SAY WHAT??? Vol 5: Screenwriters Getting Notes

You know me: I love those SAY WHAT??? moments. They seem to arrive with a bullhorn and echo in my thoughts long after they are gone. I explored these before in previous SAY WHAT? installments, including Things Screenwriters Shouldn’t Say, Screenwriters Gotta Write, The Dog Made Me Do It and the Don’t Tell Me Edition.

So when I started thinking about the things that writers have said to me in response to notes, inevitably I realized that it was time for another installment in the series.

Giving notes on screenplays and television pilots is an integral part of my job. You can’t build a screenwriting career without a great screenplay in your arsenal, if not an entire body of work, and so, even though I never position myself as a script consultant (because, let’s face it, there are more than enough entirely capable story people out there), I inevitably often find myself reading and giving notes on, or, as the industry calls it, “noting” my clients’ work. Yes, “noting” is a thing. Think of it as giving notes, industry-style.

Providing development notes is not new to me; I first started reading screenplays, and providing my know-it-all opinions, when my father shared with me a screenplay for a new movie he was producing when I was eleven years old. Just like that, I was hooked. Reading and noting went from my own fun little hobby when I started providing notes to producers I worked with when I was eighteen years old, then giving notes directly to writers when I worked development in my twenties. Today, I give broad verbal notes to both new and existing clients in every stage of the work, from treatment, to outline to completed screenplay. And every once in a while… I get that response that makes me cringe in a total SAY WHAT??? fingers-on-chalk-board moment.

And for the record, these are not responses to notes that are said to me exclusively. I’ve heard some version of these from agent, manager, and producer friends venting about a response to a note from a writer they were working it. So yeah… Take it from me, this stuff really happens.

Which is all to say: If you really want to irritate the person giving you notes (usually verbally) on your screenplay or TV pilot, be sure to say some version or another of one of these:

Oh, I knew the problem was there

I’ve run into this a million times, every one of which irritated me. But a manager I know put it best when we had coffee and she shared that a client told her this very thing when she was giving notes on a screenplay that he had sent over the previous week. “If he knew there’s a problem in the script, why did he send it to me without fixing it?” she vented. “Did he think I wouldn’t notice? Of course, I notice. It’s my job to notice. And if he knew there was a problem there, why wouldn’t he just call it out for me, so that I can help him brainstorm a solution? That’s just lazy! I was racking my brain about how to bring this up to him in a way that wouldn’t insult him!”

I already fixed it since I gave you the draft

Then why did you not wait to send me a draft that had all the fixes in it? Or, to put it another way, why are you sending me a draft that’s still in progress, and having me provide notes on elements that are changing? Providing notes is no simple task. Not only do you have to identify problems, often you want to be able to pitch solutions or propose changes, which takes time, thought, and tact. Telling the person giving you notes that you’ve already addressed things that they spent time giving a lot of thought to is effectively nullifying the time they spent on it.

So clearly you hate my script

In all my years, I’ve only read a handful of screenplays and television pilots that did not require notes. Big notes. Little notes. Conceptual notes. Character notes. Giving those notes is part of the development process. And if I give you those notes, it doesn’t mean that I hate the script, it means that – like 99% of the scripts that I read – the script needs more development work to be brought to its full potential. Have I read scripts that are unsalvageable? That were so lacking in concept, in character, in world AND in plot that I thought the writer was better off going back to the drawing board? Yes. But there’s usually only one or two of those that I read in any given year. While I am a tough critic, in that I am very demanding of the work, I am hyper-aware of my Israeli-ness, so I am constantly aware of a need to temper my delivery. But it’s happened more than once that I’ve been tackled (once at a party, no-less) by a writer accusing me of outright hating their TV pilot or screenplay. The irony? The notes that I had given in each of these scenarios were not in any way that harsh. They were specific character, scene and logic notes, ones that were remarkably actionable (believe me, I double checked to make sure!). All the writer(s) did in this scenario by confronting me with “you hate my script” accusations was inform me that they do not have the temperament needed to survive in the industry, because industry notes will be wayyyyyy less forgiving than anything that I might have to say. But the subject of writerly temperament is for another blog, and another day.

Oh, that’s from an old draft. 

Do me a favor: Never, ever send a draft out to anyone without reading it over, making sure that it all makes sense. Of course, it’s not going to be perfect! But what it should be is cohesive, and if there’s one statement that I hate in response to when I say, “There was a scene in the third act with a zombie” (in a script where there are no zombies) and get told “Oh, sorry about that, that’s probably still there from an old draft.” Come again? Sending anyone a script whose contents you are not sure of is an absolute no-no. So responding to a note about a story turn, an additional, newly discovered character who wasn’t there before, or an added story element that clearly isn’t threaded throughout the material by telling the reader that it’s a scene, a character or a development that you simply weren’t careful enough to delete, may make the person giving you notes wonder why they are giving so much time to your sloppy script, that you didn’t even bother to read before you sent, in the first place.

It’s a good note. If someone pays me to, I’ll make the changes.

Your job, as a writer, particularly one writing on spec and trying to gain attention from an agent, manager or a producer, is to put the very best script you can out there. There is no set number of drafts you are supposed to write in order to get there, no pre-designated amount of writing days or weeks or months or even years that you are supposed to dedicate to the project before you deem it ready for industry consumption. You’re supposed to write the very best screenplay or television pilot that you can, that’s it, no matter how long, or how many drafts, it takes. Now that does not mean that you are supposed to stay with the same script forever, as it’s probably going to take more than one to get good and get that screenwriting career moving forward. And you should know when the time has come to put that script down, especially if you feel that it’s as good as you can get it (there’s another blog idea! How do you know when your screenplay or TV pilot is ready???) But if you received a note that you know will improve the work? It’s your job to implement it so that it contributes to the quality of the work you put out there. Telling someone that you agree with a note but will only implement it for pay implies that you are willing to put the less-than-best version out there, which is not going to inspire anyone to work on your behalf.

Oh, I don’t think that’s a problem so we don’t need to go into it

You asked me to read your script. Maybe you even paid me. I gave you my time and my attention. If I think I identified a problem worth pointing out, at least show me some respect by listening to my thoughts on it. You don’t have to take the note (unless of course I am paying you); you don’t have to agree with it. But I gave you the respect of reading your script and giving it thought, so now it’s time for you to show me respect by at least listening to my opinions. You did ask for them, after all.

I didn’t think about that backstory/story logic/plot twist

As the champion of your screenplay, it is your job to think through your characters, your backstory, your plot twists, and your logic. You should always know more about your screenplay and all that it contains than the person giving you notes, and even if something does not come through appropriately on the page, you should have clarity about it as the storyteller. Telling me that you didn’t think about the backstory to a particular key relationship, or really take time to follow the logic of your story, makes the development of the material seem hurried, if not outright lazy. And no one wants to give notes to a lazy writer!

There is no doubt: For many writers, getting notes can be a difficult, if not an outright painful and demoralizing, process. But it is, in today’s industry, an inarguable part of the process. That doesn’t mean you have to love every note. But stay away from the above statements, and you’ll be well on your way to taking notes like a pro!