Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Practical Application of the Atoms of Cinema: Part III

(Click here for the previous article in this series)

In previous articles, I introduced the “Atoms of Information” approach towards story analysis, and have presented examples of expertly written scenes that reflect hows its ideas work to create an effective story experience in its audience. In the following article, I present a REAL scene from a REAL spec screenplay, used with the permission of the writer, to illustrate how this approach can be used to break down, analyze, and improve a scene during the rewrite process.

But first let's review the basic ideas behind this approach:
1) Storytelling, cinematic or otherwise, is a process of communication from storyteller to audience. 2) The smallest unit of storytelling is the communication of a single piece of information. 3) It is through the piece-by-piece accumulation of important information that the audience can understand and enjoy a story. 4) Therefore, the most effective and pleasing screen narratives are those in which every moment, every image, sound, or action, works to communicate a piece of new and important information to the audience, ideally in a manner that encourages the audience to become mentally involved in the story process.

Here is our scene:

FADE IN:

EXT. ST. JOHN’S, NEWFOUNDLAND - WATER STREET - DAY


JOHN O’BRIEN, a lanky 30ish white Irish Catholic, steps to
the curb on a steep street at the bottom of a massive exposed
granite rock hill.

It is sunny but cold.

He looks across a large oval-shaped harbor to a clump of
fishermans’ houses lashed to the side of the opposing rock
face like so many brightly colored life rafts, then back at
the building he has just exited: A big Mansard-roofed, three
story clapboard walk-up, white with black trim and upper
story bay windows.

INSERT white with black trim letters on a glass door:

GOVERNMENT OF CANADA
DEPARTMENT OF FISHERIES AND OCEANS

END INSERT

A pale white male OFFICE WORKER in his sixties, guilty
looking, steps out of the DFO door.

OFFICE WORKER
O’Brien, it’s not me, sure.
It’s...
(pointing up a floor)
Them that says he can’t take the
fish.

John turns away and starts off up the hill.

OFFICE WORKER
Tell your father I did all I could
for me will you?

John dismisses the guy with a wave without turning.

JOHN
Yes, b’y. I’ll tell him you did
all you could for you.

The Office Worker waves John off, too, and heads back inside.

OFFICE WORKER
Ah, go on. You know what I mean.

ON JOHN

Trudging halfway up the hill to a statue of a black anchor
and chain embedded in the top of a large granite boulder
marked by a weathered bronze plaque.

INSERT PLAQUE INSCRIPTION

O’Brien Park

Dedicated to the O’Brien family who lived on this site.
Four members of the family paid the supreme sacrifice while
serving with the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy in World
War II, 1939 - 1945.
Maurice - H.M.S. Forfar, December 2, 1940.
Michael - S.S. Eastlea, March 30, 1941.
James - Lost at sea, July 22, 1942.
David - H.M.S. Frisky, October 5, 1942.
Their mother, Margaret O’Brien, who died June 12, 1963, was
recognized as Newfoundland’s most bereaved mother for World
War II. Their father Maurice O’Brien, died August 30, 1942.
“Let us then follow after the things that make peace.” Romans
14:19.

END INSERT

John touches the plague in a familiar worn spot as he walks
by.

JOHN
(to himself)
Yes, b’y. We’ll go on. What else?

He continues climbing the street, assisted by the occasional
cracked concrete step and rusty iron railing, the ship-like
colors of the houses changing kaleidoscopically beside him.

FURTHER ON

John crests the hill and comes upon a picturesque little

CITY PARK

No more than a small grassy clearing sandwiched between more
walk-ups, home to a small bandstand trimmed with lacy
woodwork and sitting comfortably beneath two large leafy
trees.

John goes to the bandstand, sits on its steps, crosses his
arms tight across his chest, closes his eyes and breathes
deeply of the clean, salty air.

A COUPLE OF KIDS carrying baseball gloves, bat and ball, stop
in front of him. They appear not to be bothered by the
chilly temperature.

John opens his eyes.

KID #1
Hit a few flies, mister?

JOHN
Fly balls?

KID #2
Sure, b’y. What else?

John smiles, takes the bat and ball, walks to the far end of
the field, waits for the kids to position themselves opposite
him, then pops a high fly in the air.



Okay. This seems like a decent opening scene on the first read. It sets up the story's characters, setting, and conflict. But let's see what happens when we break it down moment-by-moment, and REALLY look at what the audience would get from this scene.


FADE IN:

EXT. ST. JOHN’S, NEWFOUNDLAND - WATER STREET - DAY

JOHN O’BRIEN, a lanky 30ish white Irish Catholic, steps to
the curb on a steep street at the bottom of a massive exposed
granite rock hill.


Few moments in a film rival the importance of the opening image. It is the first thing presented to the audience, the very first building block that your entire story will be constructed. Give the audience a dramatic, visual piece of information that arouses their curiosity and they will immediately sit up and take notice. One good piece of information and they are already hooked into your story.

The opening moment is also has the most potential for creativity. Your film begins as a blank slate. At this moment, there are limitless possibilities with what you can do with it. Good opening moments are handled in two different ways. The first is to open with an image of dramatic action. Something is happening, causing the audience to get mentally involved because they wish to know what. The second is with a visual image that has multiple levels of meaning. A simple images that not only communicates literal information, but also tone, theme, genre, or perhaps symbolic meaning. For instance, a story filled with people with rotten souls, can open with a rotten apple core sitting in the garbage. A story of violence and anger set at sea could start with rough, storm-fueled ocean waves.

But the writer of this scene has missed this opportunity with his opening image. All this image communicates is “There is an Irish-looking man standing at the bottom of a hill.” This information is neutral and nondramatic. The audience is given no reason to be interested. They have no idea who this person is -so they have no reason to care about seeing him, nor is he doing anything at the moment that that engages their curiosity.

If the writer wishes to open his film with an image of the protagonist, he should open with the protagonist in the middle of DRAMATIC ACTION. Have him throwing a fit, screaming and flailing his arms. Or have him shredding a document and throwing it into the water. Or have him casually walk down the stairs, and then spit on the doorstep. Now, we are communicating something dramatic and emotional: “This man is upset.” This in turn engages the audience's interest as they wonder “Who is this man? Why is he upset?”

It is sunny but cold.

“Sunny” can be communicated in cinema. “Cold” cannot. There is no way you can make the audience feel the temperature. Anything one puts in a script that cannot be communicated through sight or sound amounts to “NONINFORMATION.” To communicate “cold” you must instead supply visual information that would suggest the temperature, such as seeing one's breath, or tucking one's chin inside their coat.

He looks across a large oval-shaped harbor to a clump of
fishermans’ houses lashed to the side of the opposing rock
face like so many brightly colored life rafts,

Here the writer suggests a shot to communicate the environment. The comparison of the houseboats to life rafts is suggestive of something with deeper meaning- but how will this comparison be communicated visually to the audience? What image can the writer give to make that suggestion?

All in all, the info in this section is still very neutral, one-sided, and literal. Nothing is communicated to the audience other than factual information of what is around John. Here, the writer misses another opportunity. Whenever possible, a writer should strive to communicate meaning on multiple levels. A picture is worth a thousand words, so there is plenty of room for any image to communicate many things at once. The writer could use this visual to get across something of deeper significance. Such as, if there is conflict and violence on the story's horizon, the writer could foreshadow this with blood-red waters reflecting the sunset. Or if the writer has characters who are emotionally repressed, stuck in stubborn habits, this could be suggested symbolically by an iced-over harbor with boats stuck in their docks.

then back at
the building he has just exited: A big Mansard-roofed, three
story clapboard walk-up, white with black trim and upper
story bay windows.


I don't see why a description of the building needs to be communicated in such a detailed manner. The Atoms theory is based in the idea that everything seen or heard on screen communicates a piece of new information that is important to advance the scene, and thus the story. If it doesn't have story importance, it is not necessary to include.

INSERT white with black trim letters on a glass door:
GOVERNMENT OF CANADA
DEPARTMENT OF FISHERIES AND OCEANS
END INSERT


Okay, we have been given some information that will work to orientate the audience. The audience now knows where they are and has some clue as to what the characters are doing here. Unfortunately, this information has been given in a manner that engages the audience's interest in the least significant degree. Signs are a form of bald exposition. They give information directly to the audience in a direct, nondramatic manner.

The audience prefers not to be TOLD things. Facts are boring. Like children in gradeschool, audiences are more eager to learn when they are allowed to PARTICIPATE. They prefer to be indirectly given hints and clues that allow them to feel involved in the story process. The audience feels good when they get the impression that they are figuring out the story all by themselves.

The key is to find ways to SUGGEST information in a way that is easy for the audience to grasp, but doesn't feel like it is shoved in their face. There are many, many ways the information above might be suggested. One of the characters could be waving about a document with an official government seal. Or work it dramatically into the dialogue: JOHN: “I've dealt with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for ten years, and I've never had problems like this!”

A pale white male OFFICE WORKER in his sixties, guilty
looking, steps out of the DFO door.


Again, “guilty-looking” borders on noninformation. The writer should be more visually specific in order to communicate a character's emotions to the audience. What specifically could the office worker do to convey a feeling of guilt?

OFFICE WORKER
O’Brien, it’s not me, sure.
It’s...
(pointing up a floor)
Them that says he can’t take the
fish.


This moment is done well. The scene's very first line of dialogue immediately communicates the source of the conflict that drives the scene. The pointing upstairs is a good inclusion. It adds a visual element to the communication, and instead of TELLING the audience all the information directly, it IMPLIES. It encourages the audience to become mentally involved. They “get it” that John is having trouble with government bureaucrats.

John turns away and starts off up the hill.

John's reaction as written does not work to communicate much. He is simply walking away in an emotionally neutral fashion. Putting a little more thought into this action would work to give it some meaning – both to the conflict at hand and in conveying John's character.

OFFICE WORKER
Tell your father I did all I could
for me will you?


Nice. Story information that is given by making it dramatically relevant to the conflict at hand. The audience now knows that John has a father, and that father has a position of respect in this town. Enough respect that people wish to curry his favor.

John dismisses the guy with a wave without turning.

JOHN
Yes, b’y. I’ll tell him you did
all you could for you.


This reaction works better than the first. There are multiple levels of meaning communicated in how John dismisses his request. First, it implies that John feels that his cause is hopeless and is being treated unfairly. He does not have much respect for bureaucrats. The irony between his actions and his words communicates that he does not in fact believe that the office worker did all he could, and just wants the good favor of his father. John probably will not pass along the office worker's message.

However, I personally think John is being a little too passive in this scene and seems to give up on his goal too easily. This might make him come off too aloof to the audience. If the writer would include something here that would indicate that John cares more about the problem than he is letting on, the audience would feel a little more involved. But, if the protagonist doesn't care, why should the audience?

The Office Worker waves John off, too, and heads back inside.

OFFICE WORKER
Ah, go on. You know what I mean.

Like the last section, we can see that when a character gives a reaction based on emotion, it communicates far more to the audience through subtext than it ever could if it were communicated with direct literal speech. First we saw the office worker acting polite and supplicative. Now we see him blow John off with a wave of his hand. The contrast between these to moments implies through subtext that the office worker never really did care about John's problem. John's opinion of him is probably correct.

ON JOHN

Trudging halfway up the hill to a statue of a black anchor
and chain embedded in the top of a large granite boulder
marked by a weathered bronze plaque.

INSERT PLAQUE INSCRIPTION

O’Brien Park

Dedicated to the O’Brien family who lived on this site.
Four members of the family paid the supreme sacrifice while
serving with the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy in World
War II, 1939 - 1945.

Maurice - H.M.S. Forfar, December 2, 1940.

Michael - S.S. Eastlea, March 30, 1941.

James - Lost at sea, July 22, 1942.

David - H.M.S. Frisky, October 5, 1942.

Their mother, Margaret O’Brien, who died June 12, 1963, was
recognized as Newfoundland’s most bereaved mother for World
War II. Their father Maurice O’Brien, died August 30, 1942.

“Let us then follow after the things that make peace.” Romans
14:19.

END INSERT

Wow. This is a LOT of text to put on screen. Probably the last time an audience had to read this much at once was the opening scroll of Star Wars. By giving the audience all of this information here and in this manner the writer has brought his scene to a screeching halt.

This is for a number of reasons. First, audiences do not like to read. Half of the moviegoing public still refuses to go to a movie with subtitles. The writer asking a lot of his audience by forcing them to read all of this. Most will probably read the first couple lines, then skip to the end. Some may not bother to read it at all.
Second, in order for the audience to read this entire message, the image on the screen will be stuck on a flat, boring insert shot for more than thirty whole seconds. That is an eternity in screen time. And for an audience that does not like to read in the first place, this is the easiest way to make them bored and restless.
Third, just like the building's sign mentioned previously, this whole section is nothing but bald exposition. Inactive, nondramatic, unemotionally charged info shoved in front of the audience's nose, presented in a manner no more interesting than a school textbook.

On top of this, when one reads further into the script, they find that none of these names or backstories have any direct relevance to the events of the story. These people and these events are not mentioned again. The only thing the writer is trying to communicate is that John comes from a family with a well-respected legacy in this town.

The writer must come up with a far better way to communicate this point. One that allows the audience to grasp its significance in seconds. It has to be done with a strong visual. My suggestion is change the long-winded plaque with a statue of John's grandfather -or some other forefather- who bears a distinctive similarity to John. Include with this an inscription of this honored man's name a short quote that suggests why this man is important.

John touches the plague in a familiar worn spot as he walks
by.

JOHN
(to himself)
Yes, b’y. We’ll go on. What else?

This is a nice piece of information, again communicated subtly through emotion. It implies to the audience that John has some sort of emotional connection to those honored by the plaque. Please, realize that the audience may have missed John's last name when it was given in the dialogue. So, simply seeing “O'Brien Park” does not create much significance to the audience since they may not have enough info to make the connection.

He continues climbing the street, assisted by the occasional
cracked concrete step and rusty iron railing, the ship-like
colors of the houses changing kaleidoscopically beside him.


Thoughts on this section in general: Looking back, it seems to me that the audience will not be as hooked into the action as the writer would like it to be. This is simply because the source of the conflict is left very vague. The only information we are given is that John is angry with the government office over keeping some “fish” Well? What does that mean to the audience? Next to nothing. Why are these fish important? Why is John upset over the issue? What even IS the issue? These fish we're talking about, is it a million-dollar catch of commercial seafood? Two goldfish for his niece? An army of robot fish with “freak-in lay-zers” he'll use to take over the world? This problem is aggravated by the fact that this opening conflict is never explained further in following scenes. The issue ends up being dropped entirely after a dozen more pages.

The audience needs to be given just a little more information. Just enough so they understand why this conflict is important to John and important to the story. One must give the audience just enough information in order to UNDERSTAND, if one wishes for them to CARE.

FURTHER ON

John crests the hill and comes upon a picturesque little

CITY PARK

No more than a small grassy clearing sandwiched between more
walk-ups, home to a small bandstand trimmed with lacy
woodwork and sitting comfortably beneath two large leafy
trees.

John goes to the bandstand, sits on its steps, crosses his
arms tight across his chest, closes his eyes and breathes
deeply of the clean, salty air.

A COUPLE OF KIDS carrying baseball gloves, bat and ball, stop
in front of him. They appear not to be bothered by the
chilly temperature.

John opens his eyes.

KID #1
Hit a few flies, mister?

JOHN
Fly balls?

KID #2
Sure, b’y. What else?

John smiles, takes the bat and ball, walks to the far end of
the field, waits for the kids to position themselves opposite
him, then pops a high fly in the air.


I'll take on this section all at once. As everyone should well know, the first 10-20 pages before the inciting incident in a typical screenplay is known as the “setup.” The writer's goal is to literally “set things up.” He/she must creatively establish every important story element (from characters to locations to backstory, and so on) that the audience needs to know beforehand in order to follow the story once the inciting incident engages the conflict and pushes the story past the point of no return. The setup is just like a chess player setting the board, piece by piece, everything in its proper place from the king to the pawns, before the match can begin. But what if a player starting setting up other pieces on the board, pieces that did not belong in the game? He puts a Monopoly top hat next to the Queen. And a red Corvette Matchbox car in front of the pawns. Not only would this be silly, but it would be pointless because these pieces have nothing to do with the game at hand. It may look cute or interesting to have those outside pieces there, but they end up doing nothing but cluttering up the board.

I bring this up because all the elements introduced in the preceding section are never returned to later in the writer's full script. We never see this park again, nor do we see these kids, nor do we ever see John again engage in anything to do with baseball. These things have no real use in the rest of the story. The writer has chosen to follow his opening scene with a lot of new information whose usefulness begins and ends within this scene.

Audience members have become innately savvy from years of watching expertly-crafted screen stories. They know that if something is shown to them on the screen, especially during the setup, it has some sort of importance. They file whatever information they are given away in their minds and hold onto it with the expectation that it will become necessary to know later on.

Look back at Part II of this article (April '09) at the two study scenes from Die Hard. The writer lets no moment go to waste. Every little moment communicates something of story importance. But, if the writer instead fills a scene with information that does not turn out to have any real importance, it will only work to dilute the story with needless details and slow down the scene's pace. If the writer makes this mistake enough times, the audience will eventually become confused and lost over what information they need to remember and what is just fluff.

First off, the writer should ask himself whether his story really needs this scene. If the writer does feel the need to see John's emotional reaction and to have his spirits lifted at the scene's end, he should consider changing things in a way that communicates important information that the audience will needs later, while simultaneously carrying out the intentions of the original scene.

This might be a good place for John to encounter a supporting character. Contrasting how John interacts with this new character to how he treated the office worker could work to communicate part of John's deeper character. The scene's setting could be one that needs to be established for story's sake, such as John's home or place of work. Or, it could be a place that would help to communicate something about John's character, or the story's theme. John might go and watch his boyhood home be bulldozed, communicating to the audience a feeling of loss. The activity at the end of scene that cheers John up could also be something that allows the audience to peer into John's deep character. When a person feels upset, they usually cheer themselves up with the one thing they really enjoy in life. Showing the audience what that one thing is could reveal a lot about his character.


In summary, the writer has generally done a good job expressing ideas and revealing character with his dialogue -there is no unnecessary dialogue, no information is repeated, there is subtext communicated beneath the words, and information is presented through drama and conflict. But, the writer is missing many opportunities to express his story through action and visuals. Now, this might be acceptable if this were a stage play, but actions and visuals are the bread and butter of the cinema.

I put so much stress on “information” in my method because it is the process of receiving information that engages the minds of the audience. The more they are engaged, the more interested and excited they become about the story they are watching. By neglecting cinema's two most powerful methods of communication, the writer has kept the audience from being as fully involved in the scene as it could be.

CONCLUSION

Every moment in your screenplay is important. Piece by piece, atom by atom, your story should create an unbroken string of communication that continuously pulls the minds of the audience along its path from the first moment to fade out.


When analyzing your scenes, look at every moment. Ask yourself,

1.What is this moment communicating to the audience? What NEW knowledge is the audience learning by including it in the scene? Is it related to something with story importance? Or is it just attractive filler?

2. Am I communicating this information in a way that will intellectually engage the audience in the best way possible? Am I simply telling things to the audience in a direct, literal way, or can I find a way to suggest the information and let the audience learn on its own?

3. Does the audience need this information at this moment? Could I create curiosity or suspense in the audience by withholding it until a later time?

4. Am I communicating multiple levels of meaning with the same action, image, or piece of speech? Is it possible to invent an image, action, line that works to DO more without being more? Can I transmit the information using drama or emotion?

This process may seem tedious at first, but once a writer starts to train his or her brain to think in this manner it will start to become second nature to write scenes that communicate efficiently with the audience, engage them mentally, and give them a powerfully dramatic experience right from the first draft.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Understanding Script Feedback (part 3 of 3)

RULE #3: NEVER TAKE FEEDBACK LITERALLY

Writers are rarely lucky enough to receive feedback from persons experienced and insightful enough to spot exactly where a script has failed. You would like to hear something like, “Your second act drags because your forces of antagonism fail to escalate after each of the protagonist's actions.” Instead, you usually get “Your second act was slow and boring.” Instead of, “You have not created a strong emotional need in the protagonist to anchor the story and motivate his actions,” you get “Your main character did things kind of randomly.”

To get anything useful out of feedback, the writer should not focus on what the reader has said, but WHY THEY SAID IT. Most of the time, feedback comes solely from the reader's gut reaction. They know they felt a certain way, but probably cannot tell you why.

Remember the beginning of this article. The opinion of your work exists in two separate realities, the writer's SUBJECTIVE REALITY, and the reader's OBJECTIVE REALITY. Now comes the time to reconcile the two.

Between the expectations you have of the audience's reaction in your subjective reality, and the actual impression made on the reader in the objective reality lies a GAP – a gap of miscommunication. Your attempt to communicate the ideas, images, and emotions that seem to bright and powerful in your head have somehow fallen short or gone astray, leaving your script to communicate something far less than you intended.

But how to close the gap? The worst way to go about it is to take all suggestions from feedback literally, and incorporate all of the diverse opinions you have received in an attempt to make everyone happy. I don't need to mention how studios make this mistake time and time again at test screenings, causing them to reshoot and reedit again and again to make everyone happy, turning would could at one time have been a serviceable story into an uneven, unfocused mess.

The reader does not know what target you are aiming for. They do not know what you in your heart really want your script to communicate. Their opinions are merely a gut reaction based on the unfinished evidence they have in front of them with perhaps a bit of imagination on the part of what THEY would do if they were writing this script. If you blindly adhere to the reader's suggestions and start altering your script just to please their tastes, your script will become a patchwork of bits and pieces that will mostly likely send the story off its original spine, becoming something unfocused and even more confusing. If anything, you will turn your script into something much different than what you originally set out to create. But worst of all, if a writer does this, he or she isn't fixing the real flaws. The writer is just putting band-aids on the surface, while allowing the underlying causes continue to damage and weaken their story.

To close the gap, a writer must behave like a doctor. When a patient comes into a doctor's office, the patient doesn't come out and state “I have pneumonia,” or “I have a viral infection,” or whatever is causing them to feel ill. Rather, a patient gives the doctor a list of the symptoms that have been bothering them. It is then the doctor's job to use these symptoms to diagnose the underlying cause. It is the same with your flawed screenplay. Your screenplay is sick. The reader's feedback presents you with its symptoms. It is the job of the writer to use these symptoms to diagnose the script's DISEASE, the underlying cause of your script problems.

It would be incredibly irresponsible for a doctor to send away a tuberculosis patient with simply a bottle of cough syrup and consider the patient cured. Even though the patient's coughing might stop, the disease is still there and threatens to kill the patient in many other ways. This is the same reason that it is foolish to follow the reader's advice literally. You will only be treating the symptoms, not the disease.

Granted, the ability to diagnose your script quickly and accurately requires a good deal of experience and knowledge of screencraft. Until your skills are honed enough to recognize what underlying problems can cause what symptoms, you might want to consider paying for a professional reader service. These pros can help you pinpoint the problem if all other self-analysis fails.

However, until that time comes, you can save yourself some money and begin your approach in the following manner:

Take a piece of your reader's criticism. Let's say it states that your climax falls flat. Ask yourself “What made the reader think that?” Look into your script to find the answer. An unfulfilling climax could be caused by a number of things from less than acceptable level of story conflict, to weak stakes, to a cop-out deus ex machina style ending. But only one cause will be specific to your script. Search your work with a objective, critical eye, looking for what possibly went astray and gave the writer that opinion.

Sometimes a reader can make a surprising misconception about your story, when your intentions were quite different. Let's say the reader describes your protagonist as a “brooding amoral toughguy,” when what you were going for was “ambitious frustrated dreamer.” This little misconception about your main character changes the reader's entire viewpoint of the story. What you must then do is go into the text, asking yourself “What made the reader get that idea that my protagonist is brooding and amoral?” Read over your scenes line by line and try to pinpoint where possible miscommunications took place. Maybe certain lines of dialogue ended up implying things about the character that you did not intend. Maybe you have not done enough in the character's scenes to bring the his specific qualities to the forefront. When you find these things, make an effort to correct them.


The ultimate goal of rewriting is to close the gap between your expectations and the reader's reality. Make sure the experience you want to give the audience is the same one that they receive. And the only way to do this is through empathy and understanding of your readers and the audience. Work hard to make your dual realities one in the same.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Understanding Script Feedback: (part 2 of 3)

RULE #2: A SCRIPT IS NOT A MOVIE. A SCRIPT IS AN ANALOG OF A MOVIE

Movies are not made of words. Movies are made of action, images, and sound. But unfortunately and out of necessity, scripts MUST be made of words. And this can often be the source of many problems.

Do you remember those old analog cassette tapes? You would put them in a tape player, hit the PLAY button, and you would hear the music. But any idiot knows that there is no actual music inside the cassettes. All there is inside them is a spool of plastic ribbon coated with some sort of magnetic-sensitive material. But on the ribbon is an ANALOG of the music.

Here's how the recording process worked: The sound waves of the original music would enter a microphone. The movement of the sound waves would create an electrical signal in the microphone, which would then be converted into an analogous magnetic pattern in the recording device. (“analog” refers to the process of transcribing the sound into an analogy of the original, but a different form.) The magnetic pattern is then recorded on the magnet-sensitive tape ribbon.

When one puts the tape into their home stereo, the transcription is reversed. The stereo reads the magnetic pattern, converts it into an electrical signal, which then comes out of the speakers and to our ears as sound waves equal to the original sound.

A movie script works in the same way. Screenwriters have a unique and somewhat more difficult place in the creative world compared to other artists. Screenwriters originate their artistic ideas, but are not allowed to deliver their ideas in their finished forms. Their duty is to take the actions, images, and sounds that exist in the movie in their heads and somehow transcribe it into written words. Plain, average words to be printed on paper. A script is something like a permanent storage device for a potential movie, just as a cassette tape permanently stores music. When someone reads that script, hopefully the transcription will be reversed – the writers words will create the actions, images, and sounds in the reader's mind exactly as the writer had originally imagined them.

But unfortunately, this does not always happen. Things get mucked up along the way. Sometimes your attempt at transcription does not work the way you want it to, and the communication between writer and reader fails. To you, your original ideas seem clear, strong, and effective. But to the listener of your recording (the reader) it can come out as a garbled mess.

There are two possible reasons why the reader might find fault with the script, the “movie analog” he/she has in front of them. Understanding which one is at fault will help you get your script into the rewrite phase and on the appropriate road to recovery much faster.

The first cause could be that your original ideas were been flawed to begin with. Your concept is unoriginal and lacks conflict, or you have not bothered to develop your characters enough, or your plot structure is weak or nonexistant, etc, etc. In this case, the flaws in your script come directly from you the writer. You need to rethink some things, throw some things out, and come up with some altogather new ideas. An audio engineer would refer to this as “Garbage In/Garbage Out”. This they mean that the finished recording is bad because the original source material was bad. No matter how much one tries to “tweak it in the re-recording” if the original recording was bad, there is little one can do from having a terrible-sounding finished product.

The second cause could be called “Transcription Error”. This means that your original ideas – your source material – may have been good, original, and well thought out, but the fault lies in how you chose to communicate them- how your ideas have been literally put on paper. This is just like a sound engineer who has good source sound, but screws things up in the recording phase. Whenever a writer seems confused about your script, has failed to recognize a concept that you believe is clear and obvious, any time you see an element one way and the reader seems to see it in a completely different fashion, this is due to a transcription error. You have failed to clearly communicate your ideas to the reader by the way you have chosen to record your story – in words – on paper. Possible reasons for transcription error could be you failed to provide enough important information, or it could be that you may have put information into your script but it was not communicated in a strong enough fashion that the reader would easily grasp it, or perhaps you included it in a sea of meaningless details, choking out its importance. It might be that your skills for writing action and description are poor, creating confusion and slowing down your scenes.

But, most times it is not clear at first which is at fault in your writing – the original material or your method of communicating it. To interpret the cause, we must follow Rule #3:

(On to Part III)

Understanding Script Feedback: How to interpret feedback and get the most out of your rewrite



Though I am not a fan of the show American Idol, one can't help but enjoy the show's auditions episodes simply because they put on display some of the most bizarre aspects of humanity.

The bad auditions are always so amusing not because of how bad the singers are, but rather the fact that these people have somehow convinced themselves that they are GOOD – and then they react with such shock and dismay when they are confronted with the truth. They refuse to believe what these people say- REFUSE! These judges must be morons! They don't know anything about good music! They're probably jealous! They insist that the judges are 100% wrong, while anyone in America with a television set and a working set of eardrums knows that they are 100% right.

So what is wrong with these people? Are they delusional? Insane? Just plain stupid?

The real reason that these people can't seem to come to grips with reality is because their talent, as well as all talent, exists on two separate planes. Two separate realities. First, there is the-

SUBJECTIVE REALITY – what this person THINKS they sound like -how they EXPECT people to react to them, and secondly, an

OBJECTIVE REALITY – what this person actually sounds like to others.

The most brazenly untalented singers who audition for this show have come to believe in their subjective reality so strongly that a million doses of the objective world cannot dissuade them.

We as writers face these same conflicting realities every time we hear what someone else thinks of our scripts. So often, reading feedback is a confusing, disheartening, even infuriating experience.
How can this person really think that? What do they mean this plot point doesn't make sense? It was PERFECTLY set up! What do they mean my main character was flat and uninteresting? That character is great! I worked my ass off developing her! Are they blind? They don't know what they are talking about! Did they even READ the script?

You too, have fallen into trap of dual realities. The SUBJECTIVE REALITY, of what you THINK the script accomplishes, what you think it communicates, and how well you think it does so. And, the OBJECTIVE REALITY, the script as you have physically created it, sitting right there in front of a reader in black and white.

To get the most out of feedback, a writer must learn to reconcile the two realities in order to learn where things went wrong.

RULE #1: THE READER IS NEVER WRONG


That's not to say that the reader is always right. Far from it. This is to say that whatever the reader says, it is a 100% valid reflection of what has been set in front of them, in one way or another.

First off, a writer must realize that the reader does not KNOW their story. They don't know their intentions or purposes. They don't know about the elaborate backstory the writer dreamed up in their head to explain your protagonist's behavior. They don't know how the dialogue seems to sing beautifully in the writer's head. They don't know how the last draft was much longer, so the writer cut some scenes for time, and the stuff that was lost kind of explains certain plot points so they make more sense, but hopefully it won't matter too much and the reader will figure it out. All the reader has is the black type on the white page as the writer has chosen to write it down. That, and that alone, is what a reader will use to judge you.

A script is a tool through which the writer communicates his or her story through words. If there is a shocking difference between what YOU see when you look at your script, and what THEY see when they read it, then there has been a failure in communication. The fault is not with the reader, but with you the writer, because you have in some way FAILED to properly communicate your story in the best way possible.

Let's say for instance, you find this article you are reading right now to be confusing, filled with logical errors, and thus causes you to come to the wrong conclusions, (hopefully it won't). Where does the fault lie? With me, the writer, who failed to get my point across clearly? Or you, the reader, for being unable to understand my poor communication skills? Yes, of course, the fault would be all mine.

Never try to argue with someone who gives you feedback. Never tell them that they are wrong. And please don't start explaining your story to your reader as if they were a child and just too dumb to understand it. Have you ever had someone try to tell you what to think? Or worse, tell you what emotions you should be feeling? It's infuriating. How dare someone do that? How dare anyone suggest that your thoughts and feelings are wrong, that they are any less valid than the thoughts and feelings of anyone else's? Well, this is what you will be doing if you try to argue with your readers.

The people who read your scripts may not all be experts in screencraft, but everyone is an expert in their own thoughts and emotions. Emotions don't lie. If reading your script made them feel one way or another, then that feeling is VALID and TRUE. As true as anything else in the world. Now, their reaction may be far from universal – they might even be the only person in the world who feels that way – but as far as their feedback goes, their thoughts are an accurate reflection of the Objective Reality they experienced while reading your script.

Never discount your readers. There is value hidden in their words. Throwing them away is like throwing away money.

(On to Part II)