When we start on a new project or a new job, our thoughts often go like this: OMG what am I supposed to do now?! How do I muddle my way through this one and not get fired?! When we reach a certain level, I think we become a bit more sure of ourselves and what we can offer.
If you find yourself in the former situation, there is an easy way to help that. If you are in the latter, it is something that becomes even more important because it is when we get complacent that the real problems can start and soon we find we’re not doing as great a job as we thought we would. So what to do? It’s simple: ask.
Ask how your client would like a job done. Ask how you could be most helpful to your peers or collaborators. Ask and you’ll get the answers you need to do a better job.
Take script editing as an example. I have found over the years that there are many different types of script editors, all offering completely different things and all with the same title. Some take a big picture view looking at theme and form and they ask the big questions. Others don’t want to mess with a writer’s story but will help them tell it better by getting into the details and working on a line by line process. Some are just looking for the red flags and are like a quality control process. All of these have value and they will help different types of writers in different ways. But they won’t all help all the writers all the time.
So if I’m script editing, it makes sense for me to ask: what will be the most helpful to you? What are expecting out of this process? We will often find that the job needs more than we’re told (because what people want and what they need are not always the same thing) but it gives us a fantastic place to start the process.
When in doubt, ask. When not in doubt, ask anyway.
Let’s make an aspirational character, someone who the audience will want to be. Someone to inspire them and motivate them. A little older, a little wittier, a little cleverer and with a great set of skills. We can do this in cartoons with snappy, cool heroes. We can do this in reality television with stories of amazing achievements.
Good, right? Not always.
There is a very fine line between inspiring children and putting them off altogether. What you see as aspirational can sometimes seem to the audience as unachievable. Out of reach. Showing them a champion gymnast might demonstrate what is possible with hard work and dedication. Or it might just tell a kid that their awkward forward roll that they were so proud of was actually nothing and highlight the massive chasm between where they are at and where that champion is.
Having something to aspire to can be great but I’m sure we have all tried something at some point in our lives and found it so tricky that it just doesn’t seem worth the effort (me with a Rubik’s Cube, for example). It has to feel within reach or have smaller, more achievable goals.
Children’s art shows historically seem to get this right. It is quite rare that they create something on these shows that children can’t have a good stab at themselves. The idea of making a bird out of coloured paper can have kids running to the kitchen to try. Fifteen minutes later, there is a new picture on the fridge and a very proud happy child. But had they shown a master portrait painter instead, fifteen minutes later there would likely be torn up pages and tears. And that’s if any child even bothered to try.
So I feel we can learn from the art shows even when it comes to creating fictional characters or building all sorts of other entertainment. Be careful not to undermine the amazing things that children are capable of right now. Keep in mind that what might seem normal to you (buttoning up a coat) can be amazing to kids, depending on the age group. Aspirational can still be good but be careful not to frustrate. As with anything else, always keep in mind your actual audience.
Structure is a wonderful tool for helping you lay down your story. It can provide a framework for what otherwise is a sprawling list of stuff that happens and things people say. For me, it provides clear targets to hit and that helps me get going in a story. And it helps when I get stuck too – what if I try to lead to a big moment here? What is that big moment going to be? I ended the last section on a downer, how about the next section ends on a high? And so on.
When plotting features, I let scenes play out in my head without guides or limits but, when it comes to arranging them, I use the most basic film structure as a template so I know where to put them. Without structure, I feel the stories would be like playing Pin The Tail On The Donkey only without a Donkey.
Once you’ve written something, a sense of structure needs can also be a great troubleshooting tool. Is a section sagging? Have a look at where beats land in a very traditional structure and see if yours are way off that. By the way, just a little thought here – the thing I hear most often is that a story drags in the second act. In my view, that’s because the story structure that is actually described in most books or templates is actually a four act structure, not a three act one. Dividing what people call a second act into two and treating each half as an act in itself may help avoid what is usually called a second act lull.
So, structure is a fantastic tool and a great place to start.
BUT… be careful not to get too hung up on it. A story should be engaging, fun or emotional. We should want to turn the page or keep watching. We should want to be immersed in that world and should believe that world. If we do, then it’s job done. Is it enjoyable? Do people love this story?Those are the things you need to look for when your story is laid down.
If you’re using structure as a way to show why a story or movie that everybody loves is actually rubbish, you’re doing it wrong. It is simply a helpful tool to help craft a great story. Don’t use it to break stories if they’re actually working as is.
It is never to late to mix up how you do things, to try different methods and find better ways. So I thought I would share a change in how I am handling script notes at the moment. Will this method stick? No idea – check back with me on that one.
I have written about handling notes before. Essentially what it boils down to is this: don’t react instantly. Read the notes, then forget about them for 24 hours or more. Let them sink in. Then evaluate them. Try to identify the core problems being addressed in the notes (like an illness, sometimes a symptom can mask a different problem). From there, you make your fixes as required while always aiming to improve, tighten and clarify as you go.
But my approach has changed for the last few scripts I have completed. Here is what I have done instead:
Don’t even consider the notes. Just go ahead and make the changes exactly as suggested without worrying about the real causes or the bigger picture. Then wait that 24 hours or more. Now read through your story and make a note any time something feels wrong. If you can tighten, do it. If you can cut, do it. Tweak until until it feels right.
The first method, my traditional system, is careful and considered. The second is not, at least not at the start. The risk in the second method is that the changes made may miss the underlying issues that led to the notes in the first place. But the huge positive is that it doesn’t allow for any rejection of the ideas in the notes based on little more than ‘I had it this way before’. When you actually start to evaluate the story with consideration, the changes are already in place and you have moved on from that earlier draft. You are now evaluating a new version of that script and, because you went straight ahead and made those changes and they aren’t from your own gut, it allows a touch more objectivity.
So if the first method has worked for me, why change?
What prompted the trial was writing on a show this year from creatives who have an incredibly strong sense of what the show is – every note without fail made the episodes better exactly as described (I have to be honest, that is not always the case). I realised several episodes in that their notes came with a safety net. And I also noticed that, as a result of that, I would tend to find my own fixes and tweaks around those notes because I wasn’t worried about tackling their notes. It meant we all caught more and the scripts got better easier. I also think it could be more efficient from a time perspective and my workload has been particularly heavy this year.
I have a feeling that the best method will vary from project to project, from notes to notes and especially from writer to writer. But if you are a writer and find you have trouble tackling notes, from separating yourself from those early drafts, try this second method and see if it helps.