WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: Engage a Reader – Answer Before Question

Stewart Farquhar explores multiple literary devices for building your story world to create curiosity and better engage a script reader.


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Stewart Farquhar explores multiple literary devices for building your story world to create curiosity and better engage a script reader.

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When scribes provide answers before questions, often ahead of any curiosity, in the rush to involve the audience (reader) in a story, they create an occult barrier. Most times these same writers dump that data before a reader has time to develop an interest in the subject, condition or character. These writers have just squandered an opportunity to engage with that audience. Or, worse, to invite them into a new world.

At some time or another, in our desire to fascinate, engage and entice we are all guilty of violating the maxim of show vs. tell. What is even more of a faux pas is the desire of several novice writers to dump all the story at once without any respect for creation of curiosity. We provide answers before the reader formulates the question. This approach serves to cut the reader out of the creative process and thus out of your story.


Writing to Engage the Reader


Other than a measured release of appropriate information, there are literary devices that exist in the art of storytelling to create this curiosity. For example:

Red Herring: Merriam-Webster offers this definition:

Something that distracts attention from the real issue.

MacGuffin: The term coined by the English screenwriter Angus MacPhail and popularized by Alfred Hitchcock in the early 1930s, according to Merriam-Webster is:

An object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance.

Foreshadow: Which again Merriam-Webster defines as:

To represent, indicate, or typify beforehand: prefigure. 

What does this mean?

When you set up your story environment, it’s essential to involve the reader. Scribes do this when they build a web of curiosity.

A Red Herring originated in The Old English Hunt. In order to distract or confuse the hunting dogs, a salted and smoked herring was drawn across the trail. The preservation process turned the fish a deep red and caused it to emit a strong pungent odor. The dogs were confused and chose to follow what they thought was a smelly treat.

Regardless of the true etymology, today, in a literary sense, a red herring is a seemingly plausible, yet in the end, nothing more than a diversionary tactic to intentionally or, in some cases, unintentionally mislead the audience.

It is little more than a false trail, bogus clues or meaningless events that are many times employed in procedural, mystery or comedy stories.

It is a metaphor for deception. A red herring is just one diversionary device in a writer’s tool box.


Script Secrets: You Own Devices


A MacGuffin, of which the most cited and famous is the statuette in the Maltese Falcon. It’s spoken about long before it appears 10 minutes before the credits. It keeps the audience wondering and thinking.

Hitchcock is famous for the use of a MacGuffin in his thrillers. In Wikipedia there’s a quote attributed to Hitchcock from his lecture at Columbia University in New York.

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, ‘What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?’ And the other answers, ‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin.’ The first one asks, ‘What’s a MacGuffin?’ ‘Well,’ the other man says, ‘it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ The first man says, ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ and the other one answers, ‘Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!’ So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all. – Wikipedia

Some MacGuffin examples are the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, the silent plane engine (military secret) in The 39 Steps, the letters of transit in Casablanca or Rosebud in Citizen Kane.

All of these serve as objects to advance the plot by the creation of curiosity. It is a plot device that serves as a trigger for the plot.

In fiction, a MacGuffin is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or another motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. – Wikipedia.

To Foreshadow in story is to introduce an element that will be explained or used later. Little hints left behind to intimate at what will happen. When a writer foreshadows events it prevents a Scene Of Convenience (SOC) or a Deus Ex Machina (DEM), whereby a skill, tool, device or solution just appears out of thin air, without justification, validation or explanation.

The function of foreshadowing is to create anticipation in the reader’s mind about what is about to happen or what will happen at some later point in the story. It is a subtle hint, usually provided three times, in which the scribe entices the reader to ask why, usually after the second appearance. Within a short time the writer then answers with some kind of reveal.

When characters do something or go somewhere that is not part of their established usual behavior for them, the audience has no choice but to ask why. Even if all the behavior does is peak their curiosity, they engage.

Each clue is subtle, so the reader discovers each of them, rather than has them spelled out.

For example, as a character walks through a kitchen in search of the source of late night noise, she passes a knife block that now has a knife missing. The audience sees what’s missing, the character does not. Earlier all the knives were in place.


Cautionary Advice for Writers


What’s missing in today’s scripts is the engagement of the audience in a sense of mutual or audience-centric discovery. Many of today’s movies are the same story remade with a different costume, lead character’s gender or location. Gone is any significant audience involvement.

We are now subjected to an endless stream of nauseous Pablum that requires only vicarious angst. Cerebral entertainment and intellectual engagement take a back seat to instantaneous gratification and mass market lowest common denominator video game pandering.

A major part of a successful story is not everything all at once. It is story evolution with cerebral involvement and delayed gratification. Raise, then later answer questions.

Wham, Bam. Thank you ma’am scripts, are for the trash heap along with their ilk, dethroned Hollywood moguls.

I encourage and challenge you to discover ways to engage your audience in the adventure of story.

More articles by Stewart Farquhar

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