Why Script Readers Are Story Detectives

Here is article by Julia Bergeron I thought I’d share with you.

You know why you’ve written a script, but does the reader? I’m a detective. Actually, I’m a script consultant. Which is pretty much the same thing. Knowing them has made me a better writer. I’m sharing them with you so you can help your first audience – the reader – “get” your screenplay quickly and easily.

A detective has to solve a mystery. So do I. A detective has to figure out the “who,” the “what” and the “why” of a crime. I have to figure out the “who,” the “what,” and the “why” of a script. The detective is curious, looking for the motivation, method and perpetrator of a crime.

When I get a script to read, I have no idea what story the writer is going to share with me. It’s a complete mystery. This means that as I read, I am looking for clues that will answer some fundamental questions.

Who is the story about? What is it about? What’s the genre? What is the central conflict. Where is the story going? As a reader, that is my mindset – figuring out the story. Knowing the reader’s mindset can shape decisions about when and how we introduce the protagonist. It can help us decide what pieces of information have to be setup early and what can wait. And what needs to be cut completely.

As a reader, the first clue I have to your story is the TITLE. Titles are a quick headline that tell us a lot. Is it a comedy? Is it a thriller? Hopefully the title gives the reader an indication. A title delivers information even before the reader opens the script. Deals have been made on the title alone. “Forty Year Old Virgin” anyone? A title can make a big difference in how quickly a reader “gets” your story. So create the best title you can.

The next clue is the look of the script on page one. Is it formatted correctly? Is there a nice balance of dialogue and action?

The next clue as to what your story is all about is the opening image. Many writers speed past this or give it very little thought. But when you watch a film, you can be sure the director thought long and hard about that first image. As writers, we have to put as much energy into that image as the production company will. For the reader, the opening image can help identify the genre, maybe the tone and sometimes the protagonist. It’s a hugely powerful moment and when it works well, it helps hook the reader right into your story. In just a few lines, they start to “get” it.

Naturally, one of the first things I want to know when I read a script is who the story is about – who is the protagonist? Until I know who the protagonist is, every named character is a suspect .

And even more specifically, in terms of identifying the protagonist, the first character who speaks is my prime suspect. Rightly or wrongly. And I keep my eye on that person. Protagonists should occupy the most screen time.

Another thing to bear in mind is that if you surround your protagonist with lots of other named characters, particularly in the first ten pages, it’s hard for a reader to keep track of them all and to separate the protagonist from the crowd.

Often as writers we are told to be lean and mean and that readers don’t like to read lots of details and action. This is partly true but maybe not for the reasons you might expect. When I read a screenplay, I pay close attention to every detail. Like a detective, I have to assume all the information is important.

I don’t know which detail is a setup, which is an important character trait, or what piece of information will payoff off at the end. To me, it’s all equally important. But obviously just like in any mystery, it isn’t actually all equally important. Some things are crucial, some are interesting and some are distractions. Some things like red herrings, are distracting on purpose. And some are distractions the story can do without.

The thing is, for most readers it is simply not possible to retain page after page of tremendous detail. Not that the details aren’t interesting, imaginative, or accurate. Often they are all those things. And that’s part of the problem. Details can be overwhelming. When that happens, the reader will automatically try to retain the details we think are most important. And we’re not always right.

This is why we are advised to be lean and mean and to include only what is necessary to move the story forward: because the reader is trying to sort out the important clues. Therefore when you only include the important information, you eliminate the possibility of the reader making a wrong choice and focusing on the wrong detail. They won’t be confused and “the what” will be much clearer, much earlier. So being lean and mean is a great tool to help your reader “get” your story.

Once I’ve gotten the genre, the who, and the what, I’m good to go. You’ve hooked me and I am ready for the ride. I love discovering where the story goes, seeing if the setups pay off and how, and seeing what outcome the author has in store for the protagonist.

I get to solve a mystery every time I open a new script. It’s fascinating and fun.


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