Story Notes: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

The reality of being a screenwriter is that you’ll be getting notes from everyone on the planet and your mother about how to write your script – and ideally should smile in breezy congeniality while doing it, even if every ounce of your beingness wants to punch them in the face. The best way to combat this is to figure out as closely as possible what kind of story you’re trying to tell (genre, theme, character, etc.) and then write your script so that your specific story is the most clear it can be. Clarity alone will actually help you weed out a hard round of notes up front.

If you want to be a screenwriter, part of the job (a big part) is learning how to take notes from everyone and anyone about your work. If you would rather take notes from only one editor and not from 100 people, then write a novel, wherein you’ll have more creative control. But, if you continue on with the journey of screenwriting, you’ll have to learn how to take notes gracefully and actually work them into your material.

Graceful note taking actually isn’t an option – you just have to suck it up – and the notes will always be somewhat cryptic and confusing. I was working for a very successful screenwriter who got notes from an A-list director on a project, and the notes were basically like, ‘Your protagonist isn’t independent enough’ and, a paragraph later, ‘Your protagonist is too independent.’ Um, hello, that is confusing. It’s confusing because he knew there was a problem with the draft but he didn’t know what the specific problem was or how to fix it, so he was just saying stuff, hoping he’d hit on something. It is the writer’s job to figure out what he was trying to say – to find the root of the problem – and fix it.

In the beginning, I found it confusing in the extreme that non-writers wanted to tell me how to craft my work (and, voila, the birth of the producer). When I was in film school, we writers were always astounded that all the other non-writing students – producers, directors, cinematographers, editors – were 100% confident that they knew how to tell our story better than we did. My personal theory on this is that many people in this country have a basic mastery of the English language (and, actually, many don’t). We all can take pen to paper – or put fingers to keys. So, anyone who has the facility to write believes himself to be “a writer.” Actually, this is simply deluded. I would never assume to lecture a cinematographer or an editor about how to do their jobs, simply because there is a level of technical mastery there that I lack – and writers should be accorded the same respect. We’re not born with the level of mastery needed to write a wonderful, layered, complex story just because we have basic language skills. Story is carefully crafted and writers work really hard.

As writers, we have to learn what are helpful notes and what are completely crap notes. Having had my share of both, I’ll try to help you negotiate those waters.

I was once in a writers’ group with a douche who recommended that I make my psychological thriller (about a psychotic mother trying to murder her daughter) into a character drama and remove the thriller elements. I wasn’t trying to write a character drama. I was trying to write a psychological thriller. So, those comments were completely useless to me. Thanks for completely wasting my time, “writer” dude.

A few years back I submitted a political thriller set in Moscow to Film Independent’s Screenwriters Lab. With this application, one gets free coverage, which in this case meant a couple of paragraphs of the reader’s opinion (oh, joy). The “coverage” I got back was written by a crazy young man, I assume, because he returned several paragraphs ranting about how I used a “porn name” for the surname of one of my characters (the baddie), and this ruined the whole script for him. The name I used was a proper British surname, actually. I’m not an avid porn consumer, and so I didn’t know this common British surname is a commonly used porn name – but, you know what? WTF!???!!! It doesn’t matter whether or not that’s a porn name, because those comments were purely 100% crystal douche, and that “reader” should be ashamed. And, I was so embarrassed both for that douchebag and for Film Independent – that they are so unprofessional in choosing their readers and, worse, that they have no idea the kind of shit that’s being sent out on their letterhead – that I don’t belong to that organization anymore and would never submit anything there again. I should have received a fair and helpful evaluation of my material – not horseshit from a porn-addicted USC student with his head up his ass. And, by the way, a friend of mine received overtly racist notes from that same competition, so there you go.

This simply goes to show that just because someone has fancy letterhead and might be affiliated with a proper organization does not mean they have any clue what the hell they’re talking about. They might – but at the end of the day, you have to judge that for yourself.

If the notes you get aren’t overtly racist or 100% douchery, sometimes it can be difficult to know how to take them. To listen or not to listen? My golden rule is this: extremely broad strokes are generally not helpful. The more specific the notes, the better. As they say, god is in the details. And, real notes should always come with a fix.

For example, if someone reads something I’ve written and says, “I hated your protagonist,” that’s an immediate red flag right there for a crap note. There are billions of people on the planet, and for every person who “hates” my protagonist, I could find one who “loves” her – so, in the final analysis, that note means very little. That note isn’t helping me improve the quality of writing. But remember, in screenwriting, we’re working to communicate with the masses, so we want as many people to get our material as possible. So, I would look at that note simply because I would want every reader to love my protagonist.

However, if that same note is rephrased to say, “I found your protagonist annoying because she is a narcissistic alcoholic and talks like a Valley Girl,” then I am armed with better information. If I actually am trying to write a character who is a narcissistic alcoholic and talks like a Valley Girl, then I’ll know I’m close to the mark, but I have to find a way to make her more sympathetic – despite her true colors.

Valuable notes serve to uncover what story we’re really trying to tell and offer us ideas about how to tell that specific story better.

It is actually unusual to find a reader who gives fantastic notes. It’s a skill and a gift to be able to look at material that’s a little off and know how to fix it. Few readers will be able to hit the nail on the head and get to the core of what’s not working and then tell you specifically what you need to do to fix it. Most readers will actually note things that aren’t working but won’t be able to get to that core issue. That is why it is critical for us as writers to be able to listen carefully to what that reader is trying to say – but might not even know it – and then learn to fix the problem ourself. Even if the notes are very specific, it is always important to look beneath the note to what the reader is really trying to say. So, the more readers note a similar issue that’s not working, the more opportunity you have to try to see what they’re really trying to say. One note might be about character, another about story, another about genre or theme, and only then can you see that they’re all really approaching the same core issue from different perspectives. Don’t get confused by the words someone uses to give a note – feel into the spirit of what they’re trying to say and then you can have a better idea of specifically what’s not working and how to fix it.

Look, if you’ve written a script, for sure you’ve gotten crap notes. That’s part of the job description. That said, one sure fire way to really piss people off is by fighting about the notes. Arguing about comments is the easiest way to let people know that you’re a newbie and you have no chops. If someone has taken the time to read your script, let alone give you comments, be a little respectful. Recently I provided expanded coverage on a script and the douche writer sent me back a three page email telling me that my coverage wasn’t credible because I was confused about something in his script that was very poorly written. Instead of taking that note and realizing that his script was confusing, he wanted to fight. I’m convinced this writer would have more success with his work if he put that passion into rewriting his schlocky script than telling me I don’t know schlocky material when I see it. In this case, I was actually trying to help him improve his material to get it to a place where he could shop it – despite the fact that I didn’t think that material would ever sell or get made (although I didn’t tell him that). Fighting about notes only alienates people. If you fight with someone about their comments, down the road, that person is never going to help you. Take the notes – listen politely, smile, write down their comments, afterward ask questions as though their notes are the most fascinating comments in the world. Basically, act like a professional. Then, later, if you don’t like their notes, you don’t have to take them. Listening with professionalism to that person’s opinion doesn’t mean you have to agree. But, that said, if the person giving you notes has years more experience than you, you might want to think about what they were trying to say before acting like a douche.

The more scripts you write and the more notes you receive, the better you’ll become at being able to evaluate those notes not from an emotional place but from a purely intellectual space. It takes some experience to be able to dissociate our stories from ourselves. More often than not in my process, what I set out thinking I’m going to write isn’t exactly what ends up on the page. And so then I begin the process of really evaluating what’s on the page and what my story wants to grow into, despite what I thought it was going to be. That’s why we rewrite: we’re helping our story grow into what it wants to be, not what we want it to be. Every story grows and develops – that’s why creative work is related to birthing. Because we might bring something into the world, but then once that story is on paper, it has its own life. Once you can find clarity about exactly the kind of story you’re trying to tell, then you can fit those pieces together and find people who can support and help you in your journey. And all those crap comments can get buried in the backyard.

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