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  • All About Instinct

    July 3rd, 2009

    What is it that would propel a writer to jot down one hundred and thirty pages about the one-legged woman who married the inventor of the soybean? Or a story about the quadriplegic midget who falls in love with a gold miner in 1886? Or a nice sentimental drama about a man who was raped be a seal?

    The answer – bad instincts. That thing every writer has inside of them that basically serves as their navigation tool – their story compass – that points their script in a certain direction. They can kill a writer’s career long before it ever starts. If your instincts drive you to a completely noncommercial, ridiculous, boring, inappropriate, or confusing place – there’s not much we can do for you. And by the way, I have been pitched at least ONE of the stories in the first paragraph.

    One of the most common remarks you’ll overhear an executive say at a pitchfest, is “we can tell the writer just has bad instincts.” We can usually tell if you have the right instincts, but often bad instincts can be disguised by a great pitch. I’ve had pitches that blew me away but when I started reading the script, the characters were downright despicable and the story went into odd, random directions that were never even discussed in the pitch.

    It’s THE dreaded comment really, because most other things can be fixed or improved upon with a little hard work and dedication, but we can’t change a writer’s instincts. Sure, we can change the story your instincts have driven you to write, but to change a writer’s instincts is like pushing a 10 ton truck up a hill. It’s just too hard to try. There’s too much resistance and not enough upside, because a writer with bad instincts is like dead weight on the page. It’s also the most frustrating comment for us to give, because we can see that you have a spark of a good idea or something that COULD work – if it were in another writer’s hands. And we want to take that idea from you and make it what it SHOULD be – and sometimes we are tempted. But we know that giving you notes to change your whole story is only going to anger you and waste our time. There’s nothing we can do but show you alternate directions for which to take your story, but ultimately, if a writer wants to write a story about a quadriplegic midget who buys a horse, nothing we say is going to make him reconsider.

    There are a number of things that go into shaping a writer’s instincts. Much like how one’s upbringing and relationships growing up affect their future relationships, it also affects their writing. If you were born on a hippy commune, your first script might be an anti-government conspiracy tale. If you come from a home with divorced parents, your first script might be an “American Beauty” wannabe (as my first script was). This is because when you start your writing career, everyone tells you to write what you know. I always tell people to write what is in them to write – and then put it aside and write something that can sell.

    How do you know if you have good instincts? Well, let’s say you have a great general set-up but you’re not sure what direction to take your story in. For example, your set-up is a guy falls in love with his lifelong best friend’s girl. Common enough right? What’s going to show us you have good instincts is your take on how this occurs, why this occurs, and where it goes once it has occurred. If you have poor instincts, you go to the same place everyone else goes – the men fight over the girl trying to best each other being nice until she gets sick of both and they learn that friendship is more important.

    Someone with better instincts will put a different twist on that story. Perhaps instead of the girl realizing she doesn’t love them, THEY discover they don’t love her, but neither wants to lose, so they keep dating her trying to drive her to the other guy. That’s a new twist on a really old concept. I’m not saying it’s a great idea, but it’s a new twist. There are a hundred ways to go with this kind of concept, so I suggest a writer sit down and list 10 different directions you COULD go with your story – even if you have your whole story figured out. Give yourself options. Because invariably, some studio exec is going to give you the note, “we love the set-up, but is there another direction this story could go in?” And you will already have 9 more ideas to pitch them.

    Everyone says that a person’s first instinct is usually the right one – that is not the case with writing. Often it takes the rewriting and editing process for a writer to realize his or her story’s true potential!

    How do you know if it’s your concept that isn’t working or your story instincts? Pitch your story two different ways. First, pitch your project as just a high-concept logline. Then pitch your project more in depth with more of your story. If you get bites for your concept, but your story gets you rejected, then your story instincts have led you astray.

    Improving ones instincts is a great deal harder than just rewriting a script or improving your dialogue, because it goes deeper. It’s not just a line on a page, it’s what you feel in your heart. However, in order to get past your writer’s block, repeated rejection, or repetitive story rut, it’s your instincts that you’re going to have to examine.

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