12 Screenwriting Guidelines to Take the Fear Out of Getting Notes and Maximizing the Experience

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Screen storytelling is an essentially collaborative process. Writers need feedback but too often the notes they receive stall them and even demoralize them. Notes to Screenwriters: Advancing Your Story, Screenplay, and Career With Whatever Hollywood Throws at You unpacks the whys and what-fors of all the most commonly given notes on scripts, stories, and writers themselves. Coming from the perspective of experienced Hollywood professionals, it offers insightful and concise guidance on the entire storytelling process, as well as what comes before it in the life of the writer, and after it in the marketing of the screenplay. It is a unique blend of classical storytelling principles combined with practical knowledge of the contemporary marketplace.

Authors Barbara Nicolosi and Vicki Peterson co-wrote Notes to Screenwriters. Barbara is the Founder and Chair Emeritus of Act One, Inc., a non-profit mentoring program for screenwriters and producers in Hollywood. She is a member of the WGA West and has written screenplays for several production companies. She has been a development executive, story consultant and script doctor for hundreds of projects as well as a grants panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts, and a reader for the prestigious Humanitas Prize for screenwriting.

Vicki Peterson is a screenwriter and founding partner of Catharsis, which mentors writers and develops screen projects for various producers. Her projects include features, TV specs, and rewrites for production companies, and her scripts have been selected as finalists for several film festivals and fellowships. Vicki is formerly the director of both the Writing for Film and Television Program and Producing and Entertainment Executive Program at Act One, Inc., of which she is also an alumna. Before that, Vicki was a development executive at Origin Entertainment and Hero Pictures.

Below is an excerpt that outlines 12 guidelines you can use to maximize notes you receive as a screenwriter. If you’d like to read more, click here.

For writers, getting notes can be a terrifying, anxiety-ridden, and depressing experience. You’ve spent months, if not years, putting everything you have into your script, agonizing over every transition and slugline. Your themes matter deeply to you, and often come from your own personal struggles and failures. There is a little bit (or a lot) of your own heart and soul in each of your characters. So now you have to turn over the baby you’ve birthed and nurtured to a bunch of people who will spend a fraction as much time, effort, and soul sweat as you have on it, and then hope that it will be enjoyed and appreciated. And it usually isn’t.Your precious project is set on the altar of show business, awaiting sacrifice.

When we give script consultations, invariably we notice the writer’s sweaty palms and the tremor in their voices. Or else, there is just way too much bravado, which generally is masking lots of hurt and insecurity. Often, when we’re giving notes, the first five to ten minutes is about getting writers to just calm down so that they can hear us and hopefully trust us.

We understand.We’re writers, too, and we’ve been on the other end of that table.We’ve gotten some of the most debilitating, humiliating, unhelpful notes ever… We get it. But we’ve also been on the other side of the table as producers giving notes.

One word, writers: Relax.

Getting notes doesn’t have to be quite so scary. In fact, it can be quite exciting and affirming — even when the script isn’t working. After all, a notes session means someone has at last been reading your work. Someone else wants to hear about the characters and situations with whom you’ve been alone for months or years. And then there is the chance you’ll find the rare treat of a reader or producer who really values your work, and is eager to meet you because of it.

When a writer knows how to properly decipher notes, it can be a liberating experience. A writer wields power. You are the creator of your story, and have the opportunity to make the work the very best it can be.You are literally the hero of your own stories.You just have to realize it.

So why all the terror? Because even in surprisingly famous places with people getting paid big bucks, the notes that are flying around can be cryptic and confusing. Lots of folks who are working as junior development execs or company “gateways” have law degrees or business degrees but are otherwise completely unprepared to analyze a screenplay. Lots of script buyers are only set up to say “no” and have no interest in communicating why it’s a no, so dealing with them feels like a series of mystifying and brutal slamming doors. Lots of other folks giving notes have agendas coloring their comments that are unbeknownst to the writer; for instance, the famous, “We want this to be more something we can give to our fifty-eight-year-old actress friend, so we need to lose all the skateboarding stuff.” Finally, receiving criticism is always hard. No matter how mature you are, it hurts when someone tells you your characters aren’t interesting, your theme is kind of lame, your imagery isn’t working.

It’s too much to ask writers to embrace the pitfalls and suffering of the notes process, but we do have one golden rule that everyone in the storytelling arena needs to hear:

Learn from everything.

The notes phase is bracing, but because it is necessary, a professional writer has to learn to cope with and benefit from the process. The good news is, notes from people who read a lot of scripts generally hold some truth to them, no matter how poorly constructed they are. It is the job of the writer to interpret the notes and then apply the right fixes. A writer who is determined to make a notes session part of his ongoing professional development rarely falls prey to the emotional and psychological pitfalls therein.

Here are some guidelines to maximize the experience of getting notes:

Keep the main thing the main thing. A notes session is not about you. It’s about the project. Don’t waste the note- giver’s time trying to explain or make excuses for your script. Don’t expect to be praised and affirmed. Don’t come in looking to make a friend. The point of the encounter is to fix the problems with your project.

Don’t make it personal. Even if it is. Don’t focus on the reasons the note-giver might have to want to hurt you or get you to quit or ruin your screenplay. Never respond to a script or story note with a personal comment about the note-giver. That the note-giver might be being unprofessional doesn’t give you license to lose your dignity too.

Figure out the note-giver’s story language. Everyone has a different way of talking about movies and stories. Everyone has a different scale for what makes a movie good and what is a lesser problem. It’s a very good idea to get notes from a range of people for this reason: Every new person will give you feedback on the aspect of movies that is most important to them, and all of the aspects are important in the end. If a note-giver says,“That scene really worked,” it is up to the writer to find out what they mean and exactly how it worked. When you say “worked,” do you mean it was emotionally satisfying? Was it a clever and surprising payoff or reversal? Was it a moment of psychological revelation or artistic adeptness? The writer has to place themselves into the mind and mode out of which the note-giver speaks. It isn’t up to the writer to give the note-writer a lesson in screenwriting jargon.You need to be an interpreter.

Keep it positive. Even if you’re terrified, cling to the good news.While many note sessions are focused on what’s “wrong” with a story, absorb what’s right about the story, too. If your note-giver doesn’t tell you what’s to like in your project, ask.

Believe there are few “bad” notes. Some notes are more helpful than others, but all notes are an opportunity to Your willingness to grow and improve as a writer is what will set you apart and make you succeed in the long run, so consider every opportunity a gift.

When you do get a bad note, nod thoughtfully, write it down, and imagine with which friend you can most enjoy laughing about it With a beer. Never snap back, be sarcastic, or get defensive.

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Trust your note-giver. We know it’s hard to do this sometimes, but if you truly believe that the person has your best interests at heart and really wants to help you tell a great story, the way you take notes will dramatically improve.

Don’t give up your babies too Some writers are so desperate to not appear difficult that they never explain or defend the choices they made in their scripts. Remember, the person giving the notes has probably only read the script once or twice, while you, the writer, have brooded over every comma for months or years. No one knows the script as well as you. Some insights are worth fighting for, or at least defending in a non-argumentative way.

Clarify, clarify, clarify. Adopt phrases like, “So, what I’m hearing is…” Even if you think you understand a note, restate it in your own words. Misunderstandings lead to lots of wasted time rewriting things in the wrong way.

Ask questions. It’s easy for writers to get defensive, which is one step away from shutting do If you find yourself doing this, try asking more questions. This will help you direct your energies toward a more positive solution.

Thank your note-giver. Even if you didn’t think the notes were helpful, treat your note-giver with respect.

Give yourself a treat. No, really, don’t skip this. After a notes session, plan a small reward for yourself. Go watch a movie with a friend, or get some ice cream; whatever you want. It makes a huge difference when you’re in a meeting and you know you have something to look forward to afterward.Try it, and see if you don’t leave your meeting more upbeat.

By Barbara Nicolosi

Barbara Nicolosi is the Founder and Chair Emeritus of Act One, Inc. a non-profit mentoring program for screenwriters and producers in Hollywood. She is a member of the Writers Guild of America-West and has written screenplays for several Hollywood production companies. She has been a development executive, story consultant and script doctor for hundreds of projects as well as a grants panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts, and a reader for the prestigious Humanitas Prize for screenwriting. Barbara has been an adjunct professor of screenwriting at Pepperdine University and Azusa Pacific University.       

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