Screenwriters Anonymous

Script feedback – how, when and why? ☛

I love screenwriting. It’s both the most important and the cheapest part of film-making, in some ways the most fun but definitely the hardest. To give you a sense of how hard, two of the worst scripts to have been filmed in the UK in recent times, in my opinion, are Glorious 39 and Cassandra’s Dream. Both were by award-winning writers with dozens of successful projects to their names. How could they screw up so badly? I don’t know for sure. But I have worked with a number of senior industry figures whose success and seniority have encouraged them to relax into the belief that they are innately right. They ask for no opinions and nobody feels they have the credentials to stand against them. If you’re to avoid making embarrassing mistakes, you’re going to need to park your pride and fill in those plot-holes before the Time Out critic slams into you. Remember, by definition you don’t have the clearest perspective on your script.

I’ve written about getting feedback before and, as with screen-testing, you need to have a strategy. When to ask for help with your screenplay; who to approach; and how to ask them. Get it right and you’ll fast track your script to success; get it wrong and you’ll waste opportunities, get dispirited and possibly find yourself taking the story in the wrong direction.

The first thing is knowing when to ask: when is your script ready to show? If you can think of  further improvements , you better do them before sending it out. By getting feedback that tells you to do something that you were planning to do anyway, you’re wasting your time and that of your reader. When you have no further ideas, that’s a sign it’s time to get feedback. Try to ensure that you’ve expressed your intentions as clearly as you can and have given as many pointers as possible as to what sort of film you intend it to be. This will help clear up a lot of confusions.

Next decide who to ask. And here’s the good news – pretty much anyone can give you some level of help, they don’t need to have read a single book on screenwriting; they don’t even need to be in the business. Everyone knows when a story’s not working. Plus the business itself is full of people who are only too happy to read your script. So you could approach friends and family, fellow filmmakers, mentors or producers and you might need to approach them all during the life of your script, but you need to approach each at the right time.

The last person in the queue is the producer: everything leads up to that approach because it can happen only once. Few producers will read more than one draft of your script unless they really like it in the first instance. Professional producers can get sent a dozen scripts a week and few can afford a development team to help them with that reading pile. Few producers can afford to say ‘yes’ to more than three of those scripts in a year. To those scripts they do pick up, they’ll probably have to dedicate the next two or three years of their lives. The bar is high. You need to have used up all the tools at your disposal getting your script as good as possible before it hits that producer’s desk.

It’s important only to approach readers who you think would or should enjoy your film. Your Farrelly Brothers-loving friend is unlikely to give you the best perspective on your adaptation of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Generally I find it best to approach several readers at a time – three works well. This way you can triangulate the feedback – work out the problems on which everyone agrees and isolate those that feel a bit left-field. It may be, of course, that you don’t know enough people who would read a script for you to do this. If so, save up your resources because it’s also important to keep back a fresh pair of eyes for the next draft.

Lucy V. Hay - an example of a script editor

Professional script readers can be well-worth approaching. While their services are not always cheap, using them is a good way to get a completely dispassionate response. Testing your idea against someone in the industry who doesn’t know you personally is a good dry run for approaching a producer – many of them have worked or do work as readers or development people for production companies, so they read scripts with a similar pair of eyes to those of a producer. Professional readers also know the quality and subject matters of scripts doing the rounds, so can provide you with valuable insight as to where your script sits in the marketplace. Two readers I’d recommend are Lucy V. Hay and Katie Boyles. Another option is the BBC Writer’s room – they will read any script they’re sent for free but they’ll only guarantee to read the first ten pages (they’ll read more and give you feedback if they like what they’ve read by page 10) and they can take a long time to get back to you.

BBC Writers' Room - lovely helpful people

Okay, you’re ready to send out the script, but how you make this approach will affect how quickly you hear back from your readers and possibly even the quality of response you get. Remember you’re asking for a favour and it might involve someone dedicating half a day and a lot of attention to your work. Even if you’re asking a good friend or a family member, exactly how you approach them is still important. When asking for feedback be sure to tell people what the script is, give them a sense of how long it is and where it’s at in its life – first draft or final tweaks. If you need feedback in a tight timeframe, be sure to mention this in your initial approach and ask if they might be able to get back to you by next Wednesday. Generally you need to make sure that your reader knows what’s expected of them, and what they’re letting themselves in for: a brief outline or a 150 page epic. Do not send them the file in the same email in which you ask them to read the script – this can come across as overly pushy or presumptuous. Be open in your language – you want feedback, so don’t tell them how pleased you are with your script. Tell them how much you value their opinion and how grateful you would be if they’d agree to help you. This should go without saying, but given the number of times I’ve been sent scripts with the implicit suggestion that I’m privileged to be given a glimpse into the writer’s genius, I feel it to be worthy of mention. Your aim is to persuade your reader to actively want to read your script and be helpful to you.

Final checks:

How a professionally formatted script looks

  • Make sure the script is as readable as possible – you may have written some things in a shorthand way, either because you’re not sure of them or because you want to power through to the end. Try to flesh these out before you send it out.
  • If it’s going out to industry folk, make damn sure it’s correctly formatted. Poor formatting dents your credibility and that of your script.
  • Best sent it out as a PDF if you can – this will ensure that the pagination stays the same.
  • Ensure the date or number of the draft is clearly marked, (both in the file name and on the title page – most people still print out scripts to read them).
  • Same goes for page numbers – if someone’s going to give you a specific comment you need to be talking about the same page numbers.

Hit ‘send’.

Once you’ve sent off your script it’s a good idea to check that it’s arrived. Email programs do occasionally block large attachments. More than once I’ve waited for a month before chasing for feedback only to be told that my script was never received (not always true, I suspect, but getting confirmation deprives people of an excuse).

In my next article I’ll be suggesting way of dealing with feedback when you get it.

Before I go, however, there is one important issue that I’ve sidestepped: morale. Writing takes a great deal of emotional courage and while you can’t be too easy on yourself – God knows the business shows no mercy – you have to be careful not to elicit feedback that’s stronger than you can stomach. At least not at first. It can be tough for first-time writers, easier for you to have your confidence knocked, but it is an issue that affects us all. So remember to balance your industry bulldogs with an occasional kindly friend who will encourage you to push on. The best feedback in the world is useless to you if you’ve lost your will to write.

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011

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Comments
5 Responses to “Screenwriters Anonymous”
  1. Interesting stuff, Guy, especially about “senior industry figures who … ask for no opinions and nobody feels they have the credentials to stand against them.” From critical acclaim to self-indulgent crap is a well worn path that’s been trodden by many talented writers. Especially if they direct their own stuff. Where’s the objectivity? But if they don’t direct their own stuff they’d go insane watching another director wrecking their vision. What a nightmare. Have coal miners any idea how hard life is in the real and gritty world of artistic endeavour? Have they any conception how dangerous it might prove, unless surrounded by hired muscle, to tell Poliakoff, “Stevie love, this script of yours for Glorious 39. It just ain’t working. Here are my notes. Major rewrite asap, please.” But SP’s written some brilliant stuff, so I guess he’s allowed the occasional dud. It’s possible Shakespeare’s producer thought Hamlet should lighten up a little, but I’m assuming he never dared tell him.

  2. John J says:

    Love the insight. I would like to add, while I can certainly see the benefits of getting feedback from people who aren’t in the industry, it can also be difficult if they’re not accustomed to reading screenplays. The format can seem a bit jarring to those who are used to novels or short stories. When I was getting ready to start my first screenplay, I went through and read every screenplay I could get my hands on. I started with the Coen Brothers and my initial thought was that it was hard to read and follow. I read about twenty more screenplays and become more accustomed to the format, upon returning to more Coen Brothers screenplays, I realized how well written they were-they have great rhythm and in general, are a very easy read. Anyway, another factor to keep in mind.

  3. Mark says:

    Nice Article!

    Lucy V Hay has given me feedback on a few of my scripts and always done a good job.

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