Unsolicited advice is as inevitable as death and taxes.
It’s so inevitable, people will offer you unsolicited advice on death and taxes. When my grandmother was preparing for a major surgery, family members chimed in on whether she should or should not sign the “do not resuscitate” form. (She didn’t, the surgery went fine, and my grandmother is still going strong at 96 years old.)
But as long as you’re living, there will be people trying to convince you of the best way to live it, while they’re still living it themselves.
Don’t get me wrong—sometimes, unsolicited advice can be really helpful. When I worked at a used bookstore, I had a handful of customers warn me against shelving books while bending my knees. They’d gone through knee surgeries or experienced severe arthritis, and they didn’t want me to go through the same thing. It was sweet. Every time I run on concrete for long periods of time, I think about those kind, well-meaning people who took time out of their day to offer a stranger some sage advice.
A lot of the times, though, unsolicited advice isn’t so great. I can’t tell you how many times people told me not to go to art school. And, sure, if I look at my bank account, it’d be easy to say I should’ve listened to them. But if I take into consideration all the other factors that make up my life—my personality, mental health, dreams, passions—I stand by my decision and would do it again if I could.
That’s the problem with unsolicited advice. Most of the time, the advice-giver knows nothing about you or your situation.
I bring up this topic because I receive a lot of unsolicited advice on Twitter (which I use to network and talk about my screenwriting journey). Most of these advice tweets are like the arthritis advice—they’re encouraging, sweet, and genuinely meant to help me. In fact, I love it when people introduce me to a new writing technique or when they encourage me to practice self-care and prioritize my mental health over writing. The Screenwriting Twitter community can be wonderful in offering support.
However, the replies I got back from a recent tweet made me realize that unsolicited advice can also derail your writing process if you’re not careful.
Before I tell you what the tweet said, let me quickly walk you through the backstory …
I’m writing a screenplay. I know the major beats of the story, but I haven’t plotted it out scene-by-scene. Once I got to the second act, I felt my brain hitting a wall. I quickly realized that I should probably outline a little more before I continue writing scenes. I outlined for a bit before sleepiness took over, then I went to bed, at peace with this new discovery in my writing process.
The next morning, I opened up Twitter and wrote what I thought would be a fun rhetorical question that others could maybe identify with:
How is it that I know exactly where my subplot is going but not where my main plot is going? 🧐 #screenwriting— Michelle Domanowski 🎃 (@MDomano428) October 26, 2021
(In hindsight, I realize it’s hard to tell when a question is rhetorical on Twitter, so maybe I can’t call the advice unsolicited.)
Now, the comments weren’t bad. I wouldn’t even call any of them negative. But I was shocked by the number of people telling me the subplot needs to be the main plot.
I even counted … as I write this, 13 people think my subplot needs to be the main plot! Well, that’s not a bad piece of advice, you might say. And you’re right. It might not be.
But none of them have read my script …
Or the outline …
Or even the logline!
They literally have no idea what it’s about. They especially don’t know what happens in the subplot. My subplot could be the worst part of the story!
I want to be clear—I’m not saying these people were wrong or mean-spirited to give me this advice. In fact, I’d put these tweets under the “arthritis advice” category. They were well-meaning people, offering up their two cents.
But there’s a danger in assigning too much value to strangers’ opinions, especially in the online space, where you can receive advice from a lot of people at once. Even if you’re pretty headstrong with your views, it can be overwhelming and confusing to receive so much input. Imagine 13 people surrounding you to tell you that you need to protect your knees … It’d be weird, right?
A younger me would’ve seen these comments and immediately started second-guessing myself.
Oh dang, a majority of people think my subplot should be my main plot … Maybe I’m doing something wrong. Maybe I should revise everything!
And I can guarantee you that Younger Me would’ve revised everything. (Don’t believe me? I wrote an article on how taking too much feedback caused me to lose my voice.)
Younger Me would’ve changed the subplot to the main plot, ignoring the fact that her protagonist isn’t even in the subplot. But, hey, no worries—she’d change the protagonist, too. Which would involve changing the first act she’d written (and loved). And the rest of the major beats she’d already worked out, including the midpoint, end of act two, climax, and resolution. Oh, and the antagonist would have to be different. And let’s not forget the theme!
She’d change the story to a point where it was unrecognizable, and she’d forget why she even set out to write this thing in the first place.
Most importantly, she’d no longer have any idea what happens in the main plot or the subplot.
Luckily, Present-Day Me did not do that.
At this point in my career, I’ve done enough script coverage and read enough scripts to know not to take specific feedback from people who haven’t read your script yet.
Again, I’m not bashing on anyone. It’s just really hard (if not impossible) to give good advice without knowing what’s literally happening in the story. There are several reasons for this.
Sometimes, writers aren’t good at identifying their strengths and weaknesses. I’ve heard writers bemoan their ability to craft decent story structure, only to find that their structure was flawless, while the character motivations were muddy. If this writer asked Twitter for help on “fixing” their structure, they would’ve gotten advice that might’ve confused them and/or messed up a good thing.
Additionally, it’s worth noting that feelings aren’t facts. Just because a certain aspect of the story feels easier to write, it doesn’t necessarily mean the writer is producing stronger work. I’ve had writing sessions where everything flowed, only to be really unsatisfied with the pages weeks later. I’ve also written scenes that felt like a slog to get through, but they ended up being the most emotionally impactful part of the script. A lot of Twitter advice tends to encourage people to follow “where their excitement goes,” which can be helpful in some cases, but it’s not always the solution the writer needs.
Finally, every story is different. Some scripts need to be a bit long to properly convey the story. Others need to be a tight 90 pages. Some stories require a bombastic third-act climax, while others would benefit from a quiet, unassuming one.
It’s totally fine to listen to general advice when learning about the general principles of screenwriting. But when it comes to specific problems and specific solutions, I’d always recommend getting an experienced reader to lend their eye and insight to the material …
(Yep, that’s me sharing my piece of unsolicited advice. Told you it was inevitable.)
Anyway, I wanted to write this for those of you who might identify with Younger Me and the pressure to take advice from people on Twitter. I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to take it. You don’t even have to consider it.
If the advice-giver hasn’t read your work, the chances of them giving you a good suggestion are really low. Don’t beat yourself up if you feel like their words don’t apply to you. It really might not.
Instead, you can do what I’ve been doing, which is responding to every piece of unsolicited advice with a respectful:
"Thank you, next."
(By the way, say this in your head … Don’t reply tweet with this. That’d be weird.)
*Feature Image: "Lightness of the Reade" by Cristina Bernazzani (Adobe)