Tips for Writers: Doctors, Detectives, and other Titled Characters

Writers are always being told to “Write for the Reader.” It means writing the script in a way that helps the Reader follow it and understand it. The Writer has lived with their story and their characters for weeks, months, maybe even years. The Reader is coming in cold. In one sitting, Readers have to keep track of all the characters which is required to follow the plot and understand the story and oftentimes also write a synopsis of the script.

Most characters are going to be referenced, both in Action/Description and in Dialogue, by their first name:  Bill, Mary, Antonio, Jim, Karen, Julio, David, etc. Some scripts have dozens of named characters and by the eighth or ninth character they start to get harder and harder to keep straight. Depending on the type of story and genre, some characters will have titles: Doctor, Detective, Chief, Pastor, Professor, etc. Adding their title is a great way to differentiate them. I’m always surprised by the number of scripts I read in which a character is a doctor, a detective, a chief of some kind, or a pastor, and yet the script doesn’t refer to them as such.

Let's say your story has a detective or two, a chief, a deputy, maybe some officers.  You've got a character named Jim Sanderson and he's a detective. Referring to Jim Sanderson as Det. Sanderson in the Action/Description and Character names will make it that much easier for the Reader to distinguish Jim from the other characters. And that will make it that much easier for the Reader to follow the plot. That doesn't mean that characters have to refer to each other in the Dialogue by their titles, only if it's organic to the scene.

Action Item for Writers: Go through your script, find the doctors, professors, and detectives, and add their character titles to the Action/Description and Character names where applicable.

What Story Analysts Do and Don't Do: The Interview

What do Story Analysts really do? The easiest answer, especially when meeting someone new, is to say "we read screenplays." That's part of the job. But it really depends on for what company or person we are doing the reading. I discussed that with Brianne Hogan of Creative Screenwriting magazine, who recently interviewed me for her "Meet the Reader" feature.

We talked about multi-tasking, writing exercises, and why writers need to think like writers. Check it out, along with the online magazine's other great resources.

Your Outline Is Your Road Map

You’ve got a great idea for a movie. You jot down a few notes, buy some screenwriting software, click around a bit, and you’re off! Soon you’re writing clever dialogue and exciting action. And then around page 67 or so things start to fizzle. You lose your way. It’s like hopping in the car and setting out to drive to new destination without consulting a road map. You’re blissfully driving down the freeway without realizing you’ve missed your exit. You take the next exit. You make a wrong turn.  Soon you’re on a dead-end street. That’s what writing a screenplay without an outline is like. It’s fun at first, but then you lose your way.

Your outline is your road map. It’s going to help you get where you need to go. Use your outline to work out the kinks. Where are you introducing your characters? Where is your inciting incident? Are the beats of the story progressing so your character is getting from points A to B to C, or are you missing B? Are you successfully setting up the climactic sequence? These issues are a lot easier to hammer out in outline form than in a 100+ page screenplay. Writing a good outline takes time and effort. But once you have a solid, workable outline, you can follow it like a map when you go to script. Realizing you need another clue for your protagonist to uncover to solve the murder mystery is easier on page seven of your outline than it is once you’ve gotten to the page 107 of your script.

As a Story Analyst I can often tell when a writer didn’t take the time and effort to write an outline. I can tell they didn’t consult the map and they got lost. It shows on the page. Sometime it shows up in the form of a timeline that doesn’t track, or a plot development that doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the story, or a twist ending that is not credible. So take the time to write the outline. Consult the road map. It will get you where you need to go.