Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Do We See What You Think We See?

OK, the title isn’t actually a riddle. It’s a question you should ask yourself whenever you review a scene you’ve written. And I think I can simplify today’s blog with this equation:

Reader = Viewer

Yes, the first person we have to impress is a professional reader – a manager, an agent, a producer, etc. But a script is a written template where the ultimate “end user” is a viewer. When you write your scripts, try to remember that you really need to be writing for both.

Too often, I read scripts where the professional reader and the viewing audience don’t know the same information. While there are definitely instances where this is unavoidable, generally speaking, you should think of a reader as a viewer and make sure they know the same facts.

There are a few specific instances where I see this problem develop. In the first example, the viewing audience actually knows more than the professional reader. In the other examples, it’s the reader who gets to know more than the viewer.

Think about the experience of sitting through a movie. Generally, before a word is spoken, you see an image. You see characters in a room, and you get a feel for that room. Oftentimes, as I read a script, the writer hasn’t created an accurate visual for me right after a header. So I start reading a scene unaware of what I should be picturing as the events unfold.

Here’s an example:


John deals two cards face-up to Mark and then two face-down to himself. Mark’s cards are a 10 and a five.

OK. Winner gets to take Megan to prom, right?


John peeks at his cards without showing Mark. John shakes his head.

Mark takes a deep breath – looks down at his cards.

Hit me.

John tosses him a card. It’s a six.

Oh, yeah - 21. Megan’s going to prom with me. Me. Not you!

Hold on.

John turns over his cards - a four and a three.

He takes another card. A nine.

Come on – gimme a five.

He turns the next card. A 10. He grimaces.

Oh, yeah. You busted. Megan is all mine.

Megan punches Mark in the arm.

I didn’t agree to any of this.

Whoa! Where’d Megan come from? The entire tone of the scene changes with Megan in the room as the boys gamble for a date with her.

I’ve read a lot of scenes where events unfold like this. Megan was in the room the whole time – I just “forgot” to mention her presence before I needed her to do something. And the scene lost some of its bite and became confusing because of that omission.

A lot of writers only mention characters if they’re about to speak or physically do something. But it’s the writer’s job to make sure that what a viewer would see on screen is always on the page. The first line after the header should have been:

Megan watches as John and Mark play cards.

It’s vital to know that Megan is in the room. When I review a three-page scene and suddenly realize halfway through that a character has been in the room all along, I often have to go back and read the scene again.

Well, that’s OK if you make me read a scene twice. But if you lose a professional reader – one who’s reading your script and considering gambling money on it – you may not get that second chance. So be sure that what you write on the page is really everything you picture on the screen.

The next example is the exact opposite – writers often tell a reader something that they’ve forgotten to tell a viewer. Sometimes, it’s as simple as writing this character introduction:

SALLY, 28 and Mary’s sister, enters the room.

The reader now knows that Mary and Sally are sisters. But the writer still hasn’t told the viewer.

I’ve read scripts where, after an introduction like this, no one mentions that these two women are siblings for half the script. Then, suddenly, on page 50, Mary is yelling at Sally for stealing Dad’s money. A viewer would be caught completely off-guard by the sudden revelation that these two women are related. And, all along, the writer really thought the viewer knew because it was right there in the description back on page one. But it never made it onto the screen, so the viewer is now totally lost.

When I write a character description, I try to only write physical attributes that would be on the screen once the role was cast or character traits that would be helpful to the actor or actress playing the part. I try not to write other details in the character introduction – such as what someone does for a living or if they’re someone’s child or spouse or sibling. By skipping this information in the description, I’m forced to tell it in some expository manner that a reader and a viewer would understand.

I don’t just see these omissions with character introductions. I also see them with headers. Sometimes, a writer overwrites a header and gives us too many details. But that vital information fails to make it on the screen. That’s a part of the reason why you should keep your headers nice and simple. (For more information on writing headers, take a look at the previous blogs.)

That’s it for this week. As always, if you have any questions, you can post comments here, e-mail me at elisa@readerready.com or join my Reader Ready page on facebook.

Have fun writing!


  1. Good stuff.
    Imformative and pushing me to improve on my scripts.

  2. Would you identify characters as related to let the casting director know to cast two actors who look similar?

  3. Personally, I'd probably say they have similar features or bear a resemblance to each other, but I would say how they were specifically related - sisters/cousins/etc. - in exposition if it was important for an audience to know.

  4. Always good to review. All things considered, I'd rather still pay you to do it for me. You're the best.

  5. Bill, that's quite a compliment. Thank you!