Monday, May 14, 2012

How to Re-Write, Part 3: Heed The Notes You Get and the Notes You Don’t Get

You can only see one dimension of your own work.  If you want to know the shape of it, you have to seek out other eyes that can see all the dark corners that are hidden from you.  The more perspectives you get, the better you’ll be able to see the whole stereoscopic portrait, allowing every flaw to stand out in sharp relief. 

As vampires need blood, writers need notes.  Beg your family, your friends, and especially your fellow screenwriters to open their veins and replenish you, so that you can survive one more day.  The gift of a note is the most precious one that a writer can receive.  Appreciate it…even if it seems idiotic the first time you hear it. 

If you get a note from a producer, then you have to accommodate it, every time. Even with agents and managers, notes are pretty much non-negotiable, unless you’re willing to abandon the script or the rep.  With friends and peers, it’s a little trickier, which is why you have to follow the Back to the Future rule: As soon as you hear the same note more than once, you have to address it. 

But what does it mean to address a note?  You have two choices: you can implement the specific change they asked for, or you can make a bigger change that addresses or eliminates the underlying problem.  Here’s the bad news: For every note you get, there will be two you didn’t get that are even more important. 

Ultimately, you’re trying to identify three different types of problems:
  • Plot Holes: Anything that breaks your own rules, or doesn’t flow from one scene to the next, or doesn’t seem logical.
  • Motivation Holes: Anytime any character acts without proper motivation.
  • Empathy Holes: The most common and most disastrous kind of hole—anything that makes the audience lose interest in the hero or feel alienated. 
Note-givers are usually pretty good at pointing out plot holes:
  • “This doesn’t make any sense”
  • “I didn’t get what was happening here”
  • “Didn’t that character die two scenes ago?”
You’re less likely to hear about motivation holes.  Instead of saying “the hero needs more motivation,” they’re more likely to say things like,
  • “This seems a dumb, Hollywood story”
  • “I didn’t buy it”
  • “This feels too convenient”
  • “Everything seemed too easy”
Empathy holes are even worse: you’ll almost never hear anything like, “I didn’t empathize with the hero enough,” or, “It wasn’t emotional enough.” People don’t realize that they want to be emotionally manipulated, so they’re not going to ask you to do that.  But you know that they secretly love it.  If people aren’t emotionally engaged enough, they tend to say things like,
  • “It wasn’t very interesting.”
  • “The middle was boring.”
  • “I wasn’t sure what you were trying to say”
  • “The story just kind of ends.”
  • “The villain was a lot more interesting than the hero”
Of course your nice friends prefer to point out plot holes because they can theoretically be fixed by just changing one scene.  They’re reluctant to tell you that you have empathy or motivation problems, because then you have to re-conceive your whole movie, but you need to re-assure them that those are exactly the sort of notes you want to hear. 

Remember the scene in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull near the end where they survive all the waterfalls, and realize that they’ve beaten the Commies to the Skull cave.  Suddenly they stop and ask, “Wait a minute, now that we’re here, what do we want to do?  Do we even want these skulls or not?  I dunno…I guess, maybe…”  Wow!  Biggest motivation hole ever! 

This was a big budget movie…Why did no one point that out?  Because there would have been no way to fix it without re-writing the first two acts so that Indy either craved or despised the skulls, rather than getting roped into a drama he didn’t really care about based on very weak motivation.  Nobody wanted to pick at that scab because they knew the whole movie would start hemorrhaging and bleed out.

Character notes are even more painful to deliver.  After all, most writers base their heroes on themselves!  If you say, “I hate your passive, petulant, self-righteous hero,” you might as well say, “And you might want to fix your own personality while you’re at it!”  In the end, you either have to beat these notes out of people, or you have to infer them from what they’re not saying. 

So now you’ve got three separate lists of the three types of holes, how do you start filling them?  Let’s pick up there tomorrow. 


j.s. said...

I get that the audience is smarter than one writer. I understand that most notes -- even if they are poorly articulated or seem to focus on the wrong issue (Walter Murch is pretty smart about this in his books on editing) -- have real merit in spotting trouble. And yet I know people who've gotten legitimately stupid notes, both from reps and producers they've broken with and from ones they are still working with. So there must be ways to negotiate "addressing" a note that simply won't serve the script without blowing up a whole relationship.

Matt Bird said...

The trick is that stupid notes are almost always based on legitimate concerns. If someone is basically telling you "I'm not feeling what you want me to feel here", then they're pretty much automatically right. If they then say, "so do this..." they're frequently wrong.

Basically the trick is that you have to re-write, not just revise. Take the issue totally off the table by rewriting the section.

Producers hate it if you resist doing what they asked, and they only like it a little better if you just do the fix they said to do (which never works as well as they hoped it would). What they really want you to do is re-conceive that section of the story so as to avoid the problem, which is usually the best solution.

Tomorrow we'll talk about a stupid note that a top TV producer was forced to take that ruined his show, and I'll talk about ways he could have addressed the concern.

Crystal said...

Perfect timing, as usual, Matt. I'm getting notes from my editor this afternoon.

And I'll piggyback off of what you said by adding that the trick is to re-write while still holding to the core themes of your work; otherwise, it could easily swerve all over the place.

Matt Bird said...

Excellent point. The first draft is all about making the story make sense, and the theme often isn't clear until you get to the end, but the second draft is a good time to start tying everything, even tiny details, into the theme in subtle ways.