The power of asking and answering the right question – and the frightening truth that script editors don’t know the answers. The only thing (and it’s the most vital thing) that we really know is how to help you find the answers for yourself.
I think the most exciting part of my job as a story consultant is finding the right questions to ask the writers I work with. I love the conversations that result from these. A great question can lead to a new character discovery, an unexpected story development, or a sudden clever solution to what seemed an impossible problem.
In contrast, a script report full of judgements and answers can squash creativity and limit your project’s forward progression. All writers will at some time be on the receiving end of rushed and ill-considered feedback – a report or development session that’s packed full of statements and opinions instead of questions. It’s an approach that often leaves writers feeling frustrated, unheard and unappreciated, (and causes them to hide behind understandable defence barriers in meetings…!)
Great questions start from the basis that the writer knows more than the editor about this story. And as a result, they’re generally much more effective!
The editor may be perceptive, with a Mary Poppins’ bag of theory and story tricks, but we also know that when it comes to this particular story, the writer has the answers – and it’s our job to help them find them.
The right questions
So where do we find these pertinent questions? Is there a secret list somewhere that only script editors know about?
Sadly, no. For me, it’s as much about a gut response (conveniently based on years of experience…) that stems from really careful reading of the script:
It’s vital that we first take as much time as it needs to read a screenplay carefully, (that’s at least twice…)
The first read, I experience it as a film – I ‘see’ it. Afterwards, I capture my instinctive responses. I analyse this – what I understood, where I cried, laughed, what I felt about that character. I start to think about the questions I’m left with.
The second read, I try to interpret the writer’s intentions, and monitor my interpretations of every little action, word or image. I note down queries as I go. Why does that character do that then? Why do we shift perspective there? What happens to that story-line or character journey?
These questions to myself help to shape some very specific questions that help the writer to move forward.
My favourite questions
The questions I ask in a report or in a meeting aren’t designed to catch you out, test you, or scare you. Instead, I want my questions to help you to discover a fresh perspective on your work that helps you move forward.
And having said there isn’t a secret script editor’s list of questions, there are some questions that do seem to come up time and time again – here are a few of those for you to ponder:
- What does your lead character want (externally) and need (internally) – and how does the audience come to understand that?
- What do you want the audience to feel at the end of this scene/sequence/film?
- What message/idea/question do you want your audience to take away from this film?
- What most interests you about that character? How can we share that with the audience?
- What’s stopping that character from getting what they want, and how does facing that obstacle change them?
- How can that moment become more visual?
The problem with SCENE 12
So let’s imagine that there’s a problem with Scene 12…
A good editor won’t get cross and say, “Scene 12 is nonsense. Your characters are talking rubbish, I don’t believe any of it, nothing you’ve written makes sense here”.
We’re more likely to ask you one of the questions above. Maybe something like: “In scene 12, what do you want the audience to understand about these characters’ relationship? How can we hone that further?”
We might reflect our interpretation back to the writer too, “The dialogue here implies that this is their first meeting, but the action hints at some previous physical intimacy – is this the subtext? Do you want the audience to think they’re secretly in a relationship?”
Comparing my interpretation of a scene with the writer’s original intention always prompts more useful questions. And equally often, the resulting discussion takes us somewhere neither of us expected. Not just in the scene we’re looking at, but in other scenes too. Because it’s highly likely that the ‘problem’ with Scene 12 actually stems from a lack of clarity in Scene 8 (or wherever else).
We always assume the writer knows what’s going on (whether that’s consciously, unconsciously or instinctively,) and that’s our starting point. If we don’t understand what the characters are saying, it’s our job to find out why, and help you to make it work better.
The right answers
The truth is that we don’t actually know the right answers to our questions when we ask them.
Yes, we might have some ideas about possible answers based on what we know about story structure – and we might even give you some really bad examples of solutions as a way to help you find your own way. But you’re the only one who knows the actual answers.
As story editors, we share our experience and our big bag of story tools as we mentor you and chip away at these big questions together.
The bottom line is it’s your screenplay, not the editor’s, and we’re here to help you express your intentions to an audience. Most of all, we want our questions to inspire a powerful conversation that will help you to find all of the answers.
So… which of the questions above will you ask yourself about your project today?
An earlier version of this post first appeared here on Bang2Write.