We spent the last week and a half talking about how to re-write a script based on notes. As part of that, I went back and re-read the notes I gave to several peers when they send me first drafts of their scripts. The notes I gave the most fit pretty nicely into three groups of five, so let’s start with some general notes…
- Too generic and/or cliché: This is the most common note. First drafts are filled with generic stuff, and that’s fine, but now it’s time to dig deeper and find something specific.
- Repeated beat: You don’t want the same basic plot point to happen twice. You don’t want to have someone get cold feet twice, or confront their dad about their childhood twice, or reminisce about the past with their ex twice, or defeat two villains using the same method. One strong scene is better than two weak ones. Some directors go so far as to insist that the characters never visit the same location twice. That’s a bit extreme, but it’s a good way to keep moving forward.
- Extraneous characters: Producers don’t hire great actors for one-day roles, so you want to have as few characters as possible and give the remaining characters as many lines as possible. In your second draft, look for ways to combine two uninteresting characters into one interesting character. Can the love interest be combined with an obstacle character?
- Not differentiating between important characters and unimportant characters: It’s considered “cheating” in the screenplay world, but there are a million ways to let us know which characters are more or less important. You can give totally unimportant characters no name or description (SECURITY GUARD), somewhat important characters one name and an age range (FLEISHMAN, mid-30s) and major characters a full name, specific age, and trait (ANNE RENAULT, 29, not someone you want to mess with). When I introduce my hero, especially if he or she doesn’t appear in the first scene, I come right out and say (SCOTT, 24, our hero, a charming rogue…) Screenwriting purists will say, “You can’t shoot that”, but they’re wrong—Directors have special camera moves reserved for introducing the hero.
- Emotion causes action, not action causes emotion: It’s usually stronger to have the emotion be the set-up and the action be the pay-off, rather than the other way around. He felt bad so he punched somebody, not he punched somebody so he felt bad. You can do it the other way if you want, but it will be less satisfying to the audience, who want to build to a cathartic release. But wait, does this mean you can never make a movie about regret? Well, you can — I prefer Fat City to Rocky any day— but it’s a hard sell. In most movies, action is the solution of problems, not the cause.