The 5 Notes I Always Give

The 5 Notes I Always Give

Hey you guys! What’s up? How ya been? It’s me, Spike! Back from the dead for another—


Hey you guys! What’s up? How ya been? It’s me, Spike! Back from the dead for another—


Hey you guys! What’s up? How ya been? It’s me, Spike! Back from the dead for another—


Whoooooaaaaa! Sorry about that, folks.

Seems like I got stuck in one of those repeating loop things. Like a record player skipping over and over. Or that time vortex the USS Enterprise got caught in during season five of "The Next Generation" (shout out to all my old school Trekkies out there). But I digress ...

No, the reason this happened is because Script Pipeline is smack dab in the middle of its busiest season. That's right: Screenwriting and TV Contest judging (and notes-giving) time. Which means there has been no shortage of scripts for me to read.

Don't get me wrong. I love reading scripts. I adore getting to experience all your original ideas (seriously, a lot of you are super creative). And I get a huge thrill from using my development experience to help elevate screenplays to be the best they can be. It's one of the most fulfilling parts of my day.

But hot damn if I haven't felt like I've been in a repeating feedback loop lately. I swear, time after time, the majority of my job has become finding slightly different ways to deliver the same notes over and over and over.

So many of you seem to be making the exact same mistakes with your writing. And from my vantage point, they're all easily fixable.

Just like Lt. Commander Data did when he opened shuttle bay three to avoid a head-on collision and freed the Enterprise from the time-loop anomaly thing (sorry to spoil a 30-year-old Star Trek episode), I'm going to lay out the notes I'm most frequently giving as my way to help all of you. Hopefully, this breaks all you scribes reading this out of a funk. And maybe, it will allow me to give some different notes moving forward too.

Let's dig in:


Way too many people forget this. And conflict is above and beyond the most important job you have as a storyteller.

Narratives cannot function without conflict. It's literally the lifeblood of a screenplay.

To keep a reader interested, you need to have conflict. From characters disagreeing and arguing. From the protagonist not getting what they want. Or because something is happening that needs to be stopped. High levels of conflict create palpable tension. And tension turns into drama.

Drama keeps someone engaged in your story. It makes people want to turn the page.

If you're reading something you've written, and it just doesn't feel right for some reason, but you can’t place your finger on why, look at the overall conflict level in the scene/script.

Identify where it’s coming from. Are the stakes clear and immediate? And is the drama continually amplifying as your second act goes on? If you can’t answer any of those questions, it's something you absolutely need to address.

And while it may sound simple, the easiest way to ensure conflict exists in your screenplay is to ...


Again, it sounds basic. I’ve said this note before in other articles. But I keep bringing it up as a lot of people aren't focusing on this element nearly enough.

Screenplays are about something. A character needs to want something and must work to achieve it. The struggle between point A (I want this thing) and point B (I have gotten what I wanted!) is the film. That's the meat of a story. And too many people aren't filling their sandwich with any meat.

Some writers have goals for their heroes but lose focus on it in the second act. They get waylaid with too many subplots and characters and world-building scenes that the plot gets lost. When this happens, the reader’s interest in what's happening wanes.

That's not a good thing.

Other writers have protagonists with problems, but solve them too quickly. You can tell thesy love their characters so much that they don't want anything bad to happen to them. These people are their friends! And wouldn't you solve a friend's problem if you could? But this isn't a good thing either. Because if you establish that the character has a problem, then solve it five minutes later ... what are you writing about for the rest of the script? (The answer is nothing, and those scripts are boring).

And yet even more writers don't establish goals for their characters at all. Or they do so far too late in the game (like, after the midpoint late) to where nothing could ever bring the reader's attention back.

All the above scenarios are bad. They’re pitfalls you want to avoid your script falling into.

Prioritize your A plot. Make it the centerpiece of your time and energy. Sure, include subplots where appropriate, but never forget the primary reason you're on this endeavor in the first place.

While you're at it, let's make sure you also ...


Wayyyy too many scripts I read these days are lacking in this department. And it's one of the elements that matters most in the long run.

Take it from me, someone who has been reading screenplays for over twelve years: plots are cheap, everyone has one. Unless your concept is SUPER original, commercial and/or well-executed, it's probably not going to impress anyone that much.

But when a writer can make me care about the characters in a story? When someone can manipulate me into feeling the same things that these imaginary people do on the page? When I have a deep, passionate desire to see this fake person achieve all their hopes and dreams and get what they want out of life??

That's the goddamn sweet spot. That's emotional resonance.

If two people are having dinner, I (the reader) don't care that there's a bomb under the table unless I care about the person sitting at it. I have to know something about them. I need a reason to want them not to die. It isn't enough for you (the writer) to tell me this person is important. You have to make me feel it in my soul. And that's hard to do.

The best way that I know is for you to show off what your character is feeling. Let their emotions lead the scene and allow me to pick up on their internal state. If someone is scared, I need to see it. You have to describe how they tremble, quiver, and shake. Or if they're angry, I need to see that, too. Don't just write a single line of action description that says "XYZ character turns blood red” or “Character cries.” Instead, show them throwing something against the wall, punching the door, screaming into a pillow.

Movies are all about what the audience can see. This isn't a novel, where we can get a running monologue of what's going on in their head. You must bring the internal external in this business.

Which brings me to my next note ...


I'm seeing a lot of young writers craft scenes that are just talking heads. Two characters (or three ... or more ...) get into a room and just start chatting. It's dialogue ping-pong back and forth for pages and pages and pages. And while I love how quick these scripts are to read, another thought pops into my head that is impossible to dismiss ...

“This isn't a movie ... it's a play.”

Stage plays are all about talking. It's 90% of what the actors on stage can do.

Cinema is different. It's about what the audience can see with their eyes. You need to engage us on multiple levels to create something great. And relying exclusively on dialogue isn't the most elevated way to do that, generally.

I loathe when writers can't find a way to convey simple information visually. It's a complete missed opportunity. Instead of having a character tell her friend, "I'm addicted to crack ... I really need a fix," it's much more powerful to SHOW them stealing money out of their mom's purse, sneaking out in the middle of the night, walking into a bad part of town, and negotiating with a street dealer.

One example gives away the drama instantly and cheaply. There’s no build up … no tension. The other option extends the beat out and makes the reader go, "Okay, what's happening here? What is this person doing?" It makes us think. And those questions create drama.

Look for ways you can show information, rather than tell it, whenever possible. It instantly makes your story more dynamic.

And last but not least ...


I kid you not, this is the fastest way to annoy anybody who is reading your screenplay. Whether it's a producer, a contest reader, or your quasi-friend who you roped into giving you notes.

EVERYONE hates a script that's got a bloated ensemble. In my experience, they rarely work.

Nothing drains the reader's energy level faster than having to remember too much. And what's the first thing that people need to keep top of mind when they start to consume your story?

Names. We've got to know who people are.

It's really hard to keep track of people we’ve already met when you're introducing new people every page or so. The more characters you add to the story, the more diluted our focus becomes. If you've got a cast with two main characters, and a handful of supporting ones, then the majority of our attention is going to be spent on your primary players (aka, the characters that matter).

But when you've got a group of, say, 10 friends on a road trip, and they all have names, it becomes really hard for anyone to stand out. And it's even harder when that posse goes to a music festival and meets with dozens of others. We quickly get lost in a sea of names of people we have no connection to and can't even remember WHY they were in the story in the first place.

Trust me, less is more when it comes to characters. You would ALWAYS rather forge a personal connection between your reader and your hero than overwhelm the audience with so much information that they don't connect with anyone. You need the person on the other end of your screenplay to remember your protagonist long after they turned the final page, because they will need to pitch your story to others (hopefully their bosses) and fight for them to read it, too.

The more characters you have, the less pages you can spend developing each of them.

The fewer characters you have, the more pages you can spend developing each of them.

When you think of it that way, it's not a hard call at all, is it?

Godspeed y'all, and happy writing ...

Godspeed y'all, and happy writing ...

Godspeed, y'a—SKR

(Sorry, caught in that repeating time loop anomaly thing again.)

*Feature image by Jorm Sangsorn (Adobe)

Spike is a veteran of the Hollywood development landscape, having worked for an agency, a prod co, and a TV network. He enjoys long walks on the beach, candlelight dinners, and dynamic storytelling.
More posts by Spike Scarberry.
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