10 Screenwriting Lessons for the Aspiring Data Author

The art of data communication is in its infancy. Fortunately we can learn from other forms. Photography, cartoons, literature, painting, poetry, graphic design -- these are all about using language (visual, aural, written, etc.) to capture attention, convey information and ideas, and move an audience in some way. (In fact, helping organizations understand the power of data communication was the goal of our book Data Fluency.)

When I came across John August’s blog post about how to write a scene, I saw parallels with dashboard and visualization design. John is an accomplished screenwriter (Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Frankenweenie) and popular blogger and podcaster.

His first piece of guidance: “What needs to happen in this scene? ...The question is not, “What could happen?” or “What should happen?” It is only, “What needs to happen?”

This is the critical concept in all of information design. It isn't a question of what data can you show, it is a question of what data you need to show. How do you need to propel your users forward in their role? Give your audience data that they can use to be better at what they do.

Next, he asks the screenwriter: “What’s the worst that would happen if this scene were omitted?...One thing you learn after a few produced movies is that anything that can be cut will be cut, so put your best material into moments that will absolutely be there when it’s done."

Like a movie audience, your audience has a limited attention span (unfortunately the data presentation business has fewer built-in constraints than the movie business). What data can you remove from the report that won't leave decision-makers misguided or confused? In our work, we always ask: What action is someone going to take when they see this data? If there isn't a clear answer, then leaving it out will help the reader focus on things that are more important.

John emphasizes the importance of choosing your setting..."A father-and-son bonding moment at a slaughter house will play differently than the same dialogue at a lawn bowling tournament."

It is no different for considering how information is presented to your audience. Information designers may overlook the different ways for presenting and wrapping context around the data. A daily email report, a printed slide deck, or an interactive dashboard will have very different impacts on your target audience.

"What’s the most surprising thing that could happen in the scene?"

In other words, what options do you have for grabbing the attention of the your audience? Great data visualizations do this by making data emotionally resonant. A couple good examples include The Fallen of WWII and US Gun Deaths (both grim data stories). In a more mundane example, we designed a data app that showed the costs of training programs in hospitals. By putting a dollar figure on this everyday investment, we were able to capture attention in a new way.

"Is this a long scene or a short scene?"

Edit yourself, show less data, and say more. We all have experienced the scourge of the neverending powerpoint deck or Excel report with endless sheets. Extraneous content comes at a high cost.

"Brainstorm three different ways it could begin."

Dashboards seldom consider a beginning or an end. But your audience will, one way or another, find a starting point and explore data in a sequence. Will you help them with this path? I believe it is crucial to offer an obvious place to begin and useful end-points. It is a feature we've baked into the fundamental design of our Juicebox platform

"Play it on the screen in your head."

I love this advice as applied to information design. Imagine your visualizations with different amounts of data, different values, different results and insights. Pretty soon you'll find the weaknesses. This is my first critique of the pretty dashboards designed on Dribbble. The data will never look so pretty as this in real life and the design will become incomprehensible.

Finally, John ends with advice on the writing process: 1. Outline; 2. Write the full scene; 3. Repeat 200 times. He wants screenwriters to start with the bones of the story, fill in the flesh, then iterate — without fear of tearing the whole thing down if it isn’t working.

Every form of communication has its challenges. Films face constraints and audience expectations, and yet have creative breadth in what can be put on the screen. Communicating data also has an interesting challenge for data authors. It takes a rigorous, analytical mind to understand the data and its meaning, but also requires the artistic skills of a screenwriter. It is a rare combination that needs to be taught and cultivated. If you don’t fit in the slim overlap of this Venn diagram, there is more to learn.