Notes: givin’ ’em and gettin’ ’em

Simply put: notes can help make a script better. This also heavily relies on several factors, including the experience level of the person giving the notes, the notes being of high quality, and the relevancy of the notes in relation to the script.

I’ve had the recent experience of being on both sides, and both proved to be extremely helpful on several levels.

First: the giving.

I’d been invited to take part in a group Zoom call giving notes on a new script from an established writer-producer.

I thought the writing was okay. Nothing stellar.

As the call progressed, the comments seemed to go back and forth between honest, critical feedback and flat-out gushing. Were those doing the latter doing that in order to get in the writer’s good graces? I hope not.

When it was my turn, I started with what I liked about it (the characters and the strong establishment of tone, in particular) and then segued into what I thought could use some work, which was mostly tightening up the writing, and trimming scenes or sequences.

Just to clarify – I wasn’t trying to tear anything down; just offering some suggestions of what I thought could help make the script better.

The writer appreciated my positive comments, but the other ones were met with a lot of “well, these other people I work with in the industry LOVED that” or “Nobody else mentioned that. This doesn’t mean you’re wrong; just in the minority.”

I’m not really the biggest fan of a writer who gets defensive when they get notes. It’s what they asked for. I don’t have a problem if you disagree with what I’ve got to say. Just say thanks and move on. Don’t try to make me feel small or wrong. If you wanted praise for your script, you should have started with that.

I had to hop off the call soon after that for work-related business, so don’t know how the rest of it went. While I’m slightly curious if any of the other participants had a similar experience, I’ve no pressing desire to find out.

Despite this bump in the road, I still enjoy giving notes and will continue to do so; maybe just a little more selectively.

Second: the getting.

A few weeks ago, I wrapped up the latest rewrite on the animated fantasy-comedy spec. My usual m.o. is to contact a few colleagues to ask their availability to give notes. This time, I opted to keep the number even lower and asked two.

Still waiting to hear back from one, but the other sent back a thorough set of notes. They explain what worked for them, what didn’t, and ask a lot of questions centered around the story and the characters.

It was my intent to get notes that would help make the script better, and that’s exactly what these are – and what I need. Yes, it would be great for someone to say what a fantastic script it is, and how much they loved it, but that’s not going to help improve the script, or why I asked them to read it.

An outside pair of eyes is more likely to see things that I, as the writer, might not. How could I argue with that? Maybe there’s something in there I don’t initially agree with, but would still want to know why they said it – the “note within the note”.

Getting solid notes from those within your network of writers can be a priceless resource, and hopefully you’ll be able to reciprocate with the same level of quality.

Let’s start with the basics

I’ve been reading for a contest these past few weeks.

It’s a safe bet to say that a lot of the writers who entered may not be as familiar with how to write a screenplay as one would expect.

This, in turn, inspired some helpful suggestions for any writer to keep in mind:

-SHOW, DON’T TELL. Convey the information in as visual a way as possible.

-GET IN LATE, GET OUT ASAP. Get to the point of your scene as quickly as you can, then move on to the next one. Don’t have the characters chitchatting back and forth for another page.

-GET THINGS MOVING. Get us into the story from the outset. Keep the momentum going.

-EVERY SCENE NEEDS CONFLICT. Two opposing forces; anything from a subtle gesture to an epic battle.

-INVEST IN SCREENWRITING SOFTWARE. It makes a huge difference to write something in Final Draft as opposed to Microsoft Word. This can also help with..

-FORMATTING IS IMPORTANT. If you’re not sure how a script should look on the page, there are tons or resources online with good examples. You can also read some other scripts to get an idea.

-DO YOUR RESEARCH. Fleshing out a story or characters with relevant info adds to the authenticity of the material. Don’t go for the information dump; use what’s important/necessary.

-SPELLCHECK IS NOT YOUR FRIEND. There’s no ‘e’ in ‘lightning’, nor should somebody ‘waist’ an opportunity, just to name two.

-THE THESAURUS IS YOUR FRIEND. Mix it up. There are 142 alternate words for “walk”.

-CHARACTER INTROS. Describe their personality, rather than just their height & appearance – unless either plays a part in the story. Also, their name in ALL CAPS only when they’re first introduced; NOT every single time after that.

-“HOW DO WE KNOW THAT?”. Action lines are for describing what we’re seeing transpire onscreen (i.e. action), not explaining why something’s happening, why somebody’s doing something, or what something really means. Find a way to get that across visually, or through dialogue.

-KEEP IT BRIEF (or WRITE AS IF INK COSTS $1000 AN OUNCE). While a book may allow for lengthy descriptions, a screenplay needs to be tight. Lots of unnecessary text will slow things down, and an important detail might get overlooked if it’s in the middle of a dense paragraph.

-IS THIS IMPORTANT TO THE STORY? While you may consider it vital to meticulously describe the decor of your protagonist’s living room, or every item of clothing they’re wearing, unless that information plays a part in the story, it’s unnecessary clutter.

-IS THIS HOW PEOPLE TALK? Do your characters talk like real people or like they’re in a movie? Helpful tip – read your dialogue out loud to see how it actually sounds.

-ACTIVE, NOT PASSIVE VERBS. “Bob runs” is more effective than “Bob is running.”

-WE SEE/WE HEAR. Personally, not a fan. If you have to use them, do so as sparingly as possible.

-CAMERA DIRECTIONS. Again, not a fan. I find them distracting. You don’t need to remind us we’re “watching” a movie

These, of course, are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, but still pretty important to keep in mind.

Does your script sound like you?

When was the last time you read a script that was really hitting on all cylinders?

Great story, cinematic writing and vivid imagery, compelling characters, the whole kit and kaboodle.

What’s the one thing that ties all of them together?

That writer’s voice.

We hear about it all the time, and I’ve always described it as how the writing in a script is a reflection of the writer’s style.

If you read a script by Shane Black, Judd Apatow, Nora Ephron, or Quentin Tarantino, you’d know it by the way it reads. Each one is written in the distinctive voice of each writer.

And that’s what you want to achieve with your writing. When somebody reads your scripts, they’ll know it was you.

The need to establish your own voice when it comes to your scripts can’t be stressed enough.

I’ve read a lot of scripts that try to mimic an established writer’s voice, and it usually falls flat. Part of the reason is that the writer is trying too hard to sound like the established writer, which seems counterproductive. If I want a script that reads like Judd Apatow wrote it, I’ll read a Judd Apatow script.

It also doesn’t help that some of these established writers created a niche for themselves with their writing style, so anybody who comes after them with the same approach will immediately be labeled a pale imitation. You might have a phenomenal script, but if the only thing somebody remembers about it is that it’s just ripping off Tarantino, you’ve just wasted everybody’s time.

Now this isn’t to say that you can’t write in a similar style, but you need to put your own spin on it to help it stand out.

What are some of your strengths, writing-wise? In what areas do you really shine? Is there a way you can apply that to other aspects of your script? You want your script to have a real impact on the reader; one with a strong voice can help accomplish that.

Another benefit of a script with a strong voice is that it helps make it that much more memorable. Not only does it leave an impression, but chances are it’ll stick with the reader long afterward. Many’s the time I’ve finished reading a script and within five minutes don’t remember a thing about it. Sure, the writing may have been adequate or possibly just slightly above average, but a lack of a distinctive voice from the writer is a key missing ingredient.

Then there are those I’ll remember a long time after. Maybe it was the story or even just the concept, or the protagonist, or a great scene/sequence. No matter what it was, you could come to me a few months from now, or maybe even next year, and ask “Hey, do you remember that script about ____?”

Chances are I will BECAUSE of the writer’s voice.

Which is exactly what you’re aiming for.

From the archives: Introduce your character with character

BETTIE, mid 20s. Don't let her all-American looks fool you. Trouble goes out of its way to avoid HER.
BETTIE, mid 20s. Don’t let her all-American looks fool you. Trouble goes out of its way to avoid HER.

Author’s note: had a great in-person notes session this week. Among the many topics we discussed was character intros, and what made for a good one, as well as a not-so-good (i.e. boring) one. That reminded me of this post from April 2014. Enjoy.

“When we, the reader, first meet an important character in your script, how do you describe them? What are the important details?

A lot of the time, the emphasis is on their physical traits – “tall”, “imposing”, “blonde”, “handsome”, “drop-dead gorgeous”, etc.

Or maybe it’s a simple adjective or two – “bubbly”, “funny”, “a nice guy” and so on.

These are okay, but you have to admit they’re kind of dull, which makes it more challenging for us to be interested in wanting to follow their story.

So how do you fix this? Time to ramp up that creativeness and really focus on what kind of person this character is, rather than what they look like. Unless a physical description is a key character trait, don’t worry about it.

One of the most memorable intros I ever read described the best friend of the teenaged protagonist – “James Dean cool at 15.” That’s it. Pretty effective, and in only five words.

Doesn’t this give you a better idea of what this character is like than say, “cool and aloof?”?  This is the kind of writing that catches our eye AND makes an impression.

A former co-worker of mine used to describe a very talkative friend as “If you asked him what time it was, he’d tell you how to build a watch.” See how it goes beyond the good-but-simplistic “chatty know-it-all”?

Cliched as it sounds, we really are painting pictures with words – not just for the story, but the characters in it. You’re already crafting a unique and original story, so why not develop a unique and original way to tell us about the characters in it?

This isn’t saying you should always strive to be clever and witty about it, but at least try for something different. This is just a small part of showing off your writing skills.

Take a look at how you introduce the characters in your latest draft. Does it really tell us what you want us to know about them? If not, how could you rewrite it so it does?”

The heart of the matter

The past few weeks, part of my writing schedule has involved revising the outline of my animated fantasy-comedy spec. It’s been fun to develop – having a previous draft to work with really helps. The action sequences, the story, the jokes and sight gags haven’t been too difficult, but I’ve been making more of an effort to build up the emotional aspect.

This isn’t to say I’ve never included that. It just hasn’t been as prevalent in the early stages of planning and plotting process.

It’s not enough to just show the stuff that’s happening, you need to show how it’s relevant to the characters. While the plot is about the external goal (what do they want?), there’s also the importance of establishing their internal goal (what do they need?).

Sometimes the internal and external goals work together, and sometimes a character will achieve one and not the other. There’s also the tried and true “they got what they wanted, but it wasn’t what they needed” (and vice versa). It all depends on how the writer wants to the story to go.

To help myself get a better grasp of this, I’ve been reading the scripts for and watching other animated films to see how they approach it. There has also been the occasional “read a few pages of the script, then watch how it plays out onscreen”.

*helpful tip – for prime examples of incorporating emotion into story, you can’t go wrong with well-made animated films. They do a fantastic job of setting everything up as fast and efficiently as possible. Sometimes singing is involved. And as it should be with live-action, each scene manages to include advancing the characters’ emotional arc as well as the story arc.

As more than a few readers have said to me, sometimes my writing is more about what we see onscreen and not as much about what’s happening to the characters on the inside. Hopefully that won’t be the case this time around. Since I’m still outlining the story, I try to include what the emotional impact is in each scene. Does the point of the scene affect the character(s) the way it’s supposed to?

At first, this was pretty challenging, but watching how other films accomplished it, it wasn’t as daunting as I initially thought, plus the more I think about it and plan for it, it’s not as bad as I thought. It’s helping with the overall development because I’m taking that sort of detail into consideration as part of the initial planning stages, as opposed to trying to work it in later, along with avoiding a few unnecessary rewrites.

Since this is a slightly different approach for me, I’m sure it’ll be chock-full of trial and error along the way, but am fairly confident it’ll yield the results I’m hoping for.