Story Notes From Hell sounds like it could be any struggling screenwriter's snarky and solipsistic blog, but it's something much better. It's a collection of real-life excerpts and dialogue collected by an anonymous screenwriter. And it's an addictive delight.
The entries range from the absurd ("Always have helicopters in action movies. An action movie is not the same without helicopters.") to the hard-boiled ("Making it look cheap and cheesy doesn’t make it edgy. It may work on the BBC, not in Hollywood") to the certifiable, as when an executive insists on making an axe murderer "likable," telling the screenwriter: "How about he has a cat that follows him around as he kills people? People love cats, and the cat can be his best friend or something? Let’s give him a cat."
And sometimes it's sensible, like this quip from the author's writer friend: "Given two writers of equal talent, the one who never takes the easy way out in a difficult situation will always write the better script."
However ridiculous they may seem, all entries are purported to be true and came to the author either through first-hand experience or through online submissions. We agreed to protect his anonymity to as not compromise the author's peers, employers or, or course, career. We can say that the author is neither a veteran nor a rookie, but has a few years of full-time screenwriting experience and some success in getting scripts optioned and sold.
So how did the site get started?
I started the site in May, but I’ve been noting them down in my journal for a year. I’ve been writing for about two years now. I started off here in LA just meeting a bunch of producers and they had some things to say about what they think sells. I decided to put them online to see how they’d react to it.
When you started SNFH, did you tell people about it or was it a public place where you just posted these just to see what would happen?
I put it out there and sent a few emails to friends, they forwarded it to others and it just grew from that.
Not all these stories are yours, though.
Some of them are from friends who’ve submitted, some are from fellow writers. Those that are submitted online are anonymous.
Has anyone recognized themselves from one of the posts?
Not that I know of. I haven’t received any emails or anything.
What percentage of submissions that you get end up on the site?
I’d say about 25% ends up on the site. Some of them are not that realistic, some of them aren’t interesting to post. I can’t rule out that some of them have been made up, since it’s anonymous. There are certainly some that don’t seem sincere that have been submitted. People will post something where names will appear and the story wouldn’t make sense unless I posted the names involved. We try to pick the ones that are most original that make some sense, that are realistic.
Do you see these stories as good indications of how the business really is or are these outliers?
For the most part, you’re dealing with competency and people who know what they’re doing. The stuff that comes on the website is really the exception, the crazy ones.
It seems like the posts on the site break down into two basic camps: people who are trying to guide you through the writing process and people who want to make your script more marketable. Is that a fair assessment?
Yeah. The ones that have been in the middle just aren’t that interesting to post. They’re not funny. I publish the ones that get our attention, so people get to see the crazy stuff that happens to writers.
Have you ever gotten a note where it seemed crazy at first, but then made more sense the more that you thought about it?
I have, but I haven’t posted those. I’ve been here for a few years and I’ve gotten some notes that have helped me learn about the craft that have made a lot more sense.
What kind of feedback do you get on your own writing that you find least helpful?
When people say what others think, like their spouse didn’t like the title. It’s not really objective when they have a feeling it shouldn’t work or a character should do something else without arguing for it.
Some of the more recent posts have been words of wisdom labeled “Story Notes From Hell.” Is that intended to be advice from you?
Most of them are mine, and some are from a writer friend who’s been advising me for a while. It just adds something new, other than the notes and dialogue. Hopefully, it adds a thought to see how other writers respond to it, if they agree or not.
In some of the posts, you mention that something the person said has caused you to leave the project. Does that give you a sense of accomplishment, knowing when to walk away or does it bum you out that some people are so outlandish that you can’t change it?
I’ve only quit once. The other ones were from other writers. I’ve spoken to writers who seem to be proud to quit, not to just get in and do something they don’t believe in. On the other hand, those are established writers. I can imagine if someone is just starting out, the money is quite tempting to obey orders and do what they tell you.
Another way that these posts seem to break down is between people trying to foster your writing and people trying to actively insert their own ideas. Do you see a difference between the two?
Of course. The question is, are their ideas good or bad for the story. With general advice, they’re trying to help, whether it’s fellow writers or producers. But when it comes to notes, especially producers, they have their own money and time invested in it, so I can certainly understand they would want it their way.
A few of the notes seem to center around things that producers have read in screenwriting books. Is that a common type of feedback that you get?
They’ve read a screenwriting book, and they want you to follow what every book says. That rarely works, from my own experience. Following everything too closely to some manual or point-by-point just ends up being predictable. You still have to follow certain rules of plot and character development, but I don’t believe in following some checkbox or following a book blindly.
Do you take these kinds of notes differently than you did when you first started writing for film?
As I learn more, I know how to read into the notes and what to take from them. When I first started out, the notes were discouraging, but now I’m a lot smarter about how to use them and discuss with whoever’s on the other end.
Some of these are from people working with indie filmmakers and some are with major studios. Do see a difference?
I think so. Especially independent producers who are just starting out who think they know what sells and what’s interesting.
Is there any chance that, in five years, you look back at something on the site and see it as really valuable?
It could happen. I’m still learning. I’ve had advice that seemed good and now that I know more, I realize it really isn’t. There’s a lot of advice that I thought was silly, but now it makes a lot of sense. Something that I find hilarious now might turn out to be a good piece of advice later on.