What is narrative clarity?

This is a post from my old blog but giving it a re-up here in case it’s of interest, talking about feature scripts but applies to TV, too.

Ah, the joys of script reading. Script after script after script, report after report after report. As soon as you get into the reading routine, you begin to yearn for engaging opening sequences, a simple set-up and/or a good flow. Even better, the protagonist and secondary characters are easily identified, and the premise is quickly established. You look for a script with narrative clarity, basically.

Yet, surprise surprise, a lot of scripts muddle their first thirty pages, never mind their first ten, so you’re left none the wiser about who’s who, what’s what and why a reader should give a damn. There’s a lot of talk about the first ten pages, and how important they are in engaging a reader’s interest, but the first thirty or forty pages are arguably more important as the reader settles down into the direction of your story, and is eager to find out what happens next rather than wondering what the hell is going on.

“Do you know what’s going on?”   “Nope, and I’ve read the script.”

So, putting aside the importance of the first ten pages, let’s look at the first thirty or forty pages instead. Or act one, if you prefer. The script has probably introduced the protagonist and secondary characters, and established the overall premise of the film. But as we move into page thirty and beyond, has the script developed a fixed momentum regarding the story’s main source of conflict? Or is it still setting up subplots or tying up the loose ends of the overall premise? Or, god forbid, the protagonist hasn’t emerged yet?

Imagine you’re in a cinema. You’ve just sat down to watch the latest release. The lights go down, the film begins. You begin to figure out who’s who and what’s what. However, after about twenty minutes in, you still haven’t settled in to the flow of the story. You shift in your seat. You struggle to follow what’s going on. Thirty or forty minutes in, and you have a slim interest in the characters or story (and that’s only ‘cos you’ve paid entry). The acting’s fine, the directing’s fine, it all looks good. But the story doesn’t excite or engage. It’s a bit slow and/or confusing. It lacks narrative clarity.

There is a downside to a script reader’s ‘easy read’ demands. It means stories end up being told the same way, only to make the reader or exec’s life easier. We get scripts boiled down to a ‘quest narrative’ so that the protagonist’s objective is clear, and spurs a neat course of action for act two. Generally, it’s all good advice but not all stories should be told this way. Some are more challenging or discerning, and demand a bit more time and attention from the reader. Ensemble pieces, multi-story strands, interweaving plots, a non-linear structure, that kind of thing. But readers actually LOVE all that stuff. If it’s done well. If it doesn’t push them too much. The problems occur when a reader has to flick back a few pages to check a character’s name, or to find out what’s going on, or remember who said what, or re-read a whole page to remind themselves about the plot.

Narrative clarity. Doesn’t matter if a story is complex and multi-stranded, it still should have a clear line of understanding and involvement, usually to do with the protagonist, their story goal and what conflict is in their way.

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