Screenplay formatting of inarticulate sounds.
March 14, 2015 5:13 PM   Subscribe

What formatting conventions are there for inarticulate sounds such as screams, cries, snores, etc. when writing screenplays?

I've got characters that have lines with no words in them--just an inarticulate noise, like a laugh, snort, cough, snore, scream, cry, etc.

I don't like putting the sound description in "action" blocks because it is then more likely we'll miss the required line from the actor when recording.

I don't like writing out a phonetic sound, like "Ahahaha" (laugh) because actors tend to take it literally, and pronounce it as it's written. As opposed to just performing the line their way and sounding more natural, perhaps adding something special.

When I put a parenthetical under a character element like "(coughs)" but don't include dialogue beneath it, my software complains about it not being proper. Which makes me think that people experienced in reading scripts would trip up on it too, and maybe think the script looks amateurish.

The script is for my own production so I don't have to worry about selling it at this point. And with that in mind, I know I'm free to use whatever conventions I like. But I'd like to train myself to do it the "Right Way" or accepted way, if possible.
posted by ErikH2000 to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I am suddenly drawing a blank on a film that does that sort of thing, but if you can think of one, find the script and see what they did. This is exactly the sort of thing John August and Craig Mazin would say doesn't have an official "right way" as long as you pick what works for your script and be consistent.

I have no bona fides but I read a lot of scripts and write some and I think I would either damn the software and do


or maybe


or even


just to shut up the software, but you run the risk of your over-literal actors (who, frankly, have no place to judge you if they can't think creatively here) saying "cough" that way.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:14 PM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

My screenplay writing girlfriend says it should be surrounded by square brackets, like so:

posted by zug at 6:30 PM on March 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If it's in the middle of a block of dialogue, a parenthetical works. Otherwise, putting it in description is fine.

If it's a very crucial element of the story, as in the story absolutely won't make sense without this guy coughing, it's the job of the director and performer to pay attention to it. If it's not crucial to the story, then it's "directing from the page" and should be removed (or will end up being ignored by the performer anyway).

I have never seen or heard of the square brackets thing.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:02 PM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hmm. I think my production tasks are bleeding into the script a bit. So I may just need to accept that if it's a script for my own production, that it will be non-standard and suited to what I'm doing. For example, my actors will show up and read cold with no rehearsal, and we record fast, so I do things in the script to avoid mistakes and slowdowns.
posted by ErikH2000 at 8:32 PM on March 14, 2015

Best answer: If you want to do it "right," DrJimmy mostly has it -- I would put it in description unless it's also accompanied by dialogue, in which case I'd put it in parens.

If you want to do it efficiently just for your own production purposes, just make sure it represents what you want it to represent and make sure your actors see it and don't worry about what's "right." (And yet, if it's me, I'd still probably put it in description. I'd give each one its own action paragraph, and all-caps the main action or sound. You can even underline or italicize or use freakin' wingdings if you like. Whatever you need to make sure it isn't missed.)

I disagree with DrJimmy about not directing from the page -- the screenwriter is the first director, just as the editor is the last writer. Screenwriters put what they believe is necessary to impart the story, and sometimes that's stuff often considered "directing." No one cares and everyone gets it -- at least they do in Hollywood. This isn't a license to go wild, but rather write the script the movie needs you to write.
posted by incessant at 11:20 PM on March 14, 2015

I've done many cold readings for community theatre level auditions. In a script that is unfamiliar, things that are buried in blocks of stage direction often get missed. An action inside the dialogue (in parentheses or italics or whatever) doesn't. I have no idea what the "right" way is, but if you are recording with no read thru, prep, or direction, keep that in mind. The more inexperienced your actors, the more important it is to point out or otherwise emphasize these kinds of things.
posted by rakaidan at 8:20 AM on March 15, 2015

Half-agree with incessant there.

Unless the sound is specifically meant as a part of the dialog, like

And there I was...

(Coughs theatrically)

... Uh, actually, someone else go ahead. I've told that story too many times.

Then it's important to write it as if it's a part of the dialog. The actual performance would be up to the director / producer and the actors, but it should be pretty obvious to the reader what you're aiming for. If it wasn't quite obvious, you can always make it VERY obvious.

And there I was...

(Coughs theatrically)

JOHN looks up at TIM, and saw TIM gave a scowl and drew a hand across his own throat.

... Uh, actually, someone else go ahead. I've told that story too many times.
posted by kschang at 12:10 AM on March 16, 2015

Parentheticals are not really for action and definitely not with no dialogue underneath. Convention is you put it in action description. Also old school was to capitalize sounds.

Lois SCREAMS as she drops from the roof of The Daily Planet.
posted by litgrl at 8:28 PM on July 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

& square brackets are unheard of.

There are tons of formatting books, websites, & online forums to research screenplay format basics.
posted by litgrl at 8:30 PM on July 19, 2015

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