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In my Crime/Mystery/Drama screenplay, there’s a seemingly random doodle at the bottom of a mysterious note. The random doodle looks like a three eyed stick man with a hat. It is drawn with only lines and curves.

Later - it is revealed that this is not a random doodle. It’s Chinese (written vertically) and an important clue.

Is there a way describe this in my script - other than the way I have above?

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Since this is a script, not a novel or a story, go ahead and describe it from a functional standpoint when it first appears:

In the bottom right corner is the Chinese character for "danger", but scrawled in such a way that it looks more like a child's stick figure.

That description is for the director and/or whoever else reads the scripts; it isn't available either to the characters or the final audience. When writing scripts you have to keep in mind you have two audiences, the filmmakers and the final audience. Their needs and wants are different, as is what they will have in front of them.

You generally want to provide the info necessary to film the script as you go along. You should assume that whoever is reading the script is playing it out as a movie in their minds. They don't need (or want) to know exactly what a given element looks like, but they do need to know its function in the plot. Similarly, you don't need to outline your forthcoming plot twists, but you do need to give a usable description of what's actually onscreen.

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A script is not supposed to contain images, so you can't include one. Use the description you have, without revealing it is Chinese, and later reveal the source.

Anybody considering your screenplay is going to read 100% of it ten times before they commit any resources [other than their reading time] to it, so NOT revealing it immediately will not be an issue.

If and when the script is produced, the director will know the nature of the writing and get an artist (and perhaps native chinese writer) to produce the drawing correctly in the early scene.

The problem I see with this plot line is that anybody that reads Chinese (like four of my personal friends) will know immediately what the writing is on screen, and that may ruin the movie for them. Or for people like me (I don't speak, read or write Chinese), I might find it ludicrously implausible that none of the main characters are world-savvy enough to recognize your 'puzzling symbol' as Chinese (or at least oriental) writing for half an hour of screen time!

You might be better off making it a more obscure pictorial writing. (I know there are others, I don't recall their names, but you could do some research.)

Added: You could look into Dongba Symbols for the Naxi language, an independent development of script from Chinese characters. It is written left to right (like ours) but if written top to bottom a reader would still understand it, just as we understand vertical English text. This is unknown enough to not be recognized by most Chinese, I would think.

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  • Okay thanks for the advice! I’m writing a TV pilot script. And this “puzzle” is only going to be a puzzle for 3 minutes or so on screen. Plus, the person that drew the symbols on the note intentionally drew it to be deceptive. They drew it in an obscure way so that one person in particular would know what it meant and so it would be less obvious to others. – Marcus Meier Nov 19 '17 at 22:00
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    Then whoever realizes it is a Chinese script should inform others of that, in dialogue. "This is very poorly written, it looks like my two year old first learning to write. But it is Chinese..." – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Nov 19 '17 at 22:18
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    I don't think this is good scriptwriting advice. It's ok to withhold information in a script, but not information about what is onscreen at any given moment. – Chris Sunami Nov 20 '17 at 19:56
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    Regarding the problem mentioned in the answer: it might be possible to "salvage" a plot line like this by drawing the character quite badly or abstractly, to the point that even someone fluent in Chinese wouldn't interpret it as a character unless they had some separate reason to believe that it was one. Certainly this can happen with English, too; with elaborate calligraphy or highly distorted text art, you might not realize that a drawing is supposed to be a letter or word. – David Z Nov 21 '17 at 2:31
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    @ChrisSunami On first read, a professional reader expects to have the same experience as a viewer. They are far more likely to reject an amateurish script that contains an image, than to reject a script because they couldn't quite imagine the symbol described. The pro knows that obviously the symbol will be on-screen and it will be made to evoke whatever sense of mystery the author intended; even if the director has to change it completely (scripts are not sacred writing, they get changed and modified by directors nearly every time). Describe it and its act-able effects on actors, that's it. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Nov 21 '17 at 11:04
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What's important isn't how it looks specifically, but how your character sees it. The moment of revelation when they discover what it actually is.

I would use the "stick man" description when they first see it. This will mislead the audience in a fun way.

Then point out how the details change -- "The sticks and dots now form what looks like a column of symbols" -- then reveal that it is actually a Chinese.

It sounds like a crime thriller, so the more you can play with the audience's expectations, the more you misdirect, the better.

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  • Same comment as for Amadeus. The "sticks and dots" don't actually change, so you don't want to imply they do in your script. – Chris Sunami Nov 20 '17 at 19:57

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