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Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Author Is Dead (Or Why You Should Show Your Script To As Many People As Possible)

I got my Bluecat feedback yesterday; since not one of the three scripts I submitted even made it within sniffing distance of the top ten per cent, I expected it to be lukewarm at best. I was pretty surprised then to discover that not only did all three lots of feedback offer up some interesting points in its "What Needs Work" sections, all three attracted praise. Which was nice. This is what I like about Bluecat: you don't end up feeling like a loser, even if you lose. In this game of constant rejection, that's something definitely not to be underrated!

I entered an old draft of ECLIPSE (I've since rewritten it at least three times), so never expected that one to get anywhere, yet of course that one was clearly the Reader(s?) favourite. Not really suprising when I think of it; it's classic big-budget fare with explosions, gore and big monsters: I was more surprised to see that HUSBAND AND FATHER, my super-low-budget, very British drama came in a very definite second place of these three. The Reader in question appeared to like its theme, but more the simple story behind it - a complete contrast to ECLIPSE and also, my expectations.

Then there was THY WILL BE DONE. This is definitely my most controversial script: I've had such radically disaparate readings of it, it's unreal. You may recall this is the script that made the Quarter Finals of The American Zoetrope Screenwriting Contest this year, yet failed to make any dent at any other contest - ever. In addition, one Reader called it "utterly incomprehensible", while another called it "horribly predictable". Most interesting of all, there seems to be a cultural difference to its appreciation too; British people seem to really get into it - The BBC Writers' Room had this to say about it, whilst BBC Wales picked it up for consideration last year (though eventually passed, much wailing and gnashing of teeth by me!). In contrast then, an American producer told me I should "For love of God, go back to page one" and another told me I had coherency issues with general storytelling. I've sent this script to probably hundreds of people - yet that divide is quite astonishing.

And it continues. Here is what the Bluecat Reader said - bear in mind that this is in the WHAT THEY LIKE about the script section:

Your story has a lot of symbolism and thematic elements. You have a strong overarching theme involving gains and losses in life combined with doing God's will and the consequences for ignoring it. There is also reference to many different aspects of Christian tradition, like Ruth, and the story of Isaac. You create a depressing bleak landscape filled with people devoid of a conscience where kids
and prostitutes go missing without notice. The hero, Keen, kills himself because he refuses to accept the rules being forced upon him. This coincides with his earlier refusal at the diner to become more religious per the request of Jones.

What I find really interesting is whilst this Reader is clearly the "type" of person I'm targetting with a script like this - hence their reading of the symbolic stuff and the Biblical allusions - crucially, those last two sentences about Keen are what I, as the author of this script, would deem "incorrect". This is not what I intended at all in the story, not even a little bit.

Yet is it "incorrect"? This is the interesting part. I could of course tell you the ending and what I intended - but does that mean you would see it my way? Maybe... As long as you don't read the script. Perhaps, if you were to pick up the script and I have already told you what its ending symbolises, you would then see it - but wouldn't I have put that notion for your "understanding", there? And what use is that, at the end of the day? I could also say "Well, others have got it" - but don't I actually mean, "Got it... the way I intended it"?

So the Bluecat Reader got that idea from the script, even if I think I didn't put it there. And s/he justifies it well: by referencing the earlier scene and making the link with the greasy spoon scene, I can see clearly why they might think it.

And this is what makes feedback interesting.

The French Philosopher Roland Barthes exponed the idea that "The Author Is Dead": in other words, you can write something fictional, yet it's what the people who read/watch/etc get from it that's important. So, if you write a horror, yet everyone on the planet who reads it thinks it's a comedy, then it's a bloody comedy mate. The Author is dead. What you intend and what comes out of a communication like a script and its subsequent success depends wholly on that bigger "half" - and that's not you, the writer. In essence, how people see your work is what defines your work.

Of course, the problem with this theory is it suggests the author does not really know exactly what they're doing (and don't we all beg to differ on that?!); it also leaves out room for the fact that no one in the world sees the world the same way - ergo there will always be multiple interpretations of your work, some complete opposites, like I have with THY.

But that's ok. That's for another time. What I think is useful about Barthes and his notion that The Author Is Dead, is it totally boots out Writer's Ego. When I talk about Writer's Ego, I mean something like this reply to the Bluecat Reader
had I viewed their comment outside of Barthes' notion:

WTF? Keen doesn't kill himself because of his refusal to accept the goddamn rules! That's not even VAGUELY close! You clearly don't get it at all... Were you asleep when you read this script? Eh? EH?

As you can see, totally ridiculous. No use to anyone. As a script reader, one of my absolute pet hates is writers emailing me and telling me I "don't get" their script, as outlined in the satirical Dear Writer post on this blog. People who employ script readers to read their work - whether privately like Bang2write or by sending to a contest, prodco or initiative - must expect that Reader is going to have an opinion of their work, else what is the point of sending it. In addition then, those writers (including me), must expect those readers' opinions to reflect their own worldview - and this worldview may well alter how your story may be viewed.

Yet instead of deeming it an "incorrect" view and junking your coverage if it doesn't turn out how you expected, what if you grouped all these differing views together? What if you looked at the success of your script, based on the views of multiple people, in multiple places, of multiple colours, creed, male and female? What would you get? A mess of opinions, or some important insights into your writing, style and voice?

It could go either way, of course. When I first started collecting opinions on THY, I thought I had written the best script in the world. No one wanted to make it, there were lots of "budget issues" it seemed, but as a writing sample it seemed to impress people and got me meetings. Cool! I was onto something, yeah! Then I listed it on Ink Tip. Its logline and synopsis got loads of hits from American prodcos in particular and the first month, I got loads of requests for scripts. I must have emailed 10 in the first few days alone. I was convinced - this is the one! I'm gonna get an option...

...Then the first lot of feedback rolled in. "Weird, with no substance". I was shocked, then put it to the back of my mind. This guy just didn't like it or understand it, fine. Then another came in: "Intriguing subject matter... Too weird." Okay, at least it had substance then, but there's that word again. Weird. And another: "Bit too out-there for us, good luck placing it elsewhere." Out-there? A synonym for WEIRD! ARGH! This went on for the whole six months THY was listed on Ink Tip. Got lots of hits, but for the most part, response was negative. This was apparently a script that made little sense and we could not have any empathy with a hero as twisted as Keen since he was so amoral. A couple even questioned my ability. Bugger.

Compare this with just one of my British responses:

This is a complex and involving thriller, skilfully written. I particularly appreciated the morality to the story and the well-observed arena.

Rather than be confused or try to change what I was intending and tie myself up in knots though, I knew what I had to do. This was a script that had gone through multiple drafts; rewrites were not the answer. The answer was:

Show it to more people.

Because the author is dead, because people will always see your work via THEIR worldview, you can begin to see patterns emerge if you show it to enough. It's this that can prevent you from going back to the drawing board on a perfectly good script. There are some markets that are not meant for some stories and some companies and even individuals who will never respond to a particular story, even if it's told well. And there will be cultural differences that mean some stories don't make it across the pond or back here. Sometimes it's because the story seems irrelevant because a certain event happened here and not there; other times it because, though the English Speaking world is drawn together by - you guessed it - our Mother Tongue, this does not mean we live similar lives. Australia, UK, Canada, US and English-speaking colonies everywhere do not see the world in the same way, we don't even live similar lives for the most part. An Australian relative of mine doesn't measure journeys by miles for instance; that would depress her, since she lives about a zillion miles from anywhere, she's in such a remote place. She measures journeys by hours: she thinks nothing of driving three hours to go out to dinner for a treat. Three hours to me not only would take me to The Midlands, it seems like a long time. Such little differences, yet so big a chasm.

So: this is why some Readers will not "get" your script and newsflash - they never will, even if you tell them. A story should stand on its own merits. However, don't disregard or dismiss all that "incorrect" feedback you get... It might actually tell you something, after all.


More On Roland Barthes, French Critic

Barthes and Structuralism

The Death of The Author As An Instance of Theory by John Lye

Hypertext: Dealing with Constructive Criticism


Chip Smith said...

I think Umberto Eco said something similar (paraphrasing Barthes I'm sure), inasmuch as the author should die as soon as the 'text' is complete.

Either that or go on holiday for a couple of weeks (I know which option I'd prefer)!

Good Dog said...

Ah........ that’s really interesting.

When you did the alternative pitch thingy a wee while back, because of the elements that were in the 25 words but not in the 150 word outline – which made it seem like they were separate entities – I figured Eclipse was a new idea that had recently sprung up.

What was it, two dozen entries entered? I commented on the half dozen or so that caught my attention (sorry everyone else, it’s nothing personal – please don’t hunt me down and do unsavoury things to me with rusty farmyard implements) and, if I remember rightly, Eclipse had all the elements for an interesting story but I just couldn’t get my head around the “sentient” lunar/solar eclipses which – obviously – were central to the creature concept (I think the title might have given that away). But the full script has been written? And rewritten.

Do you think – in general - that given Husband and Father appears to have gotten a better reaction than expected, character-centred, rather than concept-centred scripts get a better look in for new writers? Obviously it helps a whole bunch to have a real mixed bag of scripts to show that you can turn your hand to anything thrown at you, but when we’ve all got your noses pressed up against the glass on the outside, looking in at the wild party inside, most entries come with something on a “smaller” scale, especially for UK-based writers?

I don’t mean that everyone should be made to start with something really small and pay their dues on a micro-budget, but big big-budget films, where everything goes kablooey and the audiences leave with big, goofy grins slapped across their faces, while made over here – only just –never originate here. It’s almost like they’re kind of “not the done thing” in this country. (Unless there are ones that I’m currently failing to think about).

I’m mentioning it because I just saw the trailer for National Treasure: Book of Secrets on which... actually I’m lost for words just thinking about it. On the official Bonkers scale I’d say it ranks pretty highly. Checking out who wrote it, the couple started off with a very small, simple film script before they started going up to 11. After all, “coherency issues with general storytelling” doesn’t seem to matter one jot once you’re invited to the party. In fact, based on films I’ve seen recently it seems to be an absolute requirement.

Couldn’t open the link to the writersroom feedback on Thy Will Be Done - or rather it went to open the page and then just hung (Argh! [expletive deleted] technology!) – but... I assume there are religious themes throughout. Well that’s something that can be a little prickly in the US. Did any of the readers display any Christian Right tendencies and mention that you’ll burn in hell?

Oh, and if the author is dead, who the heck writes the sequel?

The Moviequill said...

an interesting read over at Scott's place as to what he thinks of his feedback

Lucy said...

Chip - I *think* Eco was writing around the same time as Barthes, but I'll have to check... I'm not that familiar with his work to be honest. Thanks for the heads-up though, I was unaware of an overlap, I will read more into it.

Cheers MQ, I didn't realise Scott had entered too, will see what he thinks.

GD - thanks for that, you've raised some interesting pointers. A lot of people didn't get the "sentient" thing and that was the main thing I needed to fix. My own personal opinion of my 150 word pitch for Eclipse was that it was an unmitigated disaster; since it's so bloody convoluted, I could not find a way to communicate everything present in the narrative in so short a time. A question of practice? Hopefully. Certainly, I rewrote it as a one page pitch Adrian Mead-style recently and it got a LOT more interest from peeps. And the new draft - I think it's the 12th - is my entry for the SW Screen development initiative. With Eclipse, it went through so many incarnations there was a lot to unravel; stands to reason then the synopsis would too.

I think unproduced writers do well to write character-centred pieces, but certainly H&F has had its critics too. For example it came back from The Writers' Room with some damning criticism recently - the Reader there, in comparison to Bluecat's Reader, thought it was all too "neat". I think it's a girls' film to be honest. Only a few fellas I've shown it to have liked it.I wouldn't be surprised if the Bluecat Reader was female.

In answer to your Q then, I think it's subject matter that really counts. What fires Readers and Producers up is story and whether you choose to character-centre or concept-centre it is immaterial because however the story is written, it's that central premise that will "grab" someone. However, just being "grabbed" doesn't always guarantee a sale, as I discovered with THY at BBC Wales, but never mind. (Oh - and no, no one has suggested I would burn in hell, but I was told I should revisit His teachings since I had "massively misinterpreted" the Bible.)

Perhaps unproduced writers *should* invest in characters more though, to gain more of a perspective and more practice of this difficult element? I don't know. This is where the screenwriting waters get muddied.

I'll look into the link - probably an extra http://! Cheers.

Lucy said...

The Writers' Room link should work now.

Good Dog said...

Still, can't get to it, but then my broadband has been playing a full hand of silly buggers of late.

I was thinking more of "high concept" - the sort of script that would need the kind of budget you could have a pretty darn good weekend in Vegas with. (And leave some money left over for the hotel's 'soiling charge').

Have you talked about how many words people should initially write for a 25-word pitch or a 150-word outline? The ones I didn't comment on seemed have been written to the total straight off the bat, rather than distilled from something three or four or five times the length.

"Massively misinterpreted" the Bible.

Oh, that's priceless. I saw a clip in The Simpsons Movie trailer where Homer is anxiously flipping through the Bible and exclaims, "This book doesn't have any answers!" Tell them they're the ones getting it wrong. Go on! Surely enough space on the planet for another Holy war.

And of course the Welsh are all flippin' pagans! (tee-hee). I mean just to get in to the country you've got to ceremonially sacrifice a lesbian!

Or have I misinterpreted Offa's Dyke?

Thank you, you've been a great audience. I'll get my passport...

Chip Smith said...

I think the Eco comment was in 'Reflections on The Name of the Rose' - a bit difficult to pick up these days I think. 'Travels in Hyperreality' is a good read too. As far as I'm concerned, Eco follows on from Barthes but I'm pretty sure there's a good degree of overlap.

All this talk on Barthes makes me want to dig out Mythologies again (I might have to draw the line at S/Z tho - that book made my brain hurt).

Jon Peacey said...

Argh! It’s confirmed that I shall have competition on the SW Screen Development Initiative! I’d been resting my hopes on being the sole entry. And my entry’s only on its 6th Draft: I have 2 weeks to do another 6 drafts!

Seriously, though, from my University experience, I found that frequently my compadres ‘did not get’ my scripts. It took me a helluva long time to work out that strangely enough I should stop railing against everybody else’s lack of deep insight into the content of my brains: I realised it was mainly down to my not putting my wonderful (*ahem*) ideas down clearly enough. When I realised that, I tried harder to communicate but I knew that even though I’d tried my utmost to quash alternate meanings they would and still do arise. But now I don't shake my fist at the sky so much any more.

It all reminds me of that old chestnut: the proud mother points out her son in the parade marching by and declares, ‘everybody’s marching out of step except my son’.

…and remember the song Get Back was widely misinterpreted despite being pretty obvious and, of course, The Beatles themselves were turned down by a myriad of record labels…

Well, that’s my twopenneth worth… sadly, I didn’t mention Barthes… I just didn’t get him.

Lucy said...

Don't get me started on S/Z my friend! That's what Barthes would call a "writerly" text I reckon - in other words, no one knows wtf is going on except the author!!! ; )

Jon, don't sweat it - I never get past the first round! It's like I'm jinxed. I think Dom Carver is entering too, so if you nobble him you may be the only entrant...

Jon Peacey said...

I thought being born in the West Country was finally going to pay dividends... lack of other people means lack of other entries. Curses, curses! Turns out there are loads of other people out there.

Anyhow, all the best with your entry.

Now, what's that standard nobbling rate...

Oli said...

I shall be entering too, Jon. Blog fight!

As for the whole the author is dead thing... there's a great line in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang where Harry says "What the hell did he know, right? He's just the writer."

I think there's a truth to it, though. There's an interview with Daniel Clowes on the Ghost World DVD in which he says that a) he just saw it as graffiti on a wall and though it was cool and b) thought of the town as 'Ghost World', and the kids went to Ghost World High School, which is about the most prosaic explanation you can give for a very evocative phrase, and dents the feel of the comic and the movie. But what the hell does he know, right? He's just the writer.

John Soanes said...

Interesting you should say about literary theory and the like, as I've just been bleating - er, I mean blogging about that recently myself.

I guess that in terms of reader (or audience) feedback, the best summation I'm aware of is from (perhaps surprisingly) that self-help chap Tony Robbins, who said 'the meaning of my communication is the response I get' - from which I infer he means that what people understand from your words is the meaning, whether you intend it or not, and if they don't have the same interpretation as your intention, then a rewrite may well be necessary!

At the risk of sounding anti-intellectual about it, I fear a lot of literary theory is kind of a side-issue to the main event; the director's commentary to the film, as it were - may shed light or provide insight, but without the item itself, 'tis nothing!


Stuart Perry said...

The major fun/agony of writing is that you've got to have a huge amount of ego and authorial intent to deliver to an audience (whoever that audience might be). Thereafter you've got to ditch all that, and become egoless and able to receive feedback, and alternative interpretations.. Then, you've got to go back to ego-monster mode again to make changes based on this feedback.

So, the author has to die, and come back to life, and die again, and come back to life again, through draft after draft, and project after project, like some morse-code zombie.

Lucy said...

Hi boys. I think ego is a MAJOR part of all this. You have to have it (else you'd never get anything written, let alone show it to anyone), but you also have to know when to put it aside. Love the idea of a writer-zombie tho!