Breaking the Script
People go through much of their lives on autopilot, and the programming for everyday life is in social scripts. These ever-present outlines for action are present in story too, though they make up the unwritten world between the lines of the narrative. These expected, and often overlooked, patterns of behavior enlighten creative work when this tool is explored and used to experiment. Consider the scripts observed by social scientists as the strongest weapon of subtle tone control.
Social scripts are the reason why people know what to do and say when someone comes to their front door, or why a patron knows what to day when they walk into a restaurant, or how to place a delivery order at a new pizza joint that opened up down the road. These are the unspoken behavior expectations of social interactions.
To take the pizza joint example:
- Customer calls the number given for the business.
- Business employee answers the phone, thanks the customer for calling, and asks how they can help, and waits for a response. (or puts the caller on hold for a few moments for better service)
- Customer states their intention, i.e. “I would like to place an order”
- Employee then asks a series of questions: “Will this be for pick up or delivery? What is your address? What can I get for you?”
- Customer describes their order in the terms from the menu from general to specific; “large pizza, light sauce, heavy cheese, pepperoni and onions”
- Employee then quotes them the price of their order, offers them either a deal on their order or offers to upsell a featured item.
- Customer either agrees or disagrees to the offer.
- Employee quotes them the price again, tells them the wait time, and asks if they can be of further service.
- Customer answers, indicates their order is finished
- Employee thanks the customer before hanging up.
There’s a whole other script for when this pizza arrives at the door, so this example is sufficient.
Social scripts aren’t inborn, they’re picked up and taught over time. Parents teach them, children learn by observation, and subtle social training/reinforcement instills them through experience. These scripts are dependent on several factors including culture, location, context, participant roles, and more. They’re not limited to human interactions either!
They most interesting thing is that these scripts are expected patterns of behavior. Those involved in the interaction are subconsciously aware of what should come next, and typically follow their part of the script loyally, with hardly a thought spared. This makes fundamental and routine actions of life run smoothly, allowing more time to process more novel things.
Why is this on a writing page?
Excellent question! Most of the time, when something like this pops up on this blog, the post talks about how to incorporate more of this element. In this case, it’s the opposite! Narrating day-to-day activities should only be done if there’s an exceptionally important reason. Scripts should only get attention if something has disrupted the natural flow of life, otherwise they should be quietly left to live between the lines and not in the readers’ sight.
Here are the times when telling the script is useful:
- A character doesn’t know the script. Clueless participation in daily scripts is often used to demonstrate a culture clash, or to introduce readers into an unfamiliar world.
- The characters involved have different scripts in mind. A sales call can go wrong when the seller wants to sell a service and the recipient wants a date to her sister’s wedding. Different goals are always fun. And how about receiving an award? Someone might think they’re getting it and stand up when it isn’t their name that’s called. Everyone knows what’s supposed to happen, and that isn’t it!
- The roles of the participants are unusual. There’s lots of room for irony (and often humor) in using scripts and playing with the roles. For example, a child often enacts a script seen acted out by adults, or a powerful person could be forced to act in the role of an underling. Another use of this is when characters are pretending to be something they’re not. Often a script, if it’s known, can help them pass undetected.
The script is used to hide tension. Remember that Italian tear-jerker shown in history class when covering the Holocaust? Life is Beautiful, though only subtitled, is a perfect example of using social scripts to cover a terrible truth with a lighter face. It’s a masterful use of dramatic irony as a loving and inventive Jewish father helps his young son survive a concentration camp by convincing him that it is actually a well-conceived game in which the prize is a real life tank. He steps in and masks the scripts of threat and suppression with ones that will keep his son from knowing real terror.
- The script is broken/interrupted. Think about a time when the bank teller suddenly messed up the sentences they use a hundred times a day, or the time the Chick-fil-a girl repeats back the lunch order wrong and gets super embarrassed. Breaking scripts can be accidental or marvelously intentional. Take the scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding when Toula sees Ian walk in front of the travel agency where she works. He deliberately breaks the script of that awkward situation by goofing around, and it’s charming!
- Multiple scripts are mentioned to show time passing. This is often the bulk of montage sequences. Just remember not to go into too much boring detail, and try to pull out some of the sensory details of the interactions (like the mouth-breathing of the grocery store clerk) to keep the readers engaged.
And here are times when telling the script slows down the narrative and loses many readers’ interest:
“The character is just so awesome, everyone will want to see them register at the DMV.” The only way anyone wants to walk through a mundane discussion is if it is anything but mundane. Say Batman has to register the Batpod. That would be funny, not boring. For any mundane script, the scene should also reveal something out of the ordinary, and contain a major plot point. Like an explosion. Explosions are fun. Blow up the boring place.
- “My world is so different, they have to see how someone orders lunch.” If this is necessary, incorporate the suggestions above of when it is appropriate. This is why so many main characters are new to the world. Without a companion for the reader who’s just as new as they are, these scripts are as tedious as they would be if this were in a normal setting.
- “I need something for my character to be doing while they’re thinking to themselves.” No. Scripts are a dialogue. Actual talk during the internal monologue distracts the reader from what’s being divulged. Instead, pick something they can be doing that doesn’t require them talking to people.
In summary, scripts are the normal story of life. Everyone lives it, and stories are told to get away from this banality. So unless these expectations are shattered, leave them to continue quietly on without narrating them. Not to worry, they’ll just keep going without attention. Skip to the interesting parts.
- Miniscripts: Short script segments.
- Family scripts: Patterns of behavior within kin groups.
- Life Scripts: Shaping life and lifestyle decisions.
- Personal behavioral scripts: My repeating patterns.
- “A schema is a mental structure we use to organize and simplify our knowledge of the world around us. We have schemas about ourselves, other people, mechanical devices, food, and in fact almost everything.”
- This is from a business perspective; social scripts govern customer service and heavy-traffic businesses
- Thin line between being efficient and being personal with customers; many sense the script and feel unimportant
- “cognitive ergonomics”
- Excellent bullet summary
- Social scripts are not in-born
- They are internalized through actions/interactions, and require a situation
- Some are simple, others complex
- Verbal and non verbal
- Not human-specific; animals have them too
- Not universal
- People internalize social scripts by observing and experiencing similar problems in natural situations in different cultural backgrounds