Bum Notes

There’s another TV writer in my neighbourhood – there’s a few, actually, but we generally avoid each other (why is that?  To avoid the impulse to compare careers?  Bit like actors, I imagine…)   Anyway, we bumped into each other on neutral territory about a year ago, and started to compare notes about Notes.

On any TV show there is a large hierarchy of people involved in getting it made.  These Executives, sitting in offices rather far away from the coalface, often feel obliged to demonstrate their usefulness by making Helpful Observations on your show. And while some Executives are intelligent, media-literate types with long experience and a deep understanding of TV drama, some aren’t.  And the latter sometimes give out notes so awful they’re funny… sometimes… afterwards.

Anyway this writer friend told me he’d once written a scene with no dialogue.  His characters entered, wordlessly went about their business, and moved off again.   And he got a critical note on his script from an Executive which read:  “If it wasn’t for the stage directions, I would have had no idea what was happening in this scene!”

My mate was flabbergasted.  ‘It’s television!’ he said.  ‘You know – it’s got the word VISION in it?”  Apparently this Executive had worked in radio before moving over to television, and nobody had explained to her the rules had changed.

One of the worst notes I ever got was on the show Sea Of Souls.  Heroine psychic has scary visions of a murdered woman.  Heroine becomes convinced strange little man living alone in big house killed the reclusive woman who used to live there.  Heroine and her friend harass the lonely little man who finally blurts out that he IS the reclusive woman who used to live there – she’d had a sex change and told no-one.  Psychic heroine’s friend is angry – her visions were clearly a morbid fantasy.  Of course it turns out heroine’s visions were not of the past, but of the future – cue tingly music…  The ‘sex change revelation’ was a pivotal twist designed to leave the audience guessing.

The note I got from an Executive read:  ‘This business about the sex change is confusing.  Can we take it out?’  Yes, that’s right – take out the pivotal twist of the story.  I nearly blew a gasket.

The point of this blog entry is not ‘Executives are idiots’.  Many of them aren’t.  Many executives keep their observations sharp and focused, and generally just let you do your job.  The real victim of the idiotic note is not the Writer, but the Script Editor.

The Script Editor’s job is to collate notes from all the Executives involved and pass them on to the Writer, keeping the Writer feeling happy and positive so that he or she goes back to work feeling good about making the requested changes.  Yes, some script notes are asinine, but the Script Editor is still obliged to pass them on.  As a Writer you must remember that these stupid notes are not the Script Editor’s fault.  Script Editors are merely messengers.

As Writer you are not there to write something clever that will impress your mum (though obviously that’s a bonus.)  You are there to write a script that is entertaining, coherent, affordable, and the right length.  The Writer is there, in fact, to solve problems, and a note is a Problem that has to be solved.  If you are professional and sensible, you will undertake to try to comprehend the note and the logic behind it (presuming there is some) and solve the problem if you can.  If it’s a really daft note, like the ones listed above, you can try laughing it off or pointing out the absurdity.

It’s like directing insects on camera (I did that once.)  Insects are stupid and don’t do what they are told – we know that, get on with it.  Execs sometimes make daft suggestions – we know that, get on with it.  Don’t make life hard for the Script Editor.

Rather, make it so they look forward to ringing you.  Be the person who offers Solutions instead of more Problems.  Be a Little Ray of Sunshine into their gloomy basement office.  Remember, Script Editors – if they don’t kill themselves or go mad – grow up to become Producers, the ones who give out Commissions.   And if, when they were Script Editors, one writer cheerfully sorted out their problems, while another pissed and moaned and made their lives more difficult, who are they going to call when they grow up?

That’s right.  Not Gigantic Pain in the Arse.  Little Ray of Sunshine who Solves Problems.

Make sure that’s you.

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