Screenplay—Who’s Your Audience?

What a productive story session that was last night!  I had my weekly meeting at a local coffee shop with fellow writer Jeff Schnaufer that, as usual and appropriate, was focused on the screenplay he and I are collaborating on.  But because he had recently started reading my step outline quasi-treatment for Men of Gray III (the inspiration for MoG-Blog), we went off course on a 10-minute tangent to discuss the step outline for Men of Gray III.

The tangent—Who is the screenplay’s audience?

…and how does that knowledge of the who the intended reader is affect the way you write a screenplay compare to, say, how you would write the same story as a novel?  Because, while most literary forms are written to be read by the consumer, not so the screenplay.  I’d guess that more than 99.9% of those who saw the movie Titanic, for instance, probably have not read the screenplay, and probably never will.

So the audience for a screenplay is who, if not the viewing public?  I discuss that at length in this blog about The Princess Bride screenplay, so just the short answer here: the first draft is likely for a producer or investor.

And that was got us on our MOG3 tangent last night.  In Jeff’s notes to me about the step outline, he mentioned that he had sniffed out the suspected mole in lead character Joe Cameron’s drug squad in the first scene.  He was thinking it should be less obvious.

My question back to him: But how obtuse should the screenplay be about a character’s truth, considering that the target reader is a potential producer?  In other words—

How much do you reveal in a screenplay . . . and when?

While you may want a movie viewer to catch on to who the bad guys are, for example, at the moment you introduce them into the story, you might want the producer to know—to understand that this character or that character, though barely noticed here, becomes central to the story later on.  Because the producer is not just reading the screenplay as a story, but as a blueprint for making a movie.

Jeff disagreed on the grounds that, if there is a way for the writer to make the screenplay a compelling read without revealing to the producer that a significant story element or character is significant—effectively saying “so pay attention here”—then all the better.

I think Jeff’s point is valid.  Of course, I can also think of examples from William Goldman screenplays in which he literally tells the reader things to the extent of, “We don’t know who this is yet, but that’s okay, because we soon will.”  i.e., he is literally telling the reader what he wants the viewer to know or think at this point in the story.

And who am I to say that William Goldman’s style is invalid?

But the inspiring moment of the coffee shop discussion with Jeff last night was in the practical application of his—I still say valid—assertion.  In other words, while a Bill Goldman technique for calling out a characters significance will do, if a better way presents itself, take it. 

For the MOG3 screenplay, he felt that there is indeed no need to reveal this particular character’s truth early in the screenplay, because there’s a better way to do so later in the story.  When we analyzed why it was bugging Jeff that he knew a certain cop was the mole, it had more to do with the fact that:

  1. The action that tipped him off seemed extraneous, so it felt like a plant.
  2. It would be easy to be more subtle in the first scene by capitalizing on an opportunity in an upcoming scene to begin revealing the mole’s true character.

That, ultimately, was the motivational part of our talk—that the most minor of tweaks to an upcoming scene would let me easily reveal to the reader what the viewer will start to sniff out at the same time—that I can keep the police squad’s mole disguised in the opening moments without harming the producer’s or investor’s reading.

And so I shall.

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