Everybody Knows the Alphabet

Everybody Knows the Alphabet

(Stolen/co-opted from two-time Academy Award winner William Goldman)

I’ve been a professional screenwriter for a number of years. To be fair, professional may be a misnomer as my career has merely been a series of modest successes in the television arena, feature rewrites, and polishes—but enough to keep me foolishly going and to barely hold onto the moniker. Thanks to my “success,” I have been approached by friends, family, strangers, and unhoused people who have access to a computer and Final Draft (or the Highland app, if they are amongst the elite, or at least fans of John August).

When the dreaded question “can you give me some feedback on my new script” is inevitably spoken, I immediately emit a guttural sound (or the angry tapping of the keys on my MacBook if the request happens via email), and take a very deep breath—letting the oxygen permeate my bloodstream and then make its way to my neural pathways, allowing for a rational and measured response.

Unless it’s a friend, or a colleague who will do the same for me in the future, the answer is generally an apologetic no.

Over the years, I have read screenplays that run the gamut from people with limited ability to string words together, let alone plot points and characters, to scripts that have genuine potential but need some professional guidance. In recent times, I limit my reading to a small audience, since I carefully parse each script, taking into account the writers' intention (a cardinal rule for any reader), and giving it time to percolate.

I consider myself a reasonably good person, so let me explain before you think I am heartless for rejecting most of these requests. When I read a script and offer my thoughts—I don’t call them notes, as that has a negative connotation to my ears—it requires genuine time and effort on my part. Out of respect for the writer, I read a script twice. Once for my initial reaction. The second time for comprehensive analysis; filtering my thoughts through what I believe the writer intended when they sat down to write their screenplay. I also let a week pass between the first read and the second to allow for a measured reaction to the draft.

I know fellow writers who will merely give a cursory read to see if the writer has an understanding of visual storytelling, dialogue, as well as a grasp of the English language, and give their notes. I should probably take a page from them, but it’s not in my DNA—for better or worse.

Over the years, the requests have slowed down, as well as my ‘acceptance’ rate, which is good for my sanity—and time management. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, when this past summer a friend asked me to read his script. As he’s a genuinely good person and a close friend, I agreed and did my usual thing: I read the script and took a full week to process it before re-reading for specific thoughts. When I was finished, we went out for coffee, and I gave him my reaction. The script’s structure had some serious issues, but it had compelling elements and since he had asked for specific (and honest) notes, I spent more than two hours going over the script with him.

Three months later, he asked me to read the new draft. To my horror, the rewrite was purely based upon my notes, taking into account every damn one of them …somehow in the process turning a bad script into something messy and far, far worse. He had spent two years on the first draft. I had spent a grand total of five hours (including our coffee meeting) on the material.

Instead of taking time to understand and internalize what I had offered, he broke the script, and I felt terrible.

This situation is what compelled me to write this article. There are countless pieces about how to analyze a screenplay, but I’ve read nothing about how a writer should take the notes they receive—whether it’s from a professional writer/reader/development exec/their mother.

My advice is quite simple:

There are only two types of feedback that matter ...

The ones that focus on particular elements of a script and also come from a consensus of (trusted) readers. If everyone who reads a script doesn’t understand a certain plot point, the fault lies in the script. Unless your friends are sub-literate troglodytes, of course. (Which might be be case as this is Hollywood. No offense to troglodytes intended.)

The other type—and to me, these are the most important and potentially career changing ones—are the notes that make your blood boil. The ones that make you upset with yourself for not having thought of those plot points/character development/scene/joke. Personally, I love those suggestions (once I recover from my rage-filled drinking spree, of course). To clarify, I’m referring to the smart notes. Not the foolish, ill-thought, ill-conceived ones that reference Robert McKee, page count, as well as terms like ‘inciting incident’ and ‘likable protagonist.’

These notes may be difficult to hear and they might possibly require the “killing of your babies." (That’s industry parlance for cutting your favorite scene, so don’t blame me for the horrible imagery and violent metaphor.)

Addressing these particular elements might involve a page-one rewrite, but these are the kind of changes that may allow your script to soar. Not necessarily in the commercial sense, but is that the only goal?

If your ambition is merely to write a marketable script, pick up a copy of the execrable Save The Cat or one of the multiple of “how to write a screenplay” books out there and go to town. To my mind, the only volume about screenwriting worth a read is the aforementioned William Goldman and his peerless insight into what it takes to be a screenwriter in Hollywood, Adventures in the Screen Tradewith the caveat that some elements are quite dated, but the wisdom imparted is timeless.

Getting feedback on your work is not fun, but it is essential to becoming a better writer. Learning to understand and process said feedback is equally important.

To be honest, I don’t always listen to my own advice. I recently finished a pilot script and sent it to some writer friends for feedback. I took one of their notes—ones that I agreed with at the time—and somehow turned a two-hander into an ensemble piece, ruining the delicate balance of the script in the process. I wound up going back to my earlier draft and that version is out to producers now.

Wish me luck …

*Feature photo by Clement percheron (Pexels)

Because everyone's voice should be heard ... without retribution.
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