Subjectivity – Friend or Foe?

July 27th, 2013  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, story editing
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Before I read a script I don’t want to know anything about it. I like to come at the piece with an open mind and no preconceived ideas about the premise or intentions that might ultimately influence the read. Now, is this truly possible?

Nope.

Because all reading is inherently subjective.

All writers, whether new or established, have to deal with a certain level of subjectivity when their work is being evaluated. This of course can be both good and bad.

For example when a script goes out for coverage the reader doesn’t generally know about attachments such as cast or a director. But knowing who is set to star or what kind of director will be involved can make a huge difference when reading the script. Put yourself in their shoes. If you know Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat) is going to direct you’ll instantly filter the writing through his unique perspective. If Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook, The Hangover) is the lead you’ll have him in mind as you read the script. Clearly knowing the attachments will have a big effect on whether or not you respond to the piece and ultimately how you evaluate it.

Another factor that can come into play is if the executive knows the writer personally either as a friend or professionally. If the writer is a friend the reader may bring qualities to the writing that aren’t there just because they know them. Some of the story events may have a familiar ring to them or they might sense the writer’s “voice” more easily than someone who doesn’t know the writer. If the executive has worked with the writer in the past and has read other material they will bring that context to the current script seeing patterns and themes that other readers wouldn’t.

In addition we all have our own personal taste and interests. Maybe you love sci-fi and hate romantic comedies, perhaps you’d choose an epic drama over a horror script. You might be into period pieces because you really like history and detest teen comedies. Effects heavy action scripts might bore you while a low budget indie keeps you hooked. As a reader you can work to put these natural interests aside but they still can’t help but influence how you look at a piece of material. Another aspect of this is the reader’s mood that day. For example if a writer submits a romantic comedy to an executive that’s just broken up with their girlfriend chances are it might not go over as well as it would if they were still in the first few days of their romance. Ultimately we’re all human and respond to writing from our own individual, highly specific place.

Context also matters. If a reader or executive is looking at a script for a production company, agency, manager, contest or lab this too will play a role in how they evaluate a piece of work. All of these venues have very specific agendas and are looking for scripts that fall into their particular niche. While everyone is looking for quality work with a fresh perspective a big studio isn’t looking for the same thing as Sundance. An actor’s production company is looking at star vehicles and may not want something action or effects laden or too indie. HBO and Lionsgate don’t have the same agenda. Agents and managers are looking at the overall career of a writer and are looking at material from a sales perspective. Who the script is being evaluated for plays a big role in how it’s interpreted.

Where the writer is in their career can affect the read. For example brand new writers are at an advantage on one hand because their work can be looked at with a certain neutrality. But on the other there’s no track record or frame of reference which can often lead readers to be harsher and expect more. A more established writer can get away with more in both execution and concept as they have previous work to look to. I’ve read scripts by new writers that couldn’t get traction in the marketplace only to see an established writer successfully pitch and produce a very similar idea. So while concept is king so is how well known the writer is and this too will affect how a piece is read.

The experience level of the reader is something that comes into play as well.  An executive who has read 1000’s of screenplays will be able to spot formula from miles away, see twists coming and be underwhelmed by overused conventions. They may have higher expectations overall but be able to see good writing immediately.  Whereas a new reader might judge a script too harshly or focus on the minutia because they are still learning the language of feedback. They may see the piece as highly original when it’s premise is overly familiar. Either way how many scripts the executive has read will play a role in their interpretation of the material.

So what can a writer do to mitigate all of this and ensure your piece is being read in the most favorable way? Well, truthfully, there is no way to have a completely unbiased read. That said the only defense is to make sure the script reflects your intentions and is telling the story you want to tell. Getting feedback from trusted peers, friends, writers groups, story editors or consultants before you take your piece out is a good way to check to see if your script is in line with your intentions. Executives and readers will always have their own unique take on the work and hopefully it’s in sync with yours but if not at least you can be confident knowing you’ve written a piece that accurately conveys the movie you see in your head.

thanks to Lucy @bang2write for some last minute inspiration!

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