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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Can Feedback Sabotage Your Story?

Rouge Waver Desiree wrote in and asked:

I've never had a pro to read any of my scripts, but various friends and fellow writers. It has its disadvantages, I know.

Several years ago I listened too much to the advice I got from a friend and one day I woke up and the story was no longer mine, it was his. Since then I have learned to trust my heart.

Would a situation like that ever appear with a pro reader? Would the reader see another potential than intended and give "wrong" advice and change the core of the story?

I have so many thoughts on these questions, Desiree, that it's gonna take me a moment to really get to the heart of it. First of all, this has happened to me, in the distant past. Asking for and receiving story advice that eventuated in my story changing altogether. But years and years and scripts later, I realize that the reason that happened to me is that I didn't know clearly what my story was anyway. So I cast about for opinions and suggestions to plug leaky holes in a weak story, didn't differentiate between the merits of this or that advice, and wound up cobbling it all together into a story that had no relationship to my original idea.

So yes, you will get advice from various people that could radically change your story - but the key is to develop the skill set to differentiate between what can add value to your story and what in fact degrades the central core of what turned you on about it in the first place. Additionally, writers should test changes and suggestions against the key components of the story: main character flaw, theme, the second act adventure (the meat of the premise) and the big battle scene in the end - the pivotal third act resolution. All of those particular components are actually hinged together quite neatly. Like a Rubik's Cube, the way they hinge can change - but they still have to click together and work. So if you change one thing, you affect the whole shape and mechanism of your script.

There is a right way and a wrong way to give feedback. Always be wary of someone who gives you numerous, specific ideas for changes without testing them against those key components. Not everybody is very well equipped to give feedback. But that's your responsibility when asking for it. I see that often on message boards - other screenwriters micromanage and give very specific advice to writers who have posted pages and then the script becomes a weird community project. Don't put yourself in that position.

Getting advice can be great; friends, colleagues or a pro reader might suggest something that opens up a whole new perspective. Just make sure you make it a collaborative experience and that ultimately you stay tethered to the fundamentals of your premise that got you excited in the first place. Test the suggestions against the components of your script, teasing out the outcome to see if it would alter your script in a desirable, surprising or value-added way.

Now: Would a pro reader give you story-changing advice? Maybe. Some. It depends. That goes beyond the scope of what readers get paid to do, generally speaking. At a company like mine, in which readers are paid to evaluate scripts but also to be encouraging and instructive, the readers will give examples and some suggestions, yes. But those readers will only give suggestions that still fit into the framework you came up with. Because when they give suggestions, they know the other key components of your script and they take into account the snowball affect.

I'm sure some pro readers or (not very good) consultants might try to more or less dictate what they would like your story to be - but if you feel those alarm bells going off, it's your responsibility to stop that flow and move on. Teasing great ideas out of a writer is much harder than just saying "look, I would do this." Teaching a writer to think critically and see opportunities instead of having the writer do what YOU think would work is where feedback and mentoring of writers becomes an art form. Anyone can dictate what THEY think YOU should do. But that's not their job. And you do not have to subject yourself to that.

Getting feedback is an interactive, participatory experience. Don't just get in the car blindfolded and be driven somewhere. Look around, ask questions, make your own suggestions and know the path you were originally on in the first place well enough to only deviate from it quite consciously. You are ultimately responsible for your story, where or if you get feedback on it, and what you then do with that feedback.

All of this said, because many Wavers might be members of writing groups or screenwriting message boards in which bad feedback runs rampant, this is probably a good time and place to talk about what good feedback looks like. When giving feedback to a writer, try putting the feedback in the form of a question. Two great ways to start off that question are "what if" and "maybe...?" So you might say, "What if the main character's flaw is actually that he's vain?" and then you and the writer can play with that for a moment. How would changing the flaw affect the theme? How would it affect the main character's arc of change? How would it affect the reversals and complications along the way? So you ask a question and then you follow through with testing how that possible change might affect the major components of the story.

So to summarize, Desiree -

Be careful who you get feedback from; avoid message board blowhards and total strangers who are not familiar with your premise, you or your process.

Check in with the clarity of your understanding of your premise and main character. Are YOU the expert of your own creation? Is your premise pithy, articulate and unique?

Test suggestions against the major components of your script to see if they add value or actually just loosen all the hinges and then require more jury-rigging.

Incorporate only the notes and feedback that resonate for you.

When you give feedback, pose it in the form of a question: "What if" and "maybe" are great starts.

If alarm bells go off because you're hearing multiple opinions and suggestions about your script, step away from the feedback, sleep on all of it and revisit your premise line. Remember, this is YOUR story that only YOU can tell.

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Dave Shepherd said...

Newer screenwriters are pushovers. And it's not because they're bad screenwriters (though we all suck when we're new for the most part), it's because new screenwriters rarely know what the spine of their story is.

Heck, I think a lot of pro-writers don't know the spine of their story and what it actually means.

Two movies that came out last weekend both had zero scenes that were off the spine -- Drag Me to Hell and Up. Both got great reviews... coincidence?

The spine is what your story is about. The spine of Drag Me to Hell was about a girl who is cursed and is trying to break out of that curse.

Every single scene in Drag Me had something to do with Christine trying to free herself from her curse. Anything that wasn't explicitly about her and either dealing with the curse or trying to break out of the curse was not on the screen.


There was one scene where Justin Long (Christine's boyfriend) decides to take ten grand to pay a seer to help her rid herself of the curse, even though he doesn't believe in that stuff. He's doing it for her. It makes perfect sense. Fits into the story perfectly --

-- But it's off the page. Wasn't shot, wasn't in the movie. Because it wasn't on the spine of the story. That scene, while relevant, was not explicitly about Christine's attempts to rid herself of the curse. So it happens in the background.


Know the spine of your story. Take notes that strengthen that spine, ignore notes that weaken it. Or alter them.

Another example:

Finding Nemo -- it's about a father and a son attempting to reunite through very different obstacles. Every scene in that movie is about that. Every scene is either Marlin trying to get closer to Nemo, or Nemo trying to break free of the fish tank.

I should note that the only time I think you can get away with scenes off the spine is at the beginning, before the spine has been set up. And even then, those scenes should funnel into the spine.

Anonymous said...

Dave, in theory I agree, but there are some very good movies out there that go off on tangents all the time, and that is part of the charm of them. Things like MULHOLLAND DRIVE, where the lack of backbone is the accentuated characteristic of the movie, or even THE BIG LEBOWSKI, where, apart from trying to get his rug back, The Dude is trying to avoid any sort of involvement in the storyline. Infact, a lot of comedy writing has diversions in it, this is part of the fun.

I do agree with what you are saying, but I don't think a backbone is the be and and end all solution. It is a useful device, but as with all devices, it is the films that alter the rules of them that get remembered.

Dave Shepherd said...

I don't think the Big Lebowski deviates from its spine -- The Dude, effectively is the spine of the movie. It's about him. Though I couldn't say for sure, I'm almost positive there isn't a single scene in the movie that doesn't have him in it. Could be completely wrong though, don't remember the movie that well.

That being said, I'm sure there are movies that do things differently. The key, I think, is to know why you're breaking the rule.

You don't even need to know the rule, but you need to know what effect you're trying to create.

I think almost everything in a script should be deliberate, you should be able to justify every choice you make. If you can justify breaking every rule in the book, then by all means, break every rule in the book.

Désirée said...

Thank you kindly for your nice reply.

I was a much less experienced writer when I was talked into those changes, but although I've learned a great deal, I've been kind of scared that a payed pro reader would get "the upper hand" in my mind.

But as you describe it I am much more interested in that kind of pro feedback than I've ever been before.

(I am aware that it was my mistake to be talked into changes I didn't really like. I don't blame him.)

Steve the Creep said...

I used to give out my writing for feedback whenever I got stuck, but recently, I decided to only show my work once it's completed. That's been a big help.

When I'm getting feedback, I like to direct the comments to more what worked and what didn't work. I steer my reader away from responses of how they'd fix things. They just need to tell me where they felt lost, disengaged or bored. It's my job to fix it.

joeverkill said...

I think that a lot of the solution to this is in knowing how to ask for notes, also. It took me a while to figure it out, and going through a BFA writing program helped, but you can give notes or tweak suggestions on literally any work. If you handed me The Great Gatsby or The Tempest, and I wasn't familiar with either work, I could easily come back with 2 or 3 pages of suggestions for each. Nick Carroway has no motivation, Prospero's magic works as a deus-ex-machina, et cetera.

The thing is asking for notes on specific things that you feel might not be working as well as they could. "Did you sympathize with my protagonist?" "Were there any parts in which you didn't udnerstand X character's motivations?" "What did you think about the pacing?" "Did the ending feel satisfying? Why not?" Et cetera.

Julie Gray said...

@Joe (re being specific) That is a GREAT piece of advice.

Christian M. Howell said...

I'm sure some pro readers or (not very good) consultants might try to more or less dictate what they would like your story to be - but if you feel those alarm bells going off, it's your responsibility to stop that flow and move on. Teasing great ideas out of a writer is much harder than just saying "look, I would do this." Teaching a writer to think critically and see opportunities instead of having the writer do what YOU think would work is where feedback and mentoring of writers becomes an art form. Anyone can dictate what THEY think YOU should do. But that's not their job. And you do not have to subject yourself to that.

I agree wholeheartedly. I hate that "i would have" or "you should have" analysis.

I don't care what you would have done. Looking at the script, do you see opportunities to extend the scene, make it more dramatic, scary or thrilling? Comment on those.

I did the unthinkable (prior to doing it) and put a script up on Trigger Street. And that was exactly what I got: Why didn't the kid save the world? or some other crap that was what the other writer would have done.

My experiences with even pro readers have been "ehhhhh."

Hell, BlueCat has the craziest methodology - I didn't enter Silver because I wasn't sure about feedback - for giving feedback. it's not like the ProdCo coverage sheet with 1-5 for the elements, it's what did you like, what didn't you like. That gets into subjective territory. That's not to say I'm knocking BlueCat, but if you allow resubmissions the same reader should read the script as you MAY implement their changes and the new reader has no idea of what they were.

It happened with the one script I resub'd. I decided not to resubmit the other - the one that's on Trigger Street under BaronMatrix (hint, hint).

It's a comedy that people want to be a study in the human condition.


IT'S A COMEDY!!! A fluff filled family comedy. I laugh when I read it. Anyway, once i get a cheaper apartment I'll be back to notes -from pros.