As a script reader I write a lot of reports. Naturally, the script notes/observations I make will be unique to the writer and their story, making it hard to give in-depth advice in a blog post, but there are definitely some common notes that appear time and time again in reports which writers might find useful as a way of checking over their work before rewriting/submitting scripts. So without further ado, here’s 9 common script notes and ways to tackle them…
1. YOUR TITLE NEEDS WORK – It might be that it’s too long, sounds cheesy, doesn’t reflect the genre or has simply been done before. Tackle it by making it short, simple and catchy and always check IMDB to see if it’s been done before.
FOCUS ON: SIMPLE & UNIQUE
2. ORIGINALITY NEEDS WORK – It might be that the writer seems to be trying too hard to emulate popular Indie or Hollywood styles (or their favourite movies) and not focussing enough on what makes their particular story/script stand out from the crowd. Solutions include honing in on what really drives the plot, considering different insights/viewpoints and being brave and bold with how you approach your story.
FOCUS ON: WHAT MAKES YOUR SCRIPT STAND OUT
3. FORMAT NEEDS WORK – A lot of the time this can be little niggly things such as spelling and grammar mistakes, or it can be bigger issues such as incorrect or overcomplicated formatting (i.e. not formatting flashbacks/dreams/intercuts properly and not keeping sluglines simple). Tackle it by always getting a proofread by a fresh pair of eyes, and making sure to refresh formatting knowledge. Less is more.
FOCUS ON: MAKING IT A SMOOTH READ
4. STYLE NEEDS WORK – such a common note that I’ve even started up my unique “style mentoring” service (check it out alongside proofreading and feedback reports on offer HERE). Notes may concern seemingly small or subtle issues, but upon giving style a thorough makeover it can increase your chances of being noticed as a professional and engaging writer.
Solutions include not “directing” the script via camera directions and over-detailing character actions, keeping the action in the “now” (“sits” not “is sitting” and not stating things after the fact), cutting down descriptions to make them snappy and eliminate repetition, avoiding exposition via writer explanations and characters’ inner thoughts, not relying too much on dialogues and even some niggly things such as not using “we see” or other things that may grate on a reader (such as describing inanimate objects as “sitting” on things).
FOCUS ON: ENTERTAINING, TO-THE-POINT DESCRIPTIONS
5. WHAT/WHO IS IT REALLY ABOUT? Sounds simple, but it’s amazing how complex plots and large casts can confuse a reader/audience. Tackle this by having a good idea of the key characters and the goals of the plot before writing the script. Work out your THEME by asking questions of the plot. Is it a conflict you are exploring, or a theory? Use “WHAT IF…?” to nail your PREMISE and make sure to focus on this and the dramatic questions raised by the themes throughout the plot.
FOCUS ON: WHO & WHAT IT’S ABOUT AND WHY
6. CLARITY NEEDS WORK – there are undoubtedly always things that will confuse a reader and/or make them question aspects of your script because a writer is often too close to the work and the theory behind it all to notice that some things won’t be clear. Issues might include confusing moments/things that happen, inconsistencies with characters/details/timelines, and a lack of motivations. Solutions include fact-checking and ensuring there are clearly identifiable links in hindsight – i.e. the reader/audience can think back as to why things happened in relation to character motivations and events.
FOCUS ON: ENSURING READER/AUDIENCE WILL UNDERSTAND
7. CHARACTERS NEED WORK – This can involve characters being stereotyped or coming across as one-dimensional, characters who lack depth and inner journeys, characters who have things too easy or even the fact that there are so many characters that we don’t have a good vessel into the story. Tackle these issues by giving characters unique qualities and surprising us by their reactions to situations. Make things hard for characters and make them active, not passive. Use the truth that lies behind characters to drive their actions and have cause and effect on the plot development. Use contrasts, conflicts and dynamics between characters to bring scenes to life. Ensure key characters play enough of a role and that they have depth, motivations and stakes.
FOCUS ON: UNIQUE, MOTIVATED CHARACTERS WITH DEPTH
8. PLOT NEEDS WORK – Problems might include it being unbalanced (particularly lengthy setup and rushed third act), scenes may go on for too long, there might be a lack of drive and/or a lack of justification for events and twists. Flashbacks and repetition might be relied upon too much, and the plot may simply be too predictable. Ways to tackle these issues include “hitting the ground running” – get straight into the story – and being bold and daring (don’t succumb to a “safe” plot!) Consider why the story is happening now, to whom, and how everything can be linked via cause and effect. Surprise us with unpredictability and ensure that the conclusion is a satisfying one.
FOCUS ON: BOLD, JUSTIFIED & LINKED EVENTS
9. BUDGET TOO LARGE – decreasing your chances of getting the script made! Sure, some budgets will cover it, but everyone likes saving money. Until you know what you’re dealing with, it’s better to play it safe. Avoid brand names, too many special effects and reduce use of children or animals where possible. Combine characters and minimise locations.
FOCUS ON: PRESENTING AN AFFORDABLE PROSPECT
I’ll be looking in more detail at these script notes in future blog posts, but if you can’t wait for more then you can read about 8 ways to add depth to your characters and plot in my guest article on the London Screenwriters’ Festival website HERE.