Feedback is a vitally important element of the screenwriting process -- without it, you will never know if your work is connecting with readers and audiences the way you want it to. For this reason, you should incorporate the obtaining of feedback into your writing process from the very beginning.
Start by pitching your premise to a few trusted listeners before you start writing. A well-conceived concept should be able to be clearly explained in a few concise and tightly focused sentences. If you are unable to express your premise this succinctly, or if your listeners don’t understand your sentences, then you may have some fine-tuning to do before you begin scribbling.
Once you have completed an initial draft, give your script to a few people to read and comment upon. It’s important that the people you choose are ones who will be able to read and analyze your piece with an objective eye and who will give you honest and constructive criticism. For this reason, I recommend that you seek out fellow writers and industry colleagues rather than simply handing your work over to friends and family members. Your dear aunt Sally may be a lovely person, but the odds are that she doesn’t have a solid grasp of the three-act structure, character arcs, or visual expository techniques. Also, she probably won’t tell you if there’s anything in your script that she doesn’t like because she loves you and doesn’t want to hurt your feelings. So, go to Sally for chocolate chip cookies, but go to your professional compatriots for creative input.
(If you don’t happen to know any other writers or industry-types, trusted acquaintances who don’t mind being blunt will do.)
Getting good feedback should be a proactive process. Don’t just hand your script to a few friends and then sit back and wait for general, generic responses such as “I liked it -- it was good,” or “I hated it -- it was bad.” These sort of responses are not helpful because they are not specific. Instead, you should direct the obtaining of feedback just as you direct every other phase of your writing.
• To begin with, don’t prep your readers. Simply give them your script and ask them to read it cold, without you telling them what it’s about or what you’re trying to achieve. That way, their reactions will be completely pure and they won’t read anything into the piece that isn’t there or couch their responses to tell you what you are hoping to hear.
• When your analysts have finished reading your piece, ask them to tell you your story. If the tale they tell is the one you thought you were writing, then you’re in good shape. If it bears little or no resemblance to your saga, then you may have some work to do. Then, ask your analysts some specific questions about your piece -- ask them to identify the main character and describe his or her arc; next ask them to identify the main theme of the piece as well as the highlights of the story -- the most exciting action set pieces, the funniest comedic bits, the tensest suspense sequences, the most horrific scares, and the weepiest emotional moments. If the elements your readers identify are the ones you planned for, then your script is working. If they’re not, then it’s back to the word processor.
• Once your analysts have responded, analyze their analysis. If one person has a problem with some aspect of your script, then it could just be that person’s individual issue. However, if a number of people have the same problem, then it’s likely that the fault lies with the script and will need to be addressed.
The most important thing to do with feedback is to listen to it. Writing is really hard and by the time an author finishes a draft, he or she is in no mood to hear that there’s a problem with their brainchild. Many tend to rationalize away criticism because they just can’t bear the thought of opening the whole story up and starting all over again. Avoid this impulse at all costs, because if you don’t, you may sabotage yourself in the long run.
After you have made sense of your analysts’ assessments, revise your script based on them and then repeat this process each time you have completed a new draft so that you can make sure that you stay on track. When the script has been finished to your satisfaction, hold a table reading so that you can hear the dialogue spoken aloud to get a sense of how the scenes play and the characters interact when the piece is actually performed. You will discover that some of your material works much better than you ever could have dreamed when it is brought to life; and you will discover that some of your material doesn’t pop quite as well in 3-D as it did on the page.
When you think you are finally ready to send your baby out to potential buyers, consider first submitting it to a professional script consultant or a reputable coverage service. This way you can get an industry-level assessment of your piece prior to exposing it to the scrutiny of the industry. Remember, you only get one chance to make a first impression and you want to be sure that you’ve caught and addressed any red flags before handing your script over to the people that will ultimately decide its fate.
Ray Morton is a writer and script consultant. His books Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg's Classic Film and King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson are available in stores and online. He analyzes screenplays for production companies, producers, and individual writers. Morton is available for consultation and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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