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The Gospel According to The Reader

We are gathered here today to bathe in the light of The Revelation of script readers’ terms and what they really mean. We The Readers are but seraphim in the heavenly production process and no one really listens to us anyway, but we *may* permit you through the Pearly Gates of options and deals or leave you outside to be devoured by the ravages of Time and perhaps Satan, who will let his evil hounds pick over your skeletal remains. Praise be to the Lords of Screenwriting (Lawrence Kasdan, Bill Martell, Danny Stack and all you other unsung Gods and Goddesses!):

SHOW IT, DON’T TELL IT: You’ve used 5 pages of dialogue with characters seated in one room? Characters chatting about “stuff” does not reveal character or push the story forward, it just makes a Reader want to strike you down with a bolt of lightning, or at least singe your butt with it. Ditto that for long speeches or hysterical and/or supposedly evil admissions of guilt: “I’m about to kill you now because…” ARGH. We don’t live in Scooby Doo Land people, honest.

REVEAL CHARACTER: Saying what a character is wearing does not reveal character, it just does the costume peeps’ job for them. Same for mentioning every single item in a room. Do you need all of it? Screenwriting is a series of judicious choices, “summing up” the sense of a room, place or person is always wiser than telling us every last detail. If nothing else, it means less work for YOU, the writer. This could mean another latte, walk in the park or roll in the hay for you Mortals instead of slaving over the PC. Think about it.

PUSH THE STORY FORWARD: What’s the focus of every scene? You don’t know what this particular scene’s is? How does it fit in with your character’s journey? You don’t know? Then it’s not pushing the story forward Scribo brothers and sisters. Lead us not into temptation of writing scenes with no focus, aaaaahhhhh… wait! I haven’t finished!

EXTRANEOUS INFORMATION ACCESSIBLE ONLY TO THE READER: Are you using visuals, or writing a novel? The latter can only be appreciated by a Reader, not an audience. Similarly, if a character does NOT do something (like the scene description fave of “ignoring someone”!), how are we supposed to see this in terms of visuals? Let us all worship The ArchBishop of Red Pen.

DIRECTING FROM THE PAGE: Oh Brother, why are you telling us how this character speaks without it referring directly to the plot? Oh Sister, does it matter how the character stands, what she does with her hands, or how she smokes her cigarette? Join us in The Cult of Scene Description of Vagueness and Ambiguity, where you suggest stuff in the hope that directors and actors may grab your material and think it’s their idea instead. Hallelujah.

OVERUSE OF PARENTHETICALS: So…what is this parenthetical for? Oh, right, how the actor says the line? Right, right. SEE ABOVE and then report to Purgatory. Paretheticals are ONLY for the most ambiguous of lines and/or to signify an accent or a different language. Never for (laughs), (sneers) etc, or actions like (checks his watch). NEVER! Thunderbolts and lightning, very very frightening…

NO CLEAR IMAGE (NCI): Remember: what you see is what you get, so if someone is “unconvinced”, “madly in love”, “undeterred”, “nonchalant”, “sceptical” and/or “resentful”, then HOW DO WE KNOW THIS? Every Screenwriting Mortal must render actions as images, for again, in this script malarkey what you see is what you get. How about: “John raises a sceptical, unconvinced, nonchalant etc eyebrow”? But please don’t raise too many eyebrows, fold too many arms, stir too many coffees, do too many high-fives or shake too many heads, that doesn’t do it for us Readers either and we will still send your script to Hades (otherwise known as the “Out” tray).

IMPLIED NARRATOR: The Reader is the all-seeing eye and resents being reminded THIS IS A MOVIE, so any mentions of “We see/hear/follow/etc” is to be avoided in case of hysterical tantrums and loss of faith. The same goes for references to cameras and multiple shots. You want to ascend, right??

AVOID THE PRESENT CONTINUOUS: We’re getting tense people, really tense… Why write “is” and “ing” when you can write less words in the present simple?? It’s all about economy of words after all – plus we Readers need to get our seraphim wings refeathered at the end of the week, c’mon. And thou shalt never mix tenses (especially the past simple and present continuous) or die trying under the hooves of The Horsemen of The Writing Apocalypse (and it’s coming baby!).

THOU SHALT KILL THE ADVERB: Whilst the “ly” word is very handy in normal life and I daresay for novel writing, shopping lists and other forms of creative writing, it is the enemy of The Mortal Screenwriter. Smite it down where you see it, only then may you triumph over its powerful brand of evil.

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22 thoughts on “The Gospel According to The Reader”

  1. Have you ever thought you may be suffering from delusions of grandeur? I can take you on a journey into your psyche… But first you must send me all your money.

  2. OK Oli, you asked for it >; )

    1) Omigod, William! I’m so sorry… Pls don’t smite me…

    2) Scooby Doo is great, as long as it all stays WITHIN Scooby Doo Land – no evil monologues in your spec, pls if it’s NOT a cartoon!

    3) i) I am of The Christopher Lockhart “2 Adverbs” Skool as in, “This spec better have just 2 effing adverbs!” Some *could* be in there, it adds to it, like Jane says… However, I would say very few spec writers know when to use those “useful” adverbs.

    ii) Parentheticals as Jane describes again *can* be good – but how many good ones do you think I read (and actually, the answer is not “none”)? Plus specs are different, so different, to commissioned pieces.

    iii) The operative words of THIS are “once your script is great, there’s nothing wrong with playing just a little bit like this. Lightly, lightly.”

    Treat your spec script like a lasagne. You could go fancy from the start and burn it. Or you could

  3. P.S. Praise be to Jane and all female script readers/writers everywhere and may Oli develop boils in intimate places for trying to pit us against each other, amen. A thousand locusts descend on Cornwall.

  4. Yes I’m thinking perhaps that wasn’t the best way to describe it, Anya. Perhaps it should be:


    I’d say my original version was less clunky, but actually… It isn’t.

  5. As Lucy can attest, I’m sometimes guilty of NCI, and will persist in past tense lapses amid present tense dialogue. Bad scribe, bad!

  6. I would never “out” my clients or PO3s without their permission David, but since you did it yourself… ; )


  7. I read a few newer writing tomes and they say that putting actions in the parantheticals is more acceptable now, and recommended to keep that action going

  8. I’m guilty of doing the present continuous thing, but have tried to stop it. Apart from anything else, it takes up too much space.

    Anyway, I also disagree about adverbs. I’ve never understood the hatred towards them, when used properly they can finetune a line quite nicely. And I use “we see” or “we hear” loads, as long as the entire script isn’t written in a narrative form, I don’t see anything wrong with those either.

    I also split infinitives ON PURPOSE, just because I can. Yeah. I am h@rdc0re.

  9. MQ – I’m SO betting those books are American! ; ) A good parenthetical CAN work, but the real issue here is “overuse”. Some scripts have parentheticals on every single line of dialogue. I’m not even joking. Some have parentheticals three or even four lines long themselves. This is why some Readers hate ’em.

    James – “when used properly” (as you say) adverbs can work, but again, it’s that overuse problem again. Many specs employ adverbs far too much and this lessens impact. A well-placed adverb can be brill; one there for the sake of it is directing from the page.

    As for “We see…” I don’t really care (though don’t we “see” everything?), but seen it provoke such hostile reactions I would never recommend a spec client try it. All you need is a Reader with a bad day and whammo, you *could* be in the out tray. I don’t think it’s worth risking.

    Anyway, now you’re a proper grown up Scribe, you can do what you want – yay! You can be the UK equivalent of Shane Black and writers all over the internet can battle about format using your name: “James Moran does it!” >: )

  10. Dear Heavenly Majesty, whilst I think your blog is a veritable font of screenwriter wisdom…

    This bit:-NO CLEAR IMAGE – “nonchalant”, – HOW DO WE KNOW THIS?

    I know I’m a mere newbie..but..
    I don’t geddit!? :- nonchalant:
    adjective coolly unconcerned, indifferent, or unexcited; casual

    I know it’s breaking your other commandment on adverbs but in my Red Planet winning script ( I should be so lucky if…) I currently have :

    He nonchalantly ignores security cameras

    Is this not a visual image of a cocky crook?
    Please advise, your Wondrousness
    (P.S. I get the rest of it!)

  11. Hey Sheikspear, chill. If that’s the ONLY thing in your script that breaks the supposed “rules” you’ll get away with it. Plus one of the Readers of the first round is Danny Stack and he’s pretty laid back as far as I’m aware.

    However, in order to get past those certain NAZI readers out there (and they are out there), they might say that you are referencing a character’s thought patterns by calling him “nonchalant” – they want it as an actual image so we are left in no doubt, especially since we’re supposed to get the fact that he’s NOT doing something (like ignoring security cameras).

    So – what image could you have for someone “nonchalant” who is “ignoring security cameras”? How about:

    THROUGH THE CCTV: Jones’ face peers into the lens. He smirks.

    In the bank – Jones saunters past the security cameras.

    I’m sure you can do much better than me, but doing it this or a similar way a)shows he knows about the CCTV with visuals and b) shows he couldn’t care less about them. Hope that helps.

  12. Hard to know out of context Sheiky, but I’d go for option A on the basis of what does a “dismissal” look like? Also, do you need that adverb?

    Man, I need to get out more… ; )

  13. Welcome, tho only 48 words a min… I was the laughing stock of my secretarial certificate class :(Hey… Maybe this is why I am one twisted wench now??)

  14. I’m sure I’ve done all of these at one time or another, so it’s nice to be reminded that I won’t get into heaven! (None of my friends will be there, anyway.)

  15. I solved that problem long ago.

    Instead of sending in scripts I drop off a video that tells the story through interpretive dance, involving dogs on a trampoline that are in desperate need of a bowel movement!

    Odd that a lot of prod cos have started changing their phone numbers of late…

  16. Stu – the devil has all the best music they say, so there will be no decent discos, so I’m with you.

    GD – scarily, I believe you.

    Chip – I’m guilty of ALL of those things I reckon, tho especially NCI; when I was at uni in the first year, all my feedback came back with THIS IS NOT A NOVEL scrawled in red all over it!

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