Using Parentheses in Fiction Writing

 

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So, I was reading this book a while back. It was a pretty awesome book, too: great characters, intriguing plot, marvelous descriptions, skillful world-building. Everything was moving along as smooth as can be, and then – WHAM! Out of nowhere, I hit this one paragraph that completely threw me out of the story.

Fortunately, after taking a moment to shake off the jarring experience, I was able to plunge back in and enjoy the remainder of the book. The writer in me, however, couldn’t help but try to analyze what it was about this particular passage that so violently – if temporarily – derailed an otherwise highly entertaining story.

The answer: the entire paragraph was encapsulated in parentheses.

A few years ago, I read a review on Every Day Fiction that really stuck with me. I truly wish I could remember who posted it, so I could give proper credit, but the review went something like this: “Whenever I see parentheses in fiction, it’s like the author is stepping out of the story to address the readers directly.” The truth of this statement hit me so hard, I immediately went through my own novel and started taking out the parentheses wherever I found them.

Ever since I read that review, that’s all I can think of when I come upon parentheses in fiction writing – it’s like the writer wanted to convey certain information, but couldn’t come up with any other way to tell the readers than whispering it right in their ears. In that instant, the voice changes from “narrator” to “author” and it really does take you out of the story, if only for a moment or two. The only exception I can think of is the case of first-person stories.

If you’re writing in the first person, then your POV character is already directly addressing the audience. So, it might feel natural, depending on the character’s personality and speaking style, for him/her to take the reader aside and whisper something in confidence. It might even be humorous:

“Paul actually flirted with me today. (Yes, that’s the same guy who took Katie to prom and then dumped her the next day via text message. And no, I most certainly did not flirt back.)”

But in most cases, parentheses are something to avoid when it comes to writing fiction. They change the voice, break the flow, and jar the reader.

So, now some of you are panicking, right? Because your fiction story does have parentheses, and you don’t know what to do about it.

It’s okay – just relax and take a deep breath. Unlike some issues, this one’s very easy to fix.

The first thing you need to do is determine whether the information inside the parentheses is even truly necessary to the story. (A lot of times, it isn’t.)

Ex:

“Billy leapt from the car and raced into the parking lot to greet his fellow Boy Scouts with high fives and fart jokes. The troop leader (Scott) and his two assistants (Maurice and Isaac) stood off to the side, smiling at the boys’ antics.”

Well, maybe Scott, Maurice and Isaac aren’t very important to the story. Heck, maybe this is their only appearance in the whole book. If so, do we really need to know their names? Why not just cut that info out entirely and change it to:

“Billy leapt from the car and raced into the parking lot to greet his fellow Boy Scouts with high fives and fart jokes. The troop leader and his two assistants stood off to the side, smiling at the boys’ antics.”

Reads a bit smoother, doesn’t it?

But, on the other hand, maybe those three dudes are important in your book. Maybe this is the first of many appearances by the trio. In that case, try simply off-setting the information with commas, rather than using the parentheses:

“Billy leapt from the car and raced into the parking lot to greet his fellow Boy Scouts with high fives and fart jokes. The troop leader, Scott, and his two assistants, Maurice and Isaac, stood off to the side, smiling at the boys’ antics.”

It’s still a bit awkward, but less so than when the parentheses were in there.

Em dashes are also good ways to set certain information apart without completely breaking the flow the way parentheses do. In many cases, em dashes and parentheses are interchangeable:

Instead of:

“Jake flopped onto the couch, crossing his feet (which smelled like decomposing skunks) right next to Maria’s head. She quickly fled, wrinkling her nose and fanning the air.”

Try:

“Jake flopped onto the couch, crossing his feet–which smelled like decomposing skunks–right next to Maria’s head. She quickly fled, wrinkling her nose and fanning the air.”

By working with the scene a little more, you could probably do an even better job of integrating the information:

“Jake flopped onto the couch, crossing his feet right next to Maria’s head. A stench like decomposing skunks instantly enveloped her. Maria squealed and fled, vigorously fanning the air.

‘Dude,’ she choked, ‘invest in some Odor Eaters.'”

So, when you come across parentheses in your fiction, and you feel like they just aren’t working, don’t panic – you can easily replace those curvy symbols with commas or em dashes, do a little paragraph restructuring, or even eliminate the text inside the parentheses entirely. All are acceptable solutions – it just comes down to taste and personal writing style. However you choose to deal with those pesky parentheses, the goal is always the same: a smooth reading experience for your audience.

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