We know that script notes are a valuable part of the script development process and it can come in very different forms depending on who those notes are coming from. So should those notes on your script be written, verbal or both?
1) Verbal script notes: If you've been commissioned to write a script or have had your script optioned you'll probably be familiar with getting notes verbally, be that in a face-to-face meeting, over the phone or via a video call. The great thing about this kind of feedback is that you can get clarification on any note right there and then and, as long as you're prepared to voice your concerns and queries, there shouldn't be any misunderstanding. It also feels like a much less dictatorial experience than getting written notes that might feel like a set of instructions from a stranger telling you and how to write your screenplay.
What you might not know is that this method of giving feedback has one big advantage for the note-giving which is a big disadvantage for you - it requires very little thinking time from them beforehand. Just as writers spend as much time thinking about their story as they do actually writing the script, so script editors (or good ones at least) spend as much time thinking about your story as they do giving the notes. Having script edited on big, fast-turnaround TV dramas, I've often found myself forced to go straight from reading the script to picking up the phone to brief the writer. For me, that's script editing on-the-fly and, while it might sometimes be necessary, the quality of the work usually suffers. Unless the note-giver has sent you some written notes before-hand, there's a pretty high probability that they've come to that meeting with headline thoughts that are their initial reaction to the script. The result of all of this is that you're going to have the spend the meeting doing the work for them; figuring out together what the note is underneath the note e.g. I got bored at this point of the script = we hadn't seeded this properly earlier so let's revisit this sequence at the start so that we build more effectively to this reveal, maybe we should see Jane standing outside John's house?
If you know you're going to get notes on your script in a meeting, you could try asking for some headline thoughts in writing beforehand. Failing that, be prepared to do a lot of very fast thinking in that meeting and, if you need to, ask to give a note some thought and come back to them later.
2) Written script notes: If you've sought feedback on your script yourself the chances are that feedback has come in the form of written notes. If you're unlucky those notes might be cursory and/or brutally critical with no solutions on how to improve your script. If you're lucky and you're working with a really good script editor, those written notes will find all the problems in your script, give you loads of suggestions for how to fix them and, crucially, leave you excited to get going on the rewrite.
The advantage of written notes for my writers is that they are the result of a lot of my thinking time. Of course, every script editor is slightly different but for me, writing a set of notes on a script is a similar process to that which my writers have gone through in creating it. I start off with my initial ideas - those big headline thoughts that jump out at you on reading the script the first time. Then I dig down into those thoughts and ideas, reaching underneath the surface to reveal the technicalities of how the script is and isn't working. If I'm helping a writer develop a multi-protagonist series that means getting out the colored pens or index cards to visually separate out the different characters and story strands at play. Once I've figured out where I think the problems are, I then have to get my creative hat on and come up with possible fixes. Finally, I put it all aside and come back to both the script and my notes with fresh eyes and do a polish, trying to make the notes as cohesive and fluent as possible. Good written notes, like a well-written script, are the culmination of a substantial process that takes a lot of thinking time.
The disadvantage of just getting a set of written notes is that, with the best will in the world, there's a chance that I may have either misunderstood the writer's intentions (which perhaps weren't as clear as they might have been in the script) or I might not have made my thoughts clear enough. If there has been any misunderstanding in either direction then those notes alone might not be enough to give you the roadmap you need to write that all-important next draft.
3) Written script notes with follow-up discussion aka the best of both: Getting the benefits of both forms of feedback seems like a no-brainer to me. Here are my top tips for making it work for you:
- Don't be scared; your note-giver is probably just as anxious to impress you as you are to impress them. It's like Chris Jones says about pitching at the London Screenwriters' Festival, you're just a guy (or gal) talking to another guy (or gal) about your story.
- Take control; think about what questions the notes have raised for you and seek answers, suggestions and solutions.
- Get clarification; don't be afraid to admit that a particular note just doesn't quite make sense to you.
- Get feedback on your ideas for the changes you'll make to the next draft. Use the time between getting the written notes and discussing them to come up with solutions; that way you get to pick the brains of your note-giver on the new material as well!
- Maybe even use it to ask for advice and career guidance and maybe even pitch them another project you've just started working on to get their initial thoughts on the idea. Your note-given isn't your agent or manager but if they're any good they will be invested in your future success. At Script Angel we like to develop long-term relationships with our clients and help them to develop a strong portfolio of work so for us taking a few extra minutes to listen to your next idea is a great way to strengthen that relationship.
Talking to the person giving you feedback on your script isn't as scary as you might think and the potential benefits to you and your project are huge. So go on, bite the bullet and let's get talking!
- More Script Angel articles by Hayley McKenzie
- Balls of Steel: Getting Honest Feedback
- Script Angel: Developing Screenwriting Habits for Career Success