As screenwriters, we all face the prospect (and/or uncomfortable burden) of receiving notes on our script at some point. Whether we write in a blank room with nobody around for miles, or in a trailer with 5 other writers, armed with paper airplanes and Red Bull. A day will come when your script will face its first audience: the script reader.
I've run the script reading company Screenplay Readers since 1999 and I've seen a lot of experienced and amateur screenwriters' reactions to their first coverage feedback, and it's not always pretty. But then again, neither was mine.
Mine was in a writers group some twenty years ago. I'd written what I'd considered to be a sensational comedy about love and radio contests that clocked in at a lean 180 pages. It was the width of a small phone book, or, a large one.
Copies of it were passed around a table of twenty or so people who proceeded to read it out loud, laugh here and there, and then casually and politely rip my script and my supple ego a new one.
I hated the head of the writers group for many years after. I called him a hack, called him a poseur, said that he had no idea what I was trying to do and so how dare he make foul comment upon my amazing piece of screenplay art?
Then I grew up.
Because he was right. Everyone in that group had comments that I thought at the time were completely off base. Looking back upon their notes some 20 years later, it's amazing at how right everybody actually was.
The lesson: take notes like medicine. Here are a few things you can keep in mind when bracing for the impact of incoming feedback on your screenplay from a writers group, reader, or even friend:
**It's Just One Opinion!**
First and foremost, recognize the fact that it's just one person reading your script giving you these notes. She doesn't represent the end-all-be-all total sum of whether or not your screenplay is any good. No one opinion can serve that capacity (except maybe Colonel Sanders, and that's only if you're frying a chicken.)
Yes, entire storylines, character arcs, and plots have been moved and swayed by a single reader's opinion. And sure, readers can sometimes nudge a film in either direction, good or bad, with the notes they write about it. But ultimately, that reader is just one person. One single, solitary person.
They may have great things to say, and suggest a lot of awesome fixes to your script, or they may completely miss the mark, but they are still just one person. Hardly a consensus.
Keep that in mind when receiving your notes.
**Find The Truth**
What we often do when faced with receiving notes we disagree with is bury our faces in the sand, or lash out at the reader, or rage for days about how people don't understand our art, or voice, or intentions.
But a better use of our time as screenwriters, in my opinion, is to listen closely to what the notes are saying, and then methodically go through them line by line and see if the notes are actually true.
Is what the reader telling you the truth, and you're just blinded to it? Or is the reader way off the mark? Are you 100% sure the reader's off the mark? I mean, 100% sure? Or is it possible you might be a bit defensive, guard up, unwilling to listen to truth?
Truth is at the core of art. If you're a screenwriter, ostensibly, you're an artist. Ignore the truth of notes at your peril.
**Discard What You Agree With**
Part and parcel to finding the truth about your notes is this bit of advice. I used to suggest to writers that they take notes and use what they can and discard whatever they didn't agree with.
Now I whistle a different tune (and I can't even whistle).
Now I ask that writers receiving notes they disagree with go through the notes and discard anything they agree with and focus on the notes they disagree with.
This is because I'm a fervent believer in the theory that the only way screenwriters grow as artists is by challenging themselves; by challenging their concepts of what a good script note is; by challenging themselves to get into the mindset of another person; by challenging themselves to take a cold hard look at their work through the eyes of a third party.
Commerce is appeasing consumers. Art is provoking them - challenging them.
If you call yourself an artist, that challenge doesn't begin with the audience member buying a ticket to a movie you wrote. It begins with you challenging yourself, and everything you believe in.
And what a better place to start than by trying to wrap your head around notes on your script which you initially wholeheartedly disagree with?
When all else fails, there is incense and herbal tea. Or, if you're like me, beer and guitar. If you can't take the notes in stride, and you can't be bothered with trying to find the truth in them, or can't be bothered trying to embrace what you disagree with, then chill out, turn on a water fountain, drink a beer, and try to decompress.
Because that stress is ultimately going to kill you. Not to mention put a serious dent in your career as a screenwriter.