Complications Ensue: The Crafty Game, TV and Screenwriting Blog
Complications Ensue:
The Crafty Screenwriting, TV and Game Writing Blog


April 2004

May 2004

June 2004

July 2004

August 2004

September 2004

October 2004

November 2004

December 2004

January 2005

February 2005

March 2005

April 2005

May 2005

June 2005

July 2005

August 2005

September 2005

October 2005

November 2005

December 2005

January 2006

February 2006

March 2006

April 2006

May 2006

June 2006

July 2006

August 2006

September 2006

October 2006

November 2006

December 2006

January 2007

February 2007

March 2007

April 2007

May 2007

June 2007

July 2007

August 2007

September 2007

October 2007

November 2007

December 2007

January 2008

February 2008

March 2008

April 2008

May 2008

June 2008

July 2008

August 2008

September 2008

October 2008

November 2008

December 2008

January 2009

February 2009

March 2009

April 2009

May 2009

June 2009

July 2009

August 2009

September 2009

October 2009

November 2009

December 2009

January 2010

February 2010

March 2010

April 2010

May 2010

June 2010

July 2010

August 2010

September 2010

October 2010

November 2010

December 2010

January 2011

February 2011

March 2011

April 2011

May 2011

June 2011

July 2011

August 2011

September 2011

October 2011

November 2011

December 2011

January 2012

February 2012

March 2012

April 2012

May 2012

June 2012

July 2012

August 2012

September 2012

October 2012

November 2012

December 2012

January 2013

February 2013

March 2013

April 2013

May 2013

June 2013

July 2013

August 2013

September 2013

October 2013

November 2013

December 2013

January 2014

February 2014

March 2014

April 2014

May 2014

June 2014

July 2014

August 2014

September 2014

October 2014

November 2014

December 2014

January 2015

February 2015

March 2015

April 2015

May 2015

June 2015

August 2015

September 2015

October 2015

November 2015

December 2015

January 2016

February 2016

March 2016

April 2016

May 2016

June 2016

July 2016

August 2016

September 2016

October 2016

November 2016

December 2016

January 2017

February 2017

March 2017

May 2017

June 2017

July 2017

August 2017

September 2017

October 2017

November 2017

December 2017

January 2018

March 2018

April 2018

June 2018

July 2018

October 2018

November 2018

December 2018

January 2019

February 2019

November 2019

February 2020

March 2020

April 2020

May 2020

August 2020

September 2020

October 2020

December 2020

January 2021

February 2021

March 2021

May 2021

June 2021

November 2021

December 2021

January 2022

February 2022

August 2022

September 2022

November 2022

February 2023

March 2023

April 2023

May 2023

July 2023

September 2023

November 2023

January 2024

February 2024


Sunday, November 14, 2021

I have given notes well and I have given notes badly. I like to think the notes themselves are usually pretty good. But when I give notes the right way, people are happier with them, and when they're happier, they are also more likely to do something with them. When I give notes the wrong way, I've got in hot water, sometimes.

Here are a few observations I've made about when I give them well.

1.    Clarify what you're giving notes on

It is not always clear what people want you to comment on. Do they want to hear about structural problems? Or are they pretty convinced their structure is good, and they really just want to see if any of the dialog sounds off? For that matter, are they really asking for notes, or are they really asking for praise? It's important to know why they want your notes. 

When I give notes badly, I have sometimes given notes that are, in principle, really good. There might be a structural flaw in a script, for example, or a scene does not work because the characters don't really want anything from each other, and they're just talking for the sake of talking. 

If a film script is a week from shooting, it is not helpful, usually, to point out structural flaws. There's nothing the writer can do with that information. If a game cinematic has been approved by a slew of brass, then the writer may not dare do a complete overhaul of the scene. Find out how far along whatever it is you're giving notes on. In principle, yes, if a piece is fundamentally broken, then the writer ought to fix it. But there may be production or political reasons why all the writer can do is put lipstick on it. Best to know that before you deliver your trenchant critique.

For that matter, you definitely want to know if they're looking for criticism at all, or just praise. An experienced writer with a professional attitude always wants honest criticism. Friends may not. Professionals who are not writers may not. They may be working in other disciplines; you may be working for them. They may even tell you, jokingly, that they want to hear the worst. The joke is the tip-off that they do not want to hear the worst.

In general, assume other people will take harsh notes as a personal attack, unless you know them well enough to know they for sure will not.

2.  The sandwich

Just as it is easier to eat shit if it is surrounded by bread, it is easier to swallow criticisms if they are preceded and followed by praise. There are always a couple of things you can praise, even in the most broken bit of writing. If you are having trouble finding them, look harder. Hell, you're a writer. Make something up. It will not diminish the value of the notes that come in between the compliments. 

3.  Questions are less painful than statements

Which of the following are going to feel less like a slap in the face?

Is Jojo in love with Elena?
It's not clear if Jojo is in love with Elena or not.

We have nothing to root for in the third act.
What are we rooting for in the third act?

The opening drags.
Could the opening be shorter or snappier?

Each pair of sentences says the same thing. But the questions allow the writer to try to answer them. The writer in the first case can just say "Yes, Jojo is in love with Elena." But if they're at all alert they'll understand that they need to clear that up. But they got to defend their own work, even if only in their own head. So the criticism stings less. 

Likewise, "could the opening be shorter or snappier?" allows the writer to answer, "yeah, sure" without having to feel bad about what they wrote. After all, anything can be shorter or snappier. But it still conveys the need for a shorter, snappier opening. 

If the writer tries to answer "what are we rooting for?" and can't, then they will have to make the question their own. You won't be rubbing them the wrong way if it's their question, will you?

4.  Positive statements are less painful than negative ones. 

Anything can be phrased positively or negatively. Compare:

Glenda is too wordy.
Glenda needs to be more laconic.

The twist at the end of Act 2 is unconvincing. 
The twist at the end of Act 2 could be more convincing.

The scene kind of drifts off at the end.
The scene needs to build tension until the end. 

Again, there is not a lot of sky between the meaning of the negative and positive versions of the statements. They say the same things. But the negatives are static and absolute. They say, "your material sucks." That stings.

The positives are dynamic and relative. "Your material could be better." Well, of course it could be better. Anything can be better. So that doesn't hurt too much. 

You would think that writers would see through the artifice of phrasing everything as a positive. But writers are human. No one likes to hear bad things about their babies. But they are usually willing to hear how their babies could be better.

5.  Personal statements are less painful than general ones; feelings are less painful than facts

When you talk about your own reaction, you are on very solid ground. If you found something confusing, who can say you didn't? But if you say something is objectively confusing, where do you get off saying that? Are you God? 

If you don't like a character, no one can argue that you should have liked them. But if you say a character is not likeable, well, the writer probably likes them, so you're wrong.

Truthfully, you can only speak to how things seem to you. Any general statement has an element of hubris. 

This is not in the "voice" of the game.
This doesn't sound to me like it's in the "voice" of the game.

The scene has no dramatic "push and pull."
I am not feeling the dramatic "push and pull" of the scene.

Johnny isn't lovable.
I don't love Johnny. 

Again, almost identical meanings, but the general statements hurt more than the personal ones. For silly, irrational, human reasons; but then, we are all silly, irrational humans, aren't we?

(Except for you, I mean. You're great.)

6.    Solutions -- should you offer them?

If your critique is "this character needs to be more laconic," then it's obvious what the writer needs to do. If it's "I don't know who I'm rooting for here," then it may not be obvious, and you may want to offer a fix.

This is tricky. If you see a flaw in some writing, odds are you can think of a way to fix it. However, the moment you offer a solution, then the argument is no longer about whether your critique is right or not; it's about whether your solution is good. (There is always an argument when it comes to critiques, usually in the receiving writer's head.)

Ideally, don't offer a solution until you are sure that the writer has absorbed and accepted the critique. Then you can say, "I did have an idea how to resolve this," or, better, "I have a little idea how you can easily fix this surgically," and they can ask for it or not. 

On the other hand there is a danger that if you don't offer a solution, it may feel like you are just trying to insult the work. At a minimum, it might be wise to make clear that you think the issue can be resolved. And one way or another, all issues can be resolved, if people are willing to make enough changes. 

If you can offer multiple solutions, then it feels less like you are telling the writer what to do, and more like you're just throwing out ideas that they're free to pillage or not. 

7.  I thought I was dealing with professionals. Do professionals really need all this handling?

Not always. Once you've been working with someone long enough, you may find they just want you to cut to the chase. I've worked with writers who felt comfortable telling me, "Here's why I hate that," and I thought that was great.

But it's a good idea not to assume that's the protocol. It's a good idea to phrase critiques carefully, as questions, as personal observations, as positive statements. There is very little downside to doing it. You can communicate exactly the same ideas; they just go down smoother. And as Maya Angelou said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." 

8.  Is it any different giving notes to fellow devs, to your staff, or to your boss?

Well, your staff is a whole lot less likely to fire you. But I think the above applies to any situation where you're asked to give notes. You can offend a boss; you can oppress your staff; you can rub fellow devs the wrong way. Anything you can do to make the notes go down smoother will be better for them, better for you, and better for the work you're criticizing. 

Don't you think?


Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger.