DECIPHERING SCREENPLAY NOTES: The Note Whisperer

Lawrence Kasdan’s notes on The Empire Strikes Back

When giving notes, most producers, directors, friends, moms & cousins won’t say “Check the rising conflict in the act 2 pinch point”, they’ll say “I liked the set up, but got bored, and had to do dishes.”

A lot of writers don’t like to dig deep into screenplay structure or read ‘theory books’. It’s all intuitive! I never think about that BS!

Some of the value of Syd Field or Mckee or Blake Snyder is a shared vocabulary.

Writing is intuitive. Which is why note-givers know when something is off even without a USC degree in film studies or a shelf full of screenwriting books. But sometimes it’s hard to communicate.

So here’s an attempt to translate some of those common notes to ‘writer speak’. I’ll try to be a little generic so you don’t need a big bookshelf. I’m also sticking to notes more related to structure here(I’m on a structure kick).

It didn’t hook me/I couldn’t get into it/I had no idea what the story was until it was almost over — Often means the conflict of the story wasn’t introduced early enough. Save the Cat suggests pg. 12 for the Catalyst/Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure and a pg. 25 landing for the end of Act 1. While these specific page assignments don’t work for all stories, I they’re good guidelines. If your catalyst is on pg. 34 or your Act 2 doesn’t start until pg. 50…you’re in trouble. If you get this note, have a look at your catalyst and your first act break.

This could also be an indication that you just don’t have strong enough conflict in the story. Check your logline. Does it suggest a Hero with a Goal and a serious Obstacle in the way? If it lacks any of those three…it won’t have conflict. And you’ll get this note.

Feels Episodic — This implies a story filled with scenes that could be shuffled around without consequences. Imagine a movie where a hero goes on a road trip. First they go to the biker bar, then they get a flat tire, then they have the encounter with the crazy truck driver. Each of these ‘episodes’ might be some self-contained skit (often comedic). The ‘story’ is a series of episodes. There’s a great video by the South Park guys about this. Here’s a transcript:

“Each individual scene has to work as a funny sketch. You don’t want to have one scene and go ‘well, what was the point of that scene?’ So we found out this rule that maybe you guys have all heard before, but it took us a long time to learn it. But we can take these beats, which are basically the beats of your outline. And if the words ‘and then’ belong between those beats… you’re f****d. Basically. You got something pretty boring. What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down is either the word ‘Therefore’ or ‘but,’ right? So what I’m saying is that you come up with an idea and it’s like ‘okay, this happens’ and then ‘THIS happens.’ No no no. It should be ‘this happens’ and THEREFORE ‘this happens.’ BUT ‘this happens’ THEREFORE ‘this happens.’ … And sometimes we will literally write it out to make sure we’re doing it. We’ll have our beats and we’ll say okay ‘this happens’ but ‘then this happens’ and that affects this and that does to that and that’s why you get a show that feels okay.”

Some stories — road trips, quests, etc — just naturally unfold this way. Other stories fall into this trap because the heroes goal just isn’t that important to the hero. This can sometimes be a problem with Stakes. If the Hero only has 1 day to get across country or the world will end, they have less time to hang out at Biker Bars or have fireside chats with eccentric pirates with eye patches.

Never Raises the Stakes (or the stakes are too low)— This one is pretty literal. The stakes stay the same through act 2. Increasing stakes helps ‘raise tension’ throughout the movie. Have a look at your mid-point. If you don’t have some moment where ‘shit gets real’ on pg. 50-ish…this might be where to go to work. Mid-points start ticking clocks, or things get more personal, or the scope of the problem gets bigger.

There are other places to raise stakes/tension, like the crisis moment/all is lost right before Act 3 kicks off.

Take a look at these beats. And see if you can juice the tension. The added tension will tighten the pace and add a sense of urgency in the pages that follow.

It’s too predictable/It’s too 1–2–3 — While this can be a problem of ‘running with the first draft’, sometimes it’s structural. It’s usually related to not having ups-and-downs from scene to scene. If you’ve read Mckee or Blake Snyder they talk about +/- values to scenes. Second Acts typically alternate between Oh Great!/Oh Crap! beats.

Luke gets Han to fly him to Alderaan! Oh Great!

Storm Troopers attack! Oh Crap!

They escape and finds Alderaan! Oh Great!

Kaboom! I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror. Oh Crap!

The show Silicon Valley religiously follows this Oh Great! Oh Crap model. Every episode is filled with alternating beats of + and — scenes.

Not Sure Who to Root For — The setup of your story needs to do a lot of stuff. It needs to establish the ‘ordinary world’, the characters, the tone, etc. If there’s going to be a satisfying character arc it needs to be planted here. If you get this note, something has gone wrong. A common thing is for someone to be dismayed by an anti-hero. While we don’t have to love every hero, we do have to ‘get onboard’ with their way of thinking. We need to inhabit them for 100 minutes. Our goals needs to be their goals. We need to care. Check the setup. Make sure it’s doing all the things it’s supposed to without taking up 50 pages ;-)

Ends Too Abruptly — This is the opposite problem. In a 100 page script, finales usually are a good 25 pages. If your finale is 5 or 10 pages, it can feel unsatisfying to the audience.

With that, I’ll end abruptly.

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Jamie Nash is the screenwriter of several films. He writes about pop-culture, writing, and being a dad of a cool kid with Autism. Follow him — @Jamie_Nash

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Jamie Nash

Jamie Nash is the screenwriter of several films. He writes about pop-culture, writing, and being a dad of a cool kid with Autism. Follow him — @Jamie_Nash