Think Like Your Audience
One of the more frequent questions I get about being a script reader is some variation of, "What is the most common mistake you see developing writers making over and over?" I've got lots of responses to that question. But recently, as I read a script for a consulting client, I saw that he one of the bigger problems with his screenplay was indicative of a larger problem that I see much too frequently.
The screenplay was a satirical thriller with more than its share of reversals and plot twists. Characters regularly turned out to be anything but what they first seemed to be. And then later, they might actually turn out to have been yet a third thing.
Sounds like a pretty good thing, right? Keep the audience on their toes, and guessing what is going to happen next. What could be bad?
In this case, a lot. While the reversals were interesting and exciting at first, the audience never got more actual information as the film progressed about what was, in fact, real. What makes mysteries engaging is that they do just that -- they engage the audience. When a film holds back certain details and facts from an audience, it is generally in order to keep the audience guessing what will happen next. But the best such screenplays will carefully dole out bits of information along the way, so that the audience can actively participate in figuring out what is happening. Or at least to keep them guessing about what might be happening.
By not actually feeding the audience any further information along the way, the screenwriter in this case was not engaging his audience. He was "performing" for his audience, pulling literary sleight of hand. You thought the character was over here, but in fact she was inside the hat, with the rabbit! Ta da!
He compounded his problems with a different flaw. The film's central character was a young man whose parents are murdered in the beginning. Through the rest of the film, he is trying to figure out what happened to them. Or maybe he isn't. He may have actually set up their murder in order to make money and get out from under their meddling oversight. Is he a nice guy victim or a cold-blooded criminal?
Now, while having a complex character is a good thing, and while we might want to be kept guessing about his true nature, the way the screenplay set things up, we don't have a rooting interest one way or the other. We (as an audience) aren't sure if we want him to succeed or fail, nor are we even sure what success or failure would actually look like in this case.
To my mind, both of these flaws stem from the same overall mistake, and it is this mistake that I want to highlight in this post.
The screenwriter was so absorbed in using the tools and skills available to him as a screenwriter, employing them to trick his audience, that he neglected to think about how those tricks would be perceived by his audience. In other words, he was thinking like a writer, not thinking like an audience!
Do audiences love to have the rug pulled out from under them? No question! But at the same time, they want to feel satisfied afterwards, not like they just had the wool pulled over their eyes. I love Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner as an extremely twisty film that constantly keeps me guessing, and which pays those twists off at the climax quite effectively. On the other hand, I absolutely hated Fincher/Brancato/Ferris' The Game. I know a lot of people liked that film and will disagree with me, but I felt there was no real point to the tricks. Nothing was as it seemed, but I came out of the film feeling cheated by the filmmakers, rather than thrilled and satisfied. The reversals were little more than a gimmick, to my viewpoint.
Being a screenwriter is not just about staying in our own little worlds, putting words on a page, and creating art for its own sake. Screenplays are blueprints for finished works in another medium -- words that are purely designed to be turned into pictures. And those pictures are specifically meant to connect with large groups of people.
So to a certain degree, when we write screenplays, we need to meet certain audience expectations. This doesn't mean we should be predictable. Just the opposite. Audiences expect to be surprised, and we meet those expectations by presenting the unexpected. (How are those for reversals?) But they also expect that the surprises that we give them will have a purpose, and not simply be examples of us fooling them for the sake of fooling them.
Movies should also give audiences something to root for, or want to happen. Different types of films will deliver or thwart those hopes to varying degrees, and those are all acceptable. But what isn't acceptable is not giving them anything to hope for at all. If an audience doesn't something to happen, they won't care what happens one way or the other.
So, bottom line? Think like your audience as you write. How will the images and scenes you create be perceived by those who will eventually watch them on the screen? How conscious you are of these perceptions is almost directly correlative with -- and is certainly indicative of -- how skilled a screenwriter you have become.