Friday, June 20, 2008

Rose Colored Earlobes

How do you weed the practical and useful advise in story notes from the meaningless feather flapping of an egotistical reader? And, how do you know if your friends and family are blowing smoke when they praise your work?

Unk brought up a valid point on my last post when he discussed how writers must be their own story's expert, especially when it comes to talking to people in production who would pressure you to make changes that may or may not work. It's true. We must know our characters, stories, symbolism, foreshadowing, etc. so well that we don't even need to process the cause and ripple effect of any change. We'll just know. Right then. Right there. The moment the change is proposed.

But a post on Wordplay the other day brings up the opposite scenario. A writer repeatedly asks his friend for story notes but the revisions never address the flaws, issues, or questions that the reader identifies. Is that because the writer really is his own expert and knows the reader's comments aren't valid? Or, does this writer have rose colored earlobes, listening for validation instead of constructive remarks?

What I'm about to say will annoy a few writers but I believe this to be one of the greatest mistakes amateur screenwriters can make. Asking your great aunt Martha to read your script is fine, but her comments are probably useless. Non-filmmaking friends don't understand structure, rhythm, or dialogue as well as someone who has been a reader, screenwriter, director or producer for umpteen years. Aunt Martha may know her stuff, but that's the exception. More likely, she'll have a similar euphoric pride in your script that you had when you finished your very first screenplay and immediately assumed it was ready to send to every studio in the golden state.

I'm not being cynical here. I'm being pragmatic. There comes a point when a writer ought not need anyone else to tell him what's wrong with his script. That's not to say he doesn't need story notes - that's the way of the business - but he either knows exactly what is wrong or knows it works and any changes will be based on preference, budget, set pieces, location, improvisation, the director's niece wanting a role, whatever.

The trailer for the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie included a clip where the Will Turner character tells the ship's crew that he's not leaving the cannibal island without Jack Sparrow. Then Jack appears on the beach pursued by a hundred cannibals to which Will says "Never mind, let's go." Funny clip. But when I went to see the film, I sat there watching the events that led up that scene and realized that Will Turner would never say "never mind, let's go" because he'd gone to the island for one purpose - to get an item from Jack that would save the life of his true love. He wouldn't say "never mind, let's go" because that would be like saying "never mind, I'll just let my true love hang".

You know you genuinely love movies when you get a nervous twinge in your stomach waiting for a moment you're sure won't work. To my great relief, when the line arrived, it was different. I found out later that the line in the trailer was a result of a blown take. Orlando Bloom said "never mind, let's go" meaning "never mind, let's shoot this again" or "never mind, let's get on with it".

That was a teeny tiny change that may have looked inconsequential to many people but the writers would have known that the line would totally undermine the character's heroism and credibility to the viewer. Writers - people who own the stories - will catch these things, or at least they should.

So, again, how do you weed the practical and useful advise in story notes from the meaningless feather flapping of an egotistical reader? It's something inside the writer's heart, head, soul, or gut that either sounds an alarm that says "yeah, that would work better" or tells you the reader skimmed the story or just doesn't get it.

Knowing if somebody pegs a problem in your story is kind of like the way a mother knows if her own child is lying. It's your kid. You know. Sure, he can get one past you once in awhile, but you've taken care of him his entire life so when somebody tattles on him, you have a sense about whether or not the accusation could possibly be true. When somebody else's kid is lying, you might know. You might not.

Both situations depend on the circumstances but like writers, some parents are in denial. "No, Mr. Police Officer, my kid with the marijuana tattoo and bloodshot eyes who goes by the nickname 'Roach' has never smoked dope. He doesn't even eat meat because his body is a temple." Yeah, well, maybe it's just a tofu temple and you don't know him as well as you think.

You should know. It's your story.


Morgan McKinnon said...

Speaking for all of the amateur screenwriters…no, I had better follow my heart and speak only for me.

I have a great story. It’s true.

My problem has been, how do I lay it on the page in that "suitable fashion"…Hollywood Style.

I have exhausted every pro who would listen to me with questions and...“what about this?”

I have been, for the most part, holding on to my branch…covering my ears to the voices which shout...“FLY. FLY. GIT!”.

Your post has given me that much needed push off of my branch.

And here I go once again…thank you!


Mystery Man said...

Brilliant. I completely agree.

Of course, I have an Aunt Martha. She has an uncanny eye for plot-holes. Hehehe...

Hope you're well.


MaryAn Batchellor said...

Morgan, "Be like the bird that, passing on her flight awhile on boughs too slight, feels them give way beneath her, and yet sings, knowing that she hath wings." Victor Hugo

MM, my mother's name is Martha. Hope she doesn't read this...

Geoff Prickett said...

Why on earth don't you want your Mother to read the blog? My Mother proof reads my blog.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Because, Geoff, I don't want her to think the "Aunt Martha" example was meant for her. It wasn't. I just pulled a name out of the air and that was it.

However, since you brought it up, I think it's fine that your mother proofreads your blog but does she evaluate your screenplays and give your story notes?

The point here is that unless your mother has some background in screenwriting, she's not likely to catch structure issues or act break problems, etc. She'll proofread the screenplay and be filled with pride because YOU wrote it. That's great, but it's not much help when you're polishing.

Fun Joel said...

See, and here I thought that rose colored earlobes came from dirty earrings and infections!