JEANNE'S SCREENWRITING TIPS: 7 Reasons to Shut Up & Listen

In Jeanne's Screenwriting Tips, she speaks about the importance of listening. In a world that thrives on collaboration, having great listening skills is essential to your career and your writing.
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Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the Editor of Script Magazine and a screenwriter, having written the narrative feature adaptation as well as the limited series of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, which was honored in the Top 25 Tracking Board Launch Pad Features Competition, Finalist of PAGE Awards and semi-finalist Sundance Episodic Labs. Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannevb.

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Do you ever notice people are always interrupting each other? While one person is talking, the other’s wheels are spinning with what their response will be, often blurting it out before the person they’re conversing with is able to finish their sentence.

Have I been guilty of it? Absolutely. I have a horrible short-term memory, so I used to use the excuse if I didn’t spit out my thought immediately, I’d lose it. But I’ve learned the value of zipping my lips.

screenwriting tip listen

No matter what our excuse is, there is no excuse for not listening.

What does listening have to do with your screenwriting career? Everything!

In a world that thrives on collaboration, having great listening skills is essential to not only how the industry perceives you but also to how well you can accomplish the goal of creating a stellar final product.

Let’s dive into the 7 reasons you should shut up and listen:

1. First impressions matter. Hijacking a conversation gives a horrible first impression, even if it’s your hundredth conversation with that person. No one wants to talk with someone who interrupts them and doesn’t let you get a word in edgewise. When that happens to me, all I think about is, “I can’t possibly work with someone who only wants to hear his own ideas.”

Think of every first conversation like a date. Judging only by their people skills, would you go out with that person again? I may be able to put up with a conversation-hogging twit for a night, but not for the two or three years it’ll take to make a film with them. I’m out!

2. Listen and learn. When you pitch an executive, they’ll often tell you exactly what they’re looking for, if you listen carefully. Since they don’t have your script in hand… yet… you can easily make tweaks to it before submitting it and give them exactly what they want. You need to shut up to learn what that is though.

3. Collaboration is about sharing. Whether you’re creating a story from scratch with a writing partner or working with a producer in development, you need to hear their ideas in order to elevate your work to the next level. Sure, some ideas may be horrible, but even just one nugget of brilliance will make your story better. When brainstorming, no idea is bad. Take out your notepad and write them all down, no matter how silly they are. By the time your list is done, great ideas will pop.

4. Let your characters speak. You created them, and like a good parent, you need to shut up and let them speak for themselves and tell their story. Get out of their way! When I’m writing a scene, I’m always asking what my character would do, turning down the volume of what I would personally do in that circumstance. I may be the hero in my own life, but I’m not my character. They have a voice of their own, and it’s my job to get out of their way and listen to their wants and desires.

5. Being defensive starts with not listening effectively… sometimes that means listening to yourself. When you receive script notes, you have to hear them with an open mind, or you’ll waste everyone’s time by shaking your head and defending your position. Even if you don’t agree with the notes, just listen. There might be one shining idea in their reactions to your story that sparks more ideas in your own head of how to fix the problem. That happened to me before my last rewrite. I adamantly disagreed with the note givers, but after listening to their concerns, I spent a couple of weeks simmering on the discussion. I eventually found a brilliant solution in a quiet moment of not talking but of listening to my own mind’s process. Sometimes you have to get out of your own way.

6. People love to talk about themselves. It is a proven scientific fact that if you allow people to go on and on, talking about themselves, when they walk away from your conversation, they’ll have warm and fuzzy feelings about you. Sure, that may be pathetic and narcissistic, but hey, we’re humans. It’s a fact, albeit a sad one. I’ve used this tip when networking in L.A. Trust me, it works.

7. Take a tip from a spy. How do spies learn? They listen. Sure, it might be in a wiretap, but they listen. You’ll learn the best intel about the person when you shut up, nod, give them a, “Yep” and listen. Everyone is out for himself or herself first, so when you’re having a conversation about how this person can help you, trust me, there’s always something that slips out about how they plan on using the opportunity to help themselves. Don’t ignore that, as their goals may be at cross purposes with yours. Keep your ears open and listen.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with an opportunity being a win/win for everyone. For example, if someone is going to use my project to get into an exec’s office, they’ll want to pitch their own work too. That’s totally fine with me. Every exec asks, “What else have you got?” It’s better for everyone if you walk in the door with more than one project. But if they push my project aside and let theirs hog the meeting, or if they steer my project in a direction that is not in my best interest under the guise of “helping me,” then I’m going to push back. If you carefully listen to their offers of help, you’ll see what’s in it for them. Weigh it out and be clear that you’re cool with it before you go forward. Be smart. I’d also go as far to suggest you should find the win/win in it for people proactively. People will be more likely to lend you a hand if they know you’ll pay-it-forward in return.

So, what do you do if you can’t seem to bite your tongue? Practice on phone calls. Keep a notepad next to you and jot down all your thoughts, even if it’s a drawing of a noose to hang them with. Just write it down so you keep your mouth shut! If you’re listening to someone’s offer of help, jot down what they’re saying to help you uncover what’s in it for them. I type freakishly fast. I’ve been known to type out all my important conversations as they happen. Plus, it keeps me quiet while I type. You’d be surprised what I can read between the lines when the call is over.

Practicing the art of shutting your mouth gets easier when you realize how much there is to learn when you focus on listening. Knowledge is power. And in this crazy industry, you need all the power you’re going to be able to get.

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