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Personal Direction

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Personal direction (also called “parentheticals” or “wrylies”) should be used sparingly.  It may be intrusive for a writer to suggest how an actor should play a line.  Indeed, some vagueness may even be preferable, as it gives the actor and director some latitude to interpret the emotional subtext.  That being said, personal direction is sometimes necessary to clarify the character's intent.

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Personal direction should be treated as a separate element, placed on a line all to itself.  As with all screenplay elements, personal direction should not be centered on the page.  Instead, it should appear in its own margins, approximately halfway between the margins for dialogue and the margins for character cues.  The standard setting puts the left parenthesis 3.6 inches from the left of the page.  The text should wrap under the text, not under the parenthesis.

 
                           FRANK
                    (the words catching
                     in his throat)
              I knew him.  We were in school
              together.

 

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Personal direction should be short, no more than a few words, and not a complete sentence.  As such, it should not have the first word capitalized (unless it’s a proper name), nor should it end in a period.  If the direction is long enough to merit a complete sentence, then it should appear as an action element.

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Personal direction must apply only to the character who is speaking.  If it gives direction to other characters, then it must be broken out as an action element.  However, another character’s reaction can be incorporated into some personal direction if the speaking character is responding to it.

 
                           TYLER
              A Las Vegas showgirl in a string
              bikini.
                    (off Bruce's
                     incredulous look)
              I swear!

 

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Use personal direction to indicate a speech is continuing.  When the same character speaks again in the same scene following some action, it’s customary for the word “continuing” to appear in parentheses on the next line after the cue.

 
                           VALERIE
              That's all right.  I like that
              you're, um... old-fashioned.

She puts her arms around his neck, kisses him softly.  Then shoves him away.

                           VALERIE
                    (continuing)
              What's the idea of getting two
              beds, anyway?
 

 

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It’s also acceptable to place the word “CONT’D” in parentheses as an extension to the character cue, but things can get messy if there’s already a “V.O.” or “O.S.” extension.  Most screenwriting software can be configured to handle this automatically.

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Use a parenthetical beat, not just an ellipsis, to indicate hesitation or an adjustment in a speech.  Personally, this reader prefers the use of “(then)” instead of “(beat),” as it flows better and cues the actor that this is an adjustment.  Do not use “(pause).”

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Song lyrics in dialogue should appear in quotes under the personal direction “(sings).”

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If some personal direction interrupts a line of dialogue, then the unfinished line should trail off in an ellipsis.  The line should pick up after the parenthetical with an ellipsis, as well:

 
                           COACH STRAW
              Tony, about my talk the other day,...
                    (beat)
              ... you are one of the young men I
              think has potential.

 

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Under no circumstances should ALL CAPS be used in personal direction.

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Personal direction always comes before a speech, never after.  If a character performs some action at the end of their speech, for example, it should be formatted as an action element, not as personal direction.

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Copyright © 2008 by Michael Ray Brown.  All rights reserved.
Last modified: November 13, 2014