Monday, May 17, 2010

Script Readers are Detectives

By Julia Bergeron

I’m a detective. Actually, I’m a script consultant. Which is pretty much the same thing.

Okay, not exactly the same thing. But there are some similarities. 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.

As a reader, I’m like a detective in several ways. 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. So am I.

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? 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.

Let’s look at this in more detail.

As a reader, the first clue I have to your story is the title. Titles are a quick glimpse that tells us a lot. Is it a comedy? Is it a thriller? Hopefully the title gives the reader an indication. I know, I know. This sounds almost too simplistic, but titles set the stage. 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?

I know what you’re probably thinking. “Not another diatribe about formatting!” Okay, no. Not a diatribe. Just a word to the wise. Proper formatting is almost invisible. It’s true. Proper formatting allows the reader to focus on the story, while bad formatting calls attention to itself. Typos and formatting errors are like potholes. You can get past them, but it’s going to be a bumpy ride! Let your formatting be invisible so the reader can pay attention to the heart of your script – the story.

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 – any one of them could be the protagonist.

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.

This means, if the first person who speaks is not your protagonist, they should probably be important. That character has the reader’s full attention. So you might as well use that fact to introduce an important character and not a walk on.

Remember, the first characters I meet get my full attention. I automatically assume they are important.

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.

It’s much easier for a reader to identify the protagonist if the protagonist is not part of a cast of thousands. Again, it might sound simplistic but often we want to show the protagonist in action. And sometimes that means surrounding the protagonist with staff, helpers, a few henchmen, minions, whatever. If that’s the case with your script, try to make sure the protagonist stands out from the crowd. Give them a protagonist’s entrance or moment so the reader “gets” it right away. Help the reader solve the “who” early.

By making it clear early who the story is about, the reader can focus on finding out what your story is about. This is sometimes a little harder than it looks.

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 since I wouldn’t want to miss a clue as to what the story is about.

You see, 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. So, 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.

Here’s an example. Suppose you write a scene where a guy cleans his kitchen after a dinner party. Around ten p.m., he puts away all the food, sweeps, and loads the dishwasher. He carefully puts all the knives in the dishwasher with the tips facing down. All but one. One knife he places tip up. As a reader that knife is like a bright, shiny object to a monkey! It’s fascinating. It grabs my attention and holds it for the entire script. I am waiting for somebody to use that knife, or slice their hand on that knife. I am waiting for the knife to payoff.

But what if the writer only put that knife in the scene to demonstrate the character was not detail oriented? And there is no knife payoff, ever. Here’s me: “Sad. Sniff. No knife payoff? But I was sure...” No, actually, I was just a monkey distracted by an interesting detail. Don’t turn your reader into a distracted monkey by including fascinating details that don’t pay off.

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.

Let’s take the same scene above with the knife. Suppose this was a murder mystery and a crucial detail in that scene was that the food was put away at ten p.m. But, me, distracted as I was by the very interesting (and shiny!) knife, didn’t notice the time. I’m waiting for the knife to pay off but meanwhile the writer was trying to setup the time. I missed that important detail. So when the payoff for ten p.m. comes, it won’t have the punch it could have, because the setup was missed.

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.

That’s not to say you can’t include red herrings or take some poetic license here and there. You can and you should. But do know that it’s up to you to direct the reader’s attention and make sure you help them solve the “mystery” of your script.

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. And what’s even better is that unlike a detective, I don’t have to have a mustache.


Do come up with the best title you can.

Do grab the reader’s attention with a well thought out opening image.

Do introduce your protagonist to the reader right away. We want to know who the story is about, so let us know early.

Don’t overwhelm your reader with dozens of named characters in the first ten pages. I couldn’t remember everybody I met in college and I’m not better at names now.

Do use proper formatting.

Don’t overwhelm us with cool details that don’t move the story forward. Focus the reader’s attention where you want it – not where our own distractible brains might take us.

Do remember, most readers love stories. I know I do. Help us fall in love with yours by giving us the clues we need to “get” it and by giving us those clues as early as possible.

And most of all, do keep writing!

Ms. Bergeron is a script consultant with Script Savvy.
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  1. Yes, but why are some good readers expensive and others are fair nd affordable. What is the difference between a $75 coverage and a $250 coverage?
    When both notes are good and they are both good detectives.


  2. Hi Anonymous,

    I am so glad you brought this up. The thing is $75 coverage is not the same thing as a $250 consultation.

    Getting notes from a reader is usually (not always) a one-way conversation, while working with a consultant is a dialogue. Between notes, phone calls, and emails, I spend hours and hours with each client and/ or their script. We work together.

    Plus, one of my goals for the writers I work with is for them to improve as writers in general. Not just on their current script but on future scripts. So, that’s part of what I think makes working with somebody like me different. (And more expensive.) You get something very different.

    But both are very valuable tools for improving as writers. And there are lots of other ways to improve too: joining writers groups, taking classes a local college. It’s just a matter of figuring out what you need.

    I’d say, if you are getting excellent notes for $75, that’s awesome. I have gotten fantastic notes for free from other writers (usually in trade). And I’ve gotten terrible notes for $100 where I felt that the reader barely paid attention. So cost and value don’t necessarily go together. Getting good input is the bottom line.

    As long as you are happy with the quality of the feedback you are getting, and as long as you are improving and you keep writing (!) then that’s what counts.

    Best to you,

  3. "Don’t turn your reader into a distracted monkey by including fascinating details that don’t pay off."

    Ha. Great point.