This is a picky technical script question I just can’t seem to resolve on my own.

When writing with the reader in mind, suppose you have the early appearance of a character who must remain a mystery to the viewing audience, until later. Do you use the actual character name of the character at that point in the script, thereby spoiling it for the reader?

For instance, in Dickens Christmas Carol, the ghost of Jacob Marley shows up in Act I, but suppose his identity was to remain unclear to the audience until he made a return in Act III, Would the character in Act I be something like GHOST, to be cleared up later? And once it is known by all who he is, would we continue with GHOST or transition to MARLEY or GHOST/MARLEY or handle it some other way ?

Bryan from USA

This is a common question to which there is no good answer. There is no hard and fast rule other than this: DO NOT CONFUSE YOUR READER. Anything you do which confuses the reader is a bad thing and readers are easily confused. They are usually under a great deal of pressure to push through your script. If they have to stop and go back to understand something, you have already lost the battle.

Given that one golden rule, you are already damned by the mere existence of this character. Nevertheless, if it is important to your story, you need to pick one of the less-than-perfect solutions and use it. You are probably better to transition to GHOST/MARLEY, but even then, you may lose the readers later when they see only MARLEY. If MARLEY is the only ghost, you might even continue to call him GHOST even once his name is revealed. After all, he is still a ghost.

Very experienced screenwriter John August answered a similar question on his blog not too long ago. It may be helpful.


  1. Since we are initially writing for the ‘reader’ would it be wrong to include a built in disclaimer or notice of the character change? In the character’s first appearance could we say

    A GHOST floats into the room and hovers over the television set (the ghost is later to be revealed as JOHN FRANKLIN)

    Then when the story switches over to John Franklin we know him as the ghost? Or would it be better to say

    JOHN FRANKLIN/GHOST and we make the connection now automatically

  2. For me, this boils down to the nature of the screenplay itself. I was originally taught that a screenplay is a tool that that is used by the crew to determine everything from casting calls to being a yardstick determining how much can be shot during a day of filming. (I’d certainly like to know how much of this is rubbish.)

    If you look at a screenplay from a purely functional aspect, then the people making the movie don’t care that you want the ghost to be revealed as Marley at the end of the movie. They just want to know that they need Marley on the set for this scene. So from that perspective, the reveal doesn’t mean anything to the people using the script.

    At the same time, screenwriters deal with readers, and readers must be entertained, so the screenplay should be dramatic and engrossing. So, if my goal is to produce something entertaining to the reader, then I have to ask myself one question.

    Is this character’s masked identity truly crucial to the story?

    If it is, then I say you have to take a chance on confusing the reader. I’m not sure that the ghost of Marley qualifies in this sense.

    Bottom line. If you are going to take a chance on possibly confusing the reader, have a really good reason.

  3. do not confuse the reader

    don’t worry if you spoil the reveal for the reader

    write what will appear on the screen

    and, do not confuse the reader

  4. you know, the usual suspects has an identity twist. however, the audience does not find it confusing – it’s easy to follow. if you write what appears on the screen, the script for suspects is easy to follow as well. kevin spacey’s character can always be referred to as verbal kint (if that name is correct, i can’t remember) and script would read just fine

    would take this opportunity to mention: do not confuse the reader – not for a moment. each sentence should read crystal clear

  5. In the screenplay for Layer Cake, the main character has no name and is referred to by the name “XXXX.” The writer talks about how he handled it in the current issue of Script magazine I think.

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