Writers, are you on Twitter? If you’re not, you can’t take part in Script Chat. Script Chat takes place on Twitter every sunday, at 8pm for us GMTers and 2pm for whatever the US peeps are (real stuff like time has never been my forte). All you need do is sign into your Twitter account and add the hashtag #scriptchat to dive straight in. Later the US moderator JeanneVB posts up a transcript of the chat up on the official blog. You really can’t afford to miss out… even if you HATE the idea of Twitter, get yourself an account just for this each week. IT’S WORTH IT.
This week, the #scriptchat was about feedback on one’s work. I won’t reiterate what the others said – you can check out the transcript for that – but I thought I would expand on a couple of points I made myself in the chat. These were:
1) 2:03pm Bang2write: Too many readers & feedback-givers believe their PERSONAL PREFERENCES for the story are what’s right for the story #scriptchat
2) 2:07 pm Bang2write: Too many readers “tick the boxes”: why haven’t we got a turning pt on THIS PAGE? Why isn’t this character “likable”? #scriptchat
3) 2:25 pm Bang2write: Opinion is worthless in feedback – everyone has a different one, they cannot ALL be amalgamated into the screenplay #scriptchat AND 2:26 pm Bang2write: If, however they have a RESPONSE within the CONTEXT of the script – wld s/he do *this* ‘cos of *that*? – that’s different #scriptchat
So here goes…
Personal Preferences. I’m always amazed by how picky some readers are. In front of them, they have a script that MAKES SENSE ALL THE WAY THROUGH (as I’ve stressed numerous times, I can’t tell you how unusual this is: so many scripts, even those that start well, go loopy or fall flat and begin to meander as the writer appears to lose their way in the story. It’s just the way it goes). So I always delight the story in front of me is crafted well enough for me to understand everything. It’s rare. Thumbs up to the writer, end of.
Yet some readers have such a sense of entitlement, they don’t just want the story to make sense, they want it to be written THE WAY THEY WOULD HAVE WRITTEN IT/ EXPECTED IT TO BE. In short, they impose their vision on the screenplay: this character? Don’t like her, she’s not like me/my wife/aunt/sister. This event? That would never happen – I’ve done *something similar* and it didn’t work out *like this*. This arena? Yes it’s visual but I don’t like it *because I don’t*. This genre? Would be better as *this other genre*. Oh – and my real favourite: after a set of notes like this frequently comes – “but what do I know anyway?” or “I’m not really into [this type of story].”
Personal preference should not play a part in feedback. If you impose your own vision on a script, of course it can never be “good enough” – it will nearly always be found wanting, because the writer cannot predict – in advance – what the reader would want (or indeed who that reader will be sometimes!). Similarly, even on the off-chance that reader LIKES your work, how can it be useful if they have simply imposed their own vision? They might have forgiven you all kinds of logic problems in the story, simply because they like your character/ arena/ premise/ whatever.
A good reader understands a well-crafted script has its own internal logic: events happen because of the story the WRITER wants to tell, not the reader. If you make suggestions on where the story should go, it should be based on what is best for the story, not best for you. It’s a subtle difference, but one a lot of readers don’t realise. Imposing what YOU want then on the script when giving feedback is self-defeating at best (the writer will simply roll their eyes and discard your notes and probably never ask you again) or crushing at worst to the newer writer who has not yet understood that some readers do this.
Ticking the boxes. Ever got notes that say things like: “You SHOULDN’T use dream sequence/ non linearity/ voice-over/ montage?” Do they give you THE RAGE? You’re not alone: they do me too. It took me seven days and nights to come off the ceiling when I got this note about three years ago:
“You use flashback with voiceover in the first ten pages. As a script reader yourself, you should know better than this.”
WTF??? Oh, but let’s not forget this one:
“In Act 1, your turning point doesn’t come to page 25; as a result this pushes back your midpoint – approximately p 56 – and as a result this means your structure is lopsided.”
No other notes about structure. Just that. My structure is LOPSIDED? What the hell does that mean?? I’ll tell you what it means – that reader has spent too long counting pages and not enough time actually looking at MY story and how it works out in terms of the events in it and the characters’ motivation. Listing page numbers is no substitute for actually considering the story, what goes into it and how it works.
End of the day, you can do whatever you want in a script. WHATEVER YOU WANT. The only caveat to that? As long as it’s the best thing for the story. If a reader has a problem with your voiceover or whatever, it should be because your story DOESN’T NEED IT, not because they hate it. One of the most frequent notes I give is this:
Do you need non-linearity in this story?
The reason for this: lots of writers tie themselves up in a non-linear structure when their story would be SO MUCH BETTER told forwards: going backwards a lot of the time means we can’t always invest in the protagonist’s journey, the story ends up feeling “backwards looking” and forward momentum is compromised. On top of that, many writers are not clear about what makes up a non linear structure, so the story ends up feeling disjointed and confusing, when if they just told it forwards everything would “come clear”. In short, they may be thinking more about STYLE than STORY. But whilst that MIGHT be one of the most frequent note I give, that doesn’t mean my word is gospel – hence my note being a QUESTION and not an ASSERTION.
Opinion/Response. This point links into my first about preference, though this principally deals with character rather than story structure. Characters often promote an emotional response in a way structure doesn’t – and readers too often let their feelings about characters and their journey influence their feelings about the script as a whole. For example, I got some feedback recently that told me they “really cared” about my protagonist, yet “didn’t care” about the rest of my characters because none of them “were flawed enough”. Yes, that’s right: apparently my secondary characters were TOO NICE.
But what does this actually mean? Looking at the script in question, I see difficult relationships between ALL the male characters – yes that’s right, all my secondaries were MALE. All the top “places” were occupied by FEMALES. One has to wonder how much this influences the reader’s decision to ignore a fist fight; a feud and an attempted murder (doesn’t seem that nice to me!) between all those male characters. But even if it doesn’t play a part in that reader’s decision, saying characters are essentially “too nice” is just that reader’s OPINION.
The difference between opinion and response is again subtle, but important. I can think of half a dozen scripts over the years I have loved, despite their flaws in structure, story, character, dialogue, etc. That is my OPINION – the scripts appealed to me for *some reason* because they did. Maybe it was the premise, maybe it was the protagonist or antagonist, maybe it was one single moment that I felt was genius.Yet similarly there are dozens of scripts I’ve read where I’ve thought they’re good, okay or even horrible – yet fantastic examples of craft.
Instead of thinking, “I hate this protagonist” (which always seems to be the main issue) based on opinion alone, as readers and feedback-givers we need to consider:
“Regardless of my hatred of him/her (because of what they are/do in the script), does this protagonist MAKE SENSE? Does his/her actions have LOGIC in this STORY?”
If the answer is “no”, then you need to draw up exactly WHY those actions don’t “fit” in the actual story. Don’t start confusing these justifications with “truth” either – that’s taking it back to you again, as what constitutes “truth” is different for everyone. I’ve lost count of the notes I’ve received that have said something like “I doubted the truth of this story because of HOW the character reacted to this PERSON OR MOMENT”, only to have written something that is 100% true TO ME. If you want/need to talk about “truth” in feedback, you must have REALLY GOOD REASON AND JUSTIFICATION for doing so – ie. you are a woman and you feel women are being misrepresented in the script (with examples from the script and detailed reasons for your response).
If the answer is “yes”? Then hating the protagonist makes no difference to your feedback. It’s perfectly possible to dislike a character, an arena, a premise, even the entire THING and give good (read “useful”, “non judgemental”) notes.
It’s just difficult.