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My Way Or The Highway

I’m a very lucky script reader: I’d venture that about 80% of my clients come back to me having taken the plunge of being read. I guess that must mean I don’t deliver completely devastating notes, prompting people to never speak to me again. Judging by the changes in the drafts I see too, I guess my advice must be alright – the specs I see nearly always get better, if only in part; they rarely get worse. How a script reader is judged as “good” or “bad” is always something to be debated however – one reader may be right for one person and not for another. This could be down to the priorities one has for one’s writing (“Will you SHUT UP about structure! I’m concerned about CHARACTERS,” one of my Po3ers said only the other day, in fact – I love you really, MWAH: even if you’re hideously wrong, hah!) or just down to the most basic of personality clashes.

One thing I do hear A LOT however is this:

“I redrafted based on your notes… I took most of what you said on board, but not all of it as I felt it would change the script too much.”

Or words to that effect, at least. And it’s funny: the above is almost like an apology, as if I would myself be gutted they didn’t take everything on board. My question then has to be:

Why would you?

We’re not dealing with the development of a commissioned script here, where the writer is the producer or network’s bitch. This is YOUR idea, your baby, your script. As experienced as a reader may be, they cannot possibly share the love you have for that script, because they did not conceive of it. They are looking at it from the OUTSIDE, tweaking it here and there, sometimes according to craft; sometimes according to opinion, preference or even prejudice. Readers are human beings: they all have those things, even if we say we haven’t. I find it hard to like scripts with gratuitous rape scenes in as everyone knows, but I also find it difficult to like scripts with torture (particularly the 17th style torture of women as witches); scripts in which children are murdered or abused; scripts which have funky, self-aware Joss Whedon-style dialogue; rom-coms generally where the woman HAS TO REALISE she’s very selfish or the man HAS TO REALISE he’s an arse. That’s not to say it can’t happen. I have liked scripts with all of these things in (bar the gratuitous rape, I hasten to add).

If it’s your story and you love it – and we all have to love our specs, else we wouldn’t write them – then you have to do what you think is best for that spec. If that means looking at some notes and thinking, “Well, the idea’s sound, but it’s not what I was going for” then please, be my guest.

However, there are not just two options here. I’m always surprised by how many scribes think that you either a) do what the reader says or b) leave the script the way it is.

That’s not how feedback works – at least, not from me.

If a professional reader flags something up, then it’s usually for a good reason; I can’t imagine many readers write notes just for the fun of it, they have a job to do and the vast majority I’ve used myself do it well. Usually they will make a point because it “sticks out” or just doesn’t go down as well as the rest of the script. In short, that element usually needs some attention. But what if you don’t like the reader’s suggestion for that element or feel it takes too much away from the story you’re trying to tell?

Change it.

Change it HOW you see it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had notes saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” and a suggestion for my draft follows and I’ve thought, “Yeah, that would be cool, but I want something of my own.” I’ve gone away, brainstormed, thought about it – changed it. The element that needed attention has had it and yes, it’s gone down better than what it was previously. Everyone’s happy.

So it’s not your way or the highway – there is another way. Just find out what that other way is.

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5 thoughts on “My Way Or The Highway”

  1. Nice post. I think that if someone is seeing something in a script differently from what I meant then it isn’t that they are wrong. It’s that I haven’t made what I meant clear enough. Therefore it still needs to be reworked.

  2. Yes – interesting post. It’s been a revelation to me how useful feedback is in sparking new creative solutions to things that aren’t working in the script. I’m sure I’d feel differently if the feedback were entirely negative and crushing (I’m sure there are readers who do this). But if someone points out a weakness in your script and suggests possible solutions then you’ve got something to mull over and work on. I also worry that if I take someone’s suggestion on board *exactly* then I’m cheating somehow. So I like to try and find the essence of that bit of feedback and turn that into something new. And then sometimes realise that my new idea isn’t as good so use their suggestion anyway 😉

  3. Rach, I would venture that 9/10 that’s true, especially in one’s early years as a writer, but I think, as one progresses you begin to realise the difference between what I call “craft notes” (where there is something that is problematic to the execution of your script) and “preference notes” (where the reader would just prefer a story point to be something else). When I was “younger” as a writer, I tried to address ALL notes, craft or preference, and tied myself up in all kinds of knots. I will never forget one redraft of a particular spec that turned into A DIFFERENT SCRIPT COMPLETELY. Still, no rewriting is wasted! : )

    Caroline, you’re not the first to say taking readers’ suggestions feels like “cheating”, but it’s not: if you like an idea and they gave it to you, why not take it? By the time you’ve fit it into your story, you will have put your own spin on it. I said to a reader of one of my specs once, “I’ve taken your idea of the door” and he says, “No, it was YOUR idea, you’re the one writing the script.” He was right.

  4. What’s the NLP rule? If someone isn’t hearing what you’re saying, it may not be that they are wrong – rather, you may not be saying what you think you are saying. Feedback should be constructive, and if a consultant flags something up it’s because it isn’t quite right, yet. How the writer attempts to fix that is up to them.

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