Every note is an indication of an unmet expectation, and that’s always good to know. The problem is that most notes come in the form of suggestions for changes, and the changes they suggest are often terrible. The trick is to see past the bad suggestion to the good note underneath.
classic example. I had written a dark
TV pilot about the CIA, and I showed it to my sort-of mentor
at film school. He read it and
liked it but he said that I needed to add a scene at the beginning where our
undercover hero planted a bomb and then calmly walked away while it blew
totally aghast: What a horrible note!
Those scenes are so idiotic!
Failing to react to an explosion doesn’t show that you’re a cool
unflappable spy, it shows that you’re an bumbling amateur: Obviously, if you’re
the only who doesn’t act surprised by an explosion, then you’re the one who
set it, and everybody’s going to instantly tackle you. And even if these scenes weren’t silly
to begin with, by now they’ve become painfully predictable clichés! I can’t believe this guy wants me to add
one of those stupid, stupid scenes!
But all he
meant, I later realized, was that I should include that type of scene: a bit of bad-ass, exciting, I
wanna-be-that-guy spy action, before I got to all the intrigue, political
infighting and moral recriminations.
I could have
blanched and said that that wasn’t the sort of show I wanted to do… After all,
I wanted more a LeCarre-type show about double-crosses and unexpected real-world
consequences, but I then realized that this was all the more reason to begin
with a scene that satisfied the urges that get people to watch this type of
I wanted my
show to be subversive, but if I started downbeat and finished downbeat, then I
would merely be attracting downbeat viewers and, in the end, fulfilling their expectations. Instead, I wanted to take normal spy
fans and subvert their expectations.
That meant that first I had to create false expectations about the greatness
of my heroes and the efficacy of spy work. That way, when it all unravels, the audience will feel
shocked and unsettled. It’s impossible to subvert expectations you didn’t
So how do
you take the note, but not the suggested fix? You have to replace the hoary old suggestion with something
fresh: in this case, either a unique twist on a classic spy behavior or, even
better, some real-life bit of bad-ass tradecraft from a non-fiction book (as
long as it’s instantly visually obvious why it’s cool, without you having to
P.S.: I've posted this before, but I can’t resist doing it again, because I love it so: