Gods of Scriptwriting – No

As writers, we are storytellers. In fact, running the risk of blasphemy, we are actually gods if you think about it. We create a world, populate it with characters, place them in situations and circumstances that they must negotiate and force them to deal with the issues we have made for them to give the audience our take on a situation, a reflection of our society, a parody, life as we want it to be, or perhaps the exact opposite of that.

Taking it a step further, the writer is even more important than a god. And that’s because a god can create that world, those people, leave them in a situation and things will continue to happen, because people make their decisions, live their lives and function as best they can. As writers, if we aren’t doing the work to make those things occur, nothing happens until we take that action.That world stops if we aren’t writing. And that speaks directly to the point about who is in charge of telling a story.

As writers, we must be the experts; we must be the authority on what the story is about, what happens and how and why it does. If we have done our jobs properly, the story we tell may not have a happy ending, but it is one that will say something to the audience, one that has meaning, has substance, has truth, is informed. And as experts, we know what the story should be, what we are telling our audience, and how that message reflects on the human condition, on who we are.

In Hollywood, however, there is a desire to please the audience by providing them with a story they will “like,” so they will see it a second time, recommend it to their relatives and friends, write a positive review on a blog or other website, purchase the DVD/blu-ray when it comes out. Commercialism does have its place. Everyone wants to have a hit film, and there’s no denying that a big payday and having your name on a Hollywood blockbuster is a draw for many who consider writing as a profession. Dealing with the medium of television, you have the added element of commercial breaks that must be incorporated into how the story is told. In pay cable, your product is closer to a standard film. And in motion picture, your budget may dictate a lot about what you can do. These are all factors that inform the writer about what the story can be. But, just as a poem has rules you must follow, these limitations can actually help make a more interesting story, if used deftly.

Hollywood is a desperate creature, longing to do well. So, bets are hedged. Big name stars are hired to play roles. Well regarded directors are brought in to helm the picture. Expensive special effects are added in post production. It’s all designed to make the audience want to come see it. So it’s understandable that from this mindset, changing a story to suit an audience would be perfectly fine, because we will do anything to get you to like it!

Now, as writers, we can and should consider what the audience will think about a story as we are working and that can certainly be equated into the plot points and dialog during our drafts. After all, we are telling the story for them! But to change a story after the fact is, at best, questionable, and at worst, total disaster. It is a slippery slope that forces the writer to compromise their standards and rework their stories in ways that may make some plots unravel like a spool of yarn.

I don’t mean to say that it should never be done, as I don’t believe in absolutes, but the reasoning for the change, how major a change it may be, and who decides what the change would become are all questions that should be tightly reined before any decision is made to proceed in that manner. The problem is that this has become the standard, not the exception.

Hollywood is famous for the “test market” screenings, with film audiences in Houston or Phoenix or Peoria seeing rough cuts of a film and filling out the dreaded “blue cards” to give their opinion about a movie. The only reason this is done is because the studio doesn’t feel confident that the story will be as commercially successful as it would like and wants to hedge their bets by gathering more information about how “the general public” will react to the material. When the money stakes are high, the “guarantee” of a return on the investment is what producers want. It wouldn’t matter to them if the story was a period piece set during the Revolutionary War or a romantic comedy in a Manhattan office. It’s about making their nut.

But this speaks again to the writer being the expert. It is up to us to tell the stories that can both be worthwhile exercises in tale-spinning and potential market successes. We should never need to turn to the audience and ask them if we’re doing our jobs right! It’s up to us to lead them by the nose, show them the things they need to see, show them things they haven’t quite seen before and guide them through the world we made, introducing them to characters they will remember for their lifetimes and care about, and give them a story they can embrace and call their own, long before they even buy their popcorn and find their seat in the cinema.

Quite simply, we are the experts. We are the gods.