Fight The Good Fight

Bob Saenz recently wrote an excellent blog piece about giving notes to a particularly entitled young writer…

And people wonder why professional writers are reluctant to read their work, even when they’re close friends! Believe me, we’ve all had similar reactions to our attempts to help, though they’re rarely quite that bad…

But what interests me here is the misunderstanding implicit in this young writers’ reaction. There’s a really fundamental tenet of screenwriting that he’s missing, and it’s this: the people who work with you on your project are not there for your sake, they’re there for the project’s sake. What’s important is not you, but the story.

When the script reader, editor or producer suggests you remove that scene you love, introduce a character you think will never work, cut the budget by setting it on an island instead of in space, they’re doing it for one reason – to get a really good movie or TV episode made out of your initial ideas.

That means that, if you’re wrong about something, they’re going to tell you. And you will be wrong – yes, wrong about your own script! – sometimes. God knows I have been… Sometimes we’re too close to the material to see the wood for the trees, sometimes we don’t have the experience to appreciate that another approach would work better. Sometimes that particular element (plot, character, dialogue) is our weak point, and we need an outside suggestion to buttress it. We’re not always the best judge of our own work, and we’re not going to get it right all the time.

And the reason we employ all these brilliant people is to make the show better, not to make ourselves feel better.

So next time someone gives you notes that are painful – and they will be, sometimes, however tactfully they’re given – remind yourself that you’re not fighting your creative team. You’re on the same side, fighting to make that story as good as it possibly can be…

One comment on “Fight The Good Fight

  1. Pete Chown says:

    Commenting on stories is difficult, I think. If someone reads out a few pages at a critique group, you can’t comment on the story arc because you don’t know what it is. There isn’t much point in commenting on small stylistic issues, because your comments can only help with the two or three pages that were read out. The only thing you can do is comment on problems that tend to repeat themselves. I had very helpful comments, for example, that I was using a lot of clichéd phrases and writing unnatural dialogue where people tended to talk for too long at once.

    Generally I think good writers (and professionals such as agents) are better at giving useful feedback. For other people, I think there’s a tendency to miss the real problems. If your story reaches some minimum standard, they’ll be carried along by it, and won’t see any problems at all. If it falters, they tend to get less and less immersed until they trip over something. They often trip over something trivial like a clumsy phrase or bad grammar. When they come to comment, they might say that this trivial thing was the problem, but of course it wasn’t. Grammar and phrasing needs to be good, obviously, but there was a more serious problem in the story that made them bored enough to notice it.

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