Ever see something so obviously wrong in a screenplay that you wonder why everyone else doesn't see it? This occurs with readers all the time, especially if the reader has spotted this same issue over and over. He may feel like it's too no-brainer to even write in his notes and yet he must. Some bad ideas are just that blatant.
I know someone who reads for screenwriting competitions including the Nicholl. She sees so many screenplays that when something goes wrong, it jumps out at her. For example, if a character changes mid-story, she'll go back and re-read where's she's been so far, just to make sure she didn't miss what led up to the change, his motive, some subtext somewhere, or something, ANYTHING, that would explain or validate such an abrupt change in character. She reads so many screenplays that now and then, she does miss something but usually, the writer is just executing a bad idea.
Lucy has an interesting post about conflicting story notes. One of her blog readers quotes polar opposite comments on the same script from the same company. Clearly, if one reader says your characters have solid direction and the other says the characters are all over the place with no direction, one of them is mistaken.
Maybe. Maybe not.
How can they possibly both be correct? My theory is that sometimes readers think the story has lost direction when it takes a short sidestreet. Maybe the sidestreet is for comic relief, character development or suspense, but whatever the reason, the reader got lost. Some readers will jump right back into the story and some will be left wandering around waiting for a conclusion to the sidestreet. Sorry. But that's not just about inexperienced readers. It's a writing issue, too.
Recently, while viewing my latest Netflix rental, I puzzled over a scene that left me cold. It was well acted, had great timing and was beautifully shot but something wasn't right. I just didn't know what. At the end of the film, I went back and watched that scene over several times. Still no idea what was wrong with it. So, I started the film over.
This time, I had the big picture and knew the theme and conclusion right out of the gate. When I arrived at the scene in question, it was an easy diagnosis. The scene didn't belong there. It didn't belong anywhere. It was a brilliantly executed but really bad idea.
I've seen this problem before in my own writing and in screenplays I'm asked to critique. When I mention that something doesn't work, the retort is usually about what an awesome scene it is or how well it's written or how funny it is. All of that may be true, but there's a bad idea in there. That doesn't mean the scene is bad or the writer is bad but this particular idea? No workie. And, no matter how genius the execution is, it's still a bad idea.
Anything that takes away from the story is a bad idea, even if it's well done. Among its many crimes against the screenplay, a bad idea may slow momentum, contradict character, weaken the story or simply confuse the reader or viewer to a point of no return.
If I tell a story about my lazy secretary who keeps dropping calls because she's too busy checking her MySpace, I don't need to throw in a bargain pair of shoes I found on my lunch break. It may be a fascinating sidestreet about the shoes, especially if Wanda Sikes got in a fight with Chuck Norris over the same pair or Brad Pitt was in the store trying on lingerie, but the shoes don't move my secretary story along. However, if the secretary found my receipt and then faked an injury to take the afternoon off to go shoe shopping herself, it might demonstrate what a good for nothing she is.
Taking sidestreets is not a bad idea in the writing process. It allows the creative mind to go out and play. It may help build the story in the writer's mind, help him get to know his characters better, or allow him to explore some story options. It may even make the writer realize he needs to go in a whole 'nother direction. But writing a scene doesn't mean it has a place in the story. Some sidestreets bring something fresh to the story. Others are a wrong turn and will make the story wander, stall, or die a slow and painful death. It's the writer's job to sort out which sidestreet is which.
Why can't we spot our own bad ideas? We can. But, sometimes, especially if the scene is well done, it becomes about ownership and identifying with what we've written. That's our DNA on the page. Maybe the trick here is that once an idea is out on the table, it needs to take on its own identity so any criticism or attack is on the idea, not the person who came up with it.
None of this means that readers don't make mistakes. Some storynotes are spot on. Others are out of line. Maybe the reader is learning, having a bad day or just found out his wife had an affair with the pool boy. Who knows? We should. Don't run off and make changes solely based on something a reader said. But, be open to the possibility that a reader may identify a well executed bad idea.