Reader Notes v. Writer Notes, or, Story MechanicsComplications Ensue
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Saturday, November 24, 2007

I recently got some very interesting notes from a reader. They made me think about the difference between the good notes I get from readers, and the kind of notes I give.

Reader notes are all about the experience of the movie: this character is hateful. This character is adorable. This scene is talky. I find this character confusing. Reader notes can't be "wrong," because they're telling you how they experienced the read. (Reader suggestions on how to fix things are usually wrong, but notes on how they felt reading the script are true from their perspective.) And they're crucial, because no one can have a fresh perspective on their own work; and you're not writing the thing for yourself, you're writing it for millions of viewers.

But there's another kind of notes.

When I give notes, or when I get notes from a writer who's good at giving notes (which not all are), they are all about the mechanics of the story. I usually look at the elements of the story, which are, as you will recall:
a. a character we care about;
b. who has an opportunity, problem or goal;
c. who faces obstacles and/or an antagonist.
d. If he or she succeeds, he or she wins something he didn't have before (stakes); but
e. he or she is risking losing something precious to him or her (jeopardy).
The vast majority of stories that fail, fail along these lines. It's not that the characters are not well thought out; it's that their opportunity is not compelling, or their obstacles aren't big enough, or he's not in enough danger, and so on.

I also look at whether the character is actively pursuing his goal, or the solution to his problem. A novel character can be reactive, a screen hero has to become pro-active by no later than the end of the second act, but ideally as soon as the situation is set up.

I look at whether the story is external or internal. Internal stories don't work well on screen. I sometimes find myself asking for a character that the hero can talk to (an "interlocutor" for want of a better word), but better than having the hero talk about his internal story is finding a graphic, visual thing that he can be doing that tells us what he is feeling.

I look at whether the writer has developed the theme enough. I was recently pitched a story about a woman who is afraid of who discovers that her husband is a . I liked how the theme of fearing the was magnified by her horrific discover; that's what made the story into a movie story instead of a short story.

I look at pacing. Can we set up the elements of the story sooner? Can we put the hero in more danger soon? Can we put a clock on the action?

I'm also looking to reduce the numbers of characters. Can we get rid of so-and-so? Could these two characters be merged?

I'm often looking at who the point of view character is. Recently I suggested changing the movie's point of view from one character to another, and that seemed to work rather well.

On a scene level, my notes often involve sharpening and clarifying the turns of the story. If a character is going to have two realizations, it's often clearer to make those two scenes; you don't want the story trying to do too much at once. If a character is going to change his mind, we often want to make it clear exactly when he changes his mind -- to "make it a moment," even if many things have built up to that mind-changing moment, and other things reinforce it later.

Sometimes it's a matter of taking an event or a scene and moving it sooner, or later, or trimming it out. Move a single scene, and everything may fall into place.

All of these notes are really about the mechanics of the story: how the engine of the story works. It's the difference between a driver saying that the car tends to fishtail, and the engineer saying the center of mass of the car is too far forward.

These are the kinds of notes I most like to get because they make the fix easier. If you think the problem is that the car fishtails, your "reader" response is to drive the car more slowly around corners. Your "writer" response is to move the center of mass, or to throw on a spoiler to push the rear of the car down onto the road. Then your story corners nicely at high speed.

(Can you tell I'm a Mustang fan?)

All reader feedback is useful. Intelligent, thoughtful reader feedback is invaluable. But what really floats my boat is great writer feedback. In my medieval horror comedy, John Rogers pointed out where I could have some secondary characters brutally killed about 20 pages sooner; that made the jeopardy visceral much sooner, revving the pacing up. I had not made the antagonists villainous enough (it's my liberal upbringing, I know); he suggested a way to keep their essential characterization the same while making them scarier.

I think a big part of becoming a crafty writer is learning to think in terms of the mechanics of the story, rather than merely the "structure." " Structure is a static word, but a story is a thing in motion. And, structure has become a term of art to describe the chronology of the story. But a story is not only its chronology. It is how the elements of the story work in sync with each other.

Take a look at whatever you're working on. Try to see what's going on under the hood. That's where the real improvements lie.

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I concur, but I would add that there ARE bad readers out there, just like there are bad writers there are bad readers (and directors, and actors, and deli workers, etc), and that bad readers are not helpful in the slightest - if anything, a script can be hurt by them.

One of the hardest things I've learned is who to listen to and, more importantly, how to listen to them and evaluate their feedback . . .

But that's just been my experience.

By Blogger Joshua James, at 2:05 PM  

Hmm... Many of my friends are also professional writers, but I don't give them my stuff to read -- they'll apply their own solutions, which is the last thing I need.

I give it to less experienced writers or to friends outside the business in order to get the pure viewer response. Finding the solution that fixes their experience is MY job, not the job of the next writer over. All I need to know is where the viewer experience is failing. My knowledge of the mechanics of the script is enough to take it from there. (And, as Joshua pointed out, finding someone with the skill to capture and convey a realistic viewer experience is harder than it seems.)

By Blogger WriterGirl, at 5:03 PM  

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