7 Bullsh*t Script Notes (and what they really mean)

B. O'Malley

Writing likeable characters

Writing likeable charactersWhen you hand your script to a film industry friend, a script notes company, or a writers group, and ask them to give you script notes, you’re assuming you’re gonna receive a handful of specific notes, or at the very least one or two, which will point out details or mechanics about your script which need some work.

But even with the best of intentions, our friends, our writers’ groups, our script notes companies of choice –  they don’t always deliver the kind of detail, insight, and expertise we’d like.

In other words, there’s folks who know how to give script notes, and folks who don’t. <—SPOILER

But sometimes it’s hard to tell the two apart, because sometimes you get back notes that actually do seem like the reader of your script knew what they were talking about, when they actually, well, don’t.

So here’s a list of the top 7 typical b.s. script notes to watch out for.

Take just a quick glance at each, and your reaction might be “Well, wait. That’s actually a good note, or even a sacrosanct screenwriting axiom.”  But with all things, the devil be in the details, matey.

Here’s sort of a Rosetta Stone to help you know when certain script notes are b.s., and what they really mean, so you can get into that rewrite faster and with more focus on your draft’s real problemos.

#7) “There’s No Clear Inciting Event by Page 10”

This is a favorite of the 3-Act-Fundamentalists, who fly script airplanes into script buildings in the name of Script Allah.  True, it’s good to have some sort of beat early on that propels the film forward, and compels us to keep reading, but beware the script note that says that a specific event is required, or that such an event has to take place by a specific page number.

As any great screenwriter will tell you, the three-act-structure is an imperative to master, but it’s not the only way to write films.  What’s important is that your script draw in the reader.  It doesn’t matter if that takes place with an inciting event, or a slow reveal of character through dialogue, or a change of scenery.  Or a sock puppet singing Purple Rain.

#6) “I Didn’t Like The Main Character”

If your reader tells you they didn’t like the main character because he didn’t pet a dog or save a cat or demonstrate in some other way that he’s a good, “likeable” person by page such-and-such, and then just leaves it at that, chances are, that person who read your script is having difficulty squaring their own moral or cultural compass with that of your character.

Amateur script analysts often confuse “likeability” of a character with the character’s moral alignment.  “He’s your protagonist?  Oh well, he has to be a good-hearted guy, and we have to see that by page x.”

But what about Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho?  Did we like her because of her goodness?  Probably not, because in the first few minutes of the film, she steals a bunch of money.

No, we liked her because she was interesting.  She was fun to watch.  We were curious as to how/if she’d get away with it. Interesting is likeable.

#5) “There’s No B Story”

Sitcoms and series use B-story.  (HBO’s Game of Thrones has 40 interesting characters to watch, so it could be said that that show has a B-through-Y story.)  But generally, feature film scripts don’t require layers-upon-layers of subplots, or even a single subplot.  If the story finds itself in a place where things aren’t clear because we haven’t unfolded a subplot with a certain character, then maybe we need to add a subplot.

But it’s a huge red flag if someone reading your script insists it needs one.  Many movies do fine with a single plot, with many characters in service of that plot, without having to lay down a secondary or tertiary layer of storyline.

#4) “There’s No Twist At The End”

Otherwise known as “I see dead people, and they used to have jobs as script analysts.”  If your script notes come back with this Deusy, your reader is probably a neophyte who read somewhere that “Big Hollywood Studios™ love twists, or shocker endings.™”

True, keeping your audience on their toes with plot twists and turns is a good thing.  But to arbitrarily insist that a script have a twist ending, just for the sake of having a twist ending?  Go ahead and do it!  Because it’s awesome and I recommend it!  (See what I did there?  I gave you a twist ending to the point I was making).

#3) “Nobody Will Produce This Script”

Absolute statements are absolutely fun.  Nothing marks more clearly the sign of a script note you should huck like a greasy ex-Pringles can into yon recycle bin than one which is arbitrarily absolute.

Why this one in particular is so fun is because clearly whoever wrote it hasn’t seen what kind of films are getting made these days.  People, they re-made a remake of Superman.  All bets are officially off!

Anyone working in this business long enough has seen total garbage – and I mean total. garbage. – get sold and produced.  So the idea that a script is so bad that it can never be made is a complete canard.  Its chances might be lower, its path might be longer, but anything can, and does, get made.

But the most important takeaway from this note is:  watch out for absolute statements, especially when they seem to be trying to transmit that the person giving the script note has some sort of leg up on you with regards to having their finger on the pulse of the film industry.  Because they probably don’t.

#2) “I Couldn’t Finish It.”

If they throw the script across the room by page 4, it’s not a good sign. But if they say they simply couldn’t finish it, but can’t tell you at what page, it probably means they didn’t even begin it.

#1)  “Your Characters Aren’t Arcing”

Tesla coils and rainbows arc.  Characters change, pull the story forward, and keep being surprising and entertaining.  If you want to call that a character arc, be my guest, but I maintain that the term “character arc” is a tired, film-school trope.

New screenwriters should feel absolutely fine about hanging their hat on the idea of “character arc” while they learn how to develop characters, but don’t feel the need to “arc” every character, or even “arc” your main character.

Not every main character “has to learn something,” or “grow.”  Sometimes, they can ride off into the sunset like a Pale Rider, and we’ve still been entertained.

“Your Characters Aren’t Arcing” is a script note that screams “Non-nuanced script note giver.”  Take with a grain of salt, and a sixgun.  And a shot of whiskey.

8 Comments on “7 Bullsh*t Script Notes (and what they really mean)”

  1. “On a broader level, XXX might require more emotional tracking throughout. Why are characters making the decisions they do? What do they hope to accomplish? How do they feel about what is happening? How do these feelings shift and change as the story unfolds? We should always know their aims, the purpose behind their aims, and what their perceived “best case scenarios” are (even if these outcomes never come to pass). ”

    “Commercially, XXX would be a difficult sell in the marketplace. The concept works, but does not feel particularly compelling in itself. More importantly, a film like this would be very expensive to produce, and studios usually only take chances on movies in this vein when they have evolved from well-known source material “

  2. That’s why I don’t let many people read my stuff –most people are too stupid and egocentric to even know what the h*** they are doing and this includes just about all literary agents and their ilk.

  3. Thank you so much for this amazingly insightful article. I was literally crushed by the harsh criticism I received by the Writer’s Group I was in and haven’t written a word since. I am using your service!

  4. All of these are situational. It would be a serious mistake to get one of these notes and assume it is either automatically right, or automatically wrong. Remember that notes aren’t necessarily set in stone… They’re ideas and suggestions.

    For instance, if you get a set of notes that tells you a script can’t be produced, pick up a camera and shoot it yourself. Complaining about Hollywood doesn’t change or solve anything.

    If a reader doesn’t like your protagonist, get another read. If second reader doesn’t like your protagonist… make a note of that, and get another read. If third reader doesn’t like your protagonist… then, guess what? There might be something wrong with your protagonist, and you should address it if you want to have a shot at casting the role with bankable talent.

    And so on…

  5. Oh you forgot to include: “This script is too expensive to produce.” That was actually a major criticism of one of my scripts from a reader in another service. I’m still laughing at that one.

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