Getting Feedback on Your Screenplay or Pilot: Which Note to Take, and Which to Discard?
Getting notes can be… shall we call it… a challenging process? The experience of getting notes and feedback on your original screenplay or pilot can run anywhere from exciting to downright debilitating. Depends on the script. Depends on the writer. Depends on the note-giver. And let me assure you… those more difficult notes are never easy to give. But the one thing that is, in my experience, inarguable, it’s the simple fact that getting notes from other writers whose craft you respect, industry friends who make their living in the scripted space, consultants, readers and screenwriting instructors should help you, in one way or another, make your screenplay or TV pilot undeniably better.
Now, that doesn’t mean that every note will be a sound one, or one that you should take on and implement. After all, if you’ve incorporated every note given to you by every person who has ever read your pilot or screenplay, you would end up with a Frankenstein of a screenplay, full of contradictions and challenges that more often than not don’t all work. Therefore, the process of distilling the notes that you receive for your screenplay or pilot that you are developing on spec is incredibly important if we want those notes to ultimately help you arrive at a better version of your work. This blog post, therefore, is here to help you do that.
And just a quick note, before I go any further: This blog post is specific, as noted above, to those screenplays that you are developing on your own, speculatively, sans the guidance of another stakeholder such as a producer or a manager. When developing with creative partners, even when doing so on spec, it’s their notes you have to adhere to above all else, as it will be their role to take the material further once it’s arrived at its very best shape.
So when you are developing your own original work, how do you decide which note to take, which to dig into and consider, and which to discard right off the bat?
When receiving your notes and thinking through them, always ask yourself: Which notes are helping you come closer to the story you want to tell? Specifically when receiving notes from other writers who may not be well versed in script analysis and feedback, you may receive notes that speak to how they themselves would write the story you are trying to tell. In these scenarios, you must discern which notes would be most effective in improving the story you want to tell, as opposed to the notes that steer you away from your story, and instead towards another writer’s story sensibilities.
There will be those notes that, quite obviously, help develop your story further, be they character, plot, theme or structure based. These notes are easiest to take, but that doesn’t mean that they should be implemented right onto the page. If these notes are big, structural notes, consider going back to outline or beats first, sketching the changes you want to make, check for their soundness, and only then go back to implement them into the screenplay or pilot itself.
There will be those notes that offer an irritating, potentially even a wrong fix, but still feel as though there is something there. Those are the notes that require that you look for the “note behind the note,” that you pour some thought into not the fix, but the problem that the note-giver is citing, which the fix is trying to address. Consider those notes, and how to best use them to strengthen your pilot or screenplay, even though it might not be obvious at first.
As a storyteller, there are choices that you make in your screenplay or pilot, in your story choices and storytelling style, that not everyone is going to agree with. It’s a business of opinion, and most screenplays and TV pilots will not be liked by everyone. There will be those detracting notes that speak directly to those choices you made that the reader just won’t jive with. Every screenplay or pilot that succeeds in the industry has also had its fair share of rejections and passes; it’s just a reality of working in the business. As it’s always important to know what the detractors may say, consider those notes, and open yourself up to the possibility that you may hear those same notes again as you set to gain attention and traction for your screenplay or pilot in the professional space. As long as the choice you made is a conscious one that you are willing to continue to stand by, you can stick to your guns.
Additional notes to discard will be those that take your material in a vastly different direction, one that you never intended to take. It doesn’t mean that they are not good notes, they simply develop your material in a way that doesn’t speak to your voice, vision or story sensibilities. HOWEVER, and this is a big one, if you continue to get the same note again and again from more than one person, it’s important that you consider the note, and why you are continuing to receive it. It could mean that something is fundamentally not working in the material, and therefore requires some attention, even if you end up addressing it in a way different than how it was originally suggested. If there is a problem in the work it’s up to you to fix it, but you also have to stand behind every plot, character or thematic change that you make.
Also important to remember when applying notes to work: Don’t take a note and slap it, literally, onto the page. Take the time required to think it through, to consider its ramifications, to really bake it into the work. I always get a bit nervous when a writer tells me that even though the notes he received were substantial, it will take just a few days, maybe a week, to implement them. What that tells me, in most cases and specifically with less experienced writers, that they are likely not taking the time required to make the note their own, and therefore it is not likely to really further the screenplay or pilot script, as its application will be, for the most part, surface. This is not true every time, but more often than not that does turn out to be the case when notes are implemented with haste.
Most importantly, regardless of which notes you opt to take and which you reject, it’s important to remember that, as suggested above, no matter what, you are the one that has to stand behind every word, line, page, scene, sequence, act and character present in your work. The screenplay or pilot will bear your name, which means that the end product is reflective of your vision, voice, interest and story sense. Therefore, don’t take a note given to you by someone just because you think they know better without really understanding it and how to use it to further the story that you are trying to tell. After all, if someone calls you on a story element you implemented as a result of a note that you didn’t really agree with, you won’t be able to blame it on somebody else. When it comes to original content, you are responsible for everything that makes it onto, and is kept on, the page. It’s up to you to decide which notes to take and which to discard as you aim to make your screenplay or pilot the sort of project that will cut through the noise and get your writing the attention it deserves.