Beware Written Notes
By Jacob Krueger
To paraphrase the great novelist Neil Gaiman: When someone tells you exactly what’s wrong with your writing and exactly how to fix it, they are almost always wrong (even when they’re right).
But when someone shares their genuine experience of your writing, they are almost always right, (even when they’re wrong).
The biggest problem with written notes is not just that they tend to ignore the first four tenets of rewriting (focusing on the details rather than the goals, the overwhelming checklist rather than the simple north star, what’s wrong rather than what’s right, and the quick fixes rather than the creative opportunities.
The biggest problem with written notes is that they ignore the very nature of revision, which is an ever-changing and fluid process, rather than a fixed sequence of events.
As anyone who’s ever rewritten a screenplay knows, screenplays are such intricately woven tapestries; even the tiniest change in one aspect of the story can have vast consequences for every other element of the script. You pull one thread and the whole tapestry unravels. Pull another and an element you never even imagined was related suddenly shifts and changes and pulls into focus.
The real problem with written notes is that, by their very nature, they cannot adapt to the constantly changing nature of a revised script.
Screenplay Development Is A Complex Process
Sometimes the real problems in our scenes don’t exist in the scenes themselves but in the scenes around them. And other times a scene that works brilliantly in an early draft ends up distracting from the heart of the story as the overall structure around it changes and evolves.
That’s why the best notes don’t exist in a vacuum or written in stone by some underpaid coverage reader or overworked development executive, who has barely had time to fully read your script, much less think deeply about the full implications of their suggestions.
The best notes exist as part of an evolving context: a continuing conversation between writer and producer, writer and director, or writer and mentor, that considers not only the shifting state of the script at each phase of the revision but also the writer’s overall goals for the project.
In order to know your notes are going to actually be helpful, you’ve got to know that you and the person giving you the notes are working toward the same goals, holding the same priorities from both a commercial and artistic perspective and building the same script!
This isn’t usually a problem when screenplays are working perfectly. In those cases, the writer’s intentions are usually coming across quite clearly. But in early drafts where things still aren’t working (the drafts you actually need help with!), those intentions are often hard to fully understand because they’re obscured by challenges in the writer’s art and craft. Which means, at best, the notes are guessing at the writer’s intention and might be completely invalidated or redirected if only the person giving the notes truly understood what the writer was building.
Think about how long it would take you to write the perfect written notes for a writer. How many times would you have to read their script to figure out every nuance of what they’re building? How many times would you have to rewrite your notes to make sure you anticipate every kind of response or concern the writer might have and to anticipate how those notes might need to change as the rewrite evolved.
Then think about how much time the average producer, coverage reader, agent, or manager actually has to write those notes.
Written Notes Can Lead To Development Hell
The failures of the development process are so well known in Hollywood that there’s even a name for it: Development Hell. That curious process by which a team of highly paid executives tries so hard to “perfect” a good script with their well-intentioned suggestions that they end up with a lump of formulaic mush that absolutely no one wants to make.
Yet often there is such a strong desire simply to have someone tell us what to do that we accept any notes we receive as if they were gospel, building checklists for ourselves of all the changes we need to make, without any context for what those suggestions are actually meant to achieve or how they serve the overall goals of the script.
Take Gone Girl, for example (I’ll do my best to hold back any spoilers). In any other screenplay, the common wisdom would say that the first act is desperately in need of a revision.
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike’s characters fall in love in a way that’s not only boring, but it’s also downright cheesy-with dialogue that could have been ripped right out of the most stereotypical Hollywood romances.
A typically written note for an early draft of Gone Girl might read something like this:
“The script goes to an interesting place, but the first 30 pages seem boring and cliché. The dialogue is unbelievable and their relationship feels too good to be true. Add some conflict! And make the dialogue and the scenes more realistic and original.”
This seemingly innocuous advice (and common wisdom for most screenplays) might sound pretty helpful. Open nearly any screenwriting book and you’re likely to see similar suggestions within the first few pages. But real writers know that though these rules may be helpful guidelines for most scenes, they are only really important within the context of what the writer is building.
The theme of Gone Girl – and the place the screenplay is building to (for those of you who have seen it know what I’m talking about) – require that this love story feels like a little too good to be true, a little cliché, and Hollywood inspired. Which means that changing them in the way suggested by the note might be great for the scene but would be disastrous for the script.
Though the experience communicated by the note – “boring” and “cliché” – may be a valuable thing for the writer to be aware of, the suggested fix is completely wrong. Following it would have ended up ruining not only the surprise ending but also the overall arc of the characters’ journey together.
Once you realize that these clichés are necessary for the structure of the movie, the real question becomes not how do you fix these boring clichés-but how do you get away with them without losing the audience!
The writer ends up solving that problem with a single line – the very first line of the script. “When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. I picture cracking her lovely skull, unspooling her brain, trying to get answers…”
That one line warns us that this stuff is going to get ugly. “Hang on to your seats,” it tells us. “I know this seems boring, but I’ve got something up my sleeve that you should be very worried about.”
Once you come up with the one line, there’s no longer a need to “fix” those boring and cliché sections because suddenly there is pressure between those sections and the opening line. The script has changed and a note that might have made a ton of sense before suddenly makes no sense at all.
How likely do you think a coverage reader, development executive, or even screenwriting guru would be to come up with a solution like that while dashing their written notes onto the page?
Not likely at all.
That’s the kind of solution that only comes from the writer – someone so familiar with every aspect of how the script works and willing to take the time to try it in every possible way in order to preserve the things most important to them, no matter how risky they may be.
That’s Not To Say That Notes Can’t Be Helpful.
Speak to any writer, and they are likely to wax poetic about the mentors who allowed them to succeed in this industry and upon whom they depended, and still depend, for feedback about their screenplays. And, for writers who don’t already have this kind of mentorship, there are options like our ProTrack program that can pair you with professional writers who can mentor you on a weekly or bi-weekly basis through each step of writing and revising your script.
But, no matter who you’re receiving notes from, it’s vital to know that all feedback is not created equal. The notes that will truly help you are rarely the ones that tell you exactly what to do and rarely the ones that come in written form.
Rather, they’re the ones that inspire you to uncover your underlying intentions as a writer and push you to find your own creative answers to the challenges of your script, while building both your art and your craft as a writer.