Monday, June 18, 2012

Peter David on why writers are hard to entertain

I've long been a fan of writer Peter David, whose work spans Star Trek novels, many comic book franchises, episodes of several TV shows, including Babylon 5, Ben 10, Young Justice and Space Cases.  A regular feature on his blog is the reprinting of old columns of his, and more often than not, the archives feel incredibly timely, despite being 15 years old.

In this particular column, Peter responds to a reader who thinks he's too hard on the movies he occasionally dissects:

Is it possible that when you watch a movie for the second time on television, you are simply less obsessed with finding fault? Under such circumstances, you just might sit back, watch and enjoy. I suspect that you feel that you get a more entertaining column out of trashing a movie–something I’ve found disconcerting when it’s a movie I’ve seen and enjoyed. In fact, I can remember only one movie that you actually enjoyed although I believe you lamented its obvious failure at the box office.

Dare I suggest that you are overly critical of any piece of writing that is not your own?

I don’t think that a script needs to be technically perfect to be entertaining, an opinion you don’t seem to share; and I think it sad that you spend so much time fining fault that you can’t really let yourself enjoy any movie the first time you view it.

I don't often get emails like this, but now and then I've gotten similar reactions from critiques I've written.  As much as I understand where that reader is coming from, I usually find that point of view collapses under scrutiny.  Leave it to Peter David to come up with a better response than I could:

In point of fact, no one is harder to entertain than a writer. Why? Because, like a roomful of magicians watching a David Copperfield performance, we already know how the trick is done, or we’re busy trying to figure it out. Seeing a magician requires the audience to suspend disbelief.

“Look! The woman is floating in the air!” No, she’s not. Don’t be ridiculous. It’s impossible. People just can’t float unaided. But you marvel at the illusion. Same thing with telling a story, and the storyteller has to work that much hard to bamboozle a fellow writer, just as the magician does to snow his peers.

Meaning that if a writer producers a screenplay that can entertain me, I applaud his talent and eagerly look forward to what else he has to produce.

So when Michael says, “I think; it is sad that you spend so much time finding fault; you can’t really let yourself enjoy any movie the first time you view it,” I humbly submit that it is his interpretation… to say nothing of being a sweeping and wholly inaccurate conclusion.

Yes!  Precisely!  Why are readers (and writers) so critical?  Because we know all the tricks!  We know what makes that woman float and we can tell when the illusion is poorly disguised.  If someone took short-cuts in your line of work, I'm sure you'd spot it too.  If you sell furniture for a living, you'll spot sub-standard sofas and coffee tables a mile away.  A professional plumber might notice a hasty patch job, and so on, and so on.

So when a writer earns the respect of fellow writers, it means one thing - he or she is doing something very, very right.


  1. I was a magazine editor for many years. It took a long time afterwards before I could look at another magazine without automatically seeing layouts, design choices, font choices, tricks for filling space, placement of ads, last minute additions, lazy news editors (never mind sub-editor gaffs) - and whether the editor actually had any clue whatsoever.

  2. His analogy is dead on, but that's not a bad thing. Seeing (possible) problems in other works, helps us to spot it in our own and hopefully we don't make the same mistakes.

  3. My father was a magician. I spent the first twenty years of my life marinating in everything magician. Now I pretty much refuse to watch magicians perform. I can appreciate the skill that goes into a performance but there is zero wonder. It's nearly impossible for me to sit back and enjoy it as entertainment as my brain takes a hard analytic approach to the show. About the only exception is Penn & Teller, who take such a different approach that they can distract me from the mechanics.

    That said, as screenwriter, I can turn off the analysis to a degree and just let a movie wash over me the first time. Subsequent viewings cause me to start breaking things down though. The difference between writing and magic is that I chose one and the other was essentially forced on me. I have a passion to know the mechanics of one and none for the other.