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.
Sweeping generalisations and broad-brush-stroke commentary 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. Of course, there’ll have been many other instances where one of the notes in question below has been absolutely valid.
Finding the good script notes in the bad
But as screenwriters, one of the most important skills a person can develop is knowing when script notes are utterly valid, justifiable – necessary even – and when they’re not. It’s a skillful 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…”
Often, 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 read a screenwriting book of any kind, this note falls apart under the slightest scrutiny.
So many classic protagonists are in fact anti-heroes. Is TAXI DRIVER’s Travis Bickle likeable when he plans to assassinate a politician? Or Michael Corleone in THE GODFATHER when he decides to continue his father’s criminal legacy?
Since THE SOPRANOS and BREAKING BAD, anti-heroes and prestige TV have practically gone hand in hand.
I did it for me. I liked it, I was good at it. And… I was really… I was alive.
While having a character be sympathetic can be an easy short cut to get the audience to care about them, sometimes the plot requires a protagonist who does terrible things.
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, good or bad. Sometimes that means every last storyline needs to be wrapped up, but not always.
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, still self-contained experience (THE GUEST), leaving the audience with one last scare.
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 leaving the cinema.
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.
You just point the damned thing at Earth. It’s not rocket science.
Events in scripts and films 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.
However, they do have to be internally consistent and believable, or the audience will be taken out of the film. The audience don’t need to think that this event could happen in reality, but they do need to believe that it is happening now, within the world that the script has created.
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. However, again, seeing and experiencing heightened emotions is part of the appeal of storytelling. As in BARTON FINK:
We’re only interested in one thing, Bart. Can you tell a story, can you make us laugh, can you make us cry? Can you make us want to break out in joyous song? Is that more than one thing? Okay!
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.
5. “Never use camera directions or ‘we see’.”
Like voiceover or flashbacks, camera directions and “we see” have been overused and abused so much by beginning writers that some maintain an outright ban.
However, as Obi-Wan Kenobi said, in his somewhat paradoxical wisdom:
Only a Sith deals in absolutes.
On the one hand, it’s not the job of the writer to direct on the page. In this regard, writer-directors tend to have more leeway, knowing that they will be the ones interpreting it on set.
On the other, the ultimate aim 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 deliberately they can help achieve this.
6. “This idea’s been done before.”
Script notes like these forget that the sentiment that “there is nothing new under the sun” literally dates back to Biblical times. It’s just as relevant 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 adapted and 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 is another one of these script notes that’s 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 or a common idea, 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, leading to script notes like these.
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 and why trailers spoil movies. 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.”
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. In WIZARD OF OZ, it partly happens before the film begins, with Miss Gulch trying to take Toto away. The audience learn about these characters and their world from how they react.
Did she hurt you? She tried to, didn’t she? Come on. We’ll go tell Uncle Henry and Auntie Em.
However, ROCKY is a film that spends a great deal of time establishing the characters and their situation 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. It’s purely to boost Apollo’s image.
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.
All I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.
While ROCKY delays the inciting incident of the central plot considerably, it holds the audience’s interest by introducing several subplots – Rocky works for a loan shark and asks Adrian on a date.
9. “The protagonist has to be active and not reactive.”
There’s a difference between a reactive protagonist and a passive one. Too often in script notes like these, 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.
The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.
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 kind of script notes.
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.
Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be.
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 James Bond and 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.
Forgoing an arc for the protagonist rightfully has a high bar: can they stack up against iconic leads like Sam Spade, James Bond, Indiana Jones or John Wick?
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