Daniel Manus, another LA-based script consultant, has seen several trends among development executives’ notes. I have also written about this topic in various posts.
Some of the most common notes an executive or a reader give on a script which will hopefully help you avoid getting them in the future.
- The writer doesn’t have great instincts. This is a commonly heard term around many a development office or pitchfest. It basically means that you had a great concept or logline, but once the exec heard (or read) more of your story, it became clear that your instincts took it in the wrong direction. That it’s not the best version of that story. Instincts are the one note that executives and analysts can’t really change or affect. Either you have good instincts or you don’t.
- The writer doesn’t have a strong enough voice. Having a strong voice means there is something original in your way of writing, your attitude, your descriptions, your dialogue, your format, etc. You have a style that sets you apart from the thousands of other writers out there. Do you have a specific point of view? If you read scripts by writers like Shane Black, Woody Allen, Aaron Sorkin, Quentin Tarantino, or the writers of the recent Black List scripts, you will notice that they all have this point of view and way of writing that lets you know it’s THEIR script. It engages you in a special way that makes the words jump off the page.
- Project’s tone is inconsistent. Having a clear and consistent tone is important to executives because it allows them to answer the question “who can I sell it to?” If you have a dark comedy, it’s much harder to target a certain demographic because young demos won’t get it, and older demos won’t like it. Many writers send me comedic thrillers, dramedies or horror comedies, and they are so hard to nail, tonally. If it’s too funny, the horror won’t seem scary. If it’s too scary, the comedy will seem out of place and take you out of the story. A dramedy when done well should make you cry and laugh out loud. Your tone must be set up on page one, so you should know what type of script you want to write before writing that first word.
- I’m on page 30 and I have no idea what the story is. This is an incredibly common and frustrating note. Often execs can feel where the story might be going, but if you haven’t made it clear by page 30, executives won’t get to page 40. If by page 30 there is no inciting incident (usually around pg 8-12), no set up for what’s to come, no clear structure, and the executive is confused as the story jumps from one random scene to another, then you have not set up your story correctly and they won’t wait to see if it come together on page 60.
- There’s no second act. Writers and executives both know that the second act is what separates the boys from the men. Not knowing how to progress a second act and propel your story forward, connecting your fantastic opening and your heartbreaking ending, is the tell-tale sign of an amateur. I tend to think that anyone can start a story and think of an exciting ending, but it’s what happens in the middle that will keep people in the seats. It needs to have twists and turns and builds and if your second act revolves around “a personal, private journey,” that usually tells me there is no second act.
- I just couldn’t connect with the characters. If a character doesn’t come off as authentic, relatable and likable, then an executive is not going to want to follow them through to the last page. The number one thing that makes me personally want to read past page 30 is a good character that I connect with for some reason, because I want to find out what happens to them. And everyone connects to a character for a different reason, but if no one can connect with them, they are not realistically drawn.
- The climax just wasn’t exciting enough. No matter the genre, your climax has to be dynamic. It has to involve the major characters and it has to bring your story to a big satisfying moment that resolves — or at least brings to a head — the main conflict in your story. Sometimes the note is that the story doesn’t build well enough to the climax, but more often, the note is that the climax is just anti-climactic. The resolution is achieved too easily. Having that big trailer moment climax is very important.
- Why can’t this writer use the damn spell check? It’s my biggest pet peeve because if your script is littered with spelling or grammatical errors (and this doesn’t mean 1 or 2), to me that screams “lazy.” And the last thing an executive wants to work with is a lazy or sloppy writer. If a writer doesn’t care enough about their own script to read through it and run a spell check, then why should an analyst or executive care enough to fix all the other bigger stuff?
- Unclear demographic. If an executive can’t clearly identify the demographic your script is geared towards, it makes it a hard sell. You, the writer, need to know if your script is a 4-quadrant tentpole, a broad comedy, an R-rated horror or a PG13 horror, etc. Not because you need to know how to market your movie, but because you need to make sure your characters and dialogue are going to connect with (and be appropriate for) your target demographic.
- The stakes aren’t high enough. This means the executive didn’t feel the importance of the story and not enough was on the line to make it feel cinematic and compelling. This doesn’t mean the whole world has to end like in disaster movies. A story can be a personal disaster movie — your CHARACTER’S world is crashing down or will crash down if A, B, and C does or doesn’t happen. You need to have high stakes from the beginning. You can’t start out at 0 and go to 100 by page 60 – you should start at 50 and go to 100 by pg 60, and then go to 200 by page 80.
- It’s just not commercial or original enough. The most often heard note at pitchfest, hands down, is “it’s just not commercial enough.” I’m not sure if it’s because what qualifies as commercial is constantly changing, or if it’s because writers have a skewed interpretation of what is commercial because every single writer thinks their script is, but invariably, 80 percent of them are not. The best way to prevent getting this note is following box office trends, reading the trades, seeing what is selling, and keeping your material as broad as possible.
- You’re missing the meat in your story. If you aren’t including the scenes that explore, exploit, progress and satisfy your hook, then you are missing the meat of your story. Either the writer is lazy, the writer hasn’t resolved plot holes in their story, or the writer is aware of the meat, but hasn’t expressed it fully enough for the audience to digest.