Notes To Screenwriters by Vicki Peterson and Barbara Nicolosi (book review).

August 28, 2015 | By | 2 Replies More

The bane of any writer in any medium is to be told that there is something wrong and needs correcting with their stories and then give a long list of notes before its accepted. As the title, ‘Notes To Screenwriters’, should tell you, this book is specifically for those who write scripts who would like an opportunity to see their material being filmed. If you don’t do it, then the script can even be taken out of your hands and given to someone else, so egos at the door and get on with what they see as problems. As writers Vicki Peterson and Barbara Nicolosi point out, they’ve been on the receiving end as well as giving out such notes. However, this kind of thing happens in all mediums. Some of you have even experienced me doing it, although usually I will offer a suggestion saying if you can do something better, suggest it. Better an editor pointing out the mistakes than thousands of readers on, say, the Net, who wonder how the material saw print in the first place.

NotesToScreenwriters

With scriptwriting, as these authors point out, the producers happily buy a story saying how much they liked it and a few weeks later come back needing changes and a pile of notes needing correcting. Sometimes, these can even be contradictory. I should point out this is also in America where egos can become very fragile. Understanding how to handle this without losing your cool or getting your guts in a knot is essential to your career. Saying that, I wonder why no one has thought to discuss the points with their bosses where there is an awkward problem, just so more sides are on the same page (sic). They do point that out as an option but I wonder how many do or intimidated or felt their producer might not understand, let alone like the alternatives? After all, for a good or bad film, the named scriptwriter will get the plaudits or panning if it isn’t a success so at this stage you should have the ear of your higher ups. Of course, there is always the problem of the producer thinking he has made too big a contribution to the script which they didn’t cover.

A lot of what this book is about is story and script construction in all its facets. There are even exercises to keep you up to speed and even some techniques to get you sorted out when you have writer’s block. Something needed in a film is a scene that people will instantly recognise which rarely happens in prose. However, more common is giving something for the reader to aspire to or hope to do right under similar conditions.

Weirdly, they both believe that Gregory Peck was the lead in Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’ which must surely would have been a surprise to its star, James Stewart, had they both been still alive. As a reviewer and editor, I tend to widen my eyes more when any non-fiction writer(s) warn of making mistakes because they’re bound to make one or two themselves.

One thing that I am advocate on is getting right into the middle of the story but also have some understanding of the character’s back story and indeed, with SF, the elements of the reality itself. However, like with film it’s better to use the information than just tell the reader about it.

The list of cliché dialogue is fun to go through and work out where you heard them before. I think if I ever use them, it’s more a case of making fun of them. Then again, people do turn innocent phrases into clichés very quickly and people still use them. If that wasn’t the case, we’d never have lists of people’s favourite cliché phrases or using them in real life.

There is so much that any writer can be reminded of here, including not forever using the characters’ names in dialogue. In prose, there’s more of a need to remind occasionally which person is speaking but I can see their point. Getting natural dialogue is the hardest thing to do in any writing, mostly because it doesn’t always match with real life but needs to convey information to the viewer/reader and not to distract.

Although this book is targeting the American scriptwriter, much of the lessons can be used elsewhere. They spend an entire section on formats and things that give a big minus, especially grammar, where they point out three errors on the first page and they go onto the next. I’ve always put some emphasis on getting grammar right and it does apply to writing in all its forms. Saying that, I’m turning my editorial eye on them because one or both of them can’t tell the difference between ‘either’ and ‘neither’ that has spread through the population of the world in the past couple decades. Nevertheless, the rules of structuring a script are all laid out here and although I would have preferred the template to have been with the chapter than as an appendix, as with any submission, if you want to play with the big boys and girls, then pay attention to this section. As they say, if you can’t adapt to the protocols then you’ll never step through the door.

The information about selling your script to producers is useful but I always thought in America you also had to have agents. They say it’s better to have an attorney first to check over any contract before signing anything and agents will only approach you once you’ve shown your potential to make money. I suspect that should reassure many of you wanting to make your bones as a scriptwriter so get this book to get the details. As both authors point out that it’s better to develop a reputation with up-and-coming producers, maybe that would be seen less important. In other words, there’s a need to start somewhere and build-up. Whatever, they both say your writing will improve the more you write and always have a few spec scripts available to show your writing skills.

There are some parallels to prose process in polishing the script and knowing when to take a break between each polish so you look at it the material with a fresh eye.

They also point out that you shouldn’t just stop with scriptwriting but to do other writing jobs and especially to have a bread and butter job so you don’t starve. Having a job that is contrast to your writing is actually very effective because it gives your brain something else to focus on and relax. I would add to that and say have a job where you meet people because writing is such a solitary job and it’ll ensure you keep your hand in with how they interact.

As you can tell from the length of this review, I found I learnt a lot from this book. If you’re a potential American scriptwriter, then you should be grab with both hands. Even if you’re in the industry, you might still learn something you might have missed or need to sharpen up. Although things are different in the UK, other than the socialising aspect, you will pick up some much needed information.

GF Willmetts

August 2015

(pub: Michael Wiese Productions. 225 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $26.95 (US), £17.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-61593-213-9)

check out website: www.mwp.com

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About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 15 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

Comments (2)

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  1. avatar Julian White says:

    Hmmm… grammar… I really shouldn’t do this but – there’s an error in your first sentence. And I’m afraid that you also tend to use ‘neither’ when you mean ‘either’ (though not in this review). It used to annoy me when my reading flow is interrupted by the need to go back and try and tease out the meaning of a particularly convoluted expression; I’m beginning to think that it’s a deliberate policy – it certainly means that I tend to spend time on the reviews rather than merely skimming them.

  2. avatar UncleGeoff says:

    Hello Julian
    Before my boss thinks I’m being trolled, what error are you referring to? Looking at it a month down the line, I might have added a couple more commas but it hasn’t lost the message of the sentence.
    As to ‘neither’ and ‘either’. The majority of people do get it the wrong way around. ‘Either’, like ‘Or’, means one of two choices (although a couple more can be added). ‘Neither’, like ‘Nor’, means none of the choices given.
    Geoff

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