> topics > Literature

‘Screenwriter style’: New viewer habits in digital age

YU HONGYING | 2019-03-14 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Scarlet Heart 2, the sequel to hit Chinese TV series Scarlet Heart, has multiple alternate endings that can be selected based on viewers’ reception.  Photo: FILE


Watching TV dramas and films “screenwriter style” is a buzz phrase on the internet. It represents young people’s pursuit of a fashionable media-viewing experience. However, it is not as simple and superficial as many other internet buzzwords. It indeed points to a new type of aesthetics in the internet era, which has rich and profound aesthetic implications and research value.


A panoramic perspective
Watching in screenwriter style first appeared in a microblog. According to the blogger, the term refers to a person who “doesn’t mind spoilers, or even proactively searches for plot summaries, so as to stay on top of the story and avoid the unexpected.” The post quickly received more than 10,000 thumbs-ups and forwards, with many internet users following the post, saying that this is exactly their own psychological state when watching films and TV series.

By combining the explanation of the blogger with the re-explanations of other internet users, the definition of watching in screenwriter style can be summarized as follows.

On the whole, watching in screenwriter style is a special film-viewing mentality that is opposite to a spoiler-rejecting mentality. In real-life scenarios, many people regard spoiling the plot as taboo when watching films and TV series. Before watching, they hope to avoid all information sources about the plot’s development.

In contrast, watching in screenwriter style welcomes spoilers. As some internet users put it, “Please tell me about the plot, if not, I might shake your neck till you spill it.” Others admit that they read the plot introduction every time before they actually watch a film. The concept extends to reading: “If it is a comic book, I study every character on Baidu encyclopedia first.”

For this audience segment, the purpose of spoilers is to understand the plot, relationships between characters, storyline and ending before watching, so as to make a better choice whether to watch it. If the plot or ending doesn’t go their way, they might just drop it.

For others, spoilers are also an aid in deciding whether to continue to watch, how much they will watch, and which plot they prefer. Some say that “the plot has been developed really slowly and is a waste of time, so I have to fast forward.” Some say “why bother to watch the ending if it would only frustrate me. I want to just stop wherever I want the story to end.”

It is also worth mentioning that some resort to spoilers to ease the tension created by the plot, especially for thrillers or other dramatic dramas. They confess that “I can’t get used to the tension in the story until I know the ending.”

In traditional aesthetics, people love to encounter unexpected twists and turns in plots, character actions, character relationships, and especially the ending of the story. Unlike this riddle-solving, passively-enjoying-the-surprise watching behavior, watching in screenwriter style refuses to let the screenwriters and directors take the lead and pursues the appreciation of details and actors’ performances with a panoramic picture in mind. These viewers can also have the fun of watching and teasing at the same time. It is an active viewing experience, with a bit of a sense of superiority.


Integration of producers, viewers
From the perspective of aesthetics, watching in screenwriter style can be defined as follows: In the digital and internet era, media-consumers stand in the position of scriptwriters in their appreciation of the aesthetics of film and TV. The concept’s core is the impact that the viewer’s status and vision can have on the viewing experience and ongoing production.

Strictly speaking, an aesthetic preference similar to watching in screenwriter style has already appeared in the writing and print age. For those classic plays that are repeatedly performed, it is quite normal for late-arriving audience members to get some explanations from the audience members who have watched the performance before. At the same time, in the writing and print age, the script itself became an important mode of literature. Audience members may already be readers of the script before entering the theater, especially for classic plays.

In the rise of digital media, not only can audiences read the script before watching the film, but film-watching is also no longer limited to public spaces such as the cinema and no longer a one-time deal. Rather, film-watching has been transferred to private spaces with the use of replication technology that enables arbitrary viewing choices such as repeatedly watching favorite parts.

However, in the pre-internet era, watching in screenwriter style did not provide a practical basis for academic research. The key point is that at that time, moviegoers could not obtain screenwriter-like status and could not create this screenwriter-like psychological condition.

After all, in the writing and print age, as well as the early digital era, literature and art activities adopted a linear production and transmission model, meaning that a few practitioners were in charge of production while the massive audience passively accepted it. There is a clear power relationship between the minority producer and the majority audience in terms of who dominates and who is being dominated, who preaches and who listens.

At that time, how to firmly take the lead, lure the audience into the design of the virtual scene and toward the predetermined end of the story, became the key to the success of the play. From that audience’s perspective, spoilers or not, they would still choose to enter the theater or cinema, so their purpose was not so much to obtain artistic enjoyment through a control similar to that held by screenwriters, directors and actors. In some degree, an aesthetics is generated from the audience’s admiration and respect toward the much smarter producers.

The internet has completely altered the landscape. A new type of information production communication, which is called producer-consumer integration by theorists, has been formed. The clear distinction between the producer and the viewer is blurred, and an obvious interactivity is on the rise.

In some experimental film and television productions, viewers can use digital technology to intervene or even change the text and ultimately achieve a strong producer-viewer interaction. In some popular film and television productions, there is a kind of weak interactive behavior, that is, moviegoers can use the network’s instant communication function to comment and send their requests to producers. Some producers may try to meet their wishes. Others may make appropriate adjustments to achieve a balance between artistic aspirations and the needs of moviegoers on the premise of adhering to the established plot arrangement. Some producers may take the opposite approach, designing relationships and plots in the opposite direction to create greater artistic tension.

Either way, it reflects the important influence of the viewers on the production. The old power structure relationship between the producer and the viewer has been broken, no matter the strength of the interaction. The biggest change is the unprecedented improvement of the status of viewers.

For viewers, whether or not they intentionally participate in and affect production, network convenience presents them with various channels to get spoilers and also the possibility to stand in the shoes of screenwriters.


Beyond reader-centered approach
The emergence of watching in screenwriter style has also, to some extent, challenged traditional reader theory. In the internet era, watching in screenwriter style has created a new type of viewer who goes beyond various reader theories, reminding researchers in the field to pay close attention to the behaviors of viewers in the network cultural context.

Since the second half of the 20th century, there has been a shift from text-centered theory to reader-centered theory in Western academics. No matter which kind of imaginary reader it is, they are not an individual reader of a real work, but a structural function of the text, which is a preset role. The hope is that real readers can understand and interpret the text according to the setting of this position and role.

It can be said that imaginary reader theory is only an extension of text theory and is not an independent reader theory. This is inseparable from the fact that it is difficult for readers’ practical activities to gain a truly independent status in the writing and print age.

The appearance of watching in screenwriter style indicates that viewers in reality have acquired relative independence. The reader is no longer a structural existence or a function of the text, but a practical behavior that viewers choose and dominate according to their own preference. It requires that reader theory step out of the shadow of text theory and that scholars study the theoretical value of this relatively independent aesthetics.


Yu Hongying is from the Qianjiang College at Hangzhou Normal University.

edited by YANG XUE