The 10 Script Notes Smart Screenwriters Know to Ignore

Whilst advocating the deflection of script notes may be a strange thing for a dedicated script consultancy to do, the truth is that there is a great deal of bad advice handed out by script consultants at the murkier end of the industry (read also: “11 Reasons for the High Turnover of Script Consultants”) that screenwriters should often avoid.

Broad-brush-stroke commentary are abound in these opaque waters, and the result is that many a promising project has been steered off its natural (and we underscore the word natural), course.

How to Give and Receive Script Notes.

But one of the most important skills a writer can develop is knowing when script notes are utterly valid, justifiable – necessary even – and when they’re not.

It’s a skilful dance between protecting and preserving a vision (this goes back to the earlier point about a script’s natural course), and making necessary enhancements.

The best way of approaching inferior script notes is to look for the note behind the note…

Giving good notes is a skill, one that not every semi-professional reader (or friend of a screenwriter) has. Could there be a useful, constructive point hiding behind what seems like superficial criticism?

1. “The protagonist needs to be more ‘likeable’…”

A perennial favourite of anyone who’s ever come across a screenwriting book of any kind, this note falls apart under the slightest scrutiny. Since THE SOPRANOS and BREAKING BAD, anti-heroes and prestige TV have gone hand in hand.

While having a character be sympathetic can be an easy short cut to have the audience care about them, sometimes the plot requires a protagonist who does terrible things.

Craig Mazin, award winning film and television writer, touches on this note in a related episode of the Scriptnotes podcast titled Notes on Notes.

The issue is how do you find a way to make that person’s unlikeableness relatable. Relatable is not likeable. Relatable means that I understand it.” – Craig Mazin

Co-host, John August, adds to this by suggesting to rephrase the note as a “disconnect to the character”. There’s a difference between likeability and being understandable, between sympathy and empathy.

  • If a protagonist is understandable in their goals and motivations, even while doing bad, unsympathetic things, it goes a long way to overcome the problem of being unlikeable.
  • It also involves the audience in a moral conflict, whether to root for their redemption or not.

2. “Don’t leave the ending up for debate or continuation…you’re not writing a franchise!”

The denouement, those scenes after the climax, go a long way towards shaping the audience’s perception of a film.

For example, it’s traditional in the horror genre to have the killer or monster come back or disappear at the end. Sometimes this is for mercenary, franchise reasons (FRIDAY THE 13TH) but other times it’s just part of crafting a satisfying, self-contained experience (THE GUEST).

Beyond horror, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and INCEPTION show how unresolved plot threads can be magic, provoking the audience’s imagination and causing debate for the audience.

3. “It wouldn’t happen this way in real life.”

Movie logic is different from real world logic. If films had to follow reality, they would be incredibly dull. This would eliminate the superhero genre entirely, as well as making films like GRAVITY or THE MARTIAN, as authentic as they already appear, far less dramatic.

Events in film and television don’t have to be plausible. One of the purposes of storytelling is to experience something that’s out of the ordinary. Audiences are willing to suspend their disbelief.

However, they do have to be internally consistent and believable, or the audience will be taken out of the film. The audience needs to believe that it is happening within the world that screenwriters create.

4. “This scene is too melodramatic.”

While melodrama’s heyday has passed, there are still occasional examples such as THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS. More generally, big, explosive emotional scenes have been used throughout cinema history and across genres.

Too often, writers who are afraid of melodrama shy away from giving characters strong emotions. There are better ways to interpret this note. There could well be a disparity between the characters’ level of emotion in this scene and their motivations leading up to it.

The tone and the genre might have been uneven scene to scene, and as a result the script hasn’t created the right expectations to support melodrama. Often this note refers to a symptom and the cause, the real problem, lies elsewhere.

script notes light between oceans

5. “Never use camera directions or ‘we see’.”

Like voiceover or flashbacks, camera directions and “we see” have been overused so much that some maintain an outright ban.

On the one hand, it’s not the job of the writer to direct on the page. On the other, the ultimate aim for screenwriters should always be to write something that’s engaging and easy to read and visualise. As with any technique, when camera directions and “we see” are used sparingly and purposefully they can help achieve this.

6. “This idea’s been done before.”

Notes like this forget how far the sentiment of this script note could date back to. It’s just as relevant in film and television today when there are, for example, two TV shows and a blockbuster franchise based on Sherlock Holmes, a character that’s over a century old.

Other public domain classics such as Frankenstein and Dracula are re-imagined year after year. Directors like Quentin Tarantino liberally borrow from and pay homage to their favourite films. According to some, everything is a remix:

This note is more of an observation than a useful criticism. It skirts along the surface rather than addressing what might be the real problem underneath.

A more productive way of looking at this issue is to ask whether, if the script does make use of familiar material, it has done so with a fresh perspective.

7. “Don’t let the audience get ahead of the characters.”

There’s a knee-jerk reaction that if the audience can figure something out earlier than the characters this will inevitably result in boredom or disengagement.

Again, this is genre and story-dependent rather than working as blanket advice. A murder mystery, for example, is definitely weakened if the audience find the solution before the characters.

In a thriller however, Hitchcock’s definition of suspense applies. If characters are shown sat around a table talking and suddenly a bomb goes off, that’s merely surprise. However, if the audience know there’s a bomb under the table, and see it counting down while the unaware characters sit around talking, that creates suspense.

This sense of anticipation, of dramatic irony, is also what makes films worth re-watching. Whether the audience are supposed to know the same, more or less than the characters, it’s more important to be in control of the flow of information.

8. “The inciting incident has to happen as early as possible.”

One of those script notes that generally holds to be true, although the caveat “as possible” is vital.

In JAWS, the inciting incident, the shark attack, is literally the first scene. The audience learns about the characters and their world from how they react.

However, ROCKY is a film that spends a great deal of time establishing the characters before they are upended by the inciting incident, when Apollo Creed chooses Rocky as an opponent.

  • It’s only because the audience have experienced Rocky’s down-and-out everyday existence that it’s clear how one-sided this fight will be.
  • Rocky has also been established as someone with nothing to lose but his self-respect. The audience understand how he doesn’t want to win, he knows he can’t, but going all 15 rounds will be a personal victory.
script notes rocky

9. “The protagonist has to be active and not reactive.”

There’s a difference between a reactive protagonist and a passive one. Too often, the terms are confused.

Often, especially at the start of the story, the protagonist isn’t in control of their situation. They are reactive but not necessarily passive. They can still have a goal and they still make decisions. This allows for the protagonist to undergo an arc, to go from reactive to proactive. It’s the moment in the man on the run  thriller where they turn the tables on whoever’s pursuing them, prove their innocence or go after the real culprit.

For example, in TERMINATOR 2, John Connor wavers between reactive and proactive. He runs from the T-1000, but insists on rescuing his mother. He follows his mother to stop her from murdering Dyson, but then decides they should work together to destroy Cyberdine Systems.

10. “The protagonist has to have an arc.”

While character arcs are beneficial for so many stories, the exceptions are notable enough to think twice about these kinds of script notes.

On rare occasions, the fact that the protagonist doesn’t change is what leads them to victory (or dooms them to failure). They are tested and their existing strength – morally, physically – proves to be enough. Whether they’ve changed internally is up for debate.

In THE MALTESE FALCON, Sam Spade comes close to compromising his sense of justice for a woman he’s in love with. Despite showing this vulnerability, he turns her over to the police and is soon back to his same cynical self.

Indiana Jones, a character partly inspired by old adventure serials, arguably doesn’t change over the course of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The sequels all added in character development and arcs, to varying success.

In Summary:

The 10 Script Notes Writers Should Ignore…

1. “The protagonist needs to be more ‘likeable’…”

If a protagonist is understandable in their goals and motivations, even while doing bad, unsympathetic things, it goes a long way to overcome the problem of being unlikeable. It also involves the audience in a moral conflict, whether to root for their redemption or not.

2. “Don’t leave the ending up for debate or continuation…you’re not writing a franchise!”

The denouement, those scenes after the climax, go a long way towards shaping the audience’s perception of a film, good or bad. Sometimes that means every last storyline needs to be wrapped up, but not always.

3. “It wouldn’t happen this way in real life.”

Events in film and television don’t have to be plausible. One of the purposes of storytelling is to experience something that’s out of the ordinary. In return, audiences are willing to suspend their disbelief. The audience doesn’t need to think that this even could happen in reality, but they do need to believe that it is happening now, within the world that screenwriters create.

4. “This scene is too melodramatic.”

The tone and the genre might have been uneven scene to scene, and as a result the script hasn’t created the right expectations to support melodrama. Often this screenplay note refers to a symptom and the cause, the real problem, lies elsewhere.

5. “Never use camera directions or ‘we see’.”

As with any technique, when camera directions and “we see” are used sparingly and deliberately while avoiding directing from the page.

6. “This idea’s been done before.”

A more productive way of looking at this issue is to ask whether, if the script does make use of familiar material or a common idea, it has done so with a fresh perspective.

7. “Don’t let the audience get ahead of the characters.”

Whether the audience are supposed to know the same, more or less than the characters, it’s more important to be deliberate and in control of the flow of information.

8. “The inciting incident has to happen as early as possible.”

It is possible to delay the inciting incident of the central plot considerably by holding the audience’s interest. For example, ROCKY does so by introducing several subplots.

9. “The protagonist has to be active and not reactive.”

Often, especially at the start of the story, the protagonist isn’t in control of their situation. They are reactive but not necessarily passive. They can still have a goal and they still make decisions.

10. “The protagonist has to have an arc.”

On rare occasions, the fact that the protagonist doesn’t change is what leads them to victory (or for that matter, dooms them to failure). They are tested and their existing strength – morally, physically – proves to be enough. Whether they’ve changed internally is up for debate.

  • What did you think of this article? Share it, Like it, give it a rating, and let us know your though in the comments box further down…
  • Struggling with a script or book? Script coverage is what we do, all day, every day… Check out or range of services for writers & filmmakers here.

2 thoughts on “The 10 Script Notes Smart Screenwriters Know to Ignore”

  1. With all due respect, your #1 on this list isn’t something that really happens.

    1. “The protagonist needs to be more ‘likeable’…”

    “…So many classic protagonists are in fact anti-heroes. Is TAXI DRIVER’s Travis Bickle likeable when he plans to assassinate a politician?” [Actually, yes! He is!] “Or Michael Corleone in THE GODFATHER when he decides to continue his father’s criminal legacy?” [YES!!! He’s highly relatable and charismatic!!]

    You and your readers need to understand that when a script reviewer –of any competence– says the protag needs to be more likable, it’s not the same at all as having a moral problem with the character’s actions. It almost always means the character is simply irritating, shallow, or otherwise unsympathetically presented.

    Over the years I’ve participated in (and taught) several writing workshops from graduate level down to college first-years, and I have only once ever seen a student critic confused in the way you’re describing — a student who was bewildered in general by the course and its reason for being.

    Reply

Leave a Comment

115

Get ALL our FREE Resources

Tackle the trickiest areas of screenwriting with our exclusive eBooks. Get all our FREE resources when you join 60,000 filmmakers on our mailing list!

Success! Thanks for signing up, now please check all your email folders incl junk mail!

Something went wrong.

Send this to a friend