CRAFT CORNER #7:
AND YOU MIGHT ASK YOURSELF: What Does it Take to Read A Screenplay, Give Notes, and Receive Notes Like a Pro?
By Aadip Desai
This is Aadip Desai, your friendly neighborhood Director of Brand Mgmt and Marketing at Roadmap Writers. As some of you may know, I'm also a TV writer, script analyst, and all-around screenwriting nerd.
In this week’s Craft Corner, we're going to explore an important area of screenwriting, something near and dear to my heart...
What Does it Take to Read A Screenplay, Give Notes, and Receive Notes Like a Pro?
(Oh man, I know. I heard you groan. I promise this'll be fun.)
And how do you do this carefully, without discouraging the writer or alienating the buyer?
One complaint we hear all the time in the screenwriting world is that nobody can get their scripts read. There have been articles, tweets, and the like discussing this topic. Namely, Josh Olson's 2009 essay in The Village Voice, a 2000-word screed called "I WILL NOT READ YOUR F*%!ing SCRIPT."
So, according to history, we know that this has been a hot topic since at least 2009, perhaps earlier. I believe Neanderthals who were first able to read and write symbols were asked to come over for dinner at someone's cave and take a look. "UGH, if I read another Misunderstood Neanderthal and his mate with somewhat symmetrical features and doesn’t know it."
Let's get into it!
WHO ARE THE READERS?
Let’s talk about readers. Not all readers are created equal. Each version of your script will have a different reader if it moves up the chain at a production company, network, or studio. Some have read tens of thousands (like studio readers) and some have read zero.
- Regular people in your life (i.e., not industry)
- Competition Readers (usually trade a film festival pass to read)
- Classmates, Writing Group Friends
- Working writers
- Interns, Assistants, and Coordinators
- Creative, Development, Production Executives (Production Company, Network, Studio Exec)
- Potential Reps (Managers, Agents)
- Fellowship program staff
- Actors and their Reps
- And it goes on from there…
Our very own Terra Joy (Director of Consultations & Script Services) pontificated, "If you think of every element of a script like a 500 piece puzzle when reading, every exec is asking themselves if each piece is in the right place, if each piece is at the right angle to fully do its job, if it's connecting to other pieces properly in order to create flow and clarity for the whole. Very specific pieces of information have to be conveyed within certain sections in order for the image to come across as intended. And if there's a gap in the frame or a piece that's wedged into the wrong space, it affects all the pieces around it. So the first goal when reading is to answer: ‘Do we see what we need to see when and where we need to see it?’ And if not, to help identify the threads of puzzle pieces to try rearranging. (Now if only WRITING the damn thing were as straightforward as a puzzle!)”
PRO TIP: Only send your script to TRUSTED people, and when it's ready! Please don't send it to your entire contact list.
PRO TIP: Rarely will someone want to see coverage from another service, so only provide that if the reader asks. I see a lot of this regarding the blcklst.com, Coverfly, Stage 32, and even occasionally Roadmap.
HOW TO RESPECT THE READER:
Make the read as quick and easy as possible. But how?
Make sure your script has the following:
- A complete title page with contact info.
- Proper formatting, from sluglines and act outs to phone calls and montages.
- Page numbers. (I know. People forget these.)
- Few to NO typos.
- Within the appropriate page count range for the format/genre.
- Plenty o’ white space.
This will all lead to having a quick read that doesn’t make the reader stop because they bumped on something, or something was odd.
*Get screenwriting software, like Final Draft so this becomes less of an issue.
PRO TIP: If you ask someone to read your script and they say no, they're too busy, or they ghost you, respect that. And don’t talk behind their back about it! If they say yes, then be grateful, thank them, and get ready to send the script and begin the process.
As Joey Tuccio (Founder / CEO) told me,“To read a script and give notes, you have to be emotionally invested in going on a journey. And sometimes you have so much going on in your day-to-day life, that going on such a journey is harder than other days. There's also the emotion of passing on a script/writer, which is honestly one of the worst things to do.”
WHAT DO READERS POSSESS TO GIVE YOU GREAT NOTES?:
- GENEROSITY: Anytime anyone agrees to read your screenplay, it's a GIFT. You should treat it as such. EVEN if you are paying them!
- TIME: They're taking the time out of their busy writing schedule, their day job, family, ultimate frisbee team, composting, etc., to tell you what they think about your writing. They might even have to read it twice. This happens all the time! It takes about 1-2 minutes per page on average to read and 30-60 minutes to write up the notes.
- PATIENCE: This is often tested. If you nail most of the above, you at least stand a chance of not pissing off the reader.
- CONCENTRATION: It takes a ton of concentration to follow a story while reading a script. Readers are trying to judge the premise, story, characters, plot, tone, themes, format, genre, dialogue, etc.
- ABILITY TO COMPILE NOTES: It takes time to compile all the macro and micro notes that might arise from a read.
- CLEAR COMMUNICATION: Finally, you must clearly and politely give the notes, while also not trying to CHANGE what the person is writing, but rather, makes it the best version possible that achieves their goals/vision.
Dorian Connelley (Co-Founder/COO) told me, “All writers should want their material read carefully by an experienced professional who truly cares about giving them specific, constructive notes. Consider about a minute per page in reading time (i.e. 2 hrs. for a 120-pg. script—more if you're dense on description) plus another 50% to meaningfully consider and write out specific notes (+1 hr. for a 120-pg. script), and 5 min more to write a logline & comps. So do that math. How much is your reader's time and personalized attention worth to you?”
As Selene Castrovilla (Director of Authors Programs) reiterated, "To read a screenplay and give notes you must embrace the way the writer wants to tell the story, as opposed to how you might want to tell it. The notes must reflect the writer's vision, not your own."
Emily Lock (Director of Competitions) shared, "To me, reading a screenplay and giving notes is about asking myself questions. Do I know the protagonist well, understand their motivations, have a grasp on their arc? Does each character have their own voice? Does the writer's voice stand out to me as something special, or unique? Does the dialogue ring true to life; is it clever; is it funny? Is the plot compelling? Is it moving at the right pace? Is it pulling me down the page? These questions help me decide what is special about a script, and how it could be elevated."
THE TYPES OF NOTES:
- Early drafts: Trusted readers, writing group, classmates, and non-industry readers.
- Development: 2-5+ drafts -- ask what’s working or not
- Polish - any minor tweaks that can take the script from an 8 to 10 and ready to get sent out.
- Formal coverage – extensive notes breakdown which includes a logline, synopsis, analysis of every aspect of a script, marketability, and whether the reader marks it a Recommend, Consider, or Pass. Some used to call it a "Pasadena."
- Verbal only
- Written only
HOW TO GIVE NOTES:
One method is the “Compliment Sandwich,” which is often taught in film schools. Start with a compliment (bread), then the meat is the actual note, and end with a compliment (bread.)
HOW TO RECEIVE NOTES:
The number one faux pas a screenwriter can make is BEING DEFENSIVE during the notes process. It instantly marks you as “difficult.” Stay quiet, nod your head, write shit down, then throw in an occasional, “I hadn’t considered that,” “I’ll take a look at this, thank you!” Or “Great idea.” We all get hooked at some point -- getting some insane note as if the other person didn’t read your script OR they’re trying to turn your idea into theirs. It’s also important to know what notes to ignore. TRUST YOUR GUT.
James Moorer (Director of Writer Outreach & Diversity Initiatives) said, “Giving notes requires more than an understanding of form and structure, you need a keen sense of story that allows you to quickly identify the subtext and texture. It's also about knowing how to inspire and encourage while pointing to opportunities to make a story great.”
And here’s the really hard part about the notes process… After a particularly brutal session, you might feel really sensitive about what just happened. Maybe a respected writer, producer, or even one of your writing heroes gives you some notes. Maybe they come off as rude, cruel, mean, or overly blunt.
"AND YOU MIGHT ASK YOURSELF":
- "Well, how did I get here?"
- How did I get it so wrong?
- Does so and so hate me?
- Why didn’t they understand it?
- What now?
- Should I give up on this project?
- "My God, what have I done?"
- Should I become a lawyer or therapist?
- I wonder what my ex is up to right now?
In this case, set it aside, wait till you’re in a good headspace, then read the notes as dispassionately as possible, taking them one at a time. Every time I did this, considered the notes, I then saw “ the note behind the note." Instead of outright tossing them, my scripts got BETTER!
Besides getting repped, selling a script, or staffing on a show, THAT'S the biggest reason to get notes.
Director of Brand Management and Marketing at Roadmap Writers
TV Writer (ABC, Disney Junior, Sony TV, DreamWorks, Nickelodeon, Netflix)