Monday, January 20, 2014

How to Give and Receive Notes, Part 3: Be Persuasive…

Even if you’re just reading something for free for an acquaintance in a writing group, you need to remember that you’re not just giving these notes, you’re selling these notes, and you’re selling to a tough audience. On one level, of course, this is ridiculous: what do you care if they accept what you say or not? But there are good reasons:
  1. Because you’ve put a lot of time and effort into reading this thing and writing up these notes, and you don’t want that work to go to waste.
  2. Because the number one reason to give notes is to get notes back, and if they reject those notes, then they might not feel the need to return the favor.
Your notes need to be persuasive. You have to give them notes that they will accept, however reluctantly. These are the kinds of notes that writers reject:
  1. Notes based on rules that the writer hasn’t accepted: If you say, “According to Syd Field, this plot point should happen on page 15, not on page 45!” they’ll respond, “I prefer the sequence approach,” or, “You’ve misidentified which plot point is which,” or, “Don’t be a page-nazi!”
  2. Notes are based on marketability: If you say, “Nobody will ever buy a story like this!” they’ll respond, “I don’t write for the market! Nobody knows anything! Genius is never appreciated in its own time.”
  3. Notes based on assumptions about the writer’s intentions: If you say, “You’re trying to write a horror movie but this feels like a spoof,” they’ll say, “Good, that means it’s subversive!”
  4. Notes focused on a hypothetical audience: If you say “Fans of broad comedy won’t like these kind of scenes,” they’ll say, “They don’t know what they want until I show it to them.”
Don’t focus on your pre-established expectations of what a writer should do or what a story should be, and don’t focus on how you think other people will react. Instead, focus on what this writer is trying to do in this work and the effect it had on you the reader, and you alone...
  • “As I was reading, I felt frustrated that not enough had happened by page 45.”
  • “This is the sort of concept I would be interested in, but I would feel very let down by what you have so far. Here’s the sort of stuff I would want to see based on this concept...”
  • “I couldn’t figure what sort of story it was supposed to be, so I didn’t know how to react.”
  • “I laughed really hard at that one scene, so I wanted more laughs like that, but I didn’t get any.”
Just speak for yourself. It’s impossible to reject these notes. They can’t tell you (or tell themselves) that you didn’t feel that way. Don’t try to convince them that everybody will feel this way, because you don’t know that…and besides, it will be heart-breaking enough for them to discover that one person feels this way.

Next, the final step of being persuasive: Create Buy-In…


Mike W said...

Matt, I completely agree with what you said in the first two posts about notes: "don't let your emotions overwhelm you" and "don't mistake the script for the writer."

I don't disagree with this post, so much as I think it's a symptom of wrong thinking. There is a step to take *before* this that makes notes way more valuable, and it's this:

Ask the writer to tell you about his or her movie.

Nobody ever asks this! It seems crazy to think that someone could mistake a comedy for a thriller, but it happens, and if you (the note-giver) never asks the writer to talk about his movie, you can end up giving 30 minutes of totally sensible notes about how to make it more tense, when the writer (too embarrassed to say anything) only wants to know how to make it funnier.

And, while that's an extreme example, there is always a gulf between what the writer wrote and what you read. Unless you ask, you'll be giving notes on the wrong thing.

If you ask the writer up front (after you've read it, to avoid bias) what he or she wanted to write, you'll know if they wanted to be subversive or even formulaic. Then you can help them achieve their goal.

"Here's the stuff I would have wanted to see based on this concept…" is generally not helpful in my experience. (Though it can be.) Asking, "What did you want to achieve with this concept?" opens the door to be able to help the person develop their movie, not turn it into what you would have done "based on the concept."

Matt Bird said...

I don't exactly agree. In my opinion, by the time you've completed the first draft, it's already a different animal than what you once wanted it to be, and that's good. I think that one of the best parts of getting notes is that you find out what you've got, which is always different and often better than what you intended to create.

The best note-receiver I know is a friend of mine who is always utterly baffled when I tell him my opinion about what he's got. His first script: "This is a nice modern-day fairy-tale." "What??" His next script: "This is basically a Western, and that's why it works." "What??" In both cases, I convinced him that his work was in a totally different genre than he thought it was, and in both cases he took that and ran with it, turning in amazing, award-winning second drafts.

If a writer wants to tell me what he intended and ask me how to help him achieve that, that's fine, I'm happy to do that, but if they don't tell me, I don't ask, because I'd rather divine what I think the story wants to be.

Mike W said...

That's amazing about your friend. I've never been party to that kind of successful note-giving. At any rate, I can see how that kind of experience makes you trust how you've been doing it.

Nevertheless, I'm going to buoy my other comment by pointing out that, even if your friend had said, "I wrote a horror", you could still say, "Actually, I think you wrote a Western." But if you never ask, you can't efficiently help them do what they want to do. Because...

Another experience I've never had: a writer telling me, unprompted, what they intended to write. They assume it's on the page, so why be redundant?

j.s. said...

Matt's technique for giving notes is essentially an adaptation of the old psychotherapy custom of making "I-statements," which share your specific subjective feelings without implying judgement. Don't say: "You were such a jerk last night!" Do say: "When you screamed at me last night, I felt so horrible."

Though I have to agree with Mike a little on this one.

I think Matt's situation with his friend is fairly unique. It seems like your friend's ultra-intuitive, "what? I wrote that?" approach and results are the exception. As are the very specific nature of the notes that mattered most to him, which, though you haven't gone into detail much, seem to have most to do with defining the mechanics of the narrative's inner genre or true story type, the kind of thing Blake Snyder was so good at. It's easier to see this in the first example, where he handed you a draft of something he probably thought was solidly realist and you told him it was more of a fable. The second example, where you tell him he hasn't realized he's written a Western would make no sense at all if you were talking about the setting and surface trappings of the historical genre about the American West. (He'd have to be an idiot to turn in something like STAGECOACH and not realize he's written a Western) Much more likely is that you saw in a modern story the mythic and thematic underpinnings of a classic Western narrative. And the conscious realization of this helped the writer to strengthen what was already best about his story.

I've definitely given notes like that in the past to appreciative writers, offering them a new way to think about the essence of their story and a new framework for refining it going forward.

Yet I've also always wanted to have a statement from them about what they think they've written, what they've been trying to write. I don't always do this before I read the script. Sometimes it's before I give them the notes I've already typed up. But I definitely want a chance to hear what they think they're doing. Because what good is telling a writer that he doesn't even realize he's got the makings of a brilliant [insert genre or story type here], if he's got no interest in furthering that intention?

Also, it's a small point, but for me personally, my motivation to give notes is never simply to build up social capital for when I might need them later myself. I give notes because I'm genuinely good at it, because I learn something every time and because I want to help the friends who come to me. Some of them aren't nearly as good at reciprocating. Some of them would be totally wrong for certain kinds of stories. So it's not a strict quid pro quo for me at all.