If you've ever been asked to give script notes to a screenwriter, you know that it can be a daunting task. You want to be helpful and constructive, but you also don't want to offend the writer or be dismissive of their work.
In this post, we’ll share some tips on how to give script notes that your screenwriter will appreciate. These cover everything from specific suggestions to common pitfalls that can easily be avoided in the development process.
Before we start our breakdown, please take a moment to download our free script notes template. This template will help you organize your thoughts and give great notes. It includes sections for the script's strengths, weaknesses, character arcs, and more.
Great scripts don’t just fall out of the sky; most are put through a rigorous pipeline (and some might say, a marathon) known as script development. Producers, executives, directors, actors, managers, and even assistants will read various drafts of a screenwriter’s script.
Following the read, they’ll weigh in with script notes on what can help the screenwriter clarify plot points, better convey the screenplay’s theme, and attract buyers or an audience. But how do you give notes for a script?
Script notes are usually given at the start of the development process. They can be for a screenplay that’s been optioned or one being primed by a writer to take out to market. During the development process, script notes can also catch any gaffs, plot holes, or possible sensitivity issues within the screenplay.
And of course, the dreaded typo.
Script notes can occur anywhere between the first draft and twentieth. Keep in mind that on average, a screenwriter rewrites a purchased screenplay at least 40 times. Script notes can also occur during production. For example, if the only location option doesn’t have something called for in the screenplay or an actor has an issue with the dialogue.
So if you’re asking yourself, what are script development notes and how can they be helpful, look no further. We’ll demystify the process by explaining how to give great notes for a script.
Screenwriters want to write the best possible script – and to make money. Producers, directors, and executives want to make the best possible movie – and to make money.
So if everyone’s interests are aligned, how can things go off the rails when developing and giving script notes on a screenplay?
On the non-writing side, notes can sometimes feel too prescriptive and thus restrain a writer’s creativity. Bringing up a problem in the script should be the start of a conversation. Not feel like an ultimatum.
Script notes can become too rigid in how an issue should be resolved or focus obsessively on minutiae. This can create an antagonistic relationship that may continue on in the development process.
Script notes can also go wrong on the writer’s side. Sometimes, screenwriters can become too close to the material and are unable to receive feedback objectively. They can grow defensive and be unwilling to listen to others.
While it’s fine to disagree, screenwriters should always try and find a way to address what many call, ‘the note within the note.’ This generally refers to addressing the ‘why’ by using creativity and your own POV in the ‘how.’
Screenwriters who consistently stonewall producers and executives during the creative process often find themselves being replaced. So how can we avoid the above? By giving better script notes.
So let’s answer the question, how do you give notes for a script?
It’s reasonable for producers, directors, and executives to expect their notes will be addressed. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make things easier by thinking about “how” the notes are addressed.
In the best possible scenario, screenwriters and the project’s creative team (producers, director, etc.) will have a positive ongoing dialogue with script notes that keep up the momentum as they move forward from development into production.
Here are some things you can do to help the notes process flow smoothly.
At minimum, you should aim to read a script thoroughly at least two times before giving feedback. While you might note any particularly egregious typos, focus your attention on tracking the plot and the story arcs within the screenplay.
Make note of anything you found confusing or had to read multiple times to understand. This will often be your focus for your initial round of script notes.
When giving script notes, avoid the general tropes of characters not being likable or the protagonist not completing their hero’s journey. These tend to feel like platitudes and give the impression you haven’t put much thought into reading the script.
Your unique impression of the material and how it made you feel is preferable to citing any ‘rules’ you read about in Save the Cat.
Also, consider how many times you have read the script. By the third or fourth draft, many producers and directors start giving the note that the writer needs to get to the action faster.
Ask yourself if the set-up is truly taking too long, or if it just feels that way after reading the material over and over? This is a very common mistake even pros make.
When giving script notes, it’s always good to start with compliments. It’s important for the screenwriter to see you as an ally and be excited to dive into the next draft. You might note things such as the below.
- I love the way you set up the premise. It was easy to track with a strong emotional impact.
- The grandmother character is hilarious. Some of her dialogue had me laughing out loud.
- This reminded me of (insert awesome film here), but it still felt like your unique take. Well done!
Praise will yield better results than if you start off complaining. Negative feedback at the start of the meeting gives the impression you don’t understand or appreciate the amount of work that went into writing a 90+ page script. Spoiler alert: it’s a lot!
But what if the screenplay is, well, bad? Every good screenwriter has a few bad ones in the vault, so don’t automatically assume the writer can’t deliver. Instead, find something, anything you liked, then focus on the three or four biggest notes the writer can address for the next draft.
Don’t overwhelm the screenwriter with too much feedback. If you tackle the bigger problems first, some of the minor ones usually also wind up being addressed on the next draft.
If turning in poorly written drafts continues to be a problem, speak with the writer or their representation to try and remedy the situation. But assuming the screenwriter has turned in a cohesive draft…
One issue with a good working draft of a script is sometimes the script notes can feel too broad.
Instead, provide specific examples of what “bumps” (slang for something feeling generally off) in the script. This can help the screenwriter better address the given note.
If the writer has thoughts regarding your notes, listen. Like, really listen. Specific script notes that leave room for conversation tend to generate the best possible outcomes.
Leave the door open for brainstorming – but don’t insist upon it. Some screenwriters work best talking things out, while others need time to reflect and steep the tea. Respect their process.
Every script notes meeting or email should end on a positive note that gets the screenwriter excited to start their next draft. You can accomplish this by reiterating what you enjoyed about the script and acknowledging the screenwriter’s hard work.
Convey to the writer what you appreciate most about this draft of the script. This will complete the proverbial compliment sandwich of praise/critique/praise. A general outline for compliment sandwiches may look like:
Because notes can encompass any facet of screenwriting from plot holes to missing character development to even poor script formatting, the main takeaway to keep in mind is how the sandwich feedback technique is generally constructed.
This may seem unnecessary, but remember – your work isn’t being judged right now. The writer has put blood, sweat, and time into the product. Your job is to recognize that effort and show them ways to make it even better.
When giving ongoing script notes, be professional in all of your verbal and written correspondence. Carefully review all of the material the screenwriter sends you. Avoid using popular industry terms with a negative connotation such as “baby writer” or “vomit draft.”
We all know the saying, "Too many cooks spoil the soup." That same advice can also apply to opinions. Having too many people give feedback can make it seem like you don’t trust yourself to shepherd the creative process. Also, it can put the writer unnecessarily on the defensive.
If you have another executive, assistant, or person read the script to give script notes, explain to the writer why you think this person weighing in can help.
An assistant might provide a younger person’s perspective. A friend of yours in the same industry as the script’s protagonist will likely provide specific insight. But saying your cousin read it (and hated it) helps no one.
Sometimes producers/executives/etc. can also give notes about a population or community they are not familiar with. While these notes might be well-intentioned, telling a writer from a specific community that elements of their script don’t “feel authentic” or “ring true” are actually quite offensive.
Producers in these situations might consider employing a sensitivity reader who is specifically trained to read and give feedback regarding the communities they ascribe to.
Sometimes, there is a very specific reason a script note is given. For example:
These are the type of script notes that have little to no room for negotiation. While ultimatums should generally be avoided, every project has them. Be clear with the screenwriter about what your deal breakers are. If appropriate, loop them in on why.
In an ideal situation, this conversation would happen at the beginning of the development process. This is because setting clear expectations early on will help the screenwriter understand what you are looking for and how you want to work together. This will also help to build trust and rapport between you, which will be essential for a successful collaboration.
If you find the writer didn’t address a note to your satisfaction, it’s time for some self-reflection.
Ask yourself, is your note making the script better? Or merely different? Keep in mind that even minor changes that feel unnecessary add up. These can be extremely demoralizing for screenwriters.
Almost every seasoned screenwriter has a war story story about a producer asking them to re-break an entire script because of something “cool” they saw over the weekend – or that broke a box office record.
Remember to separate valid reasons from whims and personal preferences. This shows respect for the screenwriter's time and how seriously you view the development process.
Giving better script notes is the one of the best things you can do to set your team up for success. To help your development to production process, we’ve included links to ongoing resources that can keep the momentum going including how to break down a script, tips for pre-production, everything you need to know about parting ways with a screenwriter, and information on the ongoing WGA Strike.
At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice. You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.