At all levels and at all points in the process of screenwriting, there are “notes” from others. Whether it’s you first screenplay that you give to trusted loved ones — or a network pilot where every draft of outline and script is run past a production company, studio and network for their input — it’s widely accepted that getting the perspective of others (and then having to rewrite) is inevitable and necessary.
Perhaps it’s more necessary and pervasive than in other forms of writing — due to the special nature of how screenplays work. They are almost like business proposals, in the sense that they suggest a possible future enterprise based upon them. And as anyone would tell you who has run a business plan past venture capitalists (or run a small business past the American consumer), it’s a rare and precious thing when one “works” — when people want what you’re presenting.
The cool thing is that when they want it, they usually really want it, and the results can be truly life-changing. It’s kind of an all-or-nothing business we’re in, where the vast majority of projects (or scripts) “don’t work” in the eyes or potential buyers, collaborators of financiers — or at least, they don’t work yet. But once they do work, magical things can happen.
How does one move from having one of that vast majority of scripts which “isn’t working”, to having one that really is? The answer is a lot of hard work (or work, anyway: the “hard” part is all relative and subjective) — and a lot of feedback along the way.
The typical first thing that happens when a screenwriter even lands a manager or agent, or sells a script, is that they’re told what isn’t working with it — and they’re sent off to do yet another draft. That’s what happened when I signed with my first agent, and it’s happened on pretty much every idea and every draft of every project I’ve written since. I give it to people, and they have issues with it. They don’t love it as much as I hoped they’d love it, if at all. And they focus mainly on the things that aren’t working, for them.
Now, it’s easy to write off one person’s feedback as being “really about them,” but what I have learned is that when you expose your work to multiple people you respect — who seriously pursue writing or the development of scripts, either professionally or as a significant ongoing avocation — is that you tend to get a consensus opinion about the main issues with what you’ve written. It might be an idea I want to pitch for a series that my agent either likes or doesn’t like — and usually all the producers and executives I run it past feel largely the same way. I have found that when something is “really working,” pretty much everyone acknowledges it. And when it really isn’t, everyone acknowledges that. When it’s close, but not quite there, you might get some differences of opinion. But by and large, the “big issues” are obvious, to others — just not to the writer, who is “too close” to it, and needs objective input, if they hope to create something that has a chance at moving and entertaining others.
I belong to a writers group where this same phenomenon happens, on a regular basis. A diverse group of writers with wildly varying experiences levels and taste will weigh in on a member’s piece of writing, and almost always, a common theme will emerge. There will be one or two big points about the work that pretty much everyone agrees on.
This is what I would submit is the thing you want to try to find out, as you get feedback — what are the BIG things that there is a consensus about? Unfortunately, there are almost always “big” things — the kind of things we writers don’t want to hear, which will force us to rethink many of our basic assumptions about the project (which we long ago stopped questioning). Nobody wants to feel their time and energy has been “wasted,” or they missed something big and important at the foundation of their story, but this is what usually happens. (Which is why getting feedback early in the process, even on just the logline, is such a great idea. Most managers and agents will want their clients to do just that before they commit to writing a script. This might mean many, many story concepts and loglines are explored before one “worth writing” is arrived at.)
But instead of looking for the “big problems,” we writers tend to just want to hear the “little stuff” that’s easy to address. And even when we hear the big issues, we tend to underestimate how big they are, and go about trying to address them in a minor, “Band-Aid” sort of way, preserving as much of what we already had, as possible. This pretty much NEVER works. When the script is given back to people who gave the notes, they will tend to feel that maybe 10% of what they had offered was addressed (even if the writer feels differently), and believe that the vast majority of their original notes still apply, to the rewrite.
What we really need to do is be bold, fearless and infinitely flexible — seeking out the “big notes,” and being willing to trust that we will be able to address them, even if it means rethinking a huge percentage of what we have written, and “starting over”, to a large degree. So much of good screenwriting comes from this willingness to start over, to rewrite virtually every scene and every word. We never like it, but this is how the process works for everyone — and we can trust that there is always good new material we can create, to replace the old.
But even when we seek out these kind of “big notes”, others might not always give them. They might be afraid of what it will do to us to hear, “I really didn’t care about your main character,” or “I just didn’t find the story compelling,” or “It seemed contrived or unoriginal.” And rightly so — we tend to be big babies when hearing things like this, and not good at hiding how devastated or angry we are to hear them.
Instead, what people will often do is pitch their “fixes” — meaning their ideas for what we might do differently. The problem is that we often don’t hear what the big problem is that they’re trying to “fix,” and they might not even be able to articulate it, if we ask. And other people’s fixes will often feel totally wrong to us. (If they feel right, though, it’s a gift — and why not use them?) But we don’t have to use their fixes, and shouldn’t, if we don’t really believe in them. Instead, we need to get to the bottom of what the big problems are — and set about “fixing” them in our own way, in our own voice. If we achieve that, the people who gave the ideas for fixes (even if they are big producers, executives, etc.) will tend to forget all about whatever fix they had pitched, and just be glad (and impressed) that you improved the script. They might even surprise you with how much they now feel that your script that “didn’t work” really does. This happened to me, on the first script I wrote professionally. And when one stays in the game, passionate, persistent, and open to feedback, this can be the end result.
I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads. And if you'd like me to read something you're working on, check out my consulting page.