Screenwriting 101: Advanced dialogue, scene headings & parentheses

The other day I realised I’ve had this post in my drafts since about the time I last actually worked on this series – and that’s truly shameful! I’m keen to bring back the Screenwriting 101 series as I think it’s helpful for both other screenwriters and myself, as it makes me actually think about techniques and tips that I use. If you haven’t read the previous posts in this series, I’ll link them at the end of this post. I do suggest you read this part one in writing dialogue, where I cover some of my basic tips, before you read this post. Lastly I’d like to say that these are all tips I have learnt in my time writing and from my own experiences (and mistakes!), so they come from a place of familiarity not lecturing. I hope they prove helpful!

Conversations and characters do not start/end within confines of the scene
In my post about planning and writing dimensional characters I talked about how every character is their own protagonist, and how secondary and minor characters’ lives don’t just end when they leave the scene – they are always living and dealing with their own story. This tip is similar in that it’s crucial you remember characters exist beyond the confines of the scene. One way you can add this sense of dimension and realism is by having conversations continues in and out of not only the frame, but the entire scene. Say your characters are in a bar and say goodbye to your protagonist: we’ll remain there with the protagonist, but as the characters walk out of the scene/bar they might be talking about who’s going to drive. When the protagonist’s co-workers come into the staff room it’s unlikely they’ll have been walking in silence the whole way, whether they’re gossiping about the new employee or discussing the latest episode of a TV show, they’re probably talking about something. Now this conversation doesn’t have to continue and fully come to a close in your scene (in fact it’s more realistic if they change topic on seeing the protagonist) but that doesn’t mean it never existed. It’s the same if, say, a new character walks into the bar and sits down next to your character. They haven’t just appeared – they’ve got off the bus where someone sat too close to them, they’ve just finished a shitty day at work, they’re in the middle of an argument with their wife; their life is continually going. Good writing acknowledges that without drawing attention to it.

Learn to use parentheses accurately and sparingly
When you first start writing you’re eager to get all the emotions and subtext across as quickly and specifically as possible, and parentheses seems the obvious way to do this. It is right above the dialogue, after all. But just like how you shouldn’t write “Joe is sat down, he looks sad” you shouldn’t write a line of dialogue and put “(sad)” above it. It needs to be more nuanced than that. The key is to be harsh on your own writing – if you need parentheses to show an obvious emotion (sadness, happiness, irritation, anger etc.) then you probably haven’t written the line or character’s action well enough. The audience, and especially the actors, should be able to infer the characters’ emotions from your writing (whether that’s in the action lines or the dialogue itself), not from generic emotional cues above each line. Furthermore, just like you shouldn’t put camera angles in and assume the DoP’s role, you shouldn’t focus too too much on the actor’s delivery, only when it’s absolutely crucial. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not an absolute no-go to put an emotion in parentheses, but if you feel compelled to do so, try to put a feeling – the way in which they’re saying it, more than just a dry emotion like ‘angry’ that can be easily noticed from the fact they’re arguing or something! Use parentheses sparingly and cautiously, to show inflection. Exceptions are if the line is sarcastic, or if the character is laughing as they speak etc.
Furthermore, a common mistake we have all made is using parenthesis to describe an action. Even if the action is being performed during or inbetween dialogue, do not put it in parentheses. Parentheses are for guiding the actor in their delivery of dialogue, not for telling them what to do. Things like “takes a drag of the cigarette”, “sips their drink” or “sighs and runs his hands through his hair” are all action, and should be formatted as such.

Dealing with characters not in the same physical scene (V.O. & O.S.)
One question I spent a long time trying to understand was how to deal with characters not being in the same physical space as another character. One major note is that you want to reader to know that the character isn’t in the same place. If your character is locked inside a room, and we are in the room with them, but they’re having a conservation with someone on the other side of the door, then when referring to the offscreen person we need to be clear that they’re not in the room. One way we do this is by not capitalising their name  where we would normally, like when they are mentioned in the action lines. Another way is to use “(V.O.)” and “(O.S.)” accurately in their individual applications. O.S. (offscreen) should be used when the character is in the same location as whoever they’re speaking to e.g. they’re not in the shot but they’re still in the room and scene, or they’re mid-conversation and have gone into a walk-in wardrobe. V.O. (voiceover) should be used if they’re in a different location e.g. on the phone. Plus, of course, V.O. should be used for narration, character thoughts, voiceovers etc.

How to write phone calls between characters
Phone calls are surprisingly simple to write once you know what you’re doing, but they can be confusing to format beforehand. Whether it’s a walkie-talkie, a phone call or Skype, these type of character to character dialogue where each is in a different place should be written using “INTERCUT with”. Obviously you would only use this technique if you wish to show each person and side of the conversation – if you want it to be on one character the entire time then you can just use “(V.O.)” for the character we don’t see. If, however, you want to go back and forth between the characters speaking then you must use intercut (in capitals) to signal to the reader what is happening. First, set up each of the sides of conversation as normal, with a scene heading and brief description. Once you have both of the sides set up you can simple write “INTERCUT with ____” and then type the entire conversation from one scene’s perspective, rather than chopping back and forth constantly and losing the conversation’s flow. If there are important bits of action needed then you may choose to stop intercutting at a point, or to avoid it entirely and just have longer sections of the conversation in each individual location, but in general intercutting is used as the editor can then choose the pacing and shots which they think are best.
Finally, if you want to show only one side of the conversation but without the audience hearing the other side, simply write the character’s dialogue then use a “(beat)” where the other character’s dialogue would be.

Writing scenes which directly follow each other
Now this is probably more common knowledge than the other points in this post, and it’s far simpler, but it’s something I only learnt a few years back and has since saved me a lot of hassle in rewrites! When you are writing a scene, or series of scenes, which follow each other directly in linear time (i.e. characters in a room right through putting on their coats in the hall, walking out of the house, down the street and then inside the restaurant) you can use “(CONTINUOUS)” (and then “(CONT.)”) at the end of the slug line where you would normally put “DAY/NIGHT”, rather than continually stating the same time of day. This is a quick change but it’s worth remembering for ease of reading.

How to write wo scenes within the same location?
One thing I often find myself doing is having two conversations – or even entire scenes – happening in the same locations. Particularly in my current screenplay, which features a main location of a bar and a large town square. When writing I wanted it to be clear that there were different characters in each part of the scene, doing and saying things unrelated to the others – sometimes completely unaware of the others. The way in which to do this is simpler than I expected: you just need different scene headings. I’ve always been taught that you only change scene with a different location, so this confused me at first, but when trying to write it without changing the slug lines it was even more confusing! In the square, for example, I’d simple you the same location but more specific in the heading, i.e. “west side of square”, or in the bar “at the bar” versus “by the fireplace”. This is another small thing that saves a lot of time and really aids the overall flow when reading your final screenplay.

Writing scenes in cars and other vehicles
My final point for this post is about writing in vehicles. Most films will feature some kind of vehicle scene in them, but how are you meant to head that scene? My first feature script was a kind of road movie so I had a lot of scenes in convertible-top cars which was absolutely baffling when it came to the scene headings. Since then, I’ve learnt that really it’s quite easy – most vehicles, like inside a train or an aeroplane, are interiors (“INT.”), but cars should usually be branded as “INT./EXT.” in the slug line. The reason for this is mostly due to the logistics of filming this scene, as car scenes often go in and out of the actual car. When it comes to something which you think is obviously interior or exterior, like kids riding a bike (exterior) or kids fighting in the back of the car (interior) use your own judgement and the location you think is most accurate.
Another thing of note with car scenes is to including (moving) or (driving) at the end of the scene heading if the car is travelling. This is just another direction which helps for both the reader and the people trying to work out how to film the scene.

Thank you for reading this post, and I hope you found at least some of these tips helpful! If you have any other questions or ideas for Screenwriting 101 posts please comment or message me with them. Also don’t forget to check out the previous posts in this series. Thanks for reading!

Read my other Screenwriting 101 posts:
General tips, tricks and FAQs
How to plan and write a solid character
Writing dialogue


  1. Even though I never intend writing anything like this, it was fascinating to read this post: like a whole new language!

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