Currently working my way through the latest draft of the horror-comedy. It’s coming along nicely, primarily due to the incredibly helpful notes I’ve received from my readers.
It’s been a mixed bag of comments – loved this, this kind of fell flat for me, didn’t understand this, maybe try a different approach on this. While I may not agree with all of them, each one has merit and is worth taking into consideration. A lot of them involve ideas and suggestions I hadn’t considered, let alone thought of.
It’s tough to evaluate your own script. You know the story you’re trying to tell, so how you interpret what’s on the page is going to be completely different from how everybody else does. You “hear” a line of dialogue being spoken in that character’s voice in the way you imagined them saying it, whereas a reader will see…words on a page.
This is really what it comes down to: NOTES HELP YOU SEE WHAT YOU MIGHT NOT BE SEEING.
Remember – You might not like what the reader has to say, but the whole point is to help you make your script as solid a piece of work as you can. It’s tough, but don’t take it personally. They’re critiquing the work, not you.
A few years back, I gave a writer some extensive notes on a script that had a great premise but the execution of the story needed a lot of work – especially in terms of really showcasing what the premise was all about.
About a week after I’d sent my notes, they responded by telling me they were initially angry and upset about what I had to say, but then they went back and read my notes again. Upon that second review, they couldn’t argue with what I said, and were grateful that my notes helped them realize that.
Notes should be about helping you shape your script into what you want it to be. Be wary of readers whose notes are about changing your script so it matches the story they think it should be.
There are also going to be notes that completely miss the point. Maybe the reader was having an off day. Maybe they’re not a fan of this genre. Maybe they lost interest and just skimmed. All of these are possibilities, and have been known to happen. There’s not much you can do besides say “thanks” and move on.
Which brings up another point – no matter how you feel about the notes, especially if they don’t seem to be very helpful – is to BE POLITE AND THANK THE READER FOR DOING THIS. They took time out of their schedule to help you out, so the least you can do is thank them.
DO NOT berate them with a rant of “How dare you doubt my genius?!” It’s not a good look.
And if a swap is involved, make sure to hold up your end of the bargain. I speak from experience as one who’s been burned.
In the end, this is your script to do with what you will. Find a reader whose opinion you trust and let them know what it is you’re looking for. Help with the story? Characters? Dialogue? Grammar and punctuation? They and their notes are here to help you.
Let them do that so you can reap the benefits.
(please note that paying for notes was not discussed because it’s an entirely different topic for another time)
After a brief hiatus, I’ve started giving notes again. It’s always helpful to step away from your own material and dive into somebody else’s. More often than not, it’s a win-win situation.
Sometimes there are exceptions to that rule, but more on that in a minute.
The quality of the writing has ranged from just-starting-out to seasoned professional, so my notes and comments are provided with the level of feedback most suitable to the writer’s level of expertise. One writer might still be learning about proper formatting, while another might want to consider strengthening up that second subplot.
One of my cardinal rules of giving notes is to not be mean about it. I never talk down to the writer, because I’ve been in their shoes. I do what I can to be supportive and offer some possible solutions, or at least hopefully guide them towards coming up with a new approach to what they’ve already got.
One writer responded by saying they were really upset about what I’d said, but then they went and re-read my notes, and couldn’t argue or disagree with any of them.
I’ve always been fascinated by the expression “This is a reflection on the script, not you (the writer).” In some ways, the script IS a reflection of the writer; it’s their skill, their storytelling, their grasp of what should and shouldn’t be on the page, that are all being analyzed. After spending so much time and effort on a script, of course a writer wants to hear “it’s great!”, but as we all know, that doesn’t always happen.
Sometimes I worry my comments are too harsh, but just about every writer has responded with “These are SO helpful!”
About a year ago, a writer I was connected to via social media asked to do a script swap. Some quick research showed they seemed to be experienced with writing and filmmaking, so it seemed like a good idea.
I read their script, and didn’t like it. I said so in my notes, and offered up what I considered valid reasons why, along with questions raised over the course of the story, along with some suggestions for potential fixes.
What I was most surprised about was that this person presented themselves as a professional, and maybe I was naive in taking all of that at face value and believing the quality of their writing would reflect that and meet my expectations.
It also didn’t help that they opted to not give me any notes on my script. At all. Just some snarky retorts. Guess my lack of effusive gushing hurt their feelings, and this was their method of retribution.
Interesting follow-up to that: I later saw them refer to my notes in a quite negative way, along with “this script has even gotten a few RECOMMENDS”, which is always a great defense.
Follow-up #2: we’re no longer connected on social media.
Could I have phrased my comments in a more supportive way? I suppose, but I figured this person wanted honesty, not praise. And like I said, I assumed they had a thick skin from having done this for a while.
Guess I was mistaken.
And I’ve been on the receiving end of it as well. A filmmaker friend read one of my scripts and started with “Sorry, but I just didn’t like it,” and explained why. Did I pound my fists in rage and curse them for all eternity? Of course not. Their reasons were perfectly valid.
Or the time a writing colleague could barely muster some tepid words of support for one of my comedies. I was a little disappointed, but after having read some of their scripts, realized that our senses of humor (sense of humors?) were very different, so something I considered funny they probably wouldn’t, and vice versa.
I’ve no intention of changing how I give notes. If I like something, I’ll say so. If I don’t, I’ll say so. You may not like what I have to say, but please understand that it’s all done with the best of intentions. My notes are there for the sole purpose of helping you make your script better.
Isn’t that why we seek out notes in the first place?
Busy times around Maximum Z HQ (including some details listed below), so another shorty today, but first:
Big announcement time!
Two weeks from today, the 2018 Maximum Z Screenwriter’s Gift Guide will go up. It’ll feature holiday deals on script consulting services (from many of the consultants profiled on these very pages), books about screenwriting written by screenwriters, along with books written by screenwriters, but aren’t about screenwriting, as well as all kinds of other fun stuff that any screenwriter would enjoy receiving.
If you have a product or service like these that you’d like to be included, or if you’re a filmmaker with a crowdfunding effort for your latest project, and you’d like more people to know about it, don’t hesitate to drop me a line. (Email’s on the About Me page)
Cutoff date is Tuesday 20 November, so don’t wait until the last minute!
Now about those aforementioned busy times…
-Slow but steady progress on the horror-comedy spec. So far, my outline-to-page ratio is a bit off – page count exceeding outline expectations – which means I’ll some major editing (i.e. cutting) to do once it’s complete. But I’m having fun writing it, which is really what it comes down to anyway.
-Also have a little touch-up work to do on the sci-fi spec, with the help of some recently-received great notes.
-Been busy with the occasional reading and giving-of-notes. Have I mentioned how great it is to know so many talented writers? Yes indeed.
-Speaking of crowdfunding, filmmaker Ben Eckstein is looking for more backers for his current project WINNING. They’re a portion of the way there, but every little bit helps. Donate if you can!
Settle yourself into a comfy chair with your refreshing beverage of choice at the ready, because have I got quite a story for you. Hopefully one from which everybody can benefit.
I belong to a few screenwriting-oriented networking sites, and do what I can to engage with other members. I do what I can to be friendly, outgoing, and supportive with each connection.
Back in mid-July, I got an email from one such person. Their bio lists them as a “producer, screenwriter, and script consultant”. Would I be interested in a script swap? Despite having a few other reads already lined up, I’m always up for such a thing and agreed, telling them I’d try to get to it soon. Turns out they were in a similar situation.
They sent their script, and I sent mine. After a few days, I’d worked my way through the other projects and started in on their script.
I won’t say it was awful, but I’d have to say in all honesty it simply wasn’t good. I’d also add that it made me seriously question their credentials.
Among the details:
-a passive protagonist I really didn’t care for, and who didn’t give me any reason to want to see them achieve their goal.
-a weak antagonist with a cartoonish goal
-underdeveloped story/bad structure, including several unresolved subplots and a big letdown of an ending
-flat supporting characters
I pointed out what didn’t work for me and why, and offered suggestions of potential fixes. (I always make a point of never ever saying “this is how I’d do it”.) I’d estimate it was around 2 pages worth of notes, and they were free to use or ignore whatever they wanted.
I sent it out Friday afternoon.
Saturday morning, this was the email I got.
Seriously. That was it.
I came to two potential conclusions:
-I was an ignorant know-nothing boob to the nth degree with zero appreciation for their extraordinary skills (“How dare you not recognize my genius!”), and they were just saying “thanks” to be polite
-My notes were so cruel and inhuman, and if that was how we were going to play that game, then they’d be just as ruthless and grind my script into a bloody mess
Hyperbole on my part? Maybe, but check out their response again and think about what your reaction would be.
I figured it was one or the other, but all I could do now was wait (while working on other scripts, naturally).
Quick reminder – this was the end of July.
August passes. No response.
September. Still nothing. (but I did finish the outline of another script, so…yay)
Hmm. Several possibilities now.
-they still haven’t read it
-they read it, but haven’t gotten around to sending the notes
-they forgot. It happens.
-because of what I said about their script, they were deliberately not reading it OR sending the notes. To punish me, I guess?
September came to a close, and I figured I’d been patient enough.
I sent an email – “Know it’s been a while, and I’m sure you’ve been busy, but wanted to check in and see if you’ve had a chance to take a look at my script. Thanks.”
Five days later…
“Best script I ever read.”
Again, that was it.
I asked if they could elaborate. (note – this is my comedy)
Were there any parts you felt could use more work? “Nope. Perfect.”
What did you think of the characters?
Your thoughts on the jokes?
“I was rolling on the floor laughing.”
Anybody else find this just a tad suspicious, and, oh, total and utter bullshit?
No apology. No remorse. No attempt to make amends. Just a handful of “ain’t I hilarious?” bare minimum answers.
I really wanted to say something in response. Call them out for it. Tell them what an incredibly brazen dick move that was. I even came up with several scenarios to trap them in their sinister web of lies and deceit.
But in the end, I was getting all worked up for nothing. And this person is most definitely NOT worth it. All I’d lost was two hours of reading and writing notes, as well as severing our connection on that networking site. No skin off my nose.
I can only surmise they didn’t like what I had to say, so for whatever reason, decided to not read my script, and after being asked (reminded?) to uphold their end of the deal, took it one step further and opted to not even bother.
I don’t really mind that they didn’t read the script – especially after seeing their writing “skills” in action – but if you’re going to claim you’re a “professional”, then you damned well better act like it. No matter what.
Bet they wouldn’t have done this if I’d been a paying client. Thank goodness it never came to that.
Present yourself as someone who supposedly knows what they’re doing, but then show that’s not the case, and you’re just screwing yourself. Sometimes all you’ve got going for you is your reputation, and once that’s tarnished, you might never be able to restore it.
And let me also add that YOU CAME TO ME. You wanted MY help. And this is how you react because I didn’t like your script? Too fucking bad. Is this how you’re going to treat others who make similar comments? I may not be the most talented or analytical of writers, but at least I treat everybody with respect, even when they don’t deserve it.
When we read another writer’s script, we don’t want it to just be good. We want it to be so phenomenal we can’t believe we had the privilege of being able to read it.
Notes are about the script, not the writer. Of course you’re going to take criticism personally. But you can’t. I have no idea how much work you put into it, but are you more interested in making your script better, or getting a pat on the head and told “Good job”?
I hope this little incident doesn’t deter other writers from taking part in a script swap, including with me. Schedule permitting, I’m always happy to do so. Fortunately, most of my other script-swapping experiences have been of a significantly more positive nature. This was just one of those rare negative exceptions.
Hopefully you have a strong sense of what kind of writer/note-giver the other person is, and once those scripts are swapped, definitely make sure both of you hold up your respective ends of the bargain.
Because the last thing you want is to get on a writer’s bad side.
Brian Smith of Monument Scripts grew up on Cape Cod, long a favorite haunt of writers and artists, surrounded by and loving well-told stories. When he left the Cape, it was to study the techniques and principles of good story telling at the University of Southern California. There he earned an MFA from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.
He began his career in the industry working for Disney, and then Universal, Sony, and DreamWorks Animation, and he has credits on 24 films and television series. Brian’s been a professional screenplay reader since 2006, and has written coverage for over 1,000 scripts and books for such companies as Walden Media and Scott Free Films.
Brian currently lives in Los Angeles, with his wife, three daughters and two dogs.
What’s the last thing you read/watched that your thought was incredibly well-written?
If we’re talking incredibly well-written, I would say the last thing was Coco. Full disclosure here, my background is in animation. I’ve worked in animation my whole career, but I’ve been kind of down on PIXAR for about the last 10 years or so. I felt like it had been at least that long since they put out a complete film. I thought Wall-E and Up were both half-great films in that the first half of each of them was great, but the other half was mediocre to just bad. Other films that they put out during that stretch, like any of the Cars movies, Finding Nemo/Dory, or even Toy Story 3, were really lacking in strong stories. They always had wonderful characters that the audience fell in love with. That allowed for hyper-emotional endings, which was ultimately why those films were so successful. I thought with Coco, they put everything together in a way that they hadn’t since The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and they finally made a complete film. The story was thematically very strong, the stakes were very high, and they gave us a twist at the end I did not see coming. I don’t cry during movies, but I had a lump the size of a golf ball in my throat at the end. The quality of the writing in the script had everything to do with that.
How’d you get your start reading scripts?
I fell into it, really. I was working on the Curious George feature years ago, and we were all about to get laid off as the show was wrapping. One of my co-workers suggested script coverage as a way to make some money while being unemployed, and he put me in contact with a creative executive he knew at Walden Media. I contacted him. He had me do a test, which they liked, and they started sending me work. I fell in love with evaluating stories and writing, and have been doing it ever since.
Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?
Absolutely, and it can be both taught and learned. Writing is one of those unique disciplines that’s equal parts creativity and technique. You have to use your imagination in order to be a good writer, but you also have to use dramatic structure. Determining the merit or quality of a premise or an idea can be a subjective thing, but evaluating a writer’s technique and skill level is absolutely something that can be taught. What a lot of writers don’t understand is that good dramatic structure makes you a better writer. Just as anyone can be taught to implement that structure in their writing, others can be taught to evaluate how successful the writer was in implementing it and how that implementation strengthened or weakened the story.
What are the components of a good script?
A good script is a story well-told; that takes the reader on a journey to a world that the reader can envision and become a part of. In order to do that, a good script needs to have been spawned from a strong premise. A strong premise usually gives way to strong thematic elements, which are also necessary for a good script. A script is almost always better when it has something that it’s trying to say. A strong thematic component is also a way to make us care about the characters, which is probably the most important component. I need to care about the characters and what happens to them. I need to feel some emotional attachment. Without that, you’ve got nothing.
What are some of the most common mistakes you see?
Not adhering to proper story structure is a big one. The transition from Act II to Act III is one that tends to trip people up the most. Poorly written dialogue is another one. Writing good dialogue is hard, and most writers from whom I get scripts haven’t yet mastered the art of subtext, which is crucial to writing good dialogue. It also seems as though a lot of writers think that big words mean good dialogue, which isn’t necessarily the case. Finally, flat characters are a common problem in scripts I get. It’s especially problematic and common in protagonists. Many writers are reticent to give their hero a flaw or some other issue that gives him or her depth, and it’s so important to do so.
What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?
The post-apocalyptic sci-fi thing. I love science fiction and there have been some great post-apocalyptic stories. There’s a reason The Hunger Games was huge. It was a terrific story with real pathos and drama. Unfortunately, it made way for a lot of other stories that tried to do the same thing, but just didn’t do it as well. Even The Hunger Games went out on a whimper for me as the last movie wasn’t nearly as good or as compelling as the first. I had the same opinion of the books as well. But that’s a trope I kinda wish would just go away.
What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?
Story structure, story structure, and story structure.
Have you ever read a script where you could immediately tell “This writer gets it.”? What was it about the writing that did that?
Yeah, and it was actually a bit annoying. I was reading for a contest, and got a script written by a woman who was a doctor and a lawyer, and the script was about a woman who was a doctor and a lawyer. I know this is super-petty of me, but I really wanted to hate it because it’s really annoying when someone is good and successful at everything they try. But I have to admit it was an exceptional script, with an interesting protagonist, a compelling storyline and meaningful thematic elements, all written in a cinematic style. It was easy to envision this as a courtroom drama worthy of the genre. The writer really understood what it took from a technical standpoint to write a story well, and her personal experiences allowed her to tap into material that was interesting and dramatic.
How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?
I believe it is worth it, especially nowadays. With studios less likely to option or buy spec scripts, doing well in a screenwriting contest might be the best way for some writers to break in to the business. And the beautiful thing is, you don’t even have to win. You could be just be a finalist, a semi-finalist, or even a quarter-finalist, and there’s a good chance someone from a studio is reading your script and could possibly be impressed with your work. Even people who aren’t winning these contests are getting meetings that could lead to work. You might not sell your script this way, but your talent could be recognized by someone who has the power to hire you to write something else, and that could break you in to the industry. I personally have a friend that experienced that. She got her script into a couple of contests. She didn’t win any of them, but her script caught the eyes of people that could do something with it, and she’s been taking meetings and getting offers for representation. So if you have a quality script you can’t get past the studios’ Threshold Guardians, enter it into a contest, and there’s a chance that the studios could be calling you.
How can people get in touch with you find out more about the services you provide?
Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?
We must be kindred spirits, because I am definitely a pie guy. I’d rather have pie for my birthday than cake, and will never turn down a slice of pie for anything. That said, I prefer fruit pies to crème pies, and my favorite of all the fruit pies is blueberry. My favorite way to have it is warmed up with vanilla ice cream on top. That is, unless I’m eating it for breakfast. Then it’s just plain.