ALLIGATORS IN A HELICOPTER

a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Honesty

So I'm immersed in rewriting my supernatural thriller, which has led me to revisit all the notes I got back in February.

At that time, I sent my latest draft out to a dozen or so friends, to get their thoughts on what worked and what didn't. And I got back a wide range of notes. Some very helpful, some just interesting; I'm a firm believer that you can cull something from anyone's notes, if you try and figure out what inspired them.

Rereading the notes now, though, I was struck by something.

The people who were really honest and critical about my script felt extremely self-conscious about it. So many of the e-mails I got back were prefaced with some nervousness, trying to soften the blow before they listed what was wrong with my baby.

Even though that's exactly what I do for a living.

And that's exactly what I want in notes.

And those were inevitably the best notes I got back.

Anyone out there who writes, who hasn't realized it yet, realize it now -- honest, critical notes are the best notes you'll ever get.

And they shouldn't be apologized for.

Of course, it helps if the notes are constructively critical. The first script I ever wrote was a comedy set on a college campus, where the main character is accidentally turned into a vampire. It was awful, and one of my best friends told me so, in no uncertain terms.

Unfortunately, "this sucks" was about the extent of it. Criticism like that, honest as it might be, is only minimally more helpful than "this is great", because neither really tell you anything.

But everyone goes through that period where "this is great" is really all they want to hear. There's a certain amount of affirmation that a lot of writers need, particularly starting out; learning how to write is a long, lonely process, and sometimes you need to try to bring people in to make sure that you are on the right road.

But seek out the honest, knowledgable ones, because they are the ones that are going to push you to get better. Your mom, telling you "honey, this was really good" might be nice to hear, but let's face it, she'd probably say that even if it wasn't.

But honesty has become an awkward thing, on both sides. People giving honest criticism always feel uncomfortable about it, so much so that many people would rather say "I liked it" than to try to explain why they didn't.

I've had times in the past with friends, where I was honest with them (constructively, I thought), and it was obviously something they didn't want to hear. At all. So they've never given me anything else to read.

Would it have been easier to tell them "I liked it". Probably. It's an easy trap to fall into.

On sites like Zoetrope, many people who post their scripts for criticism are miffed whenever they get a response that doesn't give them top marks. They complain about the criticism rather than try to understand what inspired it, even if it is misbegotten and misguided.

But this is where criticism works, down here in the trenches. Film critics dumping on a completed movie really doesn't serve any constructive purpose, because it's too late to change anything; it's already a movie, it's already done.

But as writers, we need to embrace honesty, not feel uncomfortable with it. Our screenplays aren't perfect yet, not by a long shot. Neither are our friends'.

And the trick is to be honest, but constructive. And to listen to the honesty, and not to follow it blindly (because, in the long run, no one knows everything in this business, not even me) but to filter it through what you want to do with the script.

Honesty should be the rule, not the exception.

15 Comments:

At 12:10 PM, Anonymous aaron said...

I love notes where, at some point, the words "I'm going to tear this apart now" appear. At least you know you're about to get something constructive.

 
At 12:14 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I didn't intend this post to shill my notes service, though even then I'm always shocked when people who hire me beg me to be honest.

There's apparently a huge honesty void out there.

 
At 1:07 PM, Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

I want total honesty when someone reads my work. I also want to hear that it is the best thing since Shakespear and that they are going to quit their job and devote their lives to getting my script to the big screen.

Honestly.

 
At 1:21 PM, Anonymous bianca said...

But when giving notes, it's also important to point out what you like about the script and what works. Otherwise, in the process of fixing things, the writer might get rid of what's good along with what's bad.

 
At 1:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the soft blow, apologetic intros to honest criticism means you're getting it from someone who genuinely wants to help you and even moreso, cares about you.

I always appreciate this kind of stuff, or like when someone says "I liked this part a lot..." and then give you the bad news after. It's a nicer way to do it, and some days our civility towards one another is all we have.

 
At 1:48 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Bianca --

Absolutely. Constructive honesty. Criticism that goes beyond "I liked it" to make specific points about whether certain sections worked for you, didn't work for you, and why.

Not being afraid to say "Though I really liked this, and this, I have to say that I didn't get this. And at this point, why didn't you do (idea B), instead of (idea A), which doesn't really work".

Now, maybe you-the-screenwriter didn't want to do idea B, but the fact that people are questioning idea A should make you think about idea A, and maybe you mutate it into idea C. Or maybe you don't. But you ponder it.

But you shouldn't be afraid to tell someone that idea A isn't very good, and to offer an alternative, right or wrong -- and people shouldn't be afraid to hear it.

Anonymous --

Civility is fine, if it's helpful. But we have to be honest with ourselves; this is a tough business we're trying to break into. And I'd rather have someone not be afraid to be honest (with civility obviously a plus) than with someone too concerned with being too nice, and too civil, that they don't give you the thoughts that actually might have helped do your script a world of good.

 
At 2:35 PM, Blogger Brett said...

Getting eviscerated all over your own pages is a tough experience the first time or two you go through it, but eventually (if you are at all serious about becoming a better writer) you understand that that pain you are feeling is just where you didn't do the job to the best of your abilities and obligations.

Fuck praise -- make me bleed. Tell me everything that's not breathtakingly perfect. Circle every word and syllable where I was only just "competent" rather than "thrilling".

Honesty is the highest form of respect.
.
.
.
B

 
At 3:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, Scott...
I totally agree. Civility without honesty isn't helpful to anyone. I just think for me at least, it's a better way to go give constructive feedback to a friend or writer I care about.

If someone asks me to read their script, I try to find some positives, then move on to the helpful stuff. I'm always honest, I just do it in a way that is mindful that someone cared enough about this idea or story to spend weeks (months, or years maybe) to write it all down.

The funny thing is, I'm not bothered at all by someone trashing my own stuff.

 
At 4:06 PM, Blogger glassblowerscat said...

I'm starting to run short on good critics. Although at least my mommy has no problem saying things like, "Your characters all talk the same," and "This person has no motivation. I don't believe in her."

The really rare critic is the one who tells you not just what is wrong but how to fix it.

 
At 4:18 PM, Blogger William said...

The first time hearing criticism is brutal but the key is where you get your criticism from. I gave a screenplay to an ex-gf once and she didn't get it. None of it. What did she know about screenplays and mechanics of one? Now that was a very early draft of a screenplay that I have honed over time to become a better one but the truth remains...be careful who you are handing your opus over to. In the wrong hands criticism can actually be damaging to someone who isn't prepared for it and new to the game.

You should always seek criticism not approval.

 
At 5:10 PM, Blogger victoriaellis0380@yahoo.com said...

I'm always amazed by it as well. I also find that through peer reviews, if they've given you a glowing review and you swap with them and give that person a not so glowing review, they'll cuss you up and down. Like they expected a great review because they were so kind earlier.

I like it raw. Honest. To the point. I've only completed two screenplays and they've both gotten decent reviews. But I trust none of them. I get to talking on the boards with people, then through the weird ways of the internet they become "friends." So they tend to be more reserved in their reviews.

Truly, the only ones I've trusted is the one I received here from Scott and from my sister, who can be brutally honest to the point of making me want to quit. :)

But I love the ones I get from my mom... she always love them.

 
At 6:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like the notes that come with all the disclaimers.

It tells me that I'm dealing with a writer who's been at it a while, knows how bloody hard it is, that there's often more than one 'right' answer, and has earned her scars.

Without reservation, the best pro and non-pro notes I've gotten have come from folks like this!

-JT

 
At 7:33 PM, Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

See, now I would see that vampire on campus movie...

You could wring a lot of dark teen angst comedy out of the premise. Animal House meets Son of Dracula.

Title: COLLEGE SUCKS

 
At 8:25 AM, Blogger Not A Winner said...

Right on.

I'll add this: the best notes have loads of suggestions/criticism, but also accentuate several positives (although sometimes they're hard to find). Writers need to know about what they're doing right, as well as where they misstep. If it's all criticism, it's hard for a writer to know what direction to head. And it's hard to keep your ears open when all you hear are insults. It's possible to find something to compliment in just about every script, no matter how bad.

I'm an active member of Zoetrope, and while there's certainly a large, vocal contingent of hacks over there who just defend against and complain about anything other than blind praise, there are a number of quality writers who give and appreciate solid feedback. My reviews are generally very tough/critical, and most writers have been quite appreciative.

 
At 8:43 PM, Blogger Dave said...

I've been of the mind if nothing is said about it, it must be good, so all I really care about are the comments that say what didn't work.

If you're getting some solid notes that make sense, you should be fairly competent.

It's when you get pages of notes or virtually NO notes that you have to wonder if the person just didn't know where to start and just gave up .

Several folks have mentioned suggesting ideas, but we (our writers group) have always tried to shy away from that for the most part. Some suggestions are fine, but there are some folks who will just rewrite your story - and that's not what you're after (typically).

I've always prefaced notes with the caveat that notes are subjective and it's my opinion. Seems to work well.

 

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