How do you know when to listen to feedback and change your story?
This question really gets to the heart of it. Superficially, it is pretty easy to know if you agree with feedback telling you beef up a scene, hit a story point harder, punch up dialog, etc. But what about real, substantial change? What do you do when listening to feedback would fundamentally change the very story you originally set out to tell?
In terms of Abbot’s feedback on Supervillain, one of their readers wanted more comic book superhero action. He said this is what the audience expects and what the genre provides, and despite an action-oriented opening and climax, my script suffers from a lack of it. Superhero action is fun, it’s visual, it’s dramatic and external, and it fills seats and sells popcorn. He’s right. But here’s the thing: it is fundamentally inconsistent with my premise. In my story, the superhero desperately wants comic book action – it would solve all his problems. The superhero tries to get it, he makes pitiful ill-fated attempts to generate it, but there is no superhero comic book action. This is the source of the comedy. That’s my premise. So if you add comic book superhero action to my premise, you get… a different premise.
It would be like adding a time machine and car chases to Aftershocks; these would transform it into Back to the Future. Back to the Future is fun and Back to the Future is great and Back to the Future is better than Aftershocks, no question. But I didn’t want to write Back to the Future. I wanted to write Aftershocks.
So what do you do? I can hear all us artist types laughing, saying it is obvious that this reader and his feedback should be dismissed. “He doesn’t get it,” this argument says. But is it really that simple? The audience has definite expectations – and these expectations are not there because they are arbitrary, these expectations are there because they are filled with power and resonance, and have been for a long time. These story elements work, and work extremely successfully. Is it smart to play around in this territory without harnessing all the power you know is at your fingertips? And if you don’t take advantage of your territory, why are you in that territory anyway?
Does a story’s power and resonance come from the author, as if in a vacuum? Or does it come from the relationship between the story and the reader? And if a writer works in an area to which he knows the reader brings baggage, isn’t it wise to use that baggage to his own advantage? I thought this is what I was doing, playing with the reader’s expectations and having fun by subverting them. But Abbot’s reader disagreed, saying I was bringing a very specific audience to the story – and then doing precisely the thing that would most efficiently bore and disappoint it.
It’s all too easy to discount a reader’s feedback. It’s easy to take a rigid and defensive stance. It’s easy to take a reader’s feedback and logically dismiss it, item by item – convincing yourself in the process that your work is therefore perfect. But your job is not to logically convince anybody of anything – the idea is not to make the reader like your story, the idea is to make a story that the reader likes.
And for the arty types: isn’t the idea to explore and create? To let a character and a conflict take you where it takes you? A story shouldn’t be limited by anything, especially not the author’s self-censorship. But if you put up a brick wall to a reader’s suggestions, aren’t you the one telling the story where it is not allowed to go? If a story has to evolve and find itself, if its journey has to take it from point A to B to C and beyond to reach its true destination, are you really going to dismiss this whole evolution and keep it imprisoned at point A just because point B doesn’t sound perfect?
So do you write Back to the Future, or do you write Aftershocks?
I think I’m gonna have to go with Aftershocks this time.