The Answer Is Always "Yes"
I’m not a particularly controversial person, so you won’t see too many overtly unpopular essays on this site (“Puppies: Why They Should Be Beaten”), but maybe this one will get a few pulses racing.
If you’re a professional screenwriter and you’re asked to make a change that you think is awful, say “Yes.”
Always say yes.
Destroy the main character? “Yes!” Change that brilliant ending that brings everything full circle with a twist-and-a-half? “Sure!” If the producer or director has an idea that’s just god-awful, death-dealing, movie-wrecking, story-killing, your answer to the request should be a charming and pleasant “Okay!” Say it with pride. Alacrity, even.
Why? Because saying yes costs you nothing, and gains you much.
When I say, “yes,” I’m giving the following impression: “Dear employer or supervisor, I am surprisingly open to your suggestions. Even though you know that I’m better at this than you, I’m making you feel good by listening and taking you seriously. After all, it’s you who has the esteem problems regarding your own story sense. Not I. Besides, you might be right! And I’m not just saying that. Boy, I’m a productive employee with a good attitude!”
Good lord, what a suckup. There’s just one thing about that sycophantic monologue—it’s all true. Every last word.
Granted, when I first started writing I had a hard time dealing with what Dennis Palumbo calls “that sinking feeling”. The exec or director would make a truly terrible suggestion, and every ounce of my writerness was screaming for blood. Far from saying “yes,” I would instead concentrate on not-punching and not-cursing. Occasionally I’d work on not-flaying-alive and not-bludgeoning-you-with-your-own-femur-that-I-just-tore-out-of-your-leg-meat.
Emotionally rewarding for a brief moment, true, but hardly productive. Even worse, it’s noticeable. These things are always noticeable. Let’s face it—if we were better at acting, we’d act.
What I came to realize is that I wasn’t getting so mad because their ideas were bad. I was getting mad because I was afraid, and the fear was a result of my own lack of confidence. “What if they make me do this terrible idea?” was what I first thought the fear was about, but in time it became clear that the fear was more like, “What if I have to do this terrible idea because I cannot explain to them why it’s a terrible idea?”
I always say “yes,” because I believe I am the best story-teller in the room, so therefore I must fairly judge all ideas who appear in my court of story quality. I must dutifully examine why this person, a potential audience member like any other, might have thought this new idea would be better. I think about the ramifications. I think about the cost/benefit.
I’m the story expert. It’s what I’m supposed to do. We should not defend. We should evaluate. Defending is for the afraid. Evaluating is for the confident judge—a judge whose authority derives from his expertise.
Sometimes, I find pleasing ways to incorporate the suggestions; I haven’t pleased my employers as much as I’ve pleased myself, but their appreciation is a happy side-effect.
Sometimes, I determine after much thought that my first instinct (“This is a bad idea”) was correct. Then I come back to them—and here’s the real point of this whole damn thing—I tell them why.
They love this.
When I hired an interior decorater, I would occasionally make suggestions. Sometimes she’d do them. Sometimes she’d think for a while (that part’s crucial) and only then say, “No, I think it’s probably better if you did this, and here’s why.” It’s not the agreement that makes you feel like you’re getting your money’s worth from your employee. It’s the informed disagreement.
In my experience, this is precisely how producers view things. When I say “yes,” I’m not agreeing to be slavish. I’m simply agreeing to try. If I determine that their suggestion is not to be done, I can explain why. When you remove that initial “no,” you remove 99% of the hostility and disfunction from the writer-employer relationship while ceding 0% of your authority and power. And it’s funny. Ever since I began saying “yes” a few years back, two interesting things have come to pass.
I haven’t had to write anything I didn’t believe in…
…and no one’s fired me.
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Ian says that this is good advice for screenwriters; I'd say it's good advice for software developers as well, and probably for anybody involved in doing creative work for a customer.... And no matter what the result is they know you've taken them...Read More