Screenwriters Anonymous pt.2: Sustainably Sourced Feedback

How to handle feedback ☛

Readers of my previous piece will have swallowed their pride and sought feedback on their screenplays from carefully selected readers, whom they have taken pains to approach with an attitude of open enquiry (you have done that, haven’t you?) But what happens next? Is it just a case of getting the feedback and making the changes? There’s a bit more to it than that…

How you get a reader’s response is important. Ideally this should happen face-to-face; you get twice as much value from getting script feedback in person. The key advantage to a personal meeting is interactivity: you can get the sense from a reader’s manner and tone of how big a problem they feel any point to be. More importantly, however you can quiz them on their thoughts more easily and much more fully.

A typical face-to-face meeting

A personal meeting also gives you a greater opportunity to express your gratitude to them for helping you with your screenplay. Arrange to meet at a place convenient to them and buy them a coffee or a drink – show them how much you appreciate their input. Apart from being common courtesy, you may want to call on them to read another draft or script for you in the future. It’s vital that you make giving you feedback a pleasant experience. Do it right: they’ll not only feel the warmth of your gratitude, they’ll feel that they’re an insightful person who understands stories; they might even feel that they’ve played an important part in making a film happen. If they’ve give you good comments, this may well be true!

If a face-to-face meeting just isn’t possible, the next best thing would be something like a Skype or other video call. This allows you many of the face-to-face advantages of a personal meeting but without the opportunity of cake-buying; if your reader is pushed for time this may be the best option for them. If even a video call isn’t possible, a phone call is a possible substitute. Again it allows for a proper conversation, but with a bit less opportunity to read the person who’s read your script.

Dr Heywood R. Floyd uses Skype 1.0 to give his daughter feedback on her school play

Unfortunately the most common form of script feedback is written notes. While this leaves you with a handy reference to the reader’s thoughts, you lose out on a lot of interactivity. Unless the reader is a writer or a script professional themselves, they may not be as eloquent as you need them to be at writing notes. You want to be able to draw out of them what they really thought about the script – they say they didn’t like the character Frank, but he’s not meant to be likable. Have they had the response you’re looking for or did they just not find Frank interesting or believable? You need to know which, if the note is to be useful.

With professional script readers it’s most likely that you’ll be stuck with email feedback but, if they’re any good, they’ll be able to express their thoughts in a way that doesn’t need too much explanation. Even so, it might be worth clarifying up front whether they’re able to meet in person and, if not, whether they’re prepared to answer any questions you might have about their comments.

Okay, let’s imagine you’ve secured a face-to-face meeting with your reader (whoever they are) and you have them sitting the other side of a frappuccino and a piece of carrot cake. As they talk it’s important to take notes, even if they’ve already prepared a sheet of comments for you. Things will inevitably come up during the meeting that will throw new light on the script, both for you and for them. Writing notes allows you to take down your understanding of their comments, which you can then compare with what they’ve written in notes they may have prepared before the meeting. Writing notes will also show your reader that you’re listening to what they have to say and taking it seriously. If you don’t feel the need to take notes – do it anyway.

The wrong response to criticism

It’s also good to have some questions of your own prepared. Try to phrase these in as neutral manner as possible, so as not to lead your reader’s response. Usually best to save up these comments until after they’ve said their piece. Be careful also to be open and encouraging in your body language and tone of voice throughout the feedback session. If you are expressing resistance, verbally or non-verbally, a reader will sense your unpreparedness to receive certain kinds of comment and will close up themselves accordingly (this is a fault of which I am still occasionally guilty).

Once you’ve got your reader’s comments and said thank you very much and goodbye, you’ve got to decide what to do with their notes. For me most comments fall into one of three categories:

  • Gold dust – why didn’t I think of that? It’s so obvious!
  • Interesting. I can understand why the reader felt that, although I’m not sure whether I feel that myself.
  • Nonsense. Clearly they’ve misunderstood the story or the tone.

Gold dust comments speak for themselves, although sometimes they can be fool’s gold. Some suggestions sound great in discussion, but as soon as you try to put them into practice you notice that they cause other problems elsewhere in the story.

Interesting comments are worth saving up. If you’ve given two or three readers the same draft and you’re getting the same surprising comment from two or more, then you’re going to have to think carefully about that point. If that comment keeps on coming, draft after draft, it’s clearly something that you’ve got to fix. If it only comes up once, it might just be down to a personal bugbear, prejudice or hang-up of that particular person. All readers, no matter how professional, have little quirks in their feedback – things they’ll identify as problems that are fine for everybody else. Generally these comments are best ignored. If you come back to that reader with a subsequent script you’ll find yourself able to anticipate the idiosyncrasies of their comments and filter them out.

Surprisingly, comments in the third category, ‘nonsense’, can be the most useful. Usually they mean that you’ve not expressed your intentions to the reader clearly enough, and they’ve got hold of the wrong end of the stick. If you can explain (gently, you don’t want to make them feel stupid,) why their comment is surprising to you, there’s a good chance that the scales will fall from their eyes and they’ll tell you how they arrived at their misconception. The new context this provides may also cause them to nullify some of their other notes, which were based on the same misunderstanding. It may also unlock useful new comments or questions based on the reader’s clearer understanding of the story.

It is also possible that nonsense comments might come from an inexperienced reader unfamiliar with screenplays, or even the reader skimming through the script in an inattentive rush on the way to meeting you. Of course you can’t know unless they fess up, but it’s worth assuming that any comments you’ve been given have been mentioned for a good reason. Anything that prompts you to clarify your story is a good thing.

The real trick to getting the best out of feedback is to find a way to divorce comments that suggest problems from comments that suggest solutions. Creative readers, fellow writers, and those who fancy themselves writers, will offer suggestions as to how you could improve the script. While some such suggestions might be good, many of them will just feel wrong. What you really need to know is why the reader is offering that suggestion in the first place. It’s the reader’s role to throw you problems, not solutions. Look at their suggestion and try to imagine what they think is missing in your script that they feel their idea might help to fill. Suggestions are only sometimes useful; understanding a problem is always useful.

Finally, you need to be able to decide which notes to act on and which to ignore. This partly depends on how far down the line with the script you are: by draft 10 you’re probably not going to want to go back to the drawing board. With your first draft you can afford to be more open. You need to find a balance between stubborn refusal to believe that there is anything wrong with your script on the one hand, and being a feather to every wind that blows on the other. Judging that balance is something you can’t be taught – it only comes with experience. All I will say is that the more confident I become as a writer, the more open I become to feedback.

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011

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Comments
4 Responses to “Screenwriters Anonymous pt.2: Sustainably Sourced Feedback”
  1. Gavin Boyter says:

    All very clear and sensible Guy. Will Part Three relate to round-table readings, which can often offer very useful feedback? Or will this be the subject of a future article?

    • guyducker says:

      I have to confess that I hadn’t seen table readings as part of this series, but you’re right it would make a very good subject for an article. Thanks for the suggestion!

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