Whether you’re directing your own film or giving script notes to a fellow screenwriter, the ability to give productive feedback is an essential skill in the entertainment industry. Giving script notes can be tricky because writers can get defensive about the work they’ve toiled over for so long. You want to help mold the script into the best version of itself while also maintaining a positive relationship with the writer. Follow these steps to ensure that your script notes are well-received and result in what you want!
Pay attention to detail
Make sure you read the script carefully, perhaps even reading it more than once. If you miss important plot points or mess up a character’s name, the writer might think you’ve glossed over their work. You want to make sure the writer takes your suggestions seriously. To give effective script notes, you have to appreciate how long it takes to finish a script. You can’t expect a good outcome when you take thirty minutes to casually rip apart a script that a writer has spent months writing.
Start with positive script notes
You might need to suggest serious changes when giving script notes, but don’t dive right into the negative. First, mention something you think the writer has done well. If a line makes you laugh out loud, mention it specifically! (With a comedy, if you don’t mention that a line is funny, the writer might think that you found NONE of the lines funny.) If you are impressed by a particular image or plot twist, say that! When people give notes, they often compile a list of problems instead of offering feedback on what works and what doesn’t. You can offer notes — both positive and negative — on character, plot, structure, premise, commercial viability, dialogue, conflict, theme, pacing, unpredictability, and tone. Surely the writer has done one of these things well.
Look at the big picture
Don’t get nit-picky with notes on every line of dialogue if you also suggest that entire scenes need to be removed. Especially if you’re giving notes on a first draft, focus on what’s most important before getting into tiny changes. Be efficient with your script notes and try to summarize your thoughts. For example, you might say that dialogue needs to be less expositional or be punched up for humor rather than mentioning every line. If you’re worried about overwhelming the writer or you know that this is one revision of many to come, you might offer just a handful of things to work on first.
Examples provide clarity. General script notes like “the characters need work” or “the second half is better than the first half” might not give the writer enough direction. Mention specific scenes in which characters felt inconsistent or plot points were confusing. Point out areas where you think pacing slows down or conflict dissipates. Suggest specific sequences that can be cut or combined with others. You don’t necessarily need to point out every moment you had an issue with, but at least one example should help make your script notes clear.
Talk about story goals
If you’re planning to produce or direct the script, talk with the writer about what you both hope to achieve with the project. What kind of film do you want to make? Which existing films have similar tones? Are you inspired by other films’ character journeys? Which kinds of actors can you envision in the roles? Getting on the same page — ideally before multiple revisions — is essential. Don’t use multiple drafts as ways to brainstorm. Although you might think of new things along the way, try to do your brainstorming ahead of time so that the writer isn’t wasting a ton of time (especially if the writer is working for free, AKA “on spec”).
If you’re simply giving script notes to a friend or coworker on a project you’re not involved with, ask what the writer is aiming for. You can offer advice about what you would do, but try not to push the writer to make the movie YOU want. Maybe you see the story as a popcorn action blockbuster, but the writer wants it to be a small indie thriller. Also, don’t be pushy about suggestions. It’s smart to brainstorm with “what if he did this” kind of scenarios or even pitch lines of dialogue. However, don’t be offended if the writer doesn’t take your exact suggestions. Sometimes your version will lead the writer to their own spin on your suggestion. That’s a good thing!