Screenplay editing formats
May 8, 2009 9:07 AM   Subscribe

Screenplay editing/ Script Development question. A friend has sent me a copy of his screenplay and is asking for some notes/ story editing commments. I have some questions about the style and format. Please see inside....

I have a copy of the screenplay. What is the standard format for writing my notes on it? Do I work in a Word document, and just write Page 2, Character development issues, Page 3... not enough conflict // protagonist and mother in law etc ... Does anyone have an idea in regards to how this is usually done? Is this done usually page by page, or is it more of a several page general summary of the script and its problems ? Is there a software program that helps? Is there anywhere on the internet or a book that I can see how a screenplay development thing is formatted? Any help would be appreciated. Thank you for your time.
posted by cascando to Writing & Language (12 answers total)
In the margins, generally. Also, John August's website is a fantastic resource for this kind of thing.

It's more than likely that your friend has written their document in Final Draft - unless you have this or are willing to drop the cash to get a copy, notes in the margins, page by page is probably the best thing to do. If you want to do extended commentary, grab some blank sheets and note them in the text (i.e. See Note 112) then put your extended comments at the back of the document, typed or handwritten.
posted by Happy Dave at 9:12 AM on May 8, 2009

There's no particular 'standard' for it. The major script format programs have note features now, but there's no reason you can't just write notes in the margins. That's what I prefer. Keeps me from running off at the mouth.

However, sometimes I can't get my thoughts into five words and then I'll do what you mention - text file with page numbers and more involved comments on scenes, character issues, stuff like that. (Don't be anal rententive about it - mark a word you want to cut from a line of dialogue, for example, on the script itself. Don't make entries like P.5 Line 17, remove comma after "Jake.")
posted by Naberius at 9:15 AM on May 8, 2009

In years of writing script feedback, I found the most success at writing very pithy in-line grammatical corrections, long and developed end-notes, overall impressions, etc., then providing specific line notes such as:

p. 67 - Merlin's 2nd speech: could be chopped. redundant w/ 1st speech; time better spent alluding ('casually') to jewel subplot.

in one concise text file at the end of the script.
posted by mr. remy at 9:22 AM on May 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I have the screenplay as a pdf if that helps. Should I get final draft and upload the script to final draft to make notes in the margins? I will be sending my emendations and suggestions via email if that helps, not a mailed hard copy of the script. I can't really make notes in the margins of a .pdf as far as I know.
posted by cascando at 9:25 AM on May 8, 2009

Final Draft does have a really great note-taking setting that inserts a little dialogue box every place you have a note. It also has a good revisions setting where it highlights in red everything you've changed and adds an asterisk to the margin where the change occurred so people can find it quickly if they're scrolling through the document. However you really shouldn't go out and buy the program just for giving notes on this one guy's script.

I give notes on people's pdf scripts all the time over email, and what I always do is just make a word document and divide it into two sections: "big notes" and "small nit-picky notes." Then I have the page number on the left. I prefer it because I tend to like to write paragraphs instead of one or two lines, especially when giving notes on rather big story problems.
posted by egeanin at 9:43 AM on May 8, 2009

Response by poster: If anyone has an example they could share of what they think is a fairly professional take on notes, I would really appreciate.
posted by cascando at 9:47 AM on May 8, 2009

seconding remy. if you get final draft make grammar and simple sentence corrections in the script doc using revisions mode (or just a different color font). make bigger comments in a separate doc, or (here i disagree with remy) at the top (there's no point in my reading all your grammar fixes in act 2 if the whole thing needs to be scrapped).

if you're not going to be doing this type of thing a lot, i wouldn't bother obtaining scriptwriting software. there's nothing unprofessional about writing notes in word or just in an email -- i've written for a few different shows and get/give notes in email text as often as a do in the script itself.
posted by blapst at 10:16 AM on May 8, 2009

The quickest way to worthless script notes is this:

p. 22 That line REGGIE says should be shorter.
p. 46 This scene is repetitive.
p. 55 Plausible is misspelled.

The script doesn't need to be proofread until the finalfinalfinal draft before the writer sends it out to agents, managers, production companies, and the like. Line-by-line and page-by-page comments aren't necessary until the second-to-last draft, where structure and character and theme and dialogue is all generally great, the script is working well, and now it just needs tweaks. Up until that second-to-last draft, the writer needs broad script notes. Everything else is just rearranging deck chairs.

Good script notes are general, discussing character arc, structure, story beats, and genre considerations. Talk about the story as a whole. Talk about what happens to the characters. Talk about how the characters talk, and whether their dialogue feels natural and each character talks distinctly. Discuss whether or not the characters make a clear and compelling change from the beginning of the script to the end. Consider whether or not you think many people (not just you) would like to see this film. Does it remind you of other movies? Which ones? Can you compare it to those films? Does the script have something interesting to say? Does it say it well?

Currently, most people think Blake Snyder's book SAVE THE CAT does the best job of succinctly summing up the necessary and sufficient qualities of a good script. Sometime today I'll email you an example of the sorts of script notes I'm talking about.
posted by incessant at 10:31 AM on May 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

FYI: you do not *need* Final Draft, especially if you are not writing scripts yourself. It's prohibitively expensive on its own... that being said: if you have it and use it for what it's for there's nothing better out there. It? is AWESOME. =)

Personally, I prefer to have the notes in-text (for me, preferably hand-written on a hard copy) and I go through it with my OWN digital copy and the hard copy in front of me, taking notes as I want them and leaving the ones I don't. A short one-page synopsis of your macro impressions would also be helpful. Of course, if doing a hard copy isn't possible, the revision tracker in Word is perfectly serviceable.

And for the record: there's no one "right" or "standard" way to give notes, really. It's what your friend is comfortable with, and what will accurately communicate to him what you're trying to say. (eg: what Naberius said)
posted by indiebass at 10:44 AM on May 8, 2009

incessant nailed it. The "micro" stuff is useless, I ignore it 100% of the time. I will proofread my own last draft and so will any decent writer. I need help developing my stories, and this is why I'm in a writer's group. if someone wants to nitpick at how I phrased a certain line of dialogue, well I couldn't possibly care any less what they think.

If he's like every other screenwriter in the history of the medium, he needs help structuring the story, developing characters, and just knowing what "works" and what doesn't. Type up a page or two of notes that tells him these things.

And read Robert Mckee's "Story."
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:40 AM on May 8, 2009

Getting/using Final Draft is wholly unnecessary. Don't stress about the techy details. What most screenwriters are looking for, when they ask for comments, are big impressions. Overall map-of-the-world notes. Scene and sequence concerns; things the creator can no longer see because they have become mired in the minutiae and technical trickery necessary to the creation of a piece of sustained drama.

While you should keep a word file open while reading, making minor notes/corrections/annotations/etc., your help will be most appreciated when providing whole-script feedback; things along the lines of 'I found the section prior to arrival at the beach house to be rushed - it set up a different expectation for pace than was presented in the subsequent sequences.' Or 'the character of Moses seems to present some inconsistencies in terms of his paradoxical choices: his frequent whoring visits to the Babylonian slave brothel seems at odds with his later use as receiver of the Ten Commandments -- you must either expand or excise this seemingly illogical characterization'. Your notes should be observational in tone, not prescriptive. And not nit-picky.

The elements of a script that are easy to change (specific lines of dialogue, individual descriptive phrases, place-namings, &ct.,) require much less of a helpful reader's attentions than broad story/character/sequencing structural elements. I think anybody who has labored through the creation of a few screenplays comes to realize how quick and malleable and ever-expedient are the first category of elements, and how difficult the latter. You may risk causing your friend to bristle with defensiveness by critiquing their characters' phrasings, names, stylizations, or speech patterns. Things of a relatively transient ilk. Rather, focus on your overall impressions. If something doesn't sit right with you, try to find a deliberate reason /why/, understanding that the writer will probably have a (possibly terrible and likely specious) justification for their choice.

In good, long, drama, almost everything is intentional. If it's not, it should be. This is one way I've found that editing screenplay differs from nearly every other type of prose editing. You are reading for function and intention more than beauty and literary acuity. The style should be transparent (which isn't to say it can't have a little -- though very little -- flourish) but the story should be crystal clear. To stretch a metaphor to breaking: think of yourself as the senior architect checking the blueprint of a junior. Even if you can see some shoddy lines, half-erased first drafts, misplaced closets and poorly laid-out plumbing, can you get a feel for the building that will be? How can that (the eventual house) be improved? Without regard for the blueprint, how can you improve the speculative structure?
posted by mr. remy at 12:21 PM on May 8, 2009

I'll also have to disagree with the Robert McKee suggestion as a stand-alone. While it contains pithy summaries of extant styles and genre conventions (character-redemptive drama, for the purpose of my argument, being a genre), and works well as a thumbable resource for some writers, it will not necessarily help you in understanding the very fundamental qualities of good cinema tension. As in: McKee tells you the 'how to do it', but not always the 'why to do it.' Creating 'scene questions' and imagining 'arcs' is no substitute for a really thorough understanding the deep mechanics of of classical dramatics. Moreover, McKee is something of an industry until himself -- though he has been successful in persuading a lot of young agents as to his correctness. Which isn't to say you shouldn't add his book to your screen library. I'd just suggest enhancing it with Lajos Egri's 'Art of Dramatic Writing', David Howard's 'How To Build a Great Screenplay', and some Aristotle, Brecht, Agee, Isherwood...
posted by mr. remy at 12:35 PM on May 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

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