Creative ConflictComplications Ensue
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Saturday, August 18, 2012

I listened to Margaret Heffernan's TED lecture, "Dare to Disagree" today. It starts with an anecdote about Alice Stewart, a scientist who was able to prove that it's not a good idea to X-ray pregnant mothers because she had a great collaborator. He was her statistician, and his job, as he saw it, was to prove her wrong. Only by mining the data sixteen ways from Sunday, trying to dredge up any way to show that X-raying pregnant mothers was not correlated with childhood cancer, could they prove that it is correlated.

In a writing partnership, you want a certain amount of creative conflict. If you agree with each other all the time, who needs two of you? You need to be willing to criticize and shoot down each other's ideas. To say, in Denis McGrath's old catchphrase, "Here's why I hate that."

This is hard to learn. (Unless you are from New York, in which case you have to learn when to shut up). In companies, most people often feel they can't voice their concerns. The whistleblower is the odd man out. Or look at American politics, where almost no current politician dares criticize the country's utterly insane drugs policy.

In a creative partnership, you want different points of view to clash.

On CHARLIE JADE, Sean Carley, aside from being a very fine writer, was the guy in the writing room who would call shenanigans on Denis and me when we came up with something he didn't believe.

After all, if someone in the room doesn't believe it, what are the odds that the audience will?

What makes creative conflict useful is restraint. You have to agree on the underlying premise. I've got notes back on my writing where the analyst did not buy into the basic premise of the material. That kind of note is not constructive. (It may be accurate, just not constructive.)

You also have to agree on what you're critiquing. If you're working on our premise, you critique your premise. If you're working on your outline, you critique the beats, and maybe you critique the premise if the beats cannot be made to work. If you're working on pages, you should no longer be critiquing the premise. A creative partner who keeps going back to the drawing board will hold you back. This is particularly true on a TV show, where you just don't have time. But at a certain point you just have to have faith that your premise will hold up.

It's crucial because about 40% into anything, you'll probably start to question whether the idea has any merit. You'll also question whether you're capable of writing it. Or writing anything. You will possibly get the idea that you have lost any talent you had, if indeed you ever really had any. That's why I call 40% in "The Sucky Point."

In the WaPo, Emily Matcher makes the claim that overentitled millenials can help, since they expect everyone to listen to their thoughts.

Criticism is essential to making anything good. But just like heat applied to steel in the forge, what makes it productive is focusing it on the right part of the material at the right time.



This is a good post. I would agree, with a potent Canadian example. BEING ERICA had a time after the pilot where they back and forthed and came to the idea that the time travel aspect wouldn't change the future. Which, as anyone who likes that sort of thing, is the cool thing about a time travel show. So rather than have a discussion about the rules of the world, they fudged it and I think, whatever the show's merits - of which there were many -- there was something fundamentally hobbled about it.

Similarly, every working writer in Canada went in for THE LISTENER in s1 and 2 and asked, "well what are the rules of the world?" "What are the limits of the powers?" and met resistance. It took til Season 3 to settle a question that should have been clear from development. Part of the "what show are we making?"

I don't want to dump on Canadian shows exclusively here....both Charlie Angels and Bionic Woman died ignominius deaths early because some people said, "oh the franchise is enough..." but it's not. You need to know the rules, and the challenging that goes on in the early days of the show can help to bulletproof those rules and make it so that everyone can get to the point where they agree and can see where 80 eps will come from.

when you don't empower the writer vision to ask and answer those argument, when non-writers tut tut and paper over those concerns, or worse -- don't think about them at all. That's where you get in the weeds.

Also, I think if you're gonna crib my "here's why I hate that," I think for equal time provisions you should at least point out my endearing reaction to pitches I like, a long, slow drawl of, "that's aweeeesommme."

By Blogger DMc, at 4:46 AM  

Isn't Being Erica a time travel story only in the same sense that Peggy Sue Got Married is a time travel story ... more about reliving a set of past circumstances to get a new perspective for the main character than an actual rewriting of that main characters history?

I agree with your main point about needing to know the rules of the world of the show, and using disagreements during the production development process to suss them out, but I wonder if Being Erica is exactly what it should be, and you felt it lacking because you were expecting, say, Continuum.

All this with a grain of salt, as I have only seen bits and pieces of Being Erica, and didn't really care for it, but not for the reason you mention.

By Blogger deanareeno, at 10:36 AM  


Peggy Sue Got Married is a movie. Being Erica is a TV series. You can do the "maybe if you had the chance to go back the point isn't to change anything it's to get a new perspective" is a perfectly fine little lesson/point for a movie. It's a terrible (and repetitive) engine for a TV series.

The third time you come back and say, "ah yes, see, you need to change the way you view the past" it's like, "yes, I know...we get it." It's a passive resolution to a passive character.

Movie engines don't work as series engines. Building a movie story is about building a house. Designing a series is about mapping out a village from which 80 or 100 stories may spring. Totally different skillset.

By Blogger DMc, at 2:55 PM  

addenda -- I also defer to something that Glen Mazzarra said in Banff this year that I thought was really something:

You have to give them the game they thought they were playing.

Bad reaction to the Killing Season ending? Right or wrong you told them the game they were playing would involve finding out who killed Rosie Larsen in S1.

Being Erica -- she gets to go back in time. People who buy into that game on a weekly basis will have expectations of how that game is to be played.

BE lost the majority of its audience by the end of the 4th season -- people decided the game they signed up for wasn't the one that was being played.

Bionic Woman, Charlies Angels, etc....the audience couldn't even figure out what kind of game it was supposed to be. So they didn't come back.

By Blogger DMc, at 2:59 PM  

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