Screenwriters write both to express themselves and to emotionally stimulate an audience. Even if you write a screenplay that you never intend to show anyone, you still have an audience of one. Audience matters. They need to feel something to continue watching.
It’s vital to know your audience. Talk down to them and they’ll dismiss you. Talk up to them and they’ll mock you. Talk in a language they don’t understand and they’ll get confused and disengage.
Writing screenplays is an intricate dance between you, your characters and your audience. You need to keep all three elements in mind when writing your screenplay.
What Does Your Audience Know?
One of the biggest problems that screenwriters face is not keeping track of what their audience knows about your screenplays. This can be character backstory, plot progression or technical information.
For instance, consider a movie starring a pregnant woman. Ask these three questions:
- Do your characters know?
- Does your audience know?
- Should the audience know?
These might seem like academic questions, but they’re worthy of answers. Apart from avoiding confusing the audience, these answers affect the character dynamics in your story. They also help keep you, the screenwriter, on track.
Imagine you’re writing a movie about a rock band about to embark on a sold-out world tour. High Stakes. And it’s the lead singer who is pregnant. She starts vomiting in an early scene. She thinks it’s a sketchy burrito she ate at the truck stop and brushes it off. They keep driving on their tour bus.
Is your character lying to keep the tour on track, or is she genuinely unaware that she is pregnant? These questions send your story in two opposing trajectories.
Imagine if she received a text message from her healthcare clinic, but deleted it by mistake without reading it? But the audience read it as the clinician wrote it, so they know she’s pregnant.
See how rotating these dynamics create exciting story variations in your screenplay?
The key is SECRETS. Who keeps them? When are they revealed?
Your audience needs to travel emotionally with the story. They need to experience the peaks and troughs as they live vicariously experience your characters’ journeys.
The next issue is determining how to write expansive exposition in your screenplay. Do you drip feed it throughout your screenplay as required, or do you randomly dump it into the dialogue? This creative decision is yours to make as a screenwriter. However, vital information must be given BEFORE a corresponding plot point, so that it makes sense. There are some exceptions when you deliberately want to disorientate the audience and reveal the plot point at a later time. In the case of a mystery or thriller, CLUES are solved as late as possible, usually in the third act. Sometimes, a screenwriter can deliberately withhold information to send the audience into a state of freefall without ever revealing it.
Part of the artistry of screenwriting is that you don’t need to reveal story elements to your characters and your audience at the same time. This deliberate misalignment of information delivery creates tension and conflict in your screenplay.
Another point to discuss is deciding what exposition (especially backstory) is actually needed.
Going back to the previous example of our pregnant female singer, contemplate how information of her pregnancy is both concealed and revealed throughout your story. What are some typical scenes that depict the first trimester of pregnancy? Morning sickness, weird cravings, a pregnancy test and an ultrasound toward the end of the first trimester, come to mind.
How would she conceal her pregnancy? Devour comfort food in secret, stop drinking alcohol despite her reputation as a party girl, or she sleeps a whole lot more than usual and blames it on the rigors of touring.
If she didn’t know she was pregnant, think about what scenes would reveal this knowledge to her.
You decide what’s needed. Just don’t show our lead singer in the maternity ward giving a birth with no setup. Your audience will cry foul and throw popcorn at the screen.
The final aspect of keeping your audience in mind while writing your screenplay is guessing what technical or other external information they should reasonably know. You can assume most people know how to place a phone call or how to buy a bus ticket.
What happens if you’re writing a sports movie about football? Can you assume everyone knows what a touchdown is? Probably. But what about the little-known conversion safety rule, when a team can score one point? Unless your audience is comprised of professional footballers or super fans, you might need some dialogue to explain it to your audience. Perhaps the coach arguing with the umpire or two players conversing?
At the end of your film, your audience needs to feel satisfied. Every character must have duly earned their status at the conclusion. And it’s your job to do it.
One final note is a hybrid of all three categories. This applies when you’re building a complex technological, action or fantasy world. You may need to explain and reinforce the rules of your story world on several occasions to remind your audience.