3 Tweaks to Un-Muck Your Script Notes Process - Part 1
March 26, 2020
Death. Taxes. And script notes.
All three are inevitable as a writer. But they can also be a bit less hellish if you have a system in place for how to approach them.
A great note system process will transform the productivity of your writing process, and all it takes is some Lisa Simpson-level optimization of the habits you probably already have in place.
BAD HABIT: You get notes only when your first draft is complete.
TWEAK: Get notes at multiple stages, especially before you go to draft.
When to ask for notes is the most overlooked variant in the notes-getting process. If you’re only getting notes after you finish your first draft, you are missing a crucial opportunity to save yourself from a giant, structural headache.
Whenever I tackle a new idea, I’ll get notes at four different stages of the process.
STAGE 1 -The Logline & The Pitch
STAGE 2 -The Outline
STAGE 3 -The First Draft
STAGE 4 -The Polished Draft
By getting feedback earlier in the process, you can make sure your idea has stakes and a strong story engine before pouring yourself into a whole first draft. Getting feedback on your logline, pitch and outline will sharpen the focus of your narrative theme and equip you to knock out a speedier first draft, as well.
I can hear a few objections in the back coming from the, “But I don’t outline!” crowd. Bad news first: you’re going to have to learn. Once you’re writing for a studio or a showrunner, you’ll need to turn in an outline before you go to draft. The good news, though, is that this will vastly improve the quality of your scripts. Writing without outlining is like fighting Darth Vader without the Force. You’re making things difficult for yourself when you really don’t have to—and writing can be hard enough as it is!
It’s even possible that the reason you’ve had trouble outlining up until this point, is that you’ve never gotten notes on your outlines, so you don’t really know where they stand. So, give it a shot. The person giving you notes will have less to read, and you’ll be able to use their notes to restructure and fine-tune your narrative before you go to draft. Which brings me to:
BAD HABIT: You ask for too many notes.
TWEAK: Get strategic about who you ask for notes and why.
Getting notes on a project is not a, “the more the merrier” type situation. Like all areas of writing, there’s a strategic way to go about it, and the first step is clarifying WHO you are asking and WHY. It’s very possible your three best TV writing friends may not be your three best TV writing note-givers.
You’ll also want to ask different types of note-givers at different stages of the process. When you have an idea and logline, you may want to ask your writing buddies who are familiar with the genre to see if they think your idea is exciting and unique. When you’re at the outline stage, you’ll want to rely more on professional consultants and friends who have won or placed in competitions to give you feedback on technical aspects of your story. And once your script is complete, you may only want feedback from industry professionals and trusted peers.
Let’s break the WHO down a little more:
- The Critic: They never hold back and will let you know if a cliché has worked its way into your script.
- The Comedian: They’re great at joke punch-ups, but may not be reliable for story notes.
- The Eagle Eye: They can spot typos and formatting errors from a mile away.
- The Character Whisperer: Possibly also an actor, these note givers excel at notes for your characters and their motivations.
- The Structure Nerd: They’ll point out weaknesses in narrative logic or scene order and heightening. This is a crucial note giver to rely on for outline notes, before you head to draft.
- The Development Exec / The Professional Consultant: These gems can provide you with feedback on the marketability/salability of your script, and tend to be experts on story, structure and character. Since they do a lot of heavy lifting, do them a favor and have an Eagle Eye note-giver do a pass before you send anything to them.
If you’re lucky, you don’t have a choice about getting notes, because you’re working with a studio or network and they won’t let you move forward without dunking you into a bucket of feedback, thoughts and suggestions.
But. If you don’t HAVE to get notes, consider limiting your asks. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but at some point, your script is relatively done, and it’s okay to share it with a peer or industry contact and ask them more for their overall reaction, instead of for notes. It may be easier for an important contact or friend to find time for your script if they know it doesn’t come with the heavy task of notes—especially if you don’t really need them or have already covered your bases by divvying it up between your other asks.
Check out Part 2 of this journey, where we’ll dig into how to best juggle multiple and conflicting sets of notes!
Written by: Liz ThompsonLiz Thompson is a screenwriter and freelance development consultant. She has one show currently in development, is featured on The BitchList 2020, and won the 2019 Tracking Board Launch Pad Julian Silver mentorship. In between outlining and pitching she runs The Writer’s ARC group on Facebook, and can be found on Twitter at @howtoliz.