The best notes tend to be specific

Reading services, from the Blacklist to me, prefer to give overall notes in a general way. They’re easier to do, and harder to specifically challenge. Unfortunately, they’re not always the most helpful.

Take these Blacklist notes posted by reddit user wolfduke :

The narrative suffers from a premise that is ungrounded, as it introduces a sprawling cast, myriad of magical, fantasy elements, and a limitless time span that transcends a specific, coherent setting. The script could function quite well if it focused on Servanda’s story in the 1487 Rome location, but the addition of an african slave, a Grim Reaper, and the adventure plot that ensues leaves the audiences with too much to digest and too many elements that require a leap of faith and willing suspension of disbelief.

The gist of the note is clear: focus on a storyline and cut things that require the willing suspension of disbelief, but that’s rather abstract. It’s not like authors go into scripts knowing the precise rules that govern willing suspension of disbelief and works against them. Notes like these often need specific examples and a stress on why they break the reader’s perceived “rule” but there’s rarely enough time in two pages.

Readers tend to communicate general concepts: enter late/leave early. Show don’t tell. Speaking as someone who struggles to internalize these after years of writing, these notes are tough to execute. We generally grasp them, but it’s hard to do in the moment. As such, scripts tend to fail on individual lines, but notes rarely go that granular and we end up reading them like tarot cards, trying to discern a useful meaning from abstract symbols.

This is my preferred way for giving (and getting) notes:

  1. Convert file to editable format. Writerduet is really good at converting PDF scripts.
  2. Make notes immediately after the specific situation to which they pertain, marking them with a hashtag (#) so they’re easy to search for.
  3. Make liberal use of strikeout.
  4. When suggesting a general rule, pitch an example. These are rarely perfect, but they illustrate the gist of what I’m suggesting.

Example here: https://www.scribd.com/document/333782275/Example-of-Line-by-Line-annotations. I made these for a short I found on /r/readmyscript so I could show an example without any client confidentiality issues.

As you’ll note, my style is rather blunt, I’m liberal with suggestions and pitches, and I do a lot of striking out. This may be a little undiplomatic for some, but generally when I do these I’m getting paid for them, or someone’s specifically asked for them knowing my specific reputation. Any and all these notes can be ignored, but they’re actionable and specifically useful.

Some may find the idea of suggesting cuts or alt lines a little too presumptuous, and that’s fine. It works for me, but not everyone. But I strongly recommend the idea of tying notes to specific lines. You could do this by writing on a script, using PDF annotation apps, or making a word document tying notes to specific pages, but I find this way the most efficient and easiest to digest.

I also like doing this to my own scripts. When I’m rewriting I try to take off my writer hat and put on my critic hat. I ask myself, “If this were someone else’s script that I had no investment in, what would I legitimately think?”

Rewriting dialogue by identifying the function of it.

They say all dialogue should further understanding of the character or further the story. It also needs to convey distinct character voice, be entertaining, and convey the impression that the writer is worthy of being hired. It’s a lot, and people often get lost trying to do everything at once.

Here’s my trick:

  1. I like to write things that are boring and completely on the nose at first. That way it starts with clarity. You can always art it up later (and sometimes I remember to do that).
  2. Identify the function of the line, what is it actually doing. Once you know that angle, it’s easier to find a stronger line that sells the same underlying idea.

Take this scene from THE ROOM:

ORIGINAL

Mark: How was work today?

Johnny: Oh, pretty good. We got a new client and the bank will make a lot of money.

Mark: What client?

Johnny: I cannot tell you; it's confidential.

Mark: Aw, come on. Why not?

Johnny: No, I can't. Anyway, how is your sex life?

It’s pretty basic, but a good actor would look at the lines and find the underlining meaning so they could emotionally ground a performance. We can do the same:

FUNCTION

MARK: <Generic opening line for verisimilitude. Invitation for further conversation>

JOHNNY: <Vague humblebrag about my important job.>

MARK: <Request for more information.>

JOHNNY: <Blasé refusal to go into more detail.>

MARK: <Whiny request for more information in a way that communicates neediness and a lack of understanding of how the world works.>

JOHNNY: <Flat refusal. Awkward segue into sex talk.>

That’s my subjective take, and probably not what the original writer meant. Still, it’s better to write from a strong point of view. Any choice is better than no choice, and you can always make a new choice in the rewrite.

REWRITE

MARK: You look happy. Like you just fucked Marilyn Monroe without a condom.

JOHNNY: Let’s just say I scored at work. Big money. I’ll make VP for sure.

MARK: Oh? Which one? Rumor is you guys have been chasing Nakamura Industries.

JOHNNY: I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you.

MARK: Okay, but it’d better be worth it.

JOHNNY: You’re pushing too hard. When was the last time you got laid?

A lot of times when people pitch me lines, they’re not great and I turn them down flat. But the more useful takeaway is to consider the ANGLE at which the line is pitched, the underlining meaning. Different angles yield different kinds of lines.

I’d call that better, but still not great. But it tells us a little bit more about the characters, advancing our understanding, making it easier to make the next draft even more specific.

If Johnny’s being casual about refusing detail, then we need the kind of thing casual people say: “I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you.”

Or he could be <evasive because he’s fronting about imaginary success> so “Uh, it’s good. Real good. Lotta boring details, but profitable.” Might do the trick.

Or it could be <Setting up labored segue into sex life because I really want to ask about yours> in which case the better line might be, “Ugh, I’m just glad it’s over. I’ve been so busy working that I haven’t been laid in a month.”

William Goldman once said that screenwriting was structure. Valid point, but it’s not only structure, it’s texture to, the the difference between “They have sex” and “As Bob runs his tongue over her neck, Alice grabs at the bed sheet with her toes.” It’s the little details, cool visuals, quotable dialogue, neat moments of behavior that bring it to life. Without it, even the most “properly” structured story will just lie there, inert.

Those specific moments, the little things that register vary from writer to writer, from audience to audience. A hundred writers will have a hundred takes on the same basic scene. You want to make sure every line in a scene advances your story and sells your basic competence as a writer. The easiest way to do that is by understanding what each line is actually doing in the scene.

RELATED

Specificity in Dialogue

Mapping 3 Act Structure to Scenework

Finding Interesting Beats in Scenes

A simple trick for writing dimensional characters.

Writing characters is a varied art form and there’s a million ways to develop characters that are “great” “dimensional,” “original.” Here’s a trick I like to use:

  1. Who is this character, really?
  2. How do they present themselves to the world?

These are also good questions for life. If you want to know how someone wants to be seen, look at their instagram. If you want to know who someone is, share an inheritance with them.

This trick allows you to use two simple judgements to create a character that seems more complex.

Examples:

Terminator 2 – Sarah Connor wants to be a tough, merciless warrior. At heart she’s a traumatized survivor and a good mom.

Die Hard – John McClane wants to be seen as a good husband. At heart he’s a warrior who tends to put action over family (this works out well for the story he’s in).

Zootopia: Judy Hopps wants to be seen as a progressive, enlightened person who busts old stereotypes. At heart she’s as much a slave to to stereotypes of her culture as anyone (she gets better).

The Office: Michael Scott  pretends like everybody loves him and that his coworkers are his family, but he is actually pretty lonely. He thinks he is hilarious, but nobody laughs at his jokes. (credit to Moebius23)

Other examples: A coward who dreams of being a heroic gunslinger. A sucker who thinks they’re on the verge of cracking a conspiracy. A sexual addict who thinks they’re pure and virtuous.

Creating a simple dynamic like this allows you to create a character that’s both contradictory and consistent, and it also hints at a profound character want.

To deploy this in a story: whenever a character has time to think, let them do something consistent with the self image they’re selling. Whenever they’re pressured, tired, or think they can get away with it, let them be their true self.

Movie characters tend to be archetypes. The hero, the love interest, the villain. That’s not a bad thing, it’s baked into storytelling, and it allows for a narrative clarity that allows a varied audience to relate to a specific story.

The trick is to hide this with artifice. Despite the fact that everyone basically responds to archetypes, people also like to fancy themselves as discerning and smart, so if you’re too on the nose, you’ll get dinged for it by readers, by contest judges, by the talent you want to attract to your projects.

Related:

Archetypes

Behavior

Arc