Give yourself better script notes

Sitting down to do your screenplay rewrite? Awesome! Do you have some notes to go on? No?

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 (aka sane people) 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 your screenplay for 10-20 days

Popping your script open and giving it a read right after you complete your latest draft is fine, but I recommend letting it stew for a week or two before you attempt to give yourself script notes.

This is because only time is able to reset that 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 10-20 days before you sit down to write script notes on it.

Don’t rewrite your script while you read your script

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.  Not yet anyway. That is, don’t have it open in your screenwriting app.

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.

What I do is open my script as a PDF and size it to take up half of my screen. Then I open my note-taking app on the other side of the screen.

The note screen is just for notes. As I read my screenplay on the left, I pop over to the notes and jot down ideas or comments.

Or sometimes I’ll 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 10-20 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.

One thing to make a note of is your emotional reactions as you read. Are you having any? Do you feel laughter, sadness, fear, suspense? In other words, will an audience feel?

And does your ending leaving you with a strong, emotional feeling? Ideally, the feeling you were going for? Do you get chills?  Goosebumps?  Does the swelling music you imagine tickle your heart, make you feel like changing the world, make you fall in love with your characters? Anything?

If you don’t feel anything anywhere, especially at the end, then you’ll need to make a note of that and go fix things until you do.

Don’t skim your screenplay

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 heck, you’ve got to read the text. Every line.  Every word.  Every letter.

Here’s a fascinating post about reading and retention which sums up the perils of skimming pretty damn perfectly.

Measure your EPP (Entertainments Per Page)

A script aspiring to the description “comedy” owes the audience at least one major thing:  laughter.

A script aspiring to the description: “action film” owes the audience at least one major thing: cool action!

Try this exercise. It’s silly. It’s unscientific. But I’m including it to prove a point:

On each of your script pages, count how many times you laugh (if comedy), or stop and say “Cool action, man!” (if action).

(If your script is a thriller, count the thrills per page. If your script is a romance, count the swoons. You get the idea.)

The point is to gauge, with as much accuracy as possible, how many times per minute you provide entertainment to the moviegoer. To the script reader.

At the bottom of each page, or in your notes, write how many times you laughed, or experienced cool action or whatever. This is the number of “Entertainments” you experienced per page. Then at the end of your script, tally up all the Entertainments and divide by the total of number of pages in your script in order to calculate the average Total Number of Entertainments Per Page. This is your script’s “EPP.”

The goal is to provide the audience with at least one Entertainment per page. That is, entertain them at least once every sixty seconds. And that’s really the bare minimum. The more Entertainments you spot per page, the more an audience will likely enjoy your film.

If it helps, try a permutation of this ridiculous exercise: instead of action moments for action films or laughs for comedies, just count how many times per page you feel anything. Anything at all. Laughter, sadness, pride, suspense, wonderment, fear… Anything goes.

Count those moments and add them up. Then look at your script’s “soft spots” — pages with few or no emotional moments.

This might seem like a complete waste of time, but it just might help you visualize what scenes in your script need more attention in order to be truly “audience-worthy.”

Remember! You’re writing a movie for an audience. Not yourself. Make them feel something. Better still, give them what they came for, whether it’s a car chase or a pratfall or a killer in the shadows.

Be honest about your screenwriting

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 a ton of money for cinema tickets, parking, babysitter, and popcorn.

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 crappy Van Nuys apartment, just spent 90 minutes on hold with their cable company, and has to read two more scripts tonight.

Be brutally honest with yourself. Pretend this is not your script, but someone else’s. Don’t hold back. Hit yourself with both barrels. And write it all down.

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