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  • Foto van schrijverIris Marsh

How to Use Parentheses In Your (Non)Fiction Writing

Parentheses are a type of punctuation that isn’t as frequently used but certainly has its place in your nonfiction or fiction writing. In this article, I’ll explain what parentheses are and when you can use them effectively.



How to use parentheses in your (non)fiction writing

What are parentheses?

Parentheses is the combination of the two round brackets: ( )

 

There should always be an opening and a closing bracket around the information. You can use them as alternatives to commas or em dashes, where the parentheses are the most interruptive.

 

Punctuation with parentheses

When you use parentheses, how you use punctuation and capitalization depends on whether what’s inside the brackets is a full sentence or a sentence fragment.

 

When the information within the parentheses is part of a sentence, the period comes after the closing bracket. The first letter within the parentheses is lower-case:

 

It was a dreary summer day when her vacation started (which was just her luck).

 

If the information is its own sentence, the period comes before the closing bracket, and the first word is capitalized.

 

It was a dreary summer day when her vacation started. (That was just her luck.)

 

When should you use parentheses?

 

In fiction

Parentheses aren’t often used in fiction. That’s probably because they’re not easy to use correctly.

 

Other than commas or em dashes, parentheses are interruptive within fiction. That doesn’t mean you can’t use parentheses, though. On the contrary; many writers do use them. Stephen King is probably the most famous author who uses parentheses quite a lot.

 

In general, you can use parentheses in fiction for the following purposes:

  • For a satirical comment

  • For flexibility in viewpoint

  • For conveying simultaneity.

 

Using parentheses is, thus, more common in novels using third-person or omniscient point of view. When the story focuses on the experience of a particular character, writers can use parentheses to add a satirical comment or give additional information that the current viewpoint character isn’t aware of.

 

For instance, in Stephen King’s Children of the Corn:

 

He stopped, looking directly into the corn. He found himself thinking (anything to untrack from those rags that were not rags) that it must have been a fantastically good growing season for corn.

 

Or:

 

A town in a state he had never been in before (although he had flown over it from time to time in United Airlines 747s) and somehow it felt all wrong but all right.

 

In those examples, the information within the parentheses is something extra; something added by the narrator talking directly to the reader.

 

A use of parentheses that isn’t as common is for conveying simultaneity. It’s a matter of personal preference whether you like to use it.

 

You can see this usage, for instance, in A Storm of Swords by G.R.R. Martin:

 

Then came some strolling pipers and clever dogs and sword swallowers with buttered peas, chopped nuts, and slivers of swan poached in a sauce of saffron and peaches. (“Not swan again,” Tyrion muttered, remembering his supper with his sister on the eve of battle.) A juggler kept a half-dozen swords and axes whirling through the air as skewers of blood sausages were brought sizzling to the tables, a juxtaposition that Tyrion thought passing clever, though not perhaps in the best taste.

 

Without the parentheses, we would read this passage in linear order. In other words, we would see the strolling pipers and clever dogs, and all the food. Then Tyrion would mutter and remember. And then the juggler would appear.

 

But with the parentheses, we can imagine these things happening simultaneously. As the pipers and dogs and food appear, Tyrion is muttering and remembering. Then a juggler comes.

 

Or from Stephen King:

 

While she picked at the knots (her face was set in a peculiar way—expressionless but tight-mouthed—that Burt remembered his mother wearing when she pulled the innards out of the Sunday chicken), Burt turned on the radio again.

 

This indicates that Burt is noticing her face and remembering something about his mother while Burt is turning on the radio.

 

In nonfiction

In nonfiction, parentheses are often used to add nonessential information to explain or clarify something. It’s a side note within a sentence. This information can be a single word, a fragment, or even multiple complete sentences.

 

For instance:

 

Regardless of the cause of your pain (hunching over a smartphone, sitting at a desk all day, or even injury), stretching and strengthening exercises can go a long way in your recovery.

 

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) causes an uncontrollable and uncomfortable urge to move one or both of your legs.

 

When shouldn’t you use parentheses?

It’s not a good idea to use it within dialogue. Here, it breaks the so-called “fourth wall.” In other words, it gives a sense of the character talking directly to the reader.

 

And it simply doesn’t make sense to have external narrator space within a character’s speech. If you want to make the interruption within brackets, you would do it outside of dialogue rather than within.

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