S-E-X Tips For Screenwriters: Ticking Off Your Reader?

Dr. Paige Turner on a happy ending for you and your readerPaige pops by to present Pet Peeves readers proclaim particularly pesky.

 

Dear Doctor T,

I’ve got a good script. I’ve been entering it in contests and getting nowhere. No wins, no placing, not even a “show” to show for it.

I’ve shelled out big bucks for coverage and gotten a bunch of picky notes.

Readers seem impossible to please.

What gives?

Yours,

Peeved

 

Dearest P.O.’ed.

I love writers. Truly. I respect the challenges of the medium and admire the art of storytelling. There’s nothing more exciting to me than diving into a script to find a well-written screenplay and a story that envelops me.

Total turn on.

Rubbing Your reader The Wrong Way?

That said, you can drive your reader wild – but not in the good way.

Are you guilty of rubbing your reader the wrong way?

Specifying songs. What if the reader doesn’t recognize the song? First, it makes us feel kinda stupid. Do you want to evoke that reaction in your reader? And  it completely defeats the purpose if your goal is to convey something in the song choice – which, naturally, should be your goal. Your job is to communicate. When a song is integral to your script, specifying the tone and genre is your best bet. “A classic rock and roll song” or “country heartbreak ballad” speaks to everyone. Nope, not even including the lyrics will let you slide by with this one kiddo.

Using exact ages. Specifying an exact age for a character, unless it is essential to the story, undermines you by limiting our ability to visualize casting choices. An actor can be in his forties, but still play thirty-something; while 31 seems like a stretch. If your heroine’s goal is to find a husband before she turns 30, then of course, it’s essential to know that she’s 29. Character ages are best revealed through description, where we learn that they are a high school senior, in their 30s or 40s, middle aged, elderly, etc. (Ages listed in parentheses are particularly annoying.) (And distracting too.) Major exception to the rule – children. The difference between a 5-year-old and a 10-year-old is a million, so you must tell us the exact age of kid characters for us to understand them.

The Back and Forth. Nothing – I mean absolutely nothing – frustrates me more than a script that is so weakly written, that a few pages in, I must turn back to Page One to try to decipher who’s who, where we are or what’s going on. You may know your story up, down and sideways, but your job is to introduce the reader to the characters and draw us into the world you have created. Any time I have to flip back, I know I’m in for a bumpy ride and not looking forward to it.

Don’t talk to me. Description speaking directly to the reader is unsettling. Only to be used if you are conveying essential information about what we will see on the screen that cannot be communicated in any other manner.

Acceptable:

[NOTE: Spanish language dialogue appearing in italics will be subtitled on the screen.]

Unacceptable:

Paige appears cranky. Believe me, if you were trapped in a car with her stuck in traffic for an hour, you’d agree.

Don’t write self-referential description. You are drawing attention to yourself, but not in a good way. It’s a rare writer who can pull it off successfully:

Riggs smiles at him innocently. Strokes the collie’s fur with one hand. With the other, he reaches into a paper sack and produces a spanking new bottle of Jack Daniels, possibly the finest drink mankind has yet produced.

We readers see this enough to give it a label – writing that is “Shane Blackish.”

I have met Shane Black. You are not Shane Black.

So Peeved, maybe you’re not the only one who is annoyed. Ticking off your reader is the wrong way to get us hot and bothered about your script.

Give us a good read instead of a hard read, and we are both more likely to wind up with a happy ending.

Dr. Paige Turner

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