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The Art of Manipulating Your Screenplay Reader

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by Naomi in rewriting, screenwriting

Maybe this experience sounds familiar: You’re at a party or networking event, and you end up in conversation with a small circle of people. One person tells a little anecdote and something about it… just doesn’t land. They delivered the basics – who was there, what happened – but the story itself, the telling of it, was boring.

Then another person jumps in with their anecdote. The story’s not so different from the first, but this person somehow makes talking seem like dancing. Her story takes you by the hand and leads you along, never letting you get bored, but making sure to find the special moments so you can soak them in.

It’s a great trick, isn’t it? Being able to tell a story effectively, that is. And that’s really what the best screenplays do.

What these two types of storytellers demonstrate is that there’s more to entertaining an audience than laying out a series of plot events. Not all screenwriters are aware of this. When we’re just starting out and learning the craft, getting the basics right is challenge enough.

But when you’re ready to move to that next level of writing, to go from a readable screenplay to an entertaining one, it’s time to think about manipulating the audience. Not in a malicious way, of course. Manipulating the audience’s own curiosity and anticipation in order to create an entertaining experience.

Advancing the plot vs. living in the moment

Much of this comes down to controlling the flow of information. Knowing when to move forward and when to pause and live in the moment. If you deliver a bunch of detail that your audience doesn’t need, you’ll bore them. If you skip over details they do want or need, things you’ve primed them for, they’ll be unsatisfied.

There’s an improv game that highlights how the pace of a story is controlled by contracting and expanding on story details. It’s called Color/Advance, and here’s a quick description of the game:

A player tells an improvised story while another player listens. The second player can give two commands to prompt the first player: ‘advance’ or ‘color’.
 
“Color” means the storyteller should describe the people, place or emotion in the story. For example, “The sleek black Dodge Charger roared like powerful beast as it streaked down the highway.
 
“Advance” means that the storyteller should advance the action. For example: “She jumped in her car and drove as fast as she could to the campus.”

For example, a round of Color/Advance might go like this:

Player 1: So this morning I took my dog for a walk —

Player 2: Color!

Player 1: My street has been under construction for weeks, so it was more of an urban obstacle course, and you’re forced through a maze of traffic cones and caution tape —

Player 2: Advance!

Player 1: When we got home I realized I’d forgotten my house key.

Player 2: Advance!

Player 1: So I’m trying to open the window, because it’s the only way to get in —

Player 2: Color!

Player 1: But it’s a second floor window —

Player 2: Color!

Player 1: One of those cheap vinyl ones that constantly gets stuck. And it’s slick with overnight dew, so I’m getting really frustrated —

Player 2: Advance!

Player 1: In order to get enough leverage I have to climb to the outside of the balcony and lean over the side of the apartment building. And while I’m clinging to the second story, all of these tough construction guys stand there and watch like they’ve taken bets on if I’ll make it.

Player 2: Advance!

Player 1: I finally get the window open and manage to climb in. It wasn’t pretty. And now, every time I leave the apartment the whole construction crew yells at me, “Don’t forget your keys!” The end.

(Based on true events.)

It’s a fun game. Play it with your kids. Play it with your friends. It’ll get you thinking about different ways to advance the plot, and different ways to add color.

But how does this work in a screenplay?

And yes, the skills also translate to screenplay pages. The principles of “advance” and “color” play out in the choice of which scenes to include in order to tell the story (some cuts advance the story more than others). They also play out within individual scenes.

When you cut from your protagonist getting an urgent phone call, to the protagonist racing into the emergency room in search of his injured son, you’ve advanced the story without getting bogged down in the details (the color) of traveling from one location to the next. In another story that harrowing race across town might be included – maybe to create suspense, maybe there’s an important plot point that happens along the way, etc. But in your story, if telling us about the drive to the hospital doesn’t serve a vital purpose, then it makes sense to advance past it.

But what about the opposite – are there scenes that just add color?

Most mainstream movies are pretty diligent about moving the plot at all times. But training or makeover montages might be one example of adding color (while still advancing the story). Those montages give us detail on the process of transformation that gets the character from “unprepared” to “prepared.”

What about advance and color within scenes?

Something I see in a fair number of screenplays is skipping over important moments that are begging for “color”. Often writers do a great job of building up to a pivotal or meaningful moment, only to gloss right over the moment itself, treating it with no more attention than what comes before or after.

Important moments need to land, to breathe. They need a little spotlight. Otherwise their impact is diminished. And what does that mean? You’re not giving your audience maximum entertainment. We want to experience the important, pivotal, meaningful moments! Give them some color and let us live in them.

Knowing how to dance with the audience is an easily overlooked skill. As an audience, you probably only notice it when it’s lacking. When it’s done well, you’re just enjoying the experience.

But the next time you’re reading a screenplay, make note of how and when the writer delivers an experience through these techniques.

  • When do they advance the plot quickly, when do they draw out a moment?
  • What effect do they achieve?
  • And most importantly, are you entertained?

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