Monday, August 8, 2011

Reader question - Writing group etiquette

Script Tease asks:

I think it would be great if you would or could address Writing Group etiquette. There's no rules on paper but most writers are in a group and the rules vary. However, I seem to run into problems and have witnessed many "verbal" death matches over notes. So if you can give your opinion on 1) how to politely handle a script full of toilet humor 2) How to tell a writer they've written a novel - not a script 3) How to handle getting booted out of a group (yes, it happened to me..but like my mother says..."They were just jealous! lol)

First, go read these posts from way back:

Writing groups: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

As for your questions:

1) Some writers are sensitive, others you could say, "This is shit" too and they'll want the detailed autopsy notes. Definitely know which breed you're working with.

With regard to a script full of toilet humor, the first question I have is, "Is it funny toilet humor?" You could try to diffuse the harshness of your critque by saying that maybe toilet humor isn't your thing, but does the problem go deeper than that? Is the toilet humor organic to the story? Is the gag plausibly staged, or is it just put in there for shock value?

For instance, I feel like a lot of the toilet humor in American Pie is horribly strained. The titular joke alone with the pie feels very forced, even with the conversation that's supposed to set it up. I don't believe a guy would do that. The earlier gag with the substance in the beer cup is set up a little more organically, but it's still paid off with a lot of sitcom hackery. The "coffee gag" in the second Austin Powers film

Over the years I've seen a lot of poorly motivated toilet humor. Too often, it's clear that the writer came up with the punchline ("Hey, let's have the prom queen get splattered with semen shot out of a reversed vacuum cleaner!") and then worked backwards from there. Unfortunately, the puppet strings are often very much in evidence.

But I'm drifting... my point is that perhaps you should explain why that concept isn't working for you rather than just make a blanket "anti-toilet humor" statement. If you go in with some form of "This sucks because it's toilet humor," then anything you say will probably be ignored. I don't like toilet humor much either, by the way, so I'm not criticizing you for taking exception to it.

2) This is a delicate thing too. I think a good way to start is by pointing out any unfilmables with in the script (descriptions of inner thoughts, backstory details in the action paragraphs.) Writers who write novelistically tend to make these mistakes, and so if you express that none of this comes across visually, they might understand your point. One technique might be to ask them to do a reading or a performance of the scene for the group. Then, compare what someone reading the script would understand versus what someone watching the movie would be able to intuit.

3) As for getting booted from a group - the best thing is to not take it personally. Sometimes people don't mesh, and if the group booted you, I'd bet that there were chemistry issues on both sides. Maybe they were frustrated with your notes, but I'd bet you were probably equally frustrated with them ignoring your notes.


  1. Just as a general point on Writers' Groups, I've found that making a rule that the writer isn't allowed to speak until everyone has given their feedback, and only then to ask for clarification or answer questions, can be really helpful.

    It's not only annoying to have to sit and listen to a writer explaining everything "we" didn't "get" or arguing that stuff works despite what the group thinks, it's a waste of time. If it's not on the page it doesn't matter what's in the writer's head, and arguing a point until the cows come home doesn't make the script better.

    I tend to think of it that as the writer, my contribution to the session is the pages I brought, now it's time to sit back and let everyone else make theirs

  2. Great info! Thanks for answering my question in such detail, and referring me to other posts on the topic. I will certainly to go to my next writer's group meeting with a new attitude toward toilet humor! lol