Saturday, November 10, 2012

Why Scripts Notes Are Like Fantasies

Mistaking a fantasy for a goal in life can lead to terrible choices. The same applies for taking script notes literally.

I’ve recently been fortunate enough to have short script of mine read and critiqued by a serious production company who is interested in producing it. As is always the case, the notes I’ve received are accompanied by some very creative suggestions for “fixing” aspects of the script they think need improving. Here’s the thing: since having attended SimonPhillips session at the 2012 London Screenwriters Festival, I feel so much better equipped to deal with these suggestions effectively. But first a digression into fantasy land.

Fantasy As A Signpost
Man fantasizing about cross-dressing
When someone asks you what you would do if you won the lottery, or what you would do differently if you could have the last five years again, your fantasy automatically shifts into gear. You might imagine the most outrageous alternative existence, or you might imagine something minuscule like having accepted rather than rejected that invitation from the guy at work. But whatever the fantasy, the fantasy itself isn’t literally the thing you want, it’s just a pointer in the direction of what you want.

The fantasy of a totally different lifestyle might be an indication that you need to seriously deal with a professional or relationship problem you’ve been avoiding. The fantasy about accepting the invitation might be a prompt to take some steps to improve your social life. The point is, the fantasy itself is not the goal. And often, if you chase a fantasy as if it is literally what you want, you end up disappointed. Unfortunately, this is why a lot of so-called self-help methods end up making you feel worse about yourself.

Follow your dream!

Um… in a sense, perhaps. Taking fantasies and daydreams seriously is a great way of distilling concrete, attainable goals, or for simply articulating more clearly what you’re unsatisfied about and want to change. But taking fantasies and daydreams literally, is a recipe for disappointment or even disaster.

Simon Phillips
A one-hour session with a huge audience during the London Screenwriters Festival can never do justice to the kind of profound techniques Simon Phillips teaches. But as with all great insights, his approach is based on some really very simple principles. They are simple to understand, but take a lot or hard graft to genuinely internalize.

His point about notes, whether from producers, directors or actors, is this: When they offer suggestions for improving the script which seem absurd or inappropriate to you, you need to take the suggestions seriously, but not necessarily literally. A suggested change to the script is a manifestation of that person’s intuition that something isn’t right, and it’s your job to find out what they’re intuiting. So Simon Phillips has a method he calls Creative Reading, which helps you identify contradictory or missing information in your script. Here’s what you do…

Creative Reading
Firstly, take a scene and read it as if it’s a real-life event. Make a note of every concrete thing each character perceives for the first time. This can include things a character sees, hears, smells, and so on, things that happened before the scene started, things that are not included in the scene description, things that are implied in the lay-out of the location, etc. But only list specific, concrete perceptions, what Simon Phillips calls “change points.” Not subsequent actions, dialogue, feelings, or anything of that nature.

Secondly, still assuming this is a real-life situation, make a note of each decision a character takes as a result of the perceptions you’ve listed. Each time they perceive something they decide to act or respond in a certain way. These are what Simon Phillips calls “phenomena” and these are the specific actions a character takes, or the words they speak.

Just doing this is often more than enough to expose things about the characters you may not have considered, or inadvertently left unmentioned. Equally, it can show you where you’re giving away too much information too soon, or repeating yourself, or leaving too much information out, etc. It gives you conscious control over what information to reveal or deliberately hide in a scene.

Script Notes As Fantasies
Does it have to be Nelson?
Armed with this kind of intimate knowledge of your script, you can identify far more directly what the creative suggestions you are receiving are indirectly flagging up. When the producer wonders out loud whether the main character should be a young man instead of an old lady, or whether the story might work better if set on a spaceship, these are their fantasies. And like your own fantasies about starting a new life in Mozambique or your fantasy about burying your spouse in your back yard, they are intuitive pointers to a specific but as yet unarticulated problem.

It’s worth practising this technique on a scene you have lying around. Identify all the “change points” and pretty quickly you’ll see how you can make the scene more dramatic or suspenseful, or what you can cut. I’ve actually been quite amazed by how effective and radical this seemingly simple method can be.

If you don’t identify and remedy confusing elements of the script, directors and actors will intuitively look for ways to fill in the gaps themselves, which may not improve the resulting film. And guess who will get the blame if the film isn’t well-received?


SCRIPTMONK!!! said...

This sounds a lot like something from an article I wrote a while back for my own blog (though mine is not as well written)

However, I don't understand how analyzing the stimulus/response of a scene's characters can help reconcile the reader's viewpoint with your own.

Raving Dave Herman said...

Thanks for your comment, Scriptmonk! In your blog I think you’re talking about using a reader’s notes to identify things you the screenwriter had in your head but that possibly didn’t make it on to the page. This is a really common phenomenon (in my experience), and it’s an extremely useful thing to flag up! You have the entire scene and all the backstory in your mind, but all the reader sees are the pages. What I’m writing about in this blog post is what happens when the director and actors take the script and start rehearsing/shooting it. That’s quite a different dynamic from a script reader merely reading the script. It’s a dynamic situation in which actors look to the director to answer questions about things missing or not clearly articulated on the page. Actors want to know why their characters do what they do, and the more you make that obvious in the script, the better. Conversely, the less you specify (in action/dialogue), the more the people on the set will guess, and fill it in themselves on the day. So to answer your question: Reconciling a reader’s opinions with your own intentions is not a goal I would advocate in any case. It’s certainly not the goal of using Simon Phillips’ method of Creative Reading. The goal here is to improve your scene-writing by clarifying as well as you can on the page (for yourself and for the director/actors) why each character does what they do. If a reader’s notes help you identify blind spots, missing information, logic errors, etc., so much the better. Whether you’re helped more by notes from script readers or by a kind of method like Creative Reading, ultimately it’s all about articulating your idea more successfully, not adapting your writing to someone else’s point of view.