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.
TIPS FROM A FILM WRITER TERRI ZINNER: Why is your reader saying: pass?
While there are many reasons why a script gets a “pass”, here are just a few to help the writer understand what I look for when doing coverage and why your script might get a pass.
Remember, use your coverage notes as a tool. Don’t take them personally. My goal is to help the writer create the best script they can.
1. Lack of a strong or worthy external goal. In most scripts your protagonist will declare an external goal. The external goal may be catching a killer, winning the love of their dreams, or winning a race. It’s the goal that drives your protagonist and how they go about achieving their goal that propels the storyline. However, if the goal is weak or not relatable, the writer is going to have a difficult time convincing the audience to become emotionally invested in the storyline. The writer is also going to have a challenging time sustaining the plot.
2. Lack of strong stakes. When the protagonist declares a goal, along with the goal the stakes should be clearly identified for the audience. There should be something at risk for your hero. The higher the stakes the higher the tension and emotional response. The stakes and jeopardy could also escalate as the story progresses.
3. Lack of sufficient conflict and escalating tension. Story is about solving problems and conflict. Essentially, without conflict or compelling tension there’s not much driving the plot. Conflict can be external or internal. One way to create tension and conflict is to create strong obstacles for your hero. Remember, tension should escalate and build towards the climax. The strongest tension should occur in the third act. Having your hero confront insurmountable obstacles will generate complex tension.
4. Lack of relatable protagonist or hero. First, make sure your protagonist is well identified for the audience. I have read scripts where the true identity of the protagonist is ambiguous. This is problematic. You want your audience to root for them. Your protagonist doesn’t need to be “likable” is the sense of him or her being a good person. In fact, the best characters are flawed and complex. They should be intriguing and fascinating to watch. The best characters show deep internal struggle. Their conflict is often in conflict with their external goal. Great heroes are driven by their inner struggle and have strong motivations; sometimes these motivations are very personal.
5. Lack of a compelling antagonist or villain. Your foe should be just as worthy and/or as strong as your hero. The stronger the villain, the more work your hero has to do to defeat them. An antagonist has to be convincing and believable, not melodramatic. They also need to have solid motivations for their actions. Some of the most chilling and worthy foes have rational explanations for their amoral actions.
6. Lack of powerful dialogue. You can have a great concept, but if the words your characters speak fail to captivate the audience, it could be a fatal flaw in your script. Dialogue is perhaps one of the most challenging features of screenwriting. It requires skillfully weaving in subtext; making characters show unique, convey information about plot and character without sounding contrived or on the nose.
7. Lack of new or original plot. A lot of producers will pass on a well-written script because the plot feels too familiar. If you have a formula plot or a recognizable plot, finds ways to give it an original voice and create a unique point of view or perspective.
8. Lack of clarity. This may be the number one reason a producer never finishes your screenplay. Basically, they don’t understand it. This is one reason why getting feedback is pivotal. As the writer, you understand or should understand your storyline. Don’t assume the reader will. Strive to create a logical and coherent plot. Writers like to create non-linear series of events. This can be very creative, but if they are difficult to follow you risk the chance of losing your audience quickly. Once you have lost your audience, it’s difficult to get them back. Lack of clarity also plays a role in understanding your characters’ actions or motivations.
9. Lack of strong structure. There are dozens of classes and theories on structure for screenwriters. They all have different names, but basically it’s all about the hero’s journey and how he or she goes about accomplishing their quest. A lot of writers cringe at the word structure simply because they don’t understand it or they think it makes their story feel too formula. However, every great story has a well-crafted structure. You may just not be aware of it. Structure includes several techniques in screenwriting, including setting up and foreshadowing events (later paying them off), interweaving theme, creating sufficient tension points, creating a pace that keeps the momentum flowing, creating insurmountable obstacles at the right time and place, creating a strong midpoint, and developing a series of highs and lows, which all building towards the climax.
10. Lack of emotional experience. For me this is a major concern and something I look for. As a story analyst and producer, I want to be moved by the storytelling. I want it to be entertaining, yet at the same time thought provoking. If it’s a comedy I want to laugh and if it’s a drama I want to be moved emotionally. If I’m watching horror feel I want to be terrified to the point I cover my eyes. In an action film and thriller, I want to be excited and on the edge of my seat. Creating an emotional response can be challenging for a writer. It’s not easy. Part of creating this response is through visual storytelling, words, and action. Creating a satisfying ending for the audience also plays a major role in the emotional experience. At the end, as a reader, viewer, or producer, I want to learn something from the story, but moreover I want to be moved by it.
1. Helps the writer focus on the central areas that need to be re-worked.
2. Helps the writer organize their re-write.
3. Can be used to promote their work or their skills.
4. Can help the writer get writing assignments.
5. Can be used for marketing purposes.
If you are thinking of seeking screenplay coverage by a professional reader here are some words of wisdom.
1. Remember to seek out professionals with a credible history and reputation. While the unskilled screenplay reader can provide feedback on their initial reaction to the concept and story, it is the practiced and skilled screenplay reader who really understands story, character development, effective structure, and all the other required elements that make for great storytelling.
2. Make sure your reader is skilled. Calling one’s self a screenwriter or writing screenplays does not necessarily make one a professional or skilled screenplay reader. Like most professions, becoming a screenplay reader requires education and a solid understanding of screenplay structure. Paying more for a reader doesn’t automatically mean they have better skills.
3. Seek out more than one reader to gain a wider perspective of how your screenplay is being viewed. The common practice is that if the writer receives similar comments from two or more readers then this is an area that the writer should focus on and consider in a re-write.
4. As a writer be objective about coverage. Don’t react emotionally. The screenplay coverage report is there to guide and mentor you. However, as the writer you must decide what you consider to be valid. A coverage report is nothing to become upset about – it is a learning tool.
5. Writing is a creative process. The most valuable part of screenplay coverage is not the coverage report, but the telephone or verbal consultation in which an exchange of ideas is provided. I recommend that if you are able to purchase telephone consultation that you seek this out. It is an energizing process for both the writer and the professional reader. The writer gains the opportunity to hear the reader’s insight and the reader gains the opportunity to hear the writer’s point of view. All of this makes for a dynamic flight of imagination.