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WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: Adapt-A-Phobia Part 2

At Various times in our lives we all suffer from some sort of Adapt-A-Phobia. Today, information flies at us so fast we are overwhelmed with the data.

Stewart Farquhar holds Screenwriting and Advanced Screenwriting certificates from the Professional Program at The UCLA School of Theatre Film and Television. Stewart has analyzed over 4,000 scripts for private and studio clients. Follow Stewart on Twitter @stewartfarquhar.

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In Part 1 of this series on Adapt-A-Phobia I suggested that due to technology changes:

  • Our brains are being rewired
  • We are experiencing a subtle metamorphosis

Brain evolution is not a new human experience. It has happened for at least the last six millennia as technology changed.

Tablet - Stanford

Tablet - Stanford

One of the earliest transliterations of “spoken language” other than numbers is the cuneiform writing developed around 3,500 to 3,000 years BCE. Before that, it is believed that oral traditions, cave art, pictographs or simple ideograms were used.

Neuroscientists now understand that writing is a physical activity which requires visual, language and motor neurons to adapt. Brains during the dawn of writing had to adjust in order to understand how to universally represent in some graphic form what was uttered.

Writing represents what someone coded on a surface. It started as a visual representation of what a person said in such a way that others could understand it.

As modern humankind has evolved over the last six thousand plus years many humans / humanoids were left behind due to Adapt-A-Phobia. Just ask the Sumerians, Ancient Egyptians, Mayans and their peers. In those early civilizations only a select few were trained in or granted access to the skill(s), text(s), or style(s).

Knowledge was power. A fact still true today.

Data-Brain - Forbes

Data-Brain - Forbes

As writers of all forms progress to a digital only paradigm we face an ongoing challenge. How to understand the way information is processed when it is observed on a display vs. viewed on paper. Mastering this understanding is the key to a writer’s success.

All forms of “data” continually flood our senses in a variety of ways from a multitude of sources.

We are entering the era of three major types of reader/user.

  • The Traditional
  • The Transitional
  • The Digital

A Traditional is from paper only. A Transitional is a mix, a Digital is primarily from a screen.

I am a Transitional.

A personal example:

I write everything longhand with paper and pencil first. I then do several edits on paper followed by a first cut in the computer with more additions / subtractions / adjustments both on a print-out and on screen. Even then something may still be missed.

I try to visualize the finished article. Although some aspects are retained, neither the longhand nor computer version retains the same layout after it is entered into WordPress for publication.

The act of using a pencil and paper provides more time for me to visualize the “story.” I’m comfortable allowing my mind to wander as I develop my thoughts. Whereas, at the computer I feel compelled to finish then move on. This need is a holdover from my graduate studies when a researcher had to book time days in advance on a main frame computer terminal. No PCs.

My creative style works well for me. Yours may differ.

Even today I struggle to provide the same reading attention to an onscreen script or novel as I did to a “hard copy” manuscript. Subsequently it takes me slightly longer to read on screen than on paper. Speed reading techniques are not the same.

There is an abundance of research beyond the scope of this article that has, as far back as the mid-sixties, examined the pros and cons of paper vs. screen. I’m sure a similar discussion occurred during the clay tablet, to papyrus, to paper eras.

The results of this research are problematic for current screenwriting methodology.

Digital Eye Strain - Google

Digital Eye Strain - Google

Today, for a variety of physiological and psychological reasons, screen reading is perceived as slower, less accurate and more tiresome. The studies are inconclusive for those who grew up with a digital device as the only means to read and study.

From a writer’s point of view one of the major differences today is the length of the “onscreen page.” Depending on screen size, orientation and font, that page can be as much as fifty percent shorter. In most cases it is no longer an 11 inch page.

The net effect is your screenplay / novel just became up to twice as long.

In newspaper parlance, we now have to entice the reader to read “below the fold” (to the bottom of the standard pdf 8.5 x 11 inch page) to continue the story.

Support from science aside, if you are a Traditional or Transitional you have probably experienced some degree of eye strain, distraction or mind drift when you read from a display vs. from paper.

Think of a professional reader glued to a screen all day. What keeps them glued to your pages?

My contention in Adapt-A-Phobia Part 1 was that a new style of writing for the video screen must evolve. We no longer use a typewriter and an 8.5 x 11 inch sheet of paper. Today we view text on a variety of devices, and in a variety of fonts and sizes. Old paradigms must evolve.

This is not a science paper or abstract so I have not included footnotes or citations, I include just some of the salient research. Contact me at The Readers for citations. Visualization research by others has demonstrated three major schools of thought on how a left to right reader views a web/screen based page. (Think first part of your script’s first page.)

Major Reading Patterns

  • The “F” pattern principally for text only based pages
  • The “Z” pattern primarily for text with pictures
  • The “Gutenberg Diagram” which is essentially from upper left to lower right.

Screenwriters or novelists, who create text only “pages,” need only be concerned with the “F” Pattern. With need to pay special attention to what is at the bottom of each “screen page.”


With the “F” pattern a reader scans the headline (think script first line). After the first line s/he skims down the left side of the screen page or dialogue to the next “Headline” (think stand-out writing), which should occur midway down the page as an inducement to continue.

Just like on each of the first 5 standard paper pages something of interest on the bottom right will prod the reader to continue.

The eye has a tendency to linger longer in the bottom right, so make what’s there motivating.

Create a question as to what is coming next. A reader must be given a reason to scroll down.


Aggregate Heatmap of Multiple Screen Pages

Aggregate heatmap visualizations research results by others, in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s demonstrates that screen based readers don’t actually read a screen. They scan. Separate research showed this behavior to be true, although to a much lesser degree, on paper.

This means the script reading process becomes a scan vs. read exercise. All readers have unconsciously used some form of this “technique” to evaluate scripts and novels on paper for a long time. Now with a smaller screen page, the need for strong storytelling skills is more acute.

Most writers have not considered how a script is reviewed on this smaller page.

This brings us back to “the fold.” What is above the fold will garner the most attention. What is below receives less consideration unless there is a valid inducement to go there

As demonstrated in the above heatmap diagram, now a reader may have to scroll several shorter pages on screen vs. flip 8.5 x 11 inch paper pages. The tactile feedback of a script / manuscript in hand is gone. More work. Shorter attention span.

True, a reader can reduce or enlarge the onscreen image then adjust the optimal distance to the display. A standard courier 12pt on an 8.5 in. x 11 in. exists only if what’s displayed on the reader’s screen size equals the original page size.

Unfortunately, this introduces subtle body and eye stress.

Exceptions exist. However, reading and creating reports all day from a digital display eventually wears on the attention span due to this subtle total body fatigue.

While reading from a screen, it is no longer possible to sit back and occasionally change position in order to read page after page from material in hand.

For today’s writers this means, that in order to grab and hold a reader’s attention, the first line and an enticing page structure is now more important than ever before.

For a digital only reader, how you structure the first page is imperative. Writers must invest in an inviting style, language and story to captivate the reader. If not, the material devolves into a reason to skim then toss.

Why this need to adjust? You don’t know where the current reader is in the “rewiring process.”

More “How To” in Part 3.

Get more advice on writing a great spec in Paul Chitlik's book
Rewrite: A Step-by-Step Guide to Strengthening Structure, Characters and Drama