Tuesday, 21 April 2009

The Eighty:Twenty Rule

I was reminded of this rule when talking down the pub with some writers the other day, and I thought it would make a nice blog post. It's popular in many disciplines; I first heard it at the day job, but it is just as applicable to screenwriting. It is this: in any endeavour - if we assume that infinite time or infinite resources are not at your disposal - 20 percent of the stuff you want to do will never get done. Simple as that.

That 20 percent might not be possible at all, or it will be prohibitively difficult, or too costly in either time or cash to achieve; or, most likely, it might become clear as you proceed that it was never worth doing in the first place. Wisdom is the ability to identify which 20 it is before you start, and then deliver the remaining 80 without getting distracted by what might have been.

I have not yet achieved wisdom, obviously, but I keep trying. I'd never thought about the rule with regard to writing, but then I read Andrew Harrison's interview with publicist Mark Borkowski in this month's issue of Word magazine, and Mark expressed the rule in a slightly different way. (He also sets the cleaving point at 75:25, so I'm obviously more optimistic than him; but, he is in publicity...)

If I might have a little fair use quotation for truth, Mark says this: “You can never make a hundred percent of people interested in an idea. The most you can aim for is 75 per cent, and you have to keep telling your client not to bother about that other 25 per cent, because actually they don't matter. Just don't let anyone leak from the 75 into the 25. But your client will always start obsessing about the 25 per cent. Hubris takes over. 'We have to have them!' You waste your energy on people who will never love you. Not unlike life in general."

This really struck a chord with me when I read it, as I'm currently in the process of getting script notes back on a project. Whenever I do this, as I often do, I hold in my mind the 20% of people out there will never like my script, no matter how much I change it to try to please them. Obviously, if this is a commissioned piece of work and the producer is in the 20% then you've got problems; you're both making a different film. This has happened to me, and it ain't pretty.

With spec work that you're getting peer reviewed during development, you don't really know what unconscious prejudices a particular reader is going to have. So, the wisdom is the ability to identify if they're 80 or 20 based on their notes, right? Nah. I don't believe it can be done. No one's that wise. And the possibility for self delusion ('they just don't get it!') is always a risk. Maybe you could tell if you can see the whites of their eyes, but sometimes not even then. Half the time they don't even know that they will never like your script, so you're going to have trouble telling.

So, what's the solution? First, make the script as good as you can make it for yourself. There's nothing worse than getting notes, negative or positive, on a script you're realised - between sending it out and getting the feedback - that you don't even like. Don't be in your own 20 percent.

After that, get as many and as broad a range of sets of feedback as possible and cross-reference them. This means you can see the trends forming and work out where the 80:20 line is falling. For this reason, I would avoid having only other screenwriters appraise your work - a trap I've fallen into often. Every screenwriter has their own voice, and we prefer it! So, any script not written by us is automatically going to be at a disadvantage. Okay, I'm being a bit flippant here, and anyone - myself included - that has to give script notes will try their hardest to be objective and not try to rewrite your script in their own image. But writers like to write, so they may end up appraising a script that isn't what you want to make, but... something different.

Professional script readers should have more detachment, but they cost money and so must be used sparingly (unless you're rich, and if you're a screenwriter there's a lot less than 20 percent chance of that). Beyond that, it would be useful to find a genuine punter for the type of work you're writing. This is tricky unless you're going to drag someone off the street; friends and family can often pull punches so as not to offend. Luckily, I have friends and family not frightened of offending me, so I have a few trusted readers outside of the screenwriting world and all its arcane ways.

But most of all, your rewrites will take lots of work to get to the best possible script. And that's another version of the 80:20 rule: 20% percent of the work will take 80% of the effort. I think this one applies to screenwriting too. First drafts - getting 120 pages of white and black down that makes some sort of sense - they're the 20; the 80 is all that wonderful rewriting after that. And on that note, I better get back to working on my screenplay. Ta ta.

1 comment:

Adaddinsane said...

It's called the Pareto Principle (http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareto_principle/ ).

I totally agree about how it works for writers - though the director thing had not occurred to me (reasons to be fearful, part many).

I agree that the 20% who will never like the script are potentially dangerous - and I wonder how many writers have had their creativity crushed by them.

Adrian Mead's Power of 3 comes in there, obviously his is an approximation :-) 66:33 but perhaps it should be Power of 5 instead?

It's also worth looking up Sturgeon's Law: http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sturgeon's_law

For programmers it's different and expressed as "When a programmer says the project is 90% done, there's only the other 90% to go."