A Sour Note Can Spoil the Symphony (Part I)

Notes.

Every writer gives them, gets them, hates them.  They’re a necessary evil.  Like the unlovely comparison between opinions and a certain part of the body, everybody’s got a note for every script.

Take any two of the PAGE Awards winners and you’ll probably find a Judge who loved one but not the other and another Judge who felt the opposite.  Read a script that sold and tell me you don’t have notes.  Have your friend read it and see if those notes are the same as yours.  Probably not.

If everybody has a different opinion, a different sense of what’s selling or not selling and why, and a different degree of commitment to the task, what makes one set of notes better than another?

The best thing to do is get as many people to read your work as possible and see how many of the same notes you get back.  If you hear the same things from all kinds of people, you can probably take that to the bank.  If you hear something from one person and you know it’s true—even if you’d rather gargle glass than admit it—well, you should probably take that seriously, too.

But today I want to talk about GIVING notes, not receiving them.  Every writer should make giving good notes a point of pride.  Not only is helping each other succeed a great feeling, analyzing other people’s work rigorously will only make you a better writer, too.  And what goes around comes around—if you move the needle for someone else, they’re going to remember that.  It’s karma, kids.

Here’s what to do and what not to if one of your fellow scribes asks for your opinion on their work.  It’s a pain in the ass but it’s also a compliment, and an opportunity.  Take it seriously.

First off, and for me this is Rule Number One…

Don’t Tell ‘Em What YOU Would Do

Every writer is different, every story is different, and no one understands the intricate web of ramifications that radiates from every little tweak like the person who wrote the damn script in the first place.

When you and I talk about your script, I assume you’ve thought everything through from every possible angle.  A script is a house of cards, and the writer should be able to rattle off where all 52 of ‘em are without looking.  If you can’t, you haven’t done your job.

But nothing makes me want to grind out my cigar in somebody’s smug mug like a litany of new story turns or even SPECIFIC DIALOGUE as they act out THEIR scenes for you.  Congratulations, you’re creative!  Wow, let me record this performance so I’m sure not to lose a word of it and can immediately transcribe it into my script, verbatim.

I know the Improvisational Note-Giver is coming from a desire to help.  They probably think that the best thing you can do for someone is to solve their problems for them.  Makes sense in any other walk of life, right?  What’s your friend going to appreciate more, telling him that his car’s spark plug wires are shot or saying, “Hey, I fixed it! Get back on the road and go with God, buddy!”

Screenwriting is a little different.  Unless you’re the Screenplay Savant, whatever you come up with off the top of your pretty little head is not going to be the best fit for the script.  How could it be, if you haven’t thought through all the consequences of your changes?

If they plug in all your great ideas, chances are your friend is going to discover a host of new problems to solve.  The word for this is “churn.”  You could also call it robbing Peter to pay Paul or cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Give other writers the same credit you want for yourself.  We’re good at this; we’re committed and creative people.  Show me the problem and I’ll solve it in my own way.  The way that’s going to be best for me and best for my story.

Which brings me to Rule Number 2…

Make a Compelling Case for Your Note

“Your protagonist was kinda, I dunno… Flat.”
“Flat is in, lacking dimension?  You thought she was one-dimensional?”
“No, no, she had plenty of depth… I just found her sort of ordinary.”
“Do you mean boring?  You didn’t care about her?”
“No, I guess I thought… She didn’t blow me away.”
“Okay.  Thanks.”

Wishy-washy, instinctive, vague negativity is the worst possible note you can give.  Basically, you’re saying “I didn’t like this, but I can’t really tell you why.”  Sure, there’s something to be gleaned from that, but only at the most civilian, test-audience level.  The writer can reevaluate this aspect of the script and try to find out what isn’t working, but if she liked that aspect and put a lot of loving care into it, chances are she isn’t going to find anything wrong with it.  Notes like these are the easiest to ignore.

But here’s the thing…

Chances are, that crappy note-giver was onto something, but his effort was just too half-assed to be of any damn use to anyone.

Don’t be a half-assed note-giver.  Make a case for your notes.

I truly believe that you could give the most damning, humbling and monolithic note to the most adamant, resistant writer in the world and if you make your argument in a detailed, specific and clear manner, the writer will thank you.  Maybe after swearing, throwing something, and going for a long walk around the lake while pondering a career in the garment industry.  But that writer will ultimately thank you if you lay out exactly WHY whatever it is doesn’t work.

This doesn’t mean you have to become incredibly anal and do a PowerPoint presentation for every note.  It just means that your job is to explain how and why something rubbed you the wrong way, fell flat, didn’t make sense, wasn’t believable, or whatever the case may be.

If you focus on convincing the writer that they have a problem and showing them exactly what that problem is, you’re doing them a great service.

Now, if you also have a few ideas for what to do about it, great—maybe they’ll take your suggestion and run with it, maybe it will spark an entirely new idea for the fix, or at least get them moving in the right direction.  Just don’t tell a writer what to do as if it’s the best or only thing to do.

There is nothing sadder in the screenwriting world than someone pinballing from draft to draft, chasing their tail after a cascade of half-hearted, ill-thought out notes or someone else’s vision sent them down the rabbit hole for another few weeks or months.  You aren’t doing them any favors, so don’t do it!

To be continued…

— Stogie Joe