The value of straight answers pt. 2

This is a common conversation for people who work in showbiz:

“Hey man, I heard you lost your job.”

“Yeah, between things right now. If you have any leads?”

“Do you have the UTA job list? I’ll send it to you.”

“Gee, thanks.”

Offering up the job list is literally the least you can do when you can’t actually help someone. The job list is like a metaphor for 90% of the screenwriting advice I see online.

The UTA job list is a list that the United Talent Agency sends out with open positions at entertainment companies. It gets passed around to everyone, and their brother. If you list a “assistant position” at a “boutique talent agency” you will get hundreds of responses.

The list is an illustration of help that represents the least possible effort on the part of the helper while still being marginally better than useless.

The jobless person is really hoping to hear something like, “Hey, you’re my friend. There’s an opening in the MP lit department at my uncle’s company. I’ll set you up with an interview.”

The “helper” is unable or unwilling to offer that kind of assistance, they want to change the subject as quickly as possible while still trying to maintain the appearance of being helpful in case they ever need a favor from the job seeker down the road.

It’s a neat illustration of human nature. No one likes to admit being powerless. It’s why dads struggle mightily to offer relevant showbiz advice, it’s why people say “I’ll see what I can do” instead of “I can’t help you,” it’s why people say that the only way to learn screenwriting is to read screenplays.

Beginners want basic answers, but they rarely get them. If someone asks a question about something like “how many acts should be in my screenplay?” or even “what is a act?” they’ll get 2-3 actual answers and 12 more about how they should think outside the box, not use paint by numbers strategies, how they should “just have fun,” “just write,” or something else in that vein.

The ability to give straight answers is a useful indicator of whether someone knows what they’re talking about. The ability to give answers in someone else’s paradigm is also a good indicator. A dumb atheist can’t answer any questions about the bible. A smart atheist can, and uses their knowledge of the text to buttress their credibility as a serious thinker.

Whether asking for advice or giving it, remember that the best advice is straightforward, direct and actionable. It’s easy to answer a question about screenwriting books by saying they’re all bad, it’s infinitely better to respect the question, cite specific screenwriting books, and then add your own two cents only if you absolutely can’t help it.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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