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What Are They Thinking?!

(It's in your control!)

ADVANCE YOUR STORY

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Do you know what your audience is thinking?

And do you ever think about that aspect of your job as a storyteller? To get inside the mind of your reader or audience, so you can deliver the experience you want them to have.

That’s right. You get to control both what’s actually happening in the story, and what we think is happening.

Is there a difference?

A lot of times, those two will be the same. You’ll show us what’s actually happening in the story, and you’ll do it through a protagonist who’s pursuing a goal. You’ll show us someone doing something. It’s both what’s actually happening, and what we think is happening. One and the same.

But sometimes you may not want us to know the truth. For one reason or another, you want us to experience something that requires concealing what’s actually happening. Maybe what the character is really after gives us a surprise twist later in the story. Or maybe revealing his true objective is part of the character’s arc, and you’re holding it back to build up to a moment of clarity or satisfaction for the audience.

Give the audience something

As Spider-man’s uncle (or was it Voltaire?) said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” As the writer, you get to control both what’s actually happening and what we think is happening. But that’s not just a cool job perk. The care and feeding of both of those beasts is a storyteller’s responsibility.

If you don’t want to show us what’s actually happening, it’s vital to put the focus on what we think is happening, and make sure there’s something there for us to track. It’s like giving the audience a cover story, while you’re secretly planning our surprise party.

If the audience doesn’t have something to track – usually someone pursuing a goal – they probably won’t keep going into your story, at least not for very long. Because to the audience, not knowing what’s happening or what we’re supposed to think is happening, just feels like confusion. And confusion leads to boredom and frustration, and then we give up and watch something else altogether.

But if you give us a decoy goal – something we think the protagonist is after – we’ll pay attention to that and go along for the ride, and then be as surprised or satisfied as you want us to be when you reveal the true goal.

A fine line between mystery and confusion

In some cases, you’re not so much offering a cover story as unspooling a mystery. The audience doesn’t think they know exactly what’s going on; they know there’s a mystery and they’re trying to figure it out – that’s the fun of it.

Where this can go wrong is crossing the line from mystery to confusion. If we have no idea what’s going on, we’re confused and we’ll likely check out. If we understand the parameters and we think we might be able to figure it out if we pay close enough attention, then we’ll lean in.

The audience is always trying to figure out what’s happening, what’s important, what should I be paying attention to? So if you’re leading us through a mystery, you’re playing with that awareness. You’re giving us certain pieces of information that allow us to form a Theory of the Case.

You may lead us in a completely wrong direction before revealing the truth, and that’s fine. But make sure to drop enough breadcrumbs along the way that we can follow at all. If we get totally lost, we’ll never get to that great reveal or payoff you have planned.

Get in there

Always remember you’re leading us through the story. We need to feel like you know where you’re going, and you’re deliberately taking us somewhere specific, even if you’re actually misleading us.

And to do that effectively, it’s important to step inside the audience’s brain, heart, eyes, etc. Think about what we’re thinking, feeling, and seeing, and make sure that’s delivering the experience you want us to have.

If you’re struggling to see the story from your audience’s point of view, here’s one way to get in their heads: ask! Enlist your beta readers. Ask them where they were confused.

More specifically, ask them if there were any places in the script where they felt like they didn’t know what was going on. Also ask how long that feeling lasted, when (if ever) it started to bother them (such that they wanted to check out), and when (if ever) that feeling went away.

And then use that information to fine-tune your storytelling, and to tell us a story. That means directing our attention where you want it, and playing with what we know and when, so you can make us feel what you want us to feel.

ADVANCE YOUR STORY

Write that screenplay - and make it great! Sign up to get a weekly dose of screenwriting info sent straight to your inbox, starting with my 15-page logline guide.

Subscribe