THE AUDIENCE APPROACH
Most writers tend to ignore their audience as they write. Bad mistake. Your audience is a vital participant in your script -- in the movie you want your script to become. And if you want your script to have an audience, eventually, then you had better factor them in when you write it!
The audience is a blank slate, with certain expectations going in: cultural expectations, which we can never know entirely; genre expectations, which it's your job to know; and, dramatic expectations -- a good story, well-told.
(Given that you are writing a script, you must also factor the reader into this equation -- but the reader is a audience member too. Just a very knowledgeable and suspicious one.)
Manipulating the audience (let's be real, that's what we're here to do) is a game with two main components: you will control the flow of information, and you will manage your audience's expectations.
Flow of Information
Again, the audience is a blank slate. Their minds are an empty stage. You will place characters one by one on this empty stage and make them do things. What you tell the audience, they will know. What you do not tell them they will not know. Therefore, you must tell them what you want them to know, when you want them to know it.
You control the flow of information at every level. You reveal things about the environment that no characters know. You reveal things about one character -- motives or agendas -- that other characters do not know. You reveal something that all characters know but one. Playing clued-in characters against clueless characters is the simple formula of all drama.
The audience is the most clueless character there is. The audience comes into the story knowing nothing. You must reveal information strategically, to maximize suspense, maintain tension, and hold audience interest, from first to last.
There are three main levels of audience knowledge: the audience knows more than a character, knows just as much, or knows less. Respectively, these are "audience superior", "audience equal", and "audience inferior". These operate script-wide, and on a scene-by-scene basis.
There are many examples, but let's consider the movie The Sting. In the poker game on the train, we see all three:
Superior: We know Gondorff is playing Lonnegan for a sucker. We know Lonnegan slips in a stacked deck. What we don't know is how these characters will deal with these situations -- that's where the fun is, that's what interests us.
Equal: We watch Lonnegan's encounter with Gondorff, not knowing how these men will react to each other, how they will interact on this, their first meeting. Identifying with each character, we know only as much about how their current interaction will unfold as they do.
Inferior: We don't know Gondorff has switched his cards until he puts them down on the table. We know he intends to cheat, but not that he's pulled a last minute fast one. That information is concealed from us, until the final brilliant reveal.
These three levels of knowledge work between characters as well. Characters are one another's audience, after all. Keep this in mind as you craft their interactions, and manage the flow of information between them, just as you do with your audience.
By manipulating the flow of information, you manage your audience's expectations. Given a certain amount of information, they will develop specific expectations about the outcome of any interaction, scene, or sequence. You will then satisfy or frustrate those expectations.
In The Sting, we're led to believe Salino is a man. Men as important as Lonnegan speak of Salino with respect. Men fear Salino, and get killed by Salino. A pair of gloved male hands tap a steering wheel in a car, watching Hooker. The same gloves turn off the light in an apartment overlooking Hooker & Loretta's bed on the night before the sting. This expectation is then frustrated, in masterly fashion, when the gloved man shoots the real Salino in the forehead.
We're kept audience inferior here, just as we are with Snyder and the FBI. Gondorff says they'll have to do something about Snyder, but we don't know what. We don't know Hooker's been informed and that he's in on it, and that the "FBI" are really fellow con-men, until the very end. In this way, The Sting plays a con on the audience too -- which involves the audience in a very personal and immediate way.
Just as with the flow of information, managing expectations goes scene-by-scene (we know Lonnegan has a stacked deck, and expect Gondorff to be surprised by this) or script-wide (we believe Salino is a man, but "he" turns out to be the oddly-nosed broad instead). Information and expectations ebb and flow throughout a script, according to rhythms you must learn and master.
The Audience Is A Character
As a deft and commanding writer, you'll manipulate the flow of information between clued-in and clueless characters, just as you will between these characters and your audience. Which reveals a very important fact:
The audience is a character in your script!
Just as characters are each other's audience -- the audience is just another character in your story! You use the same rules for character interaction as you do in interacting with your audience. It's all about information and expectation, the foundation of all storytelling -- and the foundation of an audience's involvement in, and enjoyment of, that story.
Writers spend a long time crafting their characters, but spend very little time considering the character of the watcher, the audience member. The audience is a vital character in your script, and the flow of information must be managed not only between all the characters onscreen, but between their story and the watcher in the dark.
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