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

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.

screenwriting tip listenHave 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.

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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2 thoughts on “JEANNE’S SCREENWRITING TIPS: 7 Reasons to Shut Up & Listen

  1. MonaLiNYC

    I swear #5 was me yesterday. I’ve literally sat on notes given…absorbing them these past months…then during a moment of quiet while commuting into work…the characters were just speaking…I just let them talk. Then the a-ha moment hit, these scenes that are playing out in my head…is exactly what the Development Exec meant in her notes. I was like I get it, I get it now! It works and plays out sooooo much better.

    When I wasn’t so focused on what was wrong or not working, just by being still for a bit, the problem basically worked itself out when I wasn’t thinking about it. It was the best feeling. Like I’m glowing from within because now I know how to approach the rewrite with a bit more zealous and joy.

    Thanks JVB for sharing your continual insights.

    1. Gordon

      Hi Jeanne, great article. I have the same problem, and actually tell myself to listen and make the other person feel like the only other person in the world. Why is it hard?

      I did a study on “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, with notes based on the book and applications for construction (my day job) and for screenwriting (my night job). Here are the notes for the 5th Habit – Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

      Techniques of True Understanding
      1. It is necessary to put aside your opinions and agendas while you are listening, so that they will have the psychological breathing room to air out their opinions and agendas.
      2. Open up yourself first, and the other person will trust that you are giving an honest effort to perceive what they are trying to say.
      3. Verbalize what the person is talking about in your own words, to see if you got it or not, and then allow them to affirm your level of understanding or correct it.
      4. Once the information is imparted becomes part of your knowledge base, you can say “tell me more” and acquire more information, or chose to make an informed response.
      5. Communication is a two way street, and if you let others present their side without being in a hurry to get to your side, they will feel important and have confidence that you really care about what they have to say.
      6. Act like the speaker is the only person in the room.
      7. Act like you do not know the person speaking, so you do not finish their sentences.