Notes: A Path Forward by Allison Kiessling

I’ve been in a lot of writers groups, but I’ve never experienced a note-giving process as intense as what we do at ScriptWrights. As note-givers, we listen to a section of script and are then immediately asked to give feedback. Thus, a process that I would normally mull over for a couple days is condensed to 30 seconds. Despite (or maybe because of) this intense method, ScriptWrights is full of excellent note givers. In my attempt to join their ranks, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a good note.

In thinking about what makes a good note good, I’ve been reminded of what makes so many screenwriting books so bad. The vast majority of screenwriting books attempt to teach screenwriting by reverse-engineering great scripts. This can be a useful tool for learning about act breaks, or genres, or what makes features different from TV, but it has almost nothing to do with the creative process, with how we actually write.

Most notes you receive from non-writing industry professionals take a similarly top-down, “the way I wish it was if it was actually working” perspective – something along the lines of, “I just want Sheila to be more compelling.” Of course, our job as professional writers is to figure out “the note behind the note.” But as writers giving each other feedback, we have the opportunity to give each other a gift – a path forward.

I have witnessed and received this kind of “path forward” note many times at ScriptWrights. I think it has two traits: it is both positive and actionable. Now, when I say “be positive,” I don’t mean list only the good stuff and sugar coat the bad stuff. What I mean is, where something isn’t working, turn that into a note about the opportunity it presents. Thus, instead of “I don’t buy that she would travel all the way to the North Pole just to help Jim,” you could say, “I really wanted to know more about that relationship with Jim so that I understand why she’s so driven to make that trip. Gives us more specifics so we feel that she has to go.” That may seem like a subtle shift, but having just emerged from the weeds of a tedious rewrite, I can tell you that notes with this kind of forward motion are incredibly helpful.

An “actionable” note is a note that frames the issue in such a precise way that it opens up a way for the writer to move forward. This is different from a suggestion, which tries to dictate what path the writer should take – i.e. “Make him a doctor instead of a secretary.” An actionable note leaves the creative decision up to the writer, but makes it clear what kind of decision or information is missing: “Right now, his job is so menial, and he’s so passive with everyone in his life, it makes it hard to respect him and root for him. I think that we need to see some glimpses of him being smart or gutsy so that we get on his side early on.”

As writers, we know that the writing process engages both “the Creative” and “the Critic” inside our heads. For most of us, the Critic is much louder than the Creative, so we throw morning pages, meditations, inspirational quotes, and Pandora mixes at the Critic so as to squelch it and let the fun-loving, brilliant Creative come to the fore. Notes that are not positive or actionable tend to inflame the Critic, leaving us depressed and disempowered. A good note will bow to the Critic, of course, but it will also prod and seduce the Creative, leading us to new and exciting places we might never have reached.

When I get a good note, it seems to open a path forward to the next, better version of my script. My brain teems with inspiration and I’m excited to rush home to brainstorm and churn out some pages. It’s a wonderful feeling, and it’s a gift we can give when we focus on what’s positive and actionable.

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