We may hate them, but if they help us write a better script…
Writing a screenplay is an iterative process. That is a script is never finished with a first draft, it only moves toward completion through the rewriting process. And one key to that process is script notes.
But here’s the thing: There is no simple formula on how to handle them.
First off, it’s dependent on how, when, and who are involved in providing the notes. An aspiring writer getting notes from a friend differs substantively compared to a pro writer receiving notes from a studio. The former may or may not be of value and you, as the writer, have total freedom to accept or reject them. The latter may or may not be of value (in your estimation), but you do not have the freedom to reject them… unless you want to be fired from the project.
Generally speaking there are three types of notes:
- Notes you know immediately are GOOD ideas and you embrace them.
- Notes you know immediately are BAD ideas and you reject them.
- Notes you are UNSURE OF in terms of their value and validity. These are the toughest ones and require a good deal of reflection and even some rewriting to test out whether they work or not.
A complicating factor is the ideas you think are good may not, in the end, turn out to actually be that good. Likewise the ideas you think are bad may turn, in the end, to have value to your story.
Yes, the process is THAT complicated.
It gets even more nuanced. If the feedback only identifies story problems, that’s one thing. If, however, it provides suggestions — this is especially relevant if it’s a producer, exec, or talent providing them — then you have to consider the source, essentially their take on your story, and how it may or may not align with your sense of your story.
This is why I always encourage writers I work with to go back to their very first instincts about their story. Ask some fundamental questions:
Why do I want to write this story?
What sort of feelings do I want to have about this story once I’ve finished it?
What is my emotional connection to the story?
In terms of tone and feel, what movies are most like my initial take of the story?
Those initial feelings and thoughts about a story may, and probably do, represent the purest sense of it. Having a clear picture of those first impressions of your story may be a helpful lens through which to assess feedback.
But at some point, you need that type of clarity to sort out the feedback you get.
If you’re writing on spec and you get feedback on your draft which is NOT the story you want to tell, then reject those notes with confidence. You have to be true to your creative self and vision for that story.
If, as some have indicated, you get several of the same type of notes, even if they counter your instincts, that’s a bit trickier. If you are going for a non-conventional story, don’t be swayed by people pulling you onto a conventional path.
On the other hand that feedback could pull your story into a different take which you may find actually works better than your initial instincts.
Again there is no simple way through this.
Bottom line, you have a gut, your creative instincts. And if comments give your gut an upset feeling, beware those notes. But if they provide a yummy for your tummy, figure out how to incorporate them into your rewrite.
[CAUTIONARY NOTE: You have to be able to distinguish between your gut and your stubbornness. Are you inclined to reject the notes because you are tired of rewriting, don’t want to hear feedback, etc, or is it REALLY your gut — your CREATIVITY — responding?]
How do you go about handling script notes? Any words of wisdom? If so, please head to comments to share your experiences and observations.