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 pace of your story, and is eager to find out what happens next rather than wondering what the hell is going on.
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.
A couple of recent viewing examples that made me think of narrative clarity were BBC3's new teen horror series 'Harper's Island', and an Italian mafia drama, 'Gomorrah' (on DVD). Harper's Island begins by introducing ALL of the main characters, establishing their key traits and relationships. It's a difficult task, especially as we're all-too-quick to pounce on an expositional line of dialogue and declare the writing rubbish. However, Harper's Island just about gets away with it. The exposition was pretty much OK, plus the first killing wasn't too far away and ensured a good pace/flow to the proceedings. You might have seen Harper's Island and thought it a load of rot, but if you're an aspiring writer, ask yourself: what would you have done in that opening sequence? How would you have started the story, and ensured that the characters and premise were quickly established? So far, the series seems like undemanding fun, a weird combo of a trashy soap and a slasher flick, with Ireland's own Elaine Cassidy leading the way.
Gomorrah, on the other hand, is a modern Italian mafia tale. Gritty and realistic, it follows an ensemble cast, from kids to drug kings, as they find their way in the mean streets of Naples. The acting's impressive, the directing's fine, it all looks good, but it lacks narrative clarity. Forty minutes in and we still don't know characters' names or the main thrust of the key characters' storylines (or at least, I didn't). It's hinted at here and there, and there are good moments but some interest is lost, and the story begins to disappoint. My criticisms here are based on the screen, not the script, so I'm unaware of the writer and director's approach (it is based on a book, though). Nevertheless, it's safe to say that it left me a little detached.
Narrative clarity. Doesn't matter if a story is complex and multi-stranded, it still should have a clear line of understanding and involvement. Check out the long opening sequence of The Godfather, and how the characters are set-up, and then (** SPOILER **) there's an assassination attempt (** END SPOILER **), and 'click': the story gels and unfolds beautifully. Julian Fellowes also does it well in Gosford Park (but of course, script coverage at the time said it was unfocused and confusing!).