Case Study on a Note

When I get notes, they usually fall into one of three categories:

  1. Yes, I noticed that, too.
  2. Whoa! I didn’t notice that at all, but it completely makes sense.
  3. Wait a second, that doesn’t make sense to me. Why did the note-giver say that?

While the third type of note might be tempting to discard as, “The note-giver just didn’t get what I was trying to do,” asking oneself the follow-up question, “Why didn’t the note-giver get what I was trying to do?” leads to some insights that are often more useful than the other two types of notes. Thinking through a Type 3 note forces me to engage a bit more to understand the note-giver’s perspective, replay the scenes in my head, and think carefully about what makes a good scene.

Case Study

I got the same note after two scenes recently in which I was told that I didn’t justify my choices. The strange thing was that when the scenes were taking place, I felt like I was justifying my choices. Here are summaries of the scenes; I have highlighted what I considered at the time to be my justifications:

  1. A boyfriend doesn’t want to take his girlfriend out to dinner on their anniversary because they are watching a Disney Channel marathon, and it is more convenient to microwave food at home.
  2. A recently divorced man gives his daughter a cat because he is abandoning her to tour with Paul McCartney but still wanted to keep her in his good graces.

If I were to diagnose the issue with both scenes now, it’s that the justifications given actually require justifications of their own: why would a person prefer a microwaveable meal to going out or want to stay in good graces with his daughter whom he is essentially abandoning for Paul McCartney? That leads to a pithy rephrasing of the original note:

A justification shouldn’t require a justification.

If that’s the issue, how should one create a non-reflexive justification? One thought that comes to mind is to pin the justification to an emotion. Let’s revisit the above scenes with that perspective.

In Scene 1, what if the boyfriend’s emotion had been love? For instance, he had a number of things planned to make their anniversary special, and they were all set to happen at home. That justifies itself, and then the boyfriend might even agree to go out for dinner but be forced to make a bunch of phone calls trying to cancel the initial plans he had for the evening.

In Scene 2, what if the father had also been motivated by love, i.e. he simply wanted his daughter’s love now that he would only be seeing her half the time? Then no further justification would be required since that’s a believable emotion, and the scene could have continued with him providing more elaborate gifts for her.

Of course, it’s easy to think of new ideas in hindsight, but playing with alternatives in this way can sometimes put a note into context.

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