A Screenwriting Trilemma

To complete the journey, the Hero often overcomes a dilemma.
I’ll show you – the screenwriter – a dilemma you may have never been aware of… Don’t fret: I’ll also show the way out, straight into a wondrous third act finale. The end of bad writing.

For a moment there, you really believed it was going to be that easy, right?

Of course there is no such thing as bad writing. What one person thinks is god-awful, the other may greenlight and put into production.

As a matter of fact, this happens all the time. Not two people think about a screenplay in exactly the same way.

So who do you have to please?

“The audience,” I hear you say.

True. But can you bring yourself to completely factor your tastes and beliefs out of the equation?

Would you honestly be able to write – day in day out – what you consider the worst, derivative, contrived horseshit, because that is what the audience wants?

Only a very few writers can.

So you may have to find a way of writing material that the audience likes and that you can live with, that you believe in.

That in itself sounds hard enough. But it gets even trickier.

Even if you are writing exactly what the audience would love to see and you are ecstatic about writing it … there’s still someone you are forgetting.

The reader.

This could be the producer, the agent, the director or the rookie intern reader.

And herein Lies the screenwriter’s trilemma.

You need to please not one, not two, but three .

In order to build a satisfying writing career, you need to be able to fulfill the expectations of:

  • the audience
  • the reader
  • yourself

This is getting pretty daunting because all three may have a slightly different approach. They may even have a totally different background, which will impact on the way they experience the story. Let’s face it: watching a movie is really not the same as reading 100 pages of Courier New print. And as to yourself: no-one has ever been to that place where all your story material comes from, except you. It all starts with abstract concepts and emotions inside your head.

As to the readers, you might hope that what they expect from a script is not entirely different from what an audience wants from the movie. Often, though, those readers – who form your first filter – are relatively inexperienced newbies. And that you cannot change.

So how do you navigate the tastes and expectations of these three diverse groups?

What if there actually were a strategy of pleasing all?

I think there is. Hear me out.

For the audience, the script really doesn’t matter. They will probably never get to see a screenplay in their lives. An audience focuses primarily on the story in the way it is told visually. This is all about the experience of anticipation, of emotions on the screen. Whether you’ve hand-written your screenplay on coasters or pressed it on buffalo skin, they don’t care.

For many readers, the focus is on a great reading experience. Suddenly, the coasters matter. If the story is okay, your writing style could make or break the deal. A 100% professionally presented screenplay with a story told in a tight, crisp, fast and fluid writing style, will impress. It will lure the reader into the story so much more easily than a badly photocopied script, containing a story written in a hard-to-digest literary style.

So what about you, the writer? What are your expectations about the screenplay?

For the beginning writer, the primary focus is often on the thematic values. It’s about the emotional connection to the story. Beginning writers often mis-interpret the importance of theme. They have something to say about their own life experience and want this to be not just in the subtext, but in the visible story as well. This is where the writer’s expectations end up in conflict with those of readers and audience. Keep the theme where it belongs  – in the characters’ Inner Journeys – and it will be so much easier to negotiate your way to a screenplay that pleases all parties involved.

Now have another look at the three paragraphs above. Can you see the emergence of a solution?

The three parties focus on different aspects of the story and script.

As a result, you can effectively satisfy each on a different level:

  • for the audience, you create an exciting Outer Journey that keeps the anticipation going.
  • for the reader, you create a brilliantly executed screenplay, in dialogue, formatting and style.
  • for yourself, you infuse the story with those values from your worldview that inspire you.


Of course there are crossovers: experienced readers will look at everything. They know what an audience responds to and how.

Audiences care about theme, too. Only they’re not aware of it.

I believe, however, that this strategy will help you in seeing clear for each draft who you are focusing on. Early drafts need to get plot and character in place. Later you may focus more on theme and finally you will polish the hell out of it.

Let me know in the comments how you have tried and succeeded (or not) to satisfy these three groups and what strategy you are using.

– Karel Segers

Karel Segers is a producer and script consultant who started in movies as a rights buyer for Europe’s largest pay TV group Canal+. Back then it was handy to speak 5 languages. Less so today in Australia.

Karel teaches, consults and lectures on screenwriting and the principles of storytelling to his 5-year old son Baxter and anyone who listens.

He is also the boss of this blog.

Creative Commons License photo credit: the prodigal untitled13

3 thoughts on “A Screenwriting Trilemma”

  1. What your passionate about, then apply the logic. Heart then mind. I think good research into the story also helps. Understand, habit and build the reality that will take the reader, producer away into another world, universe.

  2. As a new writer, I recognized myself immediately when you wrote, “[Beginning writers] have something to say about their own life experience and want this to be not just in the subtext, but in the visible story as well. ”

    It’s true. I’ve been forcing my characters through situations and putting them in locations merely to reflect my personal journey, which has made for a disjointed story arc. My only strategy to correcting this is to keep studying the craft of writing, practicing writing and letting friends read my script.


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