a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Script Slip

So I'm currently going through the agonizing process of slipping my latest script to friends to read, in preparation for what hopefully will be the last rewrite/polish before it reaches that temporary stage known as "ready".

The irony, of course, is that I analyze scripts for a living, and in theory I should be perfectly capable of telling if my own script is good. And to a certain extent, I can. Maybe.

Sort of.

But like all writers, I suffer from just being way too close to my work to analyze it effectively. Familiarity breeds contempt. I've lost touch with what it is that really grabs someone the first time they experience a story, a moment, a character, a surprise.

I can remember reading an interview with Andrew Kevin Walker years ago, where he talked about hating all of his scripts. And this was after he had written SEVEN.

More recently, Paul Haggis sat through an early screening of CRASH, listening to the audience react appropriately to every beat, and still he was thinking "These fools! Can't you see how flawed this is?"

(Those of you who hated CRASH, and think he was right? Nah. It's a great script).

You get to the point where you just can't tell any more. Which I like to think explains Woody Allen's struggles. I'd like to believe that he could benefit from someone reading drafts of his scripts before they go into production, and telling him "Hey Woody, what if you..."

M. Night Shyamalan too.

So, the script slip. We've had debates about this on websites; some experienced writers claim that an important step in getting to be a great writer is not needing to show your scripts to anyone, to be able to fix them yourself.

Others point out that most great writers -- screenwriters or novelists -- still had a close group of friends they'd slip their work to along the way.

I'm in the latter camp. It's fine to say that you can tell what's wrong with your script and fix it, but a fresh, knowledgeable eye can be a major help.

The secret, of course, is finding the right friends to slip it to, the ones who will give you honest, helpful feedback, and just not tell you that they liked it.

I mean, it's nice to hear "I liked it". But it isn't really helpful.

I'd much rather get a bunch of notes from someone who understood what I was going for, and can delineate the things that didn't work for them.

Then yesterday, I got a bunch of critical notes from someone who didn't get the script at all; clearly he wanted the script to be something that it was never intended to be, and he was unhappy when it went down a different path.

He had some interesting notes, but at the same time it was clear that, as a whole, the main problem was that the movie I was trying to write wasn't his kind of movie. So there was a disconnect there.

But it's tough. When I give notes, I try to think about what the writer wants to do with the story, and where it is falling short. Sometimes I'll give notes on how to make it better, and there are times when my suggestions are probably totally not where the writer wants to go.

But I like to think that I'm being helpful anyway. I like to think that any note can be helpful, if you know how to take it.

And that's the juggling act, both as a note-giver and a note-taker. My best advice to someone giving notes is to be honest; if you read someone's script, and it really doesn't work for you, try to communicate this to the writer, rather than just saying "I liked it".

Make the "I liked it" really mean something.

And, as someone getting notes, it's all about learning which notes to give weight to and which notes to let flow off your back. It's not easy; I've listened to notes from people that sounded good at the time, but which led my scripts down the wrong path, because I believed the criticism too blindly.

It's best to just send the notes through your own creative filter. Pay attention to what the notes are saying, but ultimately it needs to make sense for what you are trying to write.

Meanwhile, I'll continue to sift through the notes I'm getting back, and try to figure out if my script has merit or not, and how to make it work better.

I'm not a great writer yet. But I'm trying.


At 10:44 AM, Blogger mahlzeit said...

I read in an older biography of Woody Allen that he usually rewrites huge portions of his scripts when they're editing the film. Then he reshoots all of that. Not just a few scenes, but major portions of the script.

At 12:46 PM, Blogger taZ said...

I can agree that note-makers some times don't get the feeling or path the writer wants to go.

As a writer I think you have to be sure of what you really want and not just change everything the note-maker said because he/she said it.

Like you said, maybe it's not his/hers kind of movie, he/she just don't get it.

At 2:40 PM, Blogger Shawn said...

Finding that core group of friends you can count on to give good notes is essential to becoming a better writer. Luckily, I've found a few that have really helped over the years.

Self-critiquing only works with the first draft. After that, it needs fresh eyes.

At 3:38 PM, Blogger Robert Hogan said...

I agree with Shawn, but I'm still lacking in the core group of friends. I have a couple people who I usually send my scripts to, but their response are usually of the "this is good, I really liked it" variety. Great ego boost, but not much help in finding out what works and what doesn't.


At 4:26 PM, Blogger writergurl said...

I threw my script up on Triggerstreet for some "fresh" eyes to look at it, Out of TEN reviews, TWO of them made comments that made sense to MY story. The others? A couple were "I Like it!" (nice, but I got my Mom for that). One was obviously on.... something... And the others... well, they were Ok, but really didn't contribute anything. But, you know, sometimes, you gets what ya paid for. I took it down after 2 weeks.

At 4:36 PM, Blogger cvcobb01 said...

Timely post. I used to manage readers and the coverage process in Paramount's story department. Even with all that, years of coverage and working with readers and doing it myself when time permitted, I still absolutely have to have readers go through my scripts (as you know). Maybe because of that experience I actually have more confidence in a tough read of my stuff, because I feel that I know how to find what's useful from notes and what isn't. And that, as you note, is probably the key to it right there--having confidence in your own sense of the story you're trying to tell, and knowing what notes help you do that better.

At 5:35 PM, Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

I think it is an issue of confidence. If you are putting your script out there because you are unsure, because you need outside confirmation, maybe you aren't secure enough in your craft...yet.
But, being confident, and putting your stuff out there to see what people like or don't like is far from amateur in my opinion.
I think a problem with a lot of writers is that they write in a vacuum, and never share their material.

At 10:22 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

All valid points. You certainly need someone who knows the craft, I hate the "It was cool" comments.

Now that I've had a few of my scripts critiqued (by Scott actually!) I'll always look for someone of his background (or him again!) to pick apart mine before I send them anywhere. It helped my scripts 1,000,000% to get a nice critique like that. I am too close to them, and it's nice when an outside person can take a good look at it and show me its flaws.

At 10:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Scott -- You're talking about that dreaded word (on Wordplay) "Feedback" right? I think feedback is essential for writers who wish to improve their craft. However the writer needs to be careful and really think the feedback through (not defensively, more, testing its logic, its truthfulness), otherwise the "notes" can do irreparable damage to the script (as I found the hard way via a studio)..

ps - Luv your site!

At 1:50 AM, Blogger Danny Stack said...

Was it WordPlay that said: "You be the expert". It's true but feedback from objective eyes is golden.

In a recent rewrite, I thought I did a great job, was full sure of it, but the producer hated it. Really hated it.

I'm still confident I did a great job but *they didn't like it* and that's the main thing. Subjectivity. I finished a new script recently and chose three fellow writers to assess it (4 if you include agent), and their comments matched my own doubts, so I felt hugely encouraged to rewrite it before it went out.

Good feedback from someone you know or trust is essential, no matter how great a writer you are.

Oh, and sorry to go on, but sometimes you can read a script and think: this guy's a great writer. But the story can still suck or the characters aren't doing it for you or whatever. It's like going to see a film by Spielberg. He's a terrific filmmaker but you're not going to like every film he does...

At 6:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Recently I came across '3 golden rules for critics' but they'd apply to readers as well. I think they were attributed to Goethe but I'm not sure. From memory:

1) What is the writer trying to do?
2) Is he succeeding?
3) Is it worth it?

I'm certainly guilty of having read scripts by friends and acquaintences and not really put much thought to what they were trying to do.

- Anna

At 9:38 AM, Blogger Shawn said...

There's also the issue of taste. You've got to find people with similar sensibilities as yourself. You can't hand off an espionage thriller to someone who digs period romances. They won't give good notes.

At 10:01 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Yeah, it was a long Wordplay discussion. The dreaded fear of "feedback". It amazed me how passionate people are on both sides.

I definitely think it's important to give your script to more than one person who is going to give you good notes.

Because if you only share it with one person, and they give you an odd note that may or may not be right, it's nice to have someone else to bounce it off of.

Use notes as a jumping-off point for your own wrestling with the material.

On the flipside, if a lot of people give you the same note (and almost everyone hates my final scene, which I now know needs serious reworking), it's something that you really, really need to think about fixing.

At 10:35 AM, Blogger MaryAn Batchellor said...

Well, I'm in the anti-feedback camp unless it's from the trusted eyes of somebody you know has something valuable to say.

Don't give your tree hugging script to somebody who makes a living in a logging community. It's a waste of time.

At 12:33 PM, Blogger Julie O. said...

I think you could give your tree-hugging script to the logger if he's got a good handle on story. He might pshaw the Earth Day sequence, but could still have a lot of constructive comments.

You'd probably have to take it on a logger-by-logger basis.

It is important, though, to know whether your reader is well-versed in your genre. I'm told I give good notes, but I once reviewed a horror script -- not a genre I know much about -- and inadvertently gave the writer some bad advice. I suggested he provide answers to some questions which he'd intentionally left unanswered as a genre convention.

At 1:12 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Julie, it may have wound up being bad advice, but at the same time raising the specter of Option B can never hurt -- either the writer has already considered it and discarded the idea, or now it has been raised for him to consider and explore it or disgard it.

Either way, more help than harm.

At 2:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm always willing to take a gander at a PDF fleying my way, there's always a pencil hanging out of my mouth too

At 5:43 PM, Blogger Steve Peterson said...

"...some experienced writers claim that an important step in getting to be a great writer is not needing to show your scripts to anyone, to be able to fix them yourself."

This is pretty surprising. I thought that the big advantage of getting established is that you now know more people who can give you really good script notes.

I'm also wary of the notes from (or writing them for) genres that aren't one's favorite. However, even in those cases you can usually get a few nice notes on character issues or perhaps tired dialogues.

At 6:48 PM, Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

I give my scripts treatments, etc... to folks whose opinions I trust to see what's going to wash off the script when "the firehose" of executives are going to read it.

Everyone, everyone misses something in their script - a word, an idea not clearly thought out, characterization - whatever.

At 7:16 AM, Blogger Morris said...

I'm sure you will do allright.

Mr. Morris
Ask Morris

At 3:41 PM, Blogger Webs said...


If you want to borrow my eyes, zip it over. My e-mail address is on my Blogger profile page.


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