A Sour Note Can Spoil the Symphony (Part II)

If you’re a screenwriter, sooner or later another screenwriter is going to ask you for notes. Now you’re in a minefield! You want to help the person, you don’t want to offend them, and you have to balance your personal reaction to a script against the demands of its genre and target audience. There’s a reason development executives make a fair bit of money—this ain’t as easy as falling off a log.

As someone who has given and received more notes than I’ve had hot meals, here’s Stogie Joe’s advice on the subject.  (If you missed Part I, check it out.)

Know Your Audience

For most people, the screenwriter whom you’re giving notes to will be a friend, lover, family member… Someone you’re at least fairly close to.  If it’s a classmate you hardly know or you wound up in a writing group with virtual strangers, then try to balance out your constructive criticism with acknowledgment of the script’s strengths. There’s always something nice to say about even the worst scripts…

“The formatting of the scene headers was spot on.”

But generally you know something about the person you’re giving notes to.  Are they thin-skinned?  Are they really just looking for a pat on the back?  Or will they be receptive to rigorous, detailed notes?  At the end of the day you have to consciously decide on your approach to their script.  Pick your shots to be as helpful as possible without discouraging them from the project.  If you feel you NEED to discourage them from the project, for their own good, focus on why it’s not right for today’s marketplace.  Meanwhile, look for strengths of the story or their writing that will lend themselves to a more viable movie idea.

I’m telling you to be nice to these people, aren’t I?  There goes my image.  But the fact is, this is their dream.  Don’t piss on the dream.  It’s rude, and unsanitary.  Assuming that you care about this person even a little bit, don’t be petty.

I know that reading a bad script can be a chore.  It can leave you thinking “God, I’ll never have those two hours of my life back.  I missed the Lakers game for THIS?!”  You’re forgiven if your first instinct is to punish the writer for putting you through it.

But try to remember that they wrote the screenplay hoping that readers would laugh, cry, shiver or have profound thoughts.  They’re not trying to suck.

There are plenty of things in this world that people should suffer for doing.  Being a bad writer is not one of them.  In fact, it’s punishment enough.  Failure is plenty cruel—you don’t have to be.

Am I saying that you should pump sunshine up their untalented keisters?  Hell no.  Just turn this…

“This character was so laughably stereotypical that I thought you were going for Black Dynamite 2.”

Into…

“Adding an unexpected layer or two to his personality would make him a better developed, more interesting character.”

Of course, some people might appreciate the humor and candor of the first note.  (That’s why I put this in the Know Your Audience section, right?)  As long as you don’t limit your notes to snarky remarks, a zinger or two might actually make your point more clearly than a carefully couched comment.

In sports, successful coaches almost never treat every player the same way.  They get to know which players respond to what.  The same is true for directors and their cast.  The idea is always to get the best performance possible out of someone.  Think of giving notes as a test of your ability to coach a writer.  What do they respond well to?  How can you get through to them?  And what will make them tune you out?

Think Like the Audience Will

Every aspect of the development process comes back to this question:

What does the audience want to see?

Everyone from the Story Editor to the Executive in Charge of Production to the VP of International Distribution to the person who cuts the trailer are searching for the answer to that question.  Why shouldn’t you?  At every turn in the story, when each dramatic beat lands, and however a scene unfolds—the underlying question is, “How will this play to the intended audience for this movie?”  It all starts with figuring out who is the audience, what did they buy their tickets to see, and how will the story give them what they want in a satisfying way they didn’t quite expect?

Apply this to your notes.  If you hate romantic comedies, pretend to be the audience for a romantic comedy when you’re evaluating the script.  That’s right—actually imagine yourself as unimaginative, insecure female who wants to be told that everything is going to be all right.

Just kidding—we all love a GOOD romantic comedy.  But even if you’re not a big fan of the genre, compare the script to successful examples you’re familiar with.  Consider trailers you’ve seen, even if you didn’t watch the movie, to isolate the appeal of the premise.  Does your friend’s script have similar selling points, whether they’re fully developed or not?

It’s quite possible that the script you’re doing notes for has unrealized potential.  If an idea, character or avenue of story are promising but not fully explored, this is something to tell the writer.  If a discordant note is struck, something likely to disappoint or confuse fans of this type of film, point it out.

Actively apply “the audience mindset” in your evaluation.  Reflect it openly in your comments, even at the risk of being repetitive.  Go ahead and say things like “Horror fans expect extended scenes of extreme tension.  But the script doesn’t attempt any suspenseful set-piece sequences.”

A serious writer will give these comparative observations, if accurate, much more credence.  Who can discount the value of a note that takes into account the perspective of audiences and compares the script to quality, successful films of a similar type?

Writers of genre films, at least, are almost always actively attempting to put a fresh spin on a proven formula (or at least they should be).  Any note that helps them get the script one step closer to achieving that goal is a good note.  If they ignore your note, to hell with them!  You’ve done your job.

A note about how something struck you as an individual can be valuable too.  Just provide the caveat “this is just my personal opinion,” or some such.  It will only make the writer take ALL your notes more seriously when you draw a clear line between subjective impressions and your attempts to help the script equal its popular predecessors.

So good luck, give good notes, and hopefully you’ll be thanked in someone’s Best Original Screenplay acceptance speech one day.  Or at least you’ll know they aren’t talking to you when they say “thanks to everyone who never thought I’d make it—you made me strong!”

— Stogie Joe