“You Suck,” and Other Things You’d Love To Scream at Someone Giving You Notes on Your Script

I’m writing again about giving and receiving notes because it’s important. In this last week, I’ve had two hard notes sessions (giving notes).

Okay, we’re adults. We can admit it. Getting notes is hard. It’s usually shocking. We pour our heart and soul into something, we hear the notes, feel that the person “doesn’t get it” and we want to tell them to fuck the hell off. We come up with any excuse under the sun as to why their note isn’t relevant to what we’re trying to do. If they don’t “get” what we’re trying to do, why does their opinion matter, anyway? Well, here’s why.

The reality is giving and getting notes is a part of the job. The more you write, the more notes you give and get, the easier it becomes. Really. Really. Because, at some point, you will come to understand that there are a ton of ways to hit a particular beat, and that your one way isn’t the most precious thing on the planet. Looking at those ways, investigating, brainstorming, being creative, imagining 11 possibilities where before you only saw one, isn’t an indictment of you as a human being or a writer. It’s play, being creative. It’s the learning curve. It’s the craft. It’s the job. And, if you don’t choose any of those other 10 ways to hit that same beat, you should know why, and it should only be for one reason, and one reason alone: Because the 11th way serves your story best.

So, despite the fact that you want to scream at the note giver a la Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder (“Scorched earth, Motherfucker!”), really, what you should do is smile and politely take notes. Write down their notes. That is professional. Arguing with the note giver about your poor or confusing choices will simply annoy and offend them and underscore that they’re not going to waste their time giving you notes in the future. And you will probably want their notes in the future.

The reality is, once you have a chance to go home, disengage emotionally, maybe wait a couple of days, and look at the “note beneath the note,” you can start to look at what that person was trying to say. There is always an underlying note beneath the note that was given. Most people are not great note givers, so we have to learn to teach ourselves what that person was really getting at. What might have come out of their mouth was, “I hated your protagonist,” which we writers know really means, “Your protagonist was unsympathetic.” But, in looking at that note, you can see that you didn’t introduce your protagonist to make him sympathetic. Okay, easy rewrite.

The hardest thing about writing, especially for new writers, is that what’s in your mind isn’t necessarily what’s on the page. A lot of times writers want to make things more complicated than they need to be. Complicated usually gets confusing. In screenplay, confusing equals bad. Screenwriting isn’t about making things overly complicated. It is about streamlining, making things abundantly simple but with wonderful emotional resonance. This is why you must have people read your work and tell you what they got from the page – not from your mind. It is only through getting feedback from other people that you will be able to hone what is on the page and bring it very closely to your mind’s picture.

If something isn’t currently on the page that is in your mind, it doesn’t mean you’re an evil person or a bad writer. It simply means you still need to rewrite. That’s the job. Rewriting. Everything gets rewritten. I heard some statistic that most big-budget scripts get rewritten something like 25 times before they make it to screen – and that doesn’t mean polishes. That means some number of new writers are brought on, the basic story is reconceived, slash and burn, and they in essence start over. I don’t know if that number is true, but I like that urban myth because it just goes to show how much work goes into any movie before it gets made. And helps to explain why a project might be hanging around for many, many years before it goes into production.

For my own projects, if something isn’t working (and all the more so if it’s a slash and burn), I basically imagine that I’m that new writer who was hired by my own story to tell that story better. At some point there comes a moment when your story wants to be bigger than you, the writer. At that point, it isn’t about you being so precious and emotionally wounded. It’s really about the work. The story becomes its own beingness, its own entity. That is my invitation to step up and do the work. It is my job to help that story come into its own, grow to be what it will, to make that story the best it can be. So, despite the fact that I might love some precious part of my script, I have to understand that if it really doesn’t serve the overall project, it can go. It’ll no doubt find its way into another project at some point.

Here’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: there will come a time where a note will feel empowering.

Now that I’m reading so much and providing regular commentary on scripts, and also I get notes on my own writing now all the time because I have a writers’ group as well as a variety of people I trade work with, the whole notes thing really has become work, the job, an intellectual (and not emotional) exercise (i.e., not that precious). What I mean by this is, I can listen to notes and actively brainstorm and really try to understand what they’re telling me without getting emotionally reactive. To me, it’s just brainstorming. It’s play. It’s fun. It is looking at material from another perspective so that we have the option of making the best choice for our story. That ultimate choice lies with you, the writer. It’s within our control. But, I always feel empowered having more information rather than less.

It’s like with anything in life (unless you’re a Republican or in the Christian Right), more information is empowering. Ignorance might be Bliss, but Bliss ain’t going to write your script for you. If you are going in for surgery, wouldn’t you do the research to find out who the absolute best doctor is in that area and then interview that doctor before jumping under the knife? Yes, you would. When you apply for college, don’t you do extensive research to look at which colleges are the best fit for you – not only academically, but all around, and then you go and visit those colleges before applying? Yes, you do. This is because it is important to do the research in order to have the best outcome. Screenplay is no different. You must do tons of research on different levels in order to have the best outcome.

That is why we watch movies within our genre, we beat them out, study them, study the genre conventions, and then we outline, outline, outline, we get notes, we revise, revise again, get more notes, revise again, and after, once we’ve written a first draft, we get notes. More notes, many notes. And then we keep revising until it’s the best it can be.

The notes process is about empowering yourself with information so you can make the best choices for your story.

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

One Response to “You Suck,” and Other Things You’d Love To Scream at Someone Giving You Notes on Your Script

  1. Jill Girling December 11, 2011 at 5:54 am #

    oh my god, thank you for that great article. Next time I receive notes, I will think of you this article. And next time I give them too. Thank you!