In a notes session, “starting with the positives” is the animal wrangling equivalent of approaching slowly and speaking in a calm, soothing voice. It’s designed to relax the intended victim, lull them into a false sense of security.
Then, the second they let their guard down, they’re ensnared, bagged, and shipped off to some zoo where they’ll spend the rest of their lives waiting for the man with the yellow hat to bring more bananas and wondering how it all went wrong. Or working on a script rewrite.
Like most defenseless animals, writers are easily spooked and one whiff of danger is enough to send them scurrying for the safety of the high branches, or the bathroom, so that positive opening is de rigueur. “Hey, the script was a lot of fun. I just have a few thoughts”, “A terrific first effort! Great dialogue. Now, if you could just make a few adjustments…” Or “Nicely formatted. Your grammar is beyond reproach. As for the rest of it – well, you may want to cancel that weekend trip.”.
Starting with the positives can only mean one of two things: 1) They generally liked the script or 2) They generally hated it. Those initial positives tell you nothing. It’s the negatives that will give you a real sense of what they really thought of your script.
For instance, if their notes are few and/or capable of being easily incorporated into the next draft, then chances are they generally liked the script. If, on the other hand, your notes session…
a) at any time finds you raising your voice in defense to the point where you sound like classic SNL’s Mr. Bill…
b) runs roughly as long as it took you to write the script in the first place, and/or….
c) includes the phrase “What were you thinking?”, then chances are they didn’t love the script and you’re going to have your work cut out for you.
My advice for taking notes is to not lose your shit. Remain calm. And polite. Be receptive to their input. Ask for clarification if need be. But do NOT commit to anything!
Then ask them to forward you their notes so that you can review and obsess over them in private. Take the time to thoughtfully consider their input, come up with a game plan, and then respond with what I like to call Notes on Notes, again, requesting clarity when necessary, offering suggestions for how to best address their concerns, offering reasoned pushback on some points, and perhaps inquiring if they were joking or high when they gave THAT particular note.
Occasionally, you will come across a note so alarming, so batshit crazy or narratively destructive that it may reduce you to tears or trigger an expletive-laden outburst that will have your neighbors steering their children indoors.
In those instances, I urge you to look for “the spirit of the note”. What is their issue with the script that prompted this wild suggestion? Identify it and find a way to address it that won’t require you to disassemble the current draft.
Finally, remind yourself that notes are delivered out of a desire to make your script even better. And, occasionally, that will only happen if the end of your second act becomes the end of your tease.