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Sunday, September 7, 2008

This is Your Brain on Script

I read an article in the New Yorker a couple of years ago - could have been five - time compresses when you get older, oddly - about cab drivers and brain scans. These scientists performed brain scans of cab drivers and found that a certain part of the brain - we'll call it the navigation-a-thalamus -is larger than those in normal people. And they found that when they measured the navigation-a-thalamus in new cab drivers, it was smaller than that of experienced ones. So in doing the same thing over and over, a certain part of the brain grew and became more powerful.

It's the same when you're a reader of scripts. A part of your brain gets really muscular. Which explains the odd head shapes you see so much of here in LA.

So who here saw RATATOUILLE? There's a scene in the movie in which our hero, Remy, looks at several letters and documents and certain key phrases float into focus, blurring out other, less important phrases and words. And in this way, little Remy is able to put together and understand an important plot point.

In the class I taught at the Great American Pitch Fest which was essentially an inside view of how readers do their jobs, I gave the class participants ten pages to read and timed the read for four minutes. That's 40 seconds per page. And that's a little generous. In reality, an experienced reader will spend about 30 seconds on each of your pages. And that RATATOUILLE thing happens; sluglines, action lines and lines of dialogue come into focus while others fade to the background. Because the reader's brain is trying to quickly line up information to get a grasp of what's important so that the information can later coalesce into a cohesive whole - your story. We all have a vast, information-gathering and interpreting super-computer atop our shoulders.

That's why dense action lines do you no good. You can write as little or as much as you want on the page but when it's read, about 30 seconds will be spent on that page. If your action lines are dense, my brain is scanning for the key words or phrases that help me understand what's going on. It's not conscious. There is an urban myth that readers consciously skim because we just don't give a damn. Untrue. It's the way the brain works.

Great example: we had a script in the Silver Screenwriting Competition which was written beautifully and was setting up, on page one, a small mid-western town that was past it's prime. The writer did an almost Malick-like description of ruts in the road and waving rows of corn and oil rainbows in the puddles. And it was gorgeous. But the reader was simply scanning for: small town. Midwest. Seen better days. She paused in her judging and said you know, this is great but not necessary.

In some ways it's like reading a book - you imagine the scene based on the words and that's part of the fun. But when you dictate every single aspect of the scene, I not only get bogged down in your details, you disallow me from just flowing along with the story and letting my own imagination fill in the details like the mud puddles after the rain.

Now dialogue - dialogue our brains can't skim; we need to read every line because that's where the plot is happening.

Everybody reads and evaluates information: directions, recipes, letters, instructions. When you're reading a script you're doing the same thing but what your brain is doing is actually pretty complicated: You're information gathering so you can follow the narrative, you're mentally bookmarking significant moments or details and then on another sub-level, you are analyzing theme, character arc and general entertainment levels of everything working together. A reader's brain on a CAT scan is probably a complicated field of fireworks.

Now - one of my mentors, Stephanie Palmer, teaches that the human brain can really only process three pieces of important information in sixty seconds. In this case, she talks about that in the context of pitching. I'm listening to you and my brain is trying very hard to HEAR those key points that coalesce into your story making sense.

Your brain is always working hard to gather and interpret information. A friend is telling you about his or her day. And your brain is working on so many levels in the moment of hearing the story. WHAT happened? HOW should I respond? What does this MEAN? HOW can I relate?

So your brain is actually hearing: blah blah blah MY BOSS blah blah DID THIS BAD THING blah blah blah I WENT TO A GUN STORE blah blah blah. Now, your friend might prattle on quickly, with a lot of dense thoughts but those three things are the ones you plucked out and ordered as being important.

Similarly, reader's brains are gathering, ordering and interpreting information very quickly.

On your page you should have about THREE things for me to absorb in order to not only follow your narrative but interpret your story:

Plot development
Character development
The dna of the premise and the theme

A great exercise is to take a page out of your script, get a highlighter and highlight those significant pieces of information. Highlight where your plot moves forward, highlight an example of character development and highlight what signifies the dna of your premise on the page. All of these components can show up in action or dialogue.

If your premise is: A man searches for his long lost sister in Peru only to find that she's been kidnapped by an eco-terrorist group bent on taking over the government, then the dna of that plot: man searching for sister - Peru - kidnapped by eco-terrorists - taking over the government - should show up, some way, some how on every page. Everything, every creative decision you make, should evidence your premise on every page. I should never read a page in which this dna is not present.

Because, to put it in more work-a-day terms, that is what the reader's brain is doing. It's scanning your pages trying to recognize and interpret what your premise is and then how, on every page, that is falling into a pattern that can be later interpreted. You know how the brain works - like a computer. So it sees "eco-terrorist" and instantly images and meaning flood into the brain. It sees "frat party" and the same thing happens.

So don't fear the reader (which needs more cowbell, honestly) but rather understand that setting aside their preferences, how their day has gone so far today, whether this is a competition script or a regular coverage - readers have a highly developed sense of ordering information and analyzing it for logic, resolution, complication, character development and overall entertainment. It's not personal - it's a brain activity. So when a reader reviews a script and by page 18 the brain is unable to coalesce this information into a shape which is in some way recognizable and satisfying - you're failing in your job as a writer.

Some say that scripts are like blueprints - true enough. If anyone knows anything about technical writing, even there, as I write the instructions for putting together your new Ikea cabinet, I need to write the instructions in such a way that you can follow easily and connect the dots. It has to be in some kind of order that your brain can interpret. Same with stories.

Turn your eyes away from the Rouge Wave right now. And write down the three words or phrases that float to the surface of your awareness. Do it.

I'll wait.

Now. What did you jot down?

The way brains work.
30 seconds a page.
Three things on every page.

Or maybe you jotted down a slightly different list, subject to your interpretation. Pretend that readers are students cramming for a test the night before. They are information gathering. What stands out? What seems important? If you had to put the script down right now, this minute, and pitch it, what would you say? What would you be ABLE to say? That's what happened during the judging process the other night.

Put yourself in a reader's shoes. It will help your own writing in a huge way. Inestimably, in fact.

Wavers know I am teaching a how-to reader correspondence course (sidebar). If you can do this, I think it has the potential to move your writing chops into a whole new realm. If you can't or don't want to do the homework necessary, get hold of some scripts and do the 30-second test. Then go back and highlight the pertinent information. Do it to your own scripts. Become familiar with the idea that every page should contain, ideally:

Plot development
Character development
The dna of the premise and the theme

For you argumentative types, yes, you can have a page with two of those three qualities but why be stingy? The best scripts have all three. Think about it.

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Dave Shepherd said...

I wonder why capitalization has fallen out of favor. If used properly, it makes the readers job incredibly easy.

For instance, The Dark Knight.

First page, capitalized words in order:

Bat Symbol
Clown Mask
Smoking Silenced Pistol
Cable Launcher
Kit Bag
EXT. High Rise
Dizzying Drop
EXT. Downtown Gotham
Clown Mask
Clown Masks


Sure, it's not beautiful, but you can read just those words and get a feel for what's going on.

You can skim the entire action line, grab the two or three capitalized words and figure out what's going on.

(The Dark Knight is a great read)

2nd2Nun said...

Great info. Thanks.

Anthony Peterson said...

Julie, really useful blog - thank you. Its the three "P"s of scriptwriting, Plot, Premise, and Person.

Christian M. Howell said...

Though provoking to say the least. I've been through reads and readers, table reads and group discussion and I've come to realize that audiences never see what analysts do.
I think they are great for "food for thought" but in the end I think writers should entertain themselves first.

I mean if you really want to be a writer you pay attention to works onscreen and what doesn't. WHich characters are "scene-stealers" and why so when all is said and done if you can giggle as a reader and are truly objective (you have horrible visions of failure a the thought of a scene or element) you will attract an audience. Objectivity is difficult until you realize that Aristotle was right and that this is a science first a craft second.

The science comes from static elements, the craft part is interaction of the elements to produce a "dramatic" effect. By dramatic I mean "conclusion of conflict."

In comedy it's the last punchline. In drama it's the last epiphany, in action it's the last confrontation. But these have to happen throughout which I guess will fulfill the 3 tenets you mentioned.

I think that's why contest winners are similar in scope as are the boffo movies and the flops.

Sensibility more so than subjectivity comes into play. Recognizable characterization, depth and plot define quality.
The beauty of cinema is that you can stretch boundaries and abstract emotional responses along with character traits.

Adoration of the sublime. My blessing and curse.

Matthew Grant said...

Oof. I'm 99% sure your example of the script with the dense action lines was mine. So, putting myself in a reader's shoes, the three words or phrases I will absorb from your post are: "written beautifully", "Malick-like", and "gorgeous". Thanks!

Seriously, thanks for the excellent criticism. I had always envisioned that montage to run during the opening credits and not take up a lot of screen time. But I can see now that it takes up a lot of space on the page and can distract a reader from the flow of the story. I'll see what I can do to trim it down.

Yoda said...

You know how the Universe feeds you the information you need most, right when you need it?

This was one of those posts for me.

Thank you.