When Are You Past Notes?
Screenwriting is probably the strangest art form. Like painting, sculpting, or other forms of writing, it is solitary. Yet, because we are part of a larger filmmaking team, it also requires collaboration. In some cases that collaboration happens long after our job as screenwriters is done—with producers who want to make the project more saleable, with directors who bring their own vision, or with actors who discover unforeseen nuances to their characters.
There is a more basic form of collaboration, however, that’s common to most art forms: the input and opinions of others. Feedback on our creations. Comments and questions that help us see our blindspots. In other words, notes.
I recently was speaking with a seasoned writer working on a passion project adapted from other source material. I’d read other things he’d done and was impressed. I knew he was likely to bring the goods. So when he asked for a production-side assist, I was more than happy to help. As I read the script, my heightened expectations sank. It slowly became clear that because he was so close to this project, he couldn’t see that some of what made the source material great wasn’t coming across in the pages.
By the time I got to the end of my read, I had notes about characters needing further development, pacing needing calibration, relationship arcs needing deepening, on-the-nose dialog needing to be submerged into subtext and nuance, motifs that were paid off in the end without having been established in the beginning, and other motifs established early and dropped. There were important moments glossed over. In short, the script was not great. If it had come across my desk in a contest, I would not have advanced it. But I knew his source material well, and I could see the potential to make this lyrical and lovely. If I could help him see some of his blindspots, this could be an amazing script.
As he hadn’t asked for feedback, I knew I had to tread carefully. In the most gentle way possible, I praised the positives and then asked—given that my job is helping writers make their scripts better—if he wanted any notes from me.
He did not.
Usually when writers aren’t seeking notes, we’ll still listen, albeit begrudgingly. We figure we can throw out whatever the notes might be, but we listen because there’s always that nagging voice in the back of our heads, “I think it’s great as is, but what if there’s something I don’t see?” This writer flat out said no. He reiterated the years he’d spent working on the script, and how happy he was with its direction and development. He was not looking for notes.
To be fair, part of the writing process is knowing when to call a script done, but this writer was still actively revising. I could feel my heart tumble as I forced myself to smile, say “OK great,” as if I couldn’t possibly have any notes worth his time anyway.
I know how tempting it is to think we’re beyond notes. Early in my post-UCLA writing career a script of mine did really well in a contest. I thought, well, that’s it then, I don’t have to enter contests anymore. I’ve done it! I’ve proven I can write a good script. Where’s my three-picture deal with Paramount?
It sounds idiotic now, but I actually believed that it was a barrier I had overcome and was behind me. Looking back, I can’t say for sure exactly where I got that idea, especially when I see the good it would have done my career to have kept gathering laurels from festivals and contests, had I been fortunate to continue doing well. Chalk it up to the arrogance of youth. I do know that I felt challenged by the notes the festival had provided, and now I know it’s because I was green and didn’t yet have the chops to successfully address those notes.
Taking notes is hard. I know Emmy-winning writers who still say it is physically painful to hear notes. Yet if we want our art to grow, we have to be willing to hear them. We have to hear how what came out of our heads lands out there in the world. We have to be able to step into another’s shoes and see how our creation might work better. And as I’ve previously discussed, we have to be able to sift valuable feedback from dismissible notes. It strikes me that thinking your script is beyond notes is about as wise as thinking your un-repped writing is beyond festivals and contests.
As your writing career progresses, you’re never going to stop getting notes. They’re just going to come from more vaunted sources and probably be even harder to hear at times, especially if they have more to do with the commercial product you’re creating and less with the art that came from your soul. As great as any script is, until it’s shot and in the can, it can always be better.
I took a deep breath as I hung up with this writer. I gave myself a moment to grieve what this script could become, and another to get over the ego bruise of him not viewing my notes as valuable. Then I turned around and gave him the other production help he’d asked for. His script’s fate is not my battle.
When we stop being open to notes, we shut ourselves off from growth as artists. No matter how far up the ladder we ascend, we must hold onto the curiosity that reminds us that we’re still kids creating stuff. Other people’s two cents hones our craft, helps us see our work through the eyes of others, and shines light into our blind spots. I’m pretty sure that kind of perspective and empathy have benefits in other areas of life, too. I do know for sure that being able to hear notes on our work makes us better writers.
Consider getting feedback and notes from us HERE. Also, our final online workshops of 2021 start in October—see below!
Autumn Screenwriting Workshops
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