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Notes from a Screenreader: Penn & Tellering

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Photo via Go Into the Story.

Here’s a great magic trick. A magician carries a dollhouse onstage and places it on a table. He says it’s a haunted dollhouse. Every time he takes the cloth away after barely an instant, the haunted dollhouse has produced a fire in the fireplace or a bloody doll massacre or a creepy steaming tea set. Then the poltergeist takes over—right in front of you.

Of course there are no levers or cables from the outside. It’s just a plain old dollhouse carried in from the wings, placed on an empty table, with no one underneath or behind it.

It’s a really easy trick, a literal child could do it, but if you know how it works when you see it, it’s no fun at all.

A spec script that makes a point of establishing all its facts before it starts on the drama is no fun either.

  • Be confident. Your showmanship is critical. Your style, your scenework, your presentation. How you set up to reveal. All showmanship.
  • Invent. If you’re going to saw a lady in half, don’t do it the same old way. Keep the reader guessing by proving you don’t already have another lady in the box who’s wearing the same shoes.
  • Withhold. Withholding facts turns mundane things into mysteries. Work hard to cover up the secrets in your script; show how they manifest before you explain them for maximum curiosity.

Front-loading your script with exposition is the same as revealing the very petite contortionist hidden in the dollhouse attic before you do the trick.

ANNIE LABARBA

Annie is a screenwriter, story consultant, and reader for major screenplay competitions.

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