SCREENWRITERS, SAY WHAT??? Vol. 3: The Dog Made Me Do It

When I first wrote SAY WHAT: THINGS SCREENWRITERS SHOULD NEVER SAY, I had no idea that the simple concept – exploring those things that screenwriters on occasion say to me that make me cringe – would open a floodgate of such examples. It was entirely unintentional. But little did I realize that once I started looking for examples of such phrases that occasionally caused me a proverbial double take, they would suddenly be everywhere.

I never branded myself a “story person”; instead, I always positioned myself as a “career person” because, let’s face it, there are plenty of brilliant story people out there, many of whom I am lucky enough to call my friends. But the truth is that there is no career to be built without great content on hand. And, with that in mind, I do often read material written by my ongoing clients, be it upon first meeting or as part of an ongoing relationship, in order to gauge the quality of the work, help sift through notes, give broad notes of my own or determine whether the material is ready – or what needs to be done to get it there – for the marketplace. Which is to say… I read all the time, and therefore end up talking story – be it conceptually or otherwise – almost every day.

There are few things that irritate me more on a notes call or script discussion – usually pertaining to a screenplay or television pilot in some stage of draft form – than giving a writer a note about something that clearly doesn’t work, be it a plot twist, a setting, a character or even a storyline, and being told: “Oh, yeah, I never really liked that but (insert name of producer/famous writer friend/script consultant/reader here) thought it would be a great idea.”

Let me make it simple: If you don’t agree with the note, unless you’re being paid for it or writing on assignment and can somehow find a way to make it your own, don’t implement it into your script. If someone passes on your script, or decides to give someone else that staff writer position or writing assignment based on another, stronger, writing sample, you don’t get to go back and tell them that you don’t actually stand behind all the choices made in the script turned into them.

Here’s a quick example: Last year, one of my writers, who had been working a relationship with a showrunner she met at a panel, was invited to submit a writing sample for consideration for a staff writing position when the showrunner had a new show picked up and was getting the writer’s room together. Full of excitement, the writer sent her latest television writing sample (an original pilot) to an agent, who gave her a few notes before submitting. Most of the notes were small and serviceable. But she had a hard time implementing one bigger note, feeling that it wasn’t really right for the pilot script she wanted to write. Ultimately, though, she made the decision to force it in there to the best of her ability, even if she didn’t agree with it. She made the decision to implement the note because she was worried that her agent would not have pushed for her to get the staff writer position as passionately without it. This story doesn’t end well. The writer did not get invited to join the show’s writing staff. And the reason that the showrunner gave? He thought some bad choices were made in the pilot, specifically the one suggested by the agent.

Now, this is not meant as an indictment of notes given by representation. Agents, managers, producers, executives, writers, consultants and even showrunners will inevitably give you notes on your screenplay or spec pilot, some of which will elevate the material, and some of which just won’t work. What may sound great in concept or during an impassioned brainstorming session may not ultimately work on the page. It is up to you as the champion of your writing to figure out which notes you are able to make your own and implement, and which just don’t contribute to the story you are trying to tell in the end.

When you do work-for-hire, be it a feature writing assignment, rewriting your work for pay after it’s been optioned or purchased, or as part of a television writing staff, you are servicing a greater vision, writing in service of the showrunner, producer or director you are working for. However, any work that you generate on spec, be it a feature script or a television pilot, should provide a strong sense of your sensibilities and voice. That work comes to represent you, and you should, therefore, stand behind every choice made on those pages, so that you can defend them with passion and conviction should you ever be called to.

At the beginning of every career, there will be a lot more rejection than there will be success as you develop your body of work and improve your craft. That is something that is very much to be expected. But the important thing is to make sure that when you are rejected, or judged, or, for that matter, validated, on a screenplay or pilot script, that you can stand behind 100%. After all, if the excuse in the title of this blogpost didn’t work for Son of Sam, it is even less likely to work for any writer eager to portray him or herself as a confident and thoughtful content creator.