIE (reeling) Did Pete ask you to ask me if I wanted to get married? DYLAN No! No. (beat; casually) He hasn't said anything to you?
The (reeling) and (beat, causally) are parentheticals. They help communicate the pacing and intention of the dialogue. Without them, the lines read very differently.
Some actors have been known to automatically cross out all parenthetical comments in their scripts, but there’s nothing inherently awful about the parenthetical. Properly and judiciously used, these comments are an important writing tool.
Screenplays are meant to be read—by directors, producers, editors and countless other creative types—and it’s the screenwriter’s job to communicate crucial details about how the movie looks, sounds and feels.
But that doesn’t mean you script every look, every turn, every smile. Screenwriting is the art of economy, and overusing parenthetical comments will not only break the flow of the dialogue, they’ll drive the reader crazy.
If you find you’re using three or more per page, look at whether the dialogue itself is giving enough emotional information. If characters are obviously arguing in a scene, an (angrily) comment is probably unneeded, but you might need to highlight a line that is (sympathetic) or (withering) when it could read either way.
Sometimes these little bits of description end up as free-standing sentences (or fragments), rather than in parentheses. I’ve never heard a good name for these snippets of interjectory description, but every script has them:
Turning to Jason... Finding the key... She hands him the disk.
Generally, these little text chunks communicate some important piece of action.
What only screenwriters understand is that sometimes you need a bit of screen description to break up a long section of character dialogue, or to give breathing room. In screenplays — unlike stageplays — a page full of only dialogue is considered poor form, so an occasional line of action helps put the reader at ease.