Friday, September 23, 2005

A question of notes and rests

Day 5 of the everlasting illness. The cough is the worst at this point, but I do think the antibiotics are starting to have an effect.

So, as I've been mostly lying in bed reading other people's drafts, I've been pondering...what's the best way to give notes?

I've received good notes and bad notes. Good notes are the ones you like, bad notes are the ones you hate. I joke.

Actually, good notes are ones which are specific, helpful and relevant. Bad notes are generally the opposite. How do I make sure I'm giving good notes?

Sometimes I don't always know what the note is. I'll be circling a couple of pages, knowing there's a problem, but I just can't put my finger on it. The bad note would be to tell the writer, 'There's something wrong on page 33, but I just can't figure out what it is' Yeah, that's helpful. No, as a reader, I have a duty to figure it out to the best of my ability. Chances are the problem isn't on page 33, it's earlier in the story and I'm just recognizing the faulty stoplight on that particular page.

Plot and structure notes: I think the key here is to ask yourself if you understand all of the events in the story. Do they lead into each other as a progression or does there seem to be leaps of logic and time just to make the story work.

Character notes: If a character isn't behaving the way you expect, try to determine if it is because you lack a full understanding of the character or if the writer has just gone off the 'character map' that has been laid out for that person. If you establish that a character is afraid of his own shadow, unless there is a significant event or motive for him to go headfirst into a dark creepy cave, it would not be consistent with his character. Motive drives action for most characters. If you don't know the motive, then make it a result of circumstance. Anyone else have a thought on this?

So, when I'm listing notes, I tend to avoid dialogue notes unless there is something really wrong, like it doesn't 'sound' like the character. Also, if I know it is a first draft I'll avoid notes on typos, misspellings, grammar or punctuation knowing that person has more drafts ahead of them. I try to be as specific as possible. A note that the characters need more 'fleshing out' isn't really a great note to me. What's missing from the characters? What do I need? More background on them? Better definition of their motives? If their dialogue is flat or 'on the nose', I'll mention it could be richer, but I tend to think everyone does some of that 'on the nose' writing in first draft just to get the sucker written. It seems unfair for me to play 'spot the obvious'.

Anyone else have comments on how they give notes or feedback?

1 comment:

naugehyde said...

i've been told i give decent notes, so perhaps my advice will be useful.

while every screenplay/teleplay is unique, there are certain models that are useful to have in mind while reviewing someone's work. i try and think of the work i'm reviewing in abstract terms (genre/tone etc.) and where appropriate compare to something successful and similar.

it may be impossible to avoid altogether but i try and check myself for issues of taste. if the piece is too far afield from tastes, i may choose not to review it. at the very least i preface my comments with the caveat that i am not a fan of the genre.

as for the comments themself, no level of detail is too fine. you can lose a reader with poor syntax as easily as a poorly developed character or plot.

there are basic questions i ask myself while reading 1) do i know what's happening? 2) do the characters and what is happening seem plausible? 3) is the action described visually and can i picture what's happening? 4) does the dialogue sound real? 5) am i paying attention? if any of these questions comes up "no", i start to look for problems. there are as many types of problems as there are screenplays but the big ones are 1) premature writing. the writer doesn't yet know his story or character and is exploring it in the draft. if this is the case, i try and identify the best possible choices and suggest the writer go back to the drawing board. 2) over-exposition (duh) 3) purposeless or redundant scenes. 4) scenes that are undermotivated by previous actions. 5) poor and rushed writing (early drafts especially suffer from this). 6) unmotivated action 7) implausible dialogue 8) dry dialogue 9) on the nose dialogue (less of a problem in keeping people's attention than you might think)

(btw, the term on the nose dialogue seems to be interpreted by different people in different ways. it can mean dialogue which states the characters meaning and intentions too plainly. or dialogue which is uninteresting and/or overly familiar.)

after i am done, i look back and see if there are any plot points that aren't resolved or don't pay off thematically.

most screenplays are execrable and unreadable. it's usually because of a lack of craft. i have little to offer writers who are so without the basics except to suggest they bone up on the basics. but if a writer can tell a story, show it more or less and put words in the mouth of people that sounds more or less like people talking, i can help a little. part of the trick is to know what you as the reviewer you can and cannot offer.