Alas, script notes are valuable, right? Getting anybody to read your spec script is often a bit of a challenge, but trying to get script notes on it can be twice as hard.
Folks like me and my team get paid to dissect screenplays and help writers, but what if you don’t want to spend the dough? Or can’t spend the dough, because you’ve got to use it to buy real dough that you need to feed your family with?
Never fear, all you cheapskates and/or FEMA refugees dreaming of screenwriting stardom… (or you folks who hate writers groups for some reason), here’s the things I recommend you do to give yourself the best script notes possible so you can tear into your rewrite as a more prepared, wiser screenwriter.
Sit on it for 30-60 days
By far the best thing you can do to give yourself perspective on your own screenplay before a rewrite is to let your script sit for a while. Like, a long while.
Popping it into a PDF and beaming it to your FEMA iPad right after you complete your draft is fine, but let that bad boy stew for a month, or even two months.
Otherwise, just like the rent being TOO DAMN HIGH, you’re just TOO DAMN CLOSE to your script.
Only time is able to reset that writerly-familiarity we all suffer from when it comes to our own screenplays. Only time allows you to come at it super-fresh and more ready to spot what’s working about your script and what’s not. So don’t be impatient. Let it “bake” for 30-60 days before you sit down to write script notes on it.
Don’t rewrite while you read
Print out your screenplay or save it as a PDF. Whatever you do, don’t try to make script notes by scrolling through an editable file. That is, don’t have it open in Screenwriter or Final Draft or whatever software you’re using, where you can edit as you go.
It’s imperative that you have the script open in a separate, non-editable file so that you don’t jump down that “rewrite rabbit hole” before you’re able to draw up some actionable notes.
Here’s what I do: Open my script as a PDF and size it to take up half of my screen.
The Word screen is just for notes. As I read my screenplay on the left, I pop over to the Word document on the right and make whatever script notes I like.
Or just print the script out, old-school, and make notes with a pen on the actual script itself, and on the backs of the pages, where needed.
If you don’t keep yourself from rewriting as you give notes, you’ll be rewriting too soon. That is, without the circumspection required to do the best possible rewrite.
Even worse, if you start your screenplay rewrite while you’re making your notes, you’ll likely forget about all that perspective you accumulated by sitting on it for 30-60 days, because, like a famous poet once mused, “You were up above it, but now you’re down in it.” Avoid rewriting until you’re done with the notes.
Being the screenwriter of the work you’re making notes on has some definite perks. Being familiar with your script is not one of them.
Resist the urge to skim, speed-read, or blaze down the page, relying on your recall of the gist of the scene due to having spent so much time writing it. If you’re going to give yourself script notes that are worth a damn, you’ve got to read the text. Every line. Every word. Every letter.
In my book, The Screenwriter’s Cheat Book, I call this the “Glazed Donut Syndrome” — We become such experts of our own scripts as we write them, that we start skimming our own words, our own scenes, as we work more and more on them.
Try, try, try to avoid being a Glazed Donut. Be a jelly-filled donut, armed with a microscope. The jelly represents a bunch of creamy, delicious good ideas. The microscope is the tool that jelly donut must use to examine your script.
For the record, I have never before created such a terribly inept metaphor, and I want you to take a moment to appreciate this. Had I not skimmed this blog post, I would’ve caught it, surely.
Here’s a fascinating post about reading and retention which sums up the perils of skimming pretty damn perfectly.
Start the second pass of notes at the end
Once you’ve done your first pass of script notes, get a glass of water, or a crate of tequila, and come back to your desk. Now read your script in reverse. Yes, starting at the end, and ending at the beginning.
The first thing you want to do is make sure your ending leaves you with one of two distinct physiological feelings in your person. Either:
(A) You feel so much emotion and satisfaction that it makes you recall how you tried to fly out of the theater as a kid as Superman flew by and smiled at you to that triumphant John Williams score in the Superman 2 end credits, or,
(B) You feel like a bearded, sweaty Soviet submarine commander who’s just blown up a fleet of NATO battleships and can now head to Cuba for some rum, cigars, and tanning-buttered devotchkas in fur bikinis.
Endings of films need to make people feel. Maybe they don’t have to make people feel exactly as I’ve outlined above, but they still have to make people feel something. Use my examples as jumping-off points.
Do you get chills from the ending? Goosebumps? Does the swelling music tickle your heart, make you feel like changing the world, ignite a long-dormant passion within your loins, sub-loins, or sub-prime loins?
If not, you don’t have a good ending.
And if you don’t have a good ending, that means you don’t have a good script. It probably means your characters haven’t earned a good ending.
That’s easy enough to remedy. Simply go back and fix your characters and conflict so they do.
(Not sure how to do that? Use the “Fix Characters” plug-in which comes with most good screenwriting software. One click and it rewrites your entire script to be more interesting, conflictive, and marketable. Also, I have a bridge for sale. Inquire within.)
Graph it on paper, then boost the “peaks”
Continuing that same line of thought, go through your entire screenplay and look for those emotional peaks and valleys. Not what the characters experience emotionally, but what the audience feels.
Use a pencil, or a pen, or a tomato, and draw a graph of what you imagine the audience reaction would be for every scene. Kinda like one of those ridiculous news show live opinion graphs they run during debates.
If you can graph these emotional moments as objectively as possible, you can pinpoint where your script is losing the audience, where it’s gaining them back, and where it’s uneven.
This might all sound completely ridiculous, and the furthest thing possible from screenwriting, but that’s the point: To get yourself out of your own head enough to be able to see your script through your future readers’ eyes, through your future audiences’ eyes.
Only when you’re as detached as possible fromt the text do you stand a chance of giving yourself a solid, helpful round of pre-rewrite script notes.
Pinpoint the peaks, pinpoint the valleys. Then later, when you’re back in the rewrite, be like Brian Eno when he creates or produces a rock album (often relying on his “Oblique Strategies” to break any creative blockage) – make the powerful moments as powerful as possible, make the quiet moments as quiet as possible, and keep the audience glued to their headphones.
Nobody likes a dissembler. You shouldn’t either. Approach your screenplay rewrite with the mindset of a stranger, the bloody knuckles of a butcher, and the calm, steady passion of one of those JPL scientists that chew at their knuckles every time they’re trying to land a car-sized rover on Mars. And all of those traits require absolute honesty with yourself.
When doing notes on your own script, you can’t lie. See it through the eyes of someone you don’t know, and will never meet.
See it through the eyes of the guy who just spent $1,130 for tickets, $350 for two popcorns, $127 to park, and is hoping he can show his date how financially responsible he is.
See it through the eyes of the development intern at the studio, who spent 90 minutes fighting traffic on the way to work, will spend 90 minutes fighting traffic on the way back home to their shitty Van Nuys apartment, just spent 90 minutes fighting Sonny Liston and discovering Islam, and has to read two more scripts tonight.
Whatever you do, don’t see the script through your eyes when you’re making your notes for a rewrite.
Your eyes are for the rewrite only. Which, if you somewhat follow my general philosophies above, should be a breeze.