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


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Thursday, November 23, 2023

(This is an adaptation of a talk I've given a few times, at companies I've worked for, and at the East Coast Game Convention. I wrote it about video game writing, but it is almost entirely applicable to film and television writing, and mostly applicable to a lot of other creative endeavors.)

In this business, you’ll get creative criticism from all sorts of people. Your boss, probably. Sometimes by co-workers. If you’re smart, you’ll ask for criticism from people who report to you. Whenever the game comes out, you may get criticism from random strangers on the Internet, although that is often not very helpful.

Sometimes you will get notes that solve problems you are having. Other times you’ll get notes you disagree with furiously. Sometimes they will be the same notes.

None of us comes to creativity without an ego. To be a professional creative, by definition, is to be someone who wants other people to have in their heads what you have in your head. If that’s not important to you, you don’t care. If you don’t care, you won’t do great work.

Ego regularly throws up obstacles to making creative criticism useful. How do you outwit your own ego?

Don’t take criticism personally

First of all, try not to take the feedback personally. This is hard to do. Someone is criticizing your baby! Obviously, they hate you.

When you take criticism personally, it becomes an attack. If you’re attacked, you defend yourself. If you defend yourself, you shut out the criticism.

(Note that feedback, especially public feedback, sometimes is a personal attack. The bigger the company, the more likely it has politics. Sometimes people will have it in for you. But you’re still better off treating an attack as if it is sincere, constructive criticism, if only to judo your opponent into loo
king like a jerk.)

All feedback is legitimate

If someone says they don’t like something, they don’t like it. You can’t tell yourself they ought to like it. If someone doesn’t laugh at your joke, it’s not funny, at least to them. If someone says they’re confused, then your writing confused them. If someone says they hate a character, then they hate them. It’s on you to figure out why, and what to do about it.

You may even be getting criticism from someone who does not like the genre you’re working in. What you choose to do with that information – whether you feel it is not relevant, or you embrace it – is up to you. But their criticism is still valid in the sense that that is their experience.

Distance yourself

It helps not to think of the work as your baby. Think of it as “the” baby. It’s not “my” scene, it’s “the current draft of the scene.” This also gives other people permission to critique it more freely. You can even criticize the work yourself. Maybe you have an idea of something that’s wrong with it, that you haven’t had time to fix, or don’t know how to fix.

Critiquing your own work, incidentally, makes anything positive that you might say about it more believable.

The problem may not be where they think it is

Just because all feedback is legitimate doesn’t mean that your note-giver is right about what the problem is. They may be picking at a symptom, not the cause.

I studied computer science in university. In programming, if something goes wrong three quarters of the way through, it’s often because you didn’t set something up properly at the beginning. In narrative, someone will say a scene is too long. But shortening the scene will not make the scene better. That’s because the real problem is earlier, where the game story failed to make you care about the characters.

Bear in mind, if you show someone a scene, they won’t have in their head all the scenes that went before it. You’ll know who the characters are, but they may not. It’s up to you to interpret the feedback you get.

Assume they are not an idiot

However, before you go off and decide that they’re wrong about the problem, allow for the possibility that the person giving you a note is not an idiot. There are almost no stupid people in video games. Right?

What often happens is, when someone gives a suggestion, what pops into our mind is an idiotic version of it. You may think they want a sweeping change. You may feel like they’re trying to cut the heart out of a scene or a sequence. Why would they want that? That’s just dumb!

Before you reject their identification of a problem, try to figure out what a non-idiotic version of what they’re saying might be. “If this wasn’t dumb, what would it be? Then ask if the non-idiotic version is what they meant. If it is, bravo! Now you have a good problem to solve instead of a bad one. Even if they did mean something dumb, at least they are clearer on what you’re thinking, and you’re clearer on what they’re thinking; and you have identified a non-idiotic problem your work might have.

Find the Truth

Back in the previous millennium, my acting teacher used to say, “Find the truth.” It’s easy to find something in feedback that might give you an excuse to dismiss all of it. “They are definitely wrong about x, so they are probably also wrong about y, z, a, b and c.”

Search for what is true rather than what is false.  Figure out how the critique is true. Your goal isn’t to defend your work. Your goal is to find how it is weak. Actively seek out the criticism, even if it is buried in confusion, contradiction or fluff.

The hard part of science is not finding evidence that corroborates your theory. The hard part is thinking up ways to disprove your theory. If you try to disprove your theory every which way, and it holds up, it’s a solid theory. But if you only try to support it, you’re leaving it to other people to point out its flaws.

Actively dig for the truth. Sometimes people will point out something that, you agree, is a problem.

But you also get the feeling that something else is bugging them. They just can’t crystallize what it is. So they grumble at it, and move on.

This is often a much more structural, serious problem than the thing they were able to criticize. It will require more work to fix. The temptation is to avoid the hint and focus on the surface flaw.

Don’t ignore it. Interrogate them (nicely). Try to work with them to crystallize what they’re having problems with. When someone tells you, “Nah, forget it, it’s fine,” you say, “No, seriously. I can tell you’re bumping on something. Let’s talk about it.”

If you don’t, they may come back with the same criticism in three months. Or, play-testers will have the same problem. Or, God forbid, players.

Don’t wait for the snippy Let’s Play video. Dig.

What they want you to do about it may be wrong

All feedback is legitimate. Most criticisms have some truth to them.

Many solutions proposed to you will be bad. Hopefully a more experienced writer can give you an approach that will solve the problem. Other people, particularly non-writing managers and people from other disciplines, will give you suggestions that fix the problem in front of you and create many more problems elsewhere. Even your boss may give you a bad idea, if you spent a month thinking through what you wrote, and they’re skimming it during an online conference call about optimizing frame rates.

Feel free to take the good bits of the criticism and ignore the bad solutions. Unless, of course, where you are, congeniality is prized over creative results. (That’s called “toxic positivity,” and most senior developers have experienced it one time or another.)

Find out what problem they are trying to solve

Surprisingly often, people forget to give you their critique, or gloss over it. They jump right to their solution.

It’s wise to find out what they’re trying to fix before addressing – or rejecting – their solution. They may be proposing a big, involved solution to a problem you can fix surgically, in a line or two.

Or, you may realize that the problem they brought up is actually bigger than their solution, and is going to require more work. That’s useful to know, too, even if it is not as cheery news.

“We’ll take a look at that.”

So, you really worked at understanding the criticism, and you know what their problem really is. But you’re still convinced that they’re wrong. They’re honing in on something that’s not the real problem, they want something fixed that isn’t broken, they want a change that will break things, they didn’t game it out.

You may find yourself from time to time in a situation where you can already see their idea won’t work. You can work it out in your head. Or maybe you already tried it out, like, three months ago. It didn’t work then, and it’s not gonna work now.

Imagining how unwritten things are going to turn out, whether they’re going to play nice together, what they’re going to break – this is a writer’s superpower. Surprisingly, most non-writers cannot do the math in their heads. They can’t imagine doing the math in their heads. So when you tell them you already did it, and that’s not going to work, they won’t believe you. They’ll think you are being precious. They may feel disrespected.

I have got in hot water for telling folks about problems I could foresee in a story. Two years later, sure enough, the story had those problems. (Didn’t help me any, but I was already at another company.)

Say “We’ll take a look at that.”

Then really do take a look at it. Actually. Really truly.

That gives you time to remember that the person who gave you the note is probably not an idiot, to find the truth, to find the deeper problem, etc. Time for your hackles to come down. Time to try out the suggestion, so you can say, “I tried it, and I couldn’t make it work.” Or “that doesn’t work but how about this.” Or “it works if we do it this way.”

Or, “I tried your idea and it worked. Thank you!” That generally goes down pretty well.

(You can even say this when they didn’t propose anything, but their notes triggered a good idea on your part. Or when they proposed something only tangential to what you did. They will often agree that it was their idea.

When I was a kid, we were told that we should be truthful about everything. But we were also told that avocado green was a good idea for your kitchen, so we should have known better.)

Is it a hill to die on?

Sometimes you have to execute a note you think is wrong. Videogames are a collaborative art. If you don’t execute the note the way higher-ups want, at some point they will find someone who will.

Play the long game. If you were right, at some point it will become clear that the note did not work. If there’s time and resources, perhaps it will get fixed. And, you know, maybe you were wrong. There have been times I thought I was right, and I was wrong, you know?

Is it a hill to die on? Probably not. I mean, if someone asks you to write something legit evil, then yeah, kick up a fuss. But if they’re just asking you to write something dumb, well, it’s a video game. Video games are sometimes dumb. Your career is more important than a video game.


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There is a lovely scene in The Witcher tv series, Season 3 episode 4, where Geralt and Yennefer get back together after some time. They have an argument, forgive each other, and kiss.

I imagine the writers, Rae Benjamin and Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, wrote a draft of this scene, and got bored. This is an obligatory scene -- you can't really move the plot along without seeing how they feel about each other after being apart. But the viewer can probably guess everything they're going to say. But they have to say it. But it's boring to write, and probably boring to watch. 

Jaskier and Ciri watch Geralt and Yennefer reconcile

They hit on a brilliant alternative. We don't hear what Geralt and Yennefer are saying to each other. But the scene isn't silent. Instead, Jaskier and Ciri are watching it... and they begin saying what they think Geralt and Yennefer are probably saying to each other, with Jaskier, of course, voicing Yennefer all girly, and Ciri doing Geralt's deep growl. 

So we get all that dialogue out, and get to see Geralt and Yennefer reconcile, but the scene is funny, and we also get to see how well Ciri and Jaskier are attuned to Geralt and Yennefer.

You don't always need the protagonist to voice their feelings. Someone else can do it for them. In To Have and Have Not, Humphrey Bogart's Steve asks Lauren Bacall's Slim to walk around him. "No, Steve," she says. "There are no strings tied to you. Not yet."

That's much richer than having Steve say he doesn't like having attachments, because it communicates that emotion, but also shows that Slim gets it... and mocks him for it.

There are obligatory scenes. In S2 E1 of Rome, Julius Caesar has been murdered, and Antony has to give a speech. The problem there is, someone has already written a very famous version of this speech. You may have run across it. "Friends, Romans, countrymen! I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him," wrote Shakespeare.

Only a fool tries to top Shakespeare. Bruno Heller is no fool. We don't hear Antony's speech. Instead we have a pleb in a bar recount seeing Antony's speech. He describes a bit of business Antony does with Caesar's bloody toga. We don't need to know what Antony said. We already know what he said. "But Brutus says he was ambitious! And Brutus is an honorable man. So are they all, all honorable men." What we get instead is new information:  how the speech went down with the crowd.

Dialogue by proxy is a great way to mix it up. It's a great way to communicate what a laconic character is thinking or feeling. Or a character who, in the circumstances, wouldn't want to say what they're thinking or feeling. It's a good way to communicate, as well, what another character thinks about the laconic character. 

And it can be an awesome way to dispose of an obligatory scene. 


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