Sunday, May 18, 2008

What Does Your Audience Want?

Do you know what your reader expects from you when he picks up your screenplay? Can you be unpredictable without being erratic? Can you be erratic without seeming accidental? Screenwriting lessons come from the most unlikely places. The latest? Don't laugh. Wrestling. Go right ahead and roll your eyes but there are real and effective object lessons in our everyday lives. All we have to do is watch audiences, not just in movie theatres, but wherever we go.

From east Texas to west, my camera and I follow my oldest boy every week as he pursues his dream to beat people up for a living. I marvel as men envy and women worship my baby dumpling. They reach out to touch him, scream in rapt pleasure when he brushes by, ask for his autograph, and beg him to pose for photos. All the while, I remember how fearless he was as a toddler only until there was a cricket in his shoe or a lizard in the bathtub. It's the same time-in-a-tornado mixture of pride and post adolescent nostalgia all parents endure as they realize their children no longer are.

This MAN's goal (yes, he is indeed a man and I choke as I say it) is to one day join the likes of Steve Austin, the Rock, and a bunch of other WWE'r's whose names I don't find interesting enough to bother recalling. I loathe wrestling. But, it's my son's dream, not mine, and he's doing an impressive job of chasing it down. No stage parent help. All I did was pay for his first gym membership eight years ago.

So what is this Odyssey of his teaching me about screenwriting?

Sure, the success of these wrestling extravaganzas which take place in only the finest warehouses, abandoned retail districts and ag barns across Texas are also dependent on clever marketing (bright colored poster board) but once the butts are in the seats and the cracks are sufficiently exposed, it's much like any other live entertainment. If the audience is bored, they don't come back.

In stage plays, the story and characters are the same performance after performance. No so in this combative form of entertainment. The dramatic storylines evolve week after week much like in a soap opera. The execution of that drama is in the form of drop kicks, body slams, and moves with all kinds of masculine catch phrases which, again, I don't bother to remember.

The circuits where the drama works well are the ones with clearly defined characters - good, bad, ambiguous - it doesn't matter as long as it's clear which ones are good, bad, and ambiguous. These people want you to paint it on their foreheads-- cheer for this guy, boo that one, and beware of Frank Poncherello. We don't know what's up with him. Having done that, it's easy to shock them later with a transformation or character flip.

The organizations that don't execute the drama very well are the ones that make audiences figure out things for themselves or they flip their characters from hero to heel and then hero again too fast and too soon. They can't decide on the dramatization or they perform inconsistent dramatizations. These shows are so unpredictable that shock value is diminished (non-existent) and audiences are forced to learn everything anew every single week. You can take Popeye's spinach away and cut Samson's hair but the audience won't give a rip unless they've come to appreciate the full import of spinach and hair.

What does your audience want?

The wrestling audience wants the adrenaline that comes from being surprised, enraged, enraptured, sympathetic, and horrified. They want to feel every human emotion you can possibly cram into one evening of leotards, speedos, and men dressed as Power Rangers. Any Sybil-like herky jerky characterizations leave audiences unsatisfied and their seats empty the next week.

Last night, my boy worked the opening of a new "arena". Aside from the giant dead fish on the gravel parking lot and the lady breast feeding on the front bleacher, it was an okay place. This audience had never seen any of the wrestlers before. Event runners did a brilliant job of guiding the audience and introducing the good, the bad, and the "oh my gosh, when did Ringo Starr start professional wrestling?". They didn't make the audience figure it out for themselves and they understood that dramatization and characterization are critical in this performance sport. Even if they didn't KNOW that's what they understood, that's what they understood.

Okay, so what have I learned about screenwriting and what do I hope to share with you from all this?

  1. Know your audience. You probably don't write for a wrestling audience but your audience has specific needs. Those who know their audience are working it. Those who don't are sinking.

  2. Clearly define your characters. If you don't, nobody will appreciate it when characters change.

  3. Story elements must be well established before they change. Otherwise, who cares?

  4. Dramatization must be consistent. Don't drop a storyline without resolving it first. The audience will hold it against you.

  5. Chase your dream. People who think it's silly probably don't have a dream of their own. All progress is good. Kiss your mother. She's your biggest fan even when she's not.

  6. If you need bizarre characters for your screenplay, attend a wrestling match and watch the audience. Bring tissue. There's probably no toilet paper or paper towels in the bathroom. Flick cayenne pepper at that brat who keeps kicking you and he'll spend the night rinsing his eyes out in the bathroom with no paper towels. Make sure you pee first.


Fun Joel said...

My comment seems to have been lost in the ether, so if this comes up twice, I apologize!

Nice post! So, which one is your boy? The one with "DS" on his shorts, or the one in the air with the skull on his?

Unk said...

I like it. Should be a great documentary just be SURE to get the flicking of the cayenne pepper in the little kid's eye.

I'd pay double to see that.


MaryAn Batchellor said...

Ah. Oversight on my part, Joel. My boy would be the DS flinging Mr. Skull pants.

Unk, It works particularly well if you get your fourteen year old to act like he flinging a booger.

Mark said...

Hello, just signing in - stripped of any previous guises and in need of advice.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Olaf? For real?

E.C. Henry said...

This is one of your all-time best posts, Maryan

Love how you go personal, provide your slant in a ceavive way, then bring out your the truth you're trying to teach. You do object lessons very well.

As far as "knowing who your audience is" I try to write things that entertain on multiple levels. You want to have a little something for everyone. LOVE the writers of the "Pirates of the Caribean" for that reason. Sure it's got fine action/adventure, but it's also got a lot of humor, a romance to consider, and the always facinating Jonny Depp to watch.

Arteests tend to want to have original story telling. To them plot is king. The more crude general public wants physical humor, and high stakes jeapardy. And they are willing to forgive story deficiencies IF you can captivate them in a couple capstone scenes.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

MaryAn Batchellor said...

You're right about Ted and Terry knowing their audience, E.C., and they demonstrate it to perfection in the Pirates films. They know that the Pirates audience are repeat viewers so these writers (1) don't dumb down to their Pirates audience and (2) write the Pirates films so that they are more surprising, intriguing, or amusing with each subsequent viewing.

mernitman said...

"I follow my oldest boy every week as he pursues his dream to beat people up for a living."

I know it's just your LIFE you're writing about here, but that line is freakin' brilliant.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

I thank you for the compliment. You can repeat it inside the cover of your book when I ask you to autograph it. And, not to get too philosophical on you, Billy, but wouldn't you agree that everything we write is a product of our lives in one way or another?

Unk said...

Yup. Even when they steal it.