Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Working with... A Story Consultant

This is the first in a semi-regular series of “working with” posts I’ll explore in the next little while. Important word here is WITH – film is a collaborative process and when you find a professional relationship that works, nurture, appreciate and protect it with your life! They’re worth their weight in gold.

So what’s a Story Consultant and why do I need one?”

A Story Consultant is essentially the same thing as a Story Editor but as a writer and a Story Consultant myself, I never liked the Story Editor moniker – it conjures up images of someone looming over the screenplay I’ve labored on for months (years?) slicing and dicing with a blunt pair of scissors or, in really severe cases, a rusty machete and a hockey mask… I can’t speak for others but this isn’t what I do when I’ve been hired as a Story Consultant – I don’t even own a machete or a hockey mask. What I do have is a critical eye, an understanding of story, a passion to help do whatever it takes to make that story as good as possible and the courage to be brutally honest with who I am working with.

If you’re a writer, you need a Story Consultant because no matter how good you are at working your craft there comes a time when outside eyes prove invaluable in the ongoing development of both your project and your own personal growth. If you’re a producer or a director working with a writer, a Story Consultant can be useful because after several drafts even you can be too close to the project to see possible problems. In addition, when you do identify issues with the project, you may be at a loss as to how to solve them. Regardless of your involvement in the project, be it as the writer, director or producer, bringing in a Story Consultant means opening the door to someone who is not invested in the story in the same way that you may be.

But- I want them to be invested! I NEED them to be invested!”

A good Story Consultant will still care about your story in all the ways that matter. What I’m really talking about here is ego, as in: Leave your ego at the door… This is the most important step in bringing in those critical outside eyes. The reality is that whether the Story Consultant is good or bad, there’s a very good chance that they will tell you things you don’t particularly want to hear. Things that are the equivalent of You’re a pitiful waste of skin” or “Your baby is ugly and retarded”… You get the idea. However, just because a pill is difficult to swallow doesn’t mean that it isn’t good for you…

It’s all about credentials. Just as you wouldn’t ask the guy at the car dealership to give you an eye exam you shouldn’t be getting critical feedback on your screenplay from your mother, girlfriend or guy across the hall that kinda digs movies. You may have a friend or colleague who is also a screenwriter and whether they are at the same level as you or not, being a writer doesn’t necessarily mean they can also be a Story Consultant. Being able to identify a story problem is one thing, being able to see potential solutions and communicate them in a way the writer can understand is something else entirely. Some writers can do this, some can’t. Many professional Story Consultants are also writers (myself included) and some rarely write themselves and yet are geniuses when it comes to wading through others’ creative mud and navigating narrative to the promised land.

So how do I find myself my very own super-wizard story saver extraordinaire?”

Well, you could hire me- Oops, I just forgot about that whole leave your ego at the door business… Failing that you could hire someone not me as long as they have a proven track record (be it produced credits, glowing recommendations from other legitimate writers, etc.) and are someone who you feel you can trust. This is where asking the friend who is also a writer can be problematic – no matter how good friends you are, sometimes pesky little things like jealousy, selfishness and good old fashioned competitiveness can rear their ugly heads. Be sure that they’re helping you for the right reasons.

If you are getting the assistance of a professional who you don’t have a previous history with then feel them out as much as you can first before embarking on what often ends up being a journey of several months and several drafts. The getting to know you dance does not have to be complicated, in fact it should be as simple as possible especially if the individual you are expecting feedback from is a working professional since time is a valuable commodity. Recently, I was approached to story consult on a feature and the producer wanted me to read the screenplay and write a sample report – in effect they were asking me to audition. I flatly said no and told the producer that if anyone agreed to do what they were asking, they clearly were not a professional Story Consultant and as a result the producer was taking a huge gamble as to the quality and usefulness of the ultimate feedback they were hoping to receive. Personally, I suspect this producer was tendering out “story auditions” in order to get several perspectives free of charge.

Anyway, back to the getting to know you dance. Firstly, ask to see the Story Consultant’s resume. If your script is a horror film then you may not want someone giving you feedback that has worked exclusively on comedy or animation. If they don’t seem to have credits that reflect the genre of your story then ask them what the last good horror film they saw was. Presumably (one hopes!), if you are writing a horror film then you have some degree of knowledge of the genre so you’ll soon be able to tell if your prospective story savior is well versed in things that go bump, splat and “EEK!” in the night.

Secondly, make sure everyone is on the same page as to what is expected. Is there something in particular in your screenplay that you are unsure about? What form is the feedback to take – full written report? Brief notes? 1on 1 chat over coffee? What’s the schedule – when can you expect to receive your feedback? Whether it is a colleague that is providing you feedback out of the goodness of their heart or whether you are paying for someone’s services, these are all reasonable questions to ask. Again, a professional’s time is valuable so this can all be covered in a five minute phone conversation.

So I’ve found someone whose opinions I know I will respect, we’ve dotted the I’s and crossed the T’s – now what?”

Throw yourself off into the abyss! Seriously, go for it. Make the most of the time you have and most importantly, listen to what they have to say and take notes. I’ve been in situations in the past where a writer I’m working with is so nervous and wound up at the prospect of finally hearing something- anything at all concerning the story they’re trying to tell that they just want to talk about all the amazing scenes they’ve written and all the amazing ideas they’ve had since we last communicated. Try to ignore the fact that you are feeling completely vulnerable (maybe even foolish?) and be open to the criticism. Ignore the voices in your head telling you that you suck, that your story sucks, that the person giving you feedback sucks and try really hard to resist the urge to slam your fist into their face. Remember that you chose to share your work with someone and invited their honest opinion. Remember that if you can’t take one individual maybe not understanding or appreciating the depth of your genius then it’s going to get a helluva lot harder if/when the screenplay makes it to the screen with your name on it. If/when that happens there may be, potentially, millions of people giving their two cents-worth.

As writers, whether we like it or not, we are forced to create in a void. We begin inside our head, with a blank page, often laboring in complete isolation. If you ever want your words to reach others, to move them and inspire then sooner or later you have to step out into the light. Working with a Story Consultant gives you someone to navigate the void with and show you alternative ways of reaching the destination in mind. Best of all, when you survive the process you have a thicker skin and a little more courage for the next time you leap into the fires of creative hell...

Until next time, keep on pushing that rock uphill folks!