Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Show vs. Tell (but not that kind)

Ira Glass did an interview shortly after the TV version of "This American Life" debuted in which he talked about the difficulties of translating his hugely popular radio show to television. (I wish I could find it online, but I can't; at least, not this specific one.) He said that there were a lot of things he wanted to do with the show that his producers and director assured him couldn't be done (or at least done well) on TV, but that in many cases he couldn't accept their opinions at face value, and they had to show him that these things couldn't be done (presumably by actually attempting them).

I realized the other day that screenwriters go through the exact same process all the time. We figure out an idea that we think is absolutely killer. Could be as big as a whole movie; could be as small as a line of dialogue. Someone else, someone we trust, tells us that it won't fly.

"You're wrong," we say. And we go off and write it.

And it doesn't work.

And we say to ourselves, "Well... at least now I know it doesn't work," and move on.

Sure, this kind of scenario is bound to happen from time to time. And sure, sometimes the other person really is wrong and the thing totally works. But not usually. Only through experience can we develop the instincts that will tell us when to listen to feedback and when to go full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes -- and those instincts are among the most valuable assets a screenwriter can possess.

I recently sent an outline of my latest script to a screenwriter friend. After reading it, he suggested I take a different tone with it. I bristled at the notion at first, because the movie I'd planned was pretty serious and he wanted me to make it funny. But as I thought more about it, and came clean with myself about the problems I knew already existed in my approach, I realized that his idea wasn't just good -- it was very possibly the specific change I needed to make to make the script work. Probably saved myself months of painful rewriting, just because I knew good advice when I saw it.

Ira Glass's second season of the TAL TV show was much better than the first. Hopefully my script will follow suit.

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