One of the difficulties in tackling notes arises when you have notes coming in from different sources. It is rare that everyone wants the same thing. Some individual notes can completely contradict each other. Worse still, if you look at the overall picture of the notes (see last post) it can become clear that several people involved have a different vision for the project.
So how do you keep everyone happy?
The obvious answer is that, mostly, you don’t. But the hard part is that, almost always, you have to try.
I’ll fall back on an old analogy of mine. You’ve got friends coming over. One likes red wine, one likes white wine, another prefers beer and someone just wants a cup of tea. But you only get to serve one big drink in the middle of the table. So what happens if you pour in some of those wines in with the beer and stir in some tea? Do they like it? Of course not. You’ve created something hideous.
But… maybe the tea drinker doesn’t mind white wine. Maybe the beer drinker will be okay with wine if you serve it in a pint glass (that won’t end well…). Maybe you can promise the red wine drinker that you’ll do your best to make sure you have red wine in next time.
So when it comes to notes, you have to weigh up the considerations and the options. The two big ones are:
1) What is right for the story?
2) Who is bankrolling the whole thing?
The second one might not always be fun to consider but it is of vital importance. There is no point in keeping lots of people in the process happy if the one person who can pull the plug hates it. There will always be a hierarchy when it comes to notes. They do not all carry the same weight.
The hope is that story will always come first and that your notes will help you make it even better. When you have some tough decisions or notes that conflict, you have got to try to find solutions that people can agree on. But if that can’t happen, make sure you keep the right people happy.
On a script I was working on recently, a bunch of notes came in really late. I was in mid-flow and had a very solid picture of what I was doing and no new notes were expected. And yet here they were and, worse still, they didn’t seem to fit with the spirit of the work we were aiming for. They threw me off. But when the notes were passed on to me, they were passed on with a message from the producer and editor that read “we totally have your back here”. We still needed to address the notes and make sure that the person who made them was happy but that extra message was a reassurance that the people I was working with all understood what we aiming for. We were a team all pushing for the same things.
It got me thinking about notes generally and what they can tell us.
We have a tendency to address notes individually. We might read them and get more horrified by each one. Or read them and nod our head at one, sigh at the next one and so on. I have written about handling notes several times here before and I think the key thing is to let them sink in and use them to make your project better. Notes are an important part of the process. They test concepts and ideas. They give an outside view that you will sorely need when you are buried in a project. And they should always be carefully considered with the knowledge that whoever made them wants to help make your project better.
But while you’re addressing the notes, keep an eye out for what they say as a whole. Are they all picking up on very similar points throughout? If so, this is less about the individual notes and more a larger picture issue you need to consider. Do the notes happen to be centred around a particular character? Perhaps it isn’t the individual events that are the problem – it could be character you need to look at. Are they all asking you to pull back on things? Or the opposite, looking for you to push things further? Maybe your tone is off, or maybe you’re not pitching it at quite the right age group.
Look for patterns in your notes. They can help you solve bigger picture problems even if the person who made them didn’t quite see it themselves. Or they can tell you about that person. Some people focus on language, on the words. Some are character people who can ignore gaping plot holes but will be fantastic at helping you spot when someone acts out of character. See if you can find the strengths of the people giving you notes and also know ways to keep them happy with your work.
One last thing to mention. If you’re constantly getting streams of notes that you are finding very difficult to tackle or integrate into your work (and it isn’t just you rejecting them out of stubbornness), it could be a sign that you see the project in a very different way to the person making the notes. If you are both aiming for two completely different things, those notes probably aren’t going to help you. That’s when you need to pick up the phone or set up a meeting and chat about the overall vision for the project. Because really, you’re a team. And you’ve got to have each other’s back on it.
Ideas often spark from very personal places. Sometimes just a silly notion. You don’t think too deeply about them at first. They’re just fun. But maybe something sticks and you start to think, there might be something in this. You enjoy working it up.
So at what point do you start seriously considering its potential audience?
I feel the answer is: as early as possible. That probably doesn’t surprise regular readers here. Thinking about the audience will inform so much of what you do. It pulls you back from the project, helps strip away some of the ego. You’re working for someone else now, not just entertaining yourself.
Think of the audience. And show the audience when you can. See how it goes down. What didn’t quite hit? What did work? Protect that – don’t lose it.
And here is another plus to consider: your audience can be a great tie-breaker. You might be torn between two directions or there may be people on your team who feel differently to you about something. Who is right? Don’t just get stubborn. Let what you know of the audience decide. Test it to back it up. Be strong on your vision but, when stuck between choices, defer to your audience.
Handling early audience feedback well will strengthen your project. It isn’t about acting on their every whim. It is about using their reactions to prevent you disappearing blindly into your own project, helping you make something great.
At times in our work life, we will have a realisation that can improve what we’re doing. We find a new focus or a new aim. It can be large overall goal or a realisation that we should be changing direction. Or it can be small thing that will make a project better, something you’re now going to look out for as the project develops.
Any realisation about a way to improve something is a positive.
But they rarely stick. Why? Because we already have our daily systems and habits. Real life throws stuff at us constantly. Remembering to check for that new thing is next to impossible. It shifts to the back of the mind and then it’s gone until insomnia decides you should remember about it in the middle of the night when you can do nothing but feel bad that you let things slip.
The flaw here is relying on your mind to hold it front and centre the entire time. Your mind is busy enough as it is. So make those reminders external. If you have something new to add as part of your routine, add it to your to-do lists. Every to-do list so you can’t forget or ignore it. Write it on post-its and stick them where you can’t miss them. Make sure those reminders are where you actually need them.
Only by having constant reminders and nudges will you really integrate new changes or a new focus into your day. Without them, the second you get busy you will shift back to the old habits all too quickly.
Almost break time! Well that turned out to be a busy year. On Friday, I should deliver the final draft of the last episode of a 20-episode live-action children’s series I have been writing. A gorgeous television show for Norway that has been a joy to write. Also this year, I have written for companies in Holland and Australia. So my 2015 writing output looks a little like this:
29 TV episodes
2 features from blank page to final draft.
1 feature to first draft.
That is on top of our other Mooshku work: consulting on a couple of projects, creating and animating segments for a live science show, producing a rad pixel art music video for Gunship, developing some of our in-house IP and creating, writing and producing a pretty special little animation we’re not yet allowed talk about (more on that next year!). Oh, and Méabh has been busy producing Little Roy with the wonderful Jam Media.
Together, we have lived in many worlds and made friends with many characters, some established and some completely new. We have had stress and struggles but also fun and play. And it is the fun and play that we want on screen. That is what kids will respond to.
That is why we test our work with children. We note what is working, not working. Where they laughed, where they looked away. What they talked through or what they talked about. For us, it is about giving children the best and, when it comes down to it, no matter what our opinions are, no matter who is throwing notes at us, it is important that we ultimately defer to the true experts: the children.
So as Christmas approaches and the year draws to a close, I would like to thank all the kids who watched our work this year and listened to our stories and gave us comments such as “make this into a whole movie”, “can you finish it today?”, “my favourite bit is the bit with the pants”, “why does it say he is green when it isn’t coloured in?”, “will the drawings be better?”, “did you forget your glasses?”, “it was my sister’s birthday yesterday” and many more insightful gems. Especially to the children of Rathfarnham Educate Together.
You kids all rock and you make our work better.
I hope everyone has a calm and peaceful Christmas or whichever holiday you choose to celebrate!
Watching Shia LaBeouf watching his movies a few weeks ago got me thinking about narrative and just how simple it can be.
I watched him sit for a while. Sitting… sitting… sitting. Pretty dull, right? But I found myself wondering when he gets up to go to the toilet. I mean, he must have done that, right? And while I watched, he started to get up. He’s going! Look! He stood and… twist in the tale, he was just letting someone by. It was a little moment of excitement in something incredibly mundane and it had an unexpected outcome.
Later, he looked wrecked. I could see he was tired. Would I get to see him fall asleep? His eyelids got heavy. Almost… almost… and then he shook it off. Still awake. I found myself watching for a bizarre amount of time to see if he would fall asleep. And I felt a genuine satisfaction when it finally happened.
It reminded of a webcam about a decade ago that was fixed on a dog basket. When you logged in, the dog might be there. Or might not be there. The real excitement was catching the moment when it happened – when the dog got into the basket or left the basket. Seeing that dog get into its basket was a more rare and precious thing than watching Iron Man beat the heck out some bad guy for some reason he probably caused yet again.
Narrative comes in many forms. Expectations and outcomes can make a story. The little surprises, the anticipation and then catching a moment. The stakes only need be as high as the tone you set. And whatever about visual spectacle, we can relate to the little things.
And this is why a YouTuber finding some diamond in Minecraft can be more exciting to kids than your carefully crafted cartoon that took seven drafts and months of production to get right.
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.