Down the garden path or a stroll in the park?

If you follow me on Twitter, then you'll know that my current writing project is a TV script based on one of my murder mystery plays. I'm accustomed to writing scripts for the stage and had assumed that writing a script for television would be, well, the same. How wrong I was.

When writing a theatre script, I provide dialogue, setting and basic stage directions (entrances, exits, the occasional onstage move). I like to leave the interpretation of the script down to the director and actor. Over the years, I've stopped adding comments to dialogue like 'nervously' or 'sheepishly' and now leave that decision down to the theatre group involved.

When I started reading through TV scripts and writing my own, however, I quickly became aware that the story is told very differently. Whereas with one of my theatre scripts I supply the skeleton and perhaps some muscle, it is the actor who fleshes out the role and provides the heart. With a television script, however, I have to lead the viewer through my story, choosing not only settings but also how these are viewed. For instance, my TV script begins with one of the main characters at a will reading. If I was writing this for stage, I'd begin in the solicitor's office. We might see our character being shown in to meet with the solicitors or perhaps they'd all already be seated. In my TV script, I begin with an external shot of a busy high street lined with impressive, modern buildings. Our character is among the crowd. We then zoom in on the front door of a building which our character enters and on the glass doors we see the name of the solicitors firm. Our next shot is an internal setting, a boardroom, where the solicitors wait for our character to arrive. I lead the viewer through my character's journey to the will reading. I also have the chance to name the solicitors without dialogue.

This got me thinking about how we lead our readers or viewers through the stories we tell. Looking at the novel I'm writing, I don't start at the beginning of my main character's adventure. I first take the reader to a point seven years in the past where we meet one of the other characters, Isabelle. What happens in this chapter, the healing of a dying man, quickly informs the reader of the genre of my novel but also provides a history for Isabelle, her daughter and the man who comes to their rescue. When our main character meets them later, in his present, we already know them and understand at least some of their motivation.

How do you lead your reader through your story? Is it a leisurely stroll in the park like Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs Dalloway, weaving between the present and the past to finally bring us to rest somewhere comfortable if rather melancholy? Is it a mountain climb, exciting and torturous, bringing fresh realisations with each chapter like John Twelve Hawks' Traveller trilogy? Or is it a warren of journeys that overlap, meet, part, leading us deeper and deeper into the story like Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife?

How do you lead your reader through your story?


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