Taking the note: “Good idea, but not so good execution”

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Very often screenwriters will get a funky note that goes something like this, “It was a good idea but the execution wasn’t there.” Like many notes you’ll get in your career, it could mean a lot of things. To help you sort out what it means, let’s go over a few terms.

A lonely Matt Damon. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

GOOD IDEA

What a good idea is seems fairly obvious, so why do we have to go over it? Well, it’s important that you understand the place and value of an idea in screenwriting. You cannot copyright an idea. You can only copyright a script (of whatever length) but it must have multiple ideas joined together. It is really the order of the ideas that you’re copyrighting, rather than the ideas themselves.

For example, you can copyright a story about an astronaut stuck on Mars, but you cannot own the idea of an astronaut stuck on Mars. I can’t just write down The Martian and sell it. I can write a film about a bumbling, James Franco-type astronaut who gets stuck on Mars and discovers that the planet is the perfect place to grow marijuana. Same idea, very different movie.

A very stoned James Franco. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.

EXECUTION

(Insert your capital punishment jokes here.)

Seriously, here execution refers to how well you’ve written your script. So, have you written the absolute best version of Pineapple Express to Mars you can? This, of course, is a question you should be asking yourself all the time and yet somehow it never stops us from sending out a script too soon. When I began screenwriting, I showed people scripts I would never show now. So, when you get this note, you have to ask yourself “Is the script really finished?”

Execution is about craft, so another important thing to ask yourself if you get this note, is ‘Have I truly learned my craft?’ Writing one screenplay teaches you a lot about craft. Re-writing that screenplay teaches you more about craft. But that doesn’t mean you’ve mastered craft. It just means you’ve learned a lot. It may take you another script, or another two scripts, or another five scripts to truly understand craft.

You’re going to have to be brutally honest with yourself. Both about the script and where you are in your learning process. Maybe you just blew it with this script. If so, start again. Or maybe you don’t have your craft down yet. In that case, you’re going to have to start again, stop submitting and figure out how to learn your craft. You can do it on your own, people have, but the best way to learn your craft is to find a good class with an instructor you respect.

WHAT IF IT’S BULL***T?

It is entirely possible that a note like this could be a producer/development person’s go-to response to any script they don’t want to buy. After all, it follows that old rule about giving criticism, ‘Start by saying something nice.’ ‘It’s a good idea’ is nice and ‘it wasn’t well executed’ doesn’t sound as harsh as it probably is. Unfortunately, there’s no way for you to be absolutely sure whether or not you’re dealing with someone who says this three times a day.

If you truly feel like you did a bang-up job writing Pineapple Express to Mars then you need to give it to a couple of people you trust and get their opinion. These need to be people who’ll be absolutely honest with you–so take your mother off the list–honest enough to tell you whether the script is ready.

This is a tough note to get and figure out what it really means. But it’s by no means the only tough note you’ll get. What are some of the tough notes you’ve gotten?

author-avatar

Marshall Thornton has an MFA from UCLA in screenwriting. He spent ten years writing spec scripts and has been a semi-finalist or better in the Nicholl, Samuel Goldwyn, American Accolades, One-In-Ten and Austin Film Festival contests. As a novelist, he writes the Lambda Award-winning Boystown Mysteries. The eight book series follows the cases of a gay detective in turbulent 1980s Chicago. Marshall has also been known to write the occasional romantic comedy. You can find him online at marshallthorntonauthor.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @mrshllthornton

7 Replies to "Taking the note: “Good idea, but not so good execution”"

  • comment-avatar
    Marge Phelps September 25, 2017 (7:29 am)

    Reminds me of what I learned in college as a drama major when taking a directing course. When you get notes or a reviewer describes your : acting, writing, or directing as an “interesting choice”, it can mean that they just love the innovative approach but it usually just means that it’s cringe-worthy but they’re trying to say something neutral to be kind.

  • comment-avatar
    bob b September 25, 2017 (11:39 am)

    I do get one comment on my stuff from one particular producer who is a friend but I never know what it means. “Too much expose.” Otherwise he loves my writing and we have one script in front of some big folks although it’s kind of stalled now. What do you think “too much expose means?

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton September 25, 2017 (12:13 pm)

      Does he mean too much exposition? If that’s the case then I would say it’s not that you have too much exposition, you probably have as much as you need, but he’s too aware of the exposition.

  • comment-avatar
    bob b September 25, 2017 (4:29 pm)

    These are his direct comments on two of my scripts he recently read “Hollywood Party” an “Annie Ames”

    “Your writing in Party is much smoother, fewer clunks and clichés but it just didn’t pull me in, maybe because I know the source material so well. But definite improvement on a page to page basis.

    Annie is burdened with expo. But this is certainly the right time to be flogging a script with female leads “of a certain age.”

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton September 25, 2017 (4:33 pm)

      Yeah, I’d say he definitely means exposition. I assume there’s a lot the audience needs to know right at the start.

      Now I’m thinking I might do a post on exposition since it can often trip people up.

  • comment-avatar
    bob b September 25, 2017 (4:40 pm)

    There is a lot as it’s a story about a 75 year old high end call girl whose life changes before her very eyes and what that means to a senior citizen when we face life without an income. With very little dialog up front I certainly didn’t think there was too much expose. That would make a very good article for you because it’s so abstract. Thank you for helping me on this and I’ll look forward to the the next one.
    bob

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