You’re an Idiot: Making Value from Reaction to your Screenwriting

If you’re like me, if someone doesn’t like something about my screenplay, my very first reaction is always the same.

You’re not as smart as me. If you knew what I knew, you would understand what I wrote. And you don’t understand what I wrote, because you don’t know as much as I do. About everything, in general. In short, life. You know, people. Planet Earth.

If you really don’t understand what I’m doing in my script, my first feeling is I don’t respect you. I have contempt for you. I feel attacked personally, and with my feelings hurt, I want to denigrate your position, and while I won’t call you an idiot, basically the foundation of my exchange with you in the wake of you reading my script is you are, in fact, some kind of idiot.

Someone once told me I can be right or I can be happy. Or you can be right, or you can get your screenplay produced into a motion picture. I have had this happen twice, and I can tell you if I had committed myself to being right about everything during the development of the screenplay, they would still be living as files in my hard drive. Any produced screenwriter will attest to this.

Whenever a reader doesn’t get information from my screenplay, facts crucial to the function of the story, stuff I feel is so obvious that the only reason they could’ve missed it all is carelessness, I know I am responsible for the breakdown. Writers over and over complain about this, appalled that someone could miss something so blatant in the script. Two ways you can take this note. One, reader read poorly. Two, you have clarity problems. What is the constructive reaction? You have a clarity problem.

You might get a note saying they don’t believe a character would do or say something, particularly dialogue or actions of a certain time period or profession, such as a cop, or a farmer from the 18th century in Russia. The writer defends the charge by citing historical facts, or stating they have seven relatives in law enforcement, or they grew up in Canada, and they do, indeed, talk like that. Well, it doesn’t matter. If your audience is distracted by your authenticity rubbing them as cliché or improbable, you need to revise. Screenwriting is compression and art. It’s truth, not a transcription. Where do clichés come from anyway?

I recently got a reaction from an audience member to a movie I wrote that I had never heard from anyone EVER. My first instinct was to say to myself, well, um, that’s stupid, because EVERYBODY else thinks differently. This is another reaction I’ve run into quite a bit with writers. “Everybody else thinks it’s funny or realistic or a perfect movie or…”
Who is your “everybody else”? Consider your sources, and keep your mind open. In the end, “everybody else” doesn’t exist.

Notes on your screenplay are not a personal attack. They might feel like that. You have made an investment of self, and you love what you have created. It is you. But someone’s reaction to your writing is not a reaction to you. It is a reaction of the person who read your screenplay. Same screenplay, different people, different reactions. So the reactions are personal to the readers. Detach from the notes to the degree to which you can improve your screenplay. Their reactions are formed primarily from their lives, not your words. Which leads me to this. Do not embrace the extremes. Listen to the ends of the spectrum of opinions, but do not wallow there. If someone thinks your script is the worst attempt at screenwriting on record, take what you can, but do not stay with this, toss it off as something off and wild. If someone thinks your script is so awesomely perfect and beautiful that there’s really nothing to be changed, take what you can, but do not stay with this, toss it off as something off and wild.

Let’s say you’ve offended someone. They think your choices about language or characterization or action are patently offensive, maybe immoral, bigoted, racist, or sexist, disturbing to the point of quit. Do you need to change something? Perhaps. It’s up to you. Know that you’ve offended someone. I have written disturbing material, and I didn’t change it. But I’ve learned to sincerely respect that reaction and allow it to help strengthen my creative positions.

Do not listen to hysterical advice about formatting, but if people say they found typos, that means you don’t respect your movie and you need look at your attitude to your work on story.

Don’t ever question the credentials of your reader. We can seek the experienced and the professional, but in the end, to discredit notes because the reader is “not a screenwriter” or “some punk in a mailroom” or “the assistant fresh out of blah blah”, I put this to you. Where exactly do you think the studios come from? Do you know where the executives started? Do you know how Hollywood began? Who is sitting in the movie seats every Friday night across the planet? Screenplay consultants? No. Your audience.

Seek their reaction. They are the flashlight that works. You can gleam the most incredible insights from any one who reads your screenplay, if you put aside your fight and remember the goal of production. We can’t wait for the “qualified” to tell us what’s wrong. We don’t have to.

I don’t remember what the newspapers wrote about the movies I’ve written, but I do remember what the audiences said. The hell with right. I want to make movies, and I strive for that direction.

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