Question from Alejandro:
My question is related to feedback, not just studio notes but all kinds of feedback – from other writers, friends. How would you recommend handling feedback? I’ve seen cases where the script gets worse, not better – because they accept every comment. And the opposite – where the writer doesn’t want to make a change that most of the others writers think would benefit the script.
So, any tips for working with feedback you receive? How do you deal with it?
This is a really good question because as you suggest, Alejandro, if a writer follows the advice of someone whose feedback is wrong, that can only hurt the story. On the other hand, what if a writer receives solid suggestions that can improve the story, but the writer refuses to incorporate them, resulting in an inferior script. Different sides of the same coin. Let’s work our way through this.
First and foremost, everything depends upon the quality of the feedback. So if you choos to solicit reactions to a draft, you need to seek out professional quality advice. That does not necessarily mean the reader is a professional writer, however they have to be informed enough about the craft or at the very least Story so their observations come from a high level of understanding. On the other hand, while one could assume that most professional writers have a solid grasp on the craft, there are some who just aren’t all that good at assessing other peoples’ material. But whatever you do, you should focus on sourcing and vetting the people you use to read your material so that you have a high degree of trust and confidence that the feedback you receive represents solid insight and ideas.
Next question: Should you solicit more than one reader’s opinion? In general, I would say yes. However this can become problematic if you receive widely disparate opinions and suggestions from multiple sources. Of course, that could be a critique of the underlying material, how there’s not a underlying coherence to the story which steers readers down one path. But it could also be that each reader has such a distinctive world view, their takes are just bound to be substantially different. Personally I think three readers is the max for any given story. Beyond that, you increase the odds the feedback will be widely divergent in nature.
Another question: Should you seek out opinions from readers who are fans of and/or knowledgeable about the genre in which the story has been written? If you are working on a genre piece — let’s say Action, Horror, Science Fiction — it’s probably wise to get at least some feedback from someone who does traffic in that genre. On the other hand, it’s not a bad idea to get a read from someone who is not a fan of the genre, just to see how the characters and story tracks with a person who represents a wider audience.
Of course, the big unspoken question is this: How to source good, quality readers? One approach is to pay professional readers. Another approach is to find or create a writers group… ultimately this should be your goal, in my opinion. In either case, I recommend The Black Board, the Official Writing Community of the Black List and Go Into The Story. Spend some time there (by the way, it’s entirely free) on the forums, get to know folks, participate in conversations. There are forums where you can actually see the type and quality of analysis going on. For example, the Logline Workshop. Or discussions of current movies. You can also ask advice about professional readers and obtain opinions from the Black Board community to help steer you toward reliable people. But per the point of finding or starting a writers’ group, if you spend enough time being an active, supportive participant, and you find a few writers who impress you in terms of their analytical skill, you can approach them about some sort of reading arrangement: You’ll read their pages if they read yours.
The value of a writers group cannot be overstated. Many of the professional writers I know have some type of group they are connected to, informal or formal. To be a participant with a set of writers whose story analysis judgement you trust can be a huge benefit on current and future projects.
So that’s that on sourcing potential readers. What about if you are a receptive type to a fault, incorporating every suggestion? This can be a major issue because a script should have a story that represents a single voice. If you are attempting to accommodate multiple perspectives, your voice is likely to be obliterated.
What this means is that at some point, you have to trust your gut. And what that means is you have to have done enough work in getting to know the story universe, its characters, and immersed yourself in the narrative so you have a firm grasp on what you want, even if only intuitively. It’s also critical that you remember what it was that attracted you to the story in the first place. Those initial instincts can represent something pure and essential, so having those written out in a script diary or brainstorming list can be a helpful touchstone in assessing feedback that comes your way. But again, ultimately you have to make sure the story has a coherence tied to you fundamental take on the material. Otherwise your voice is likely to be lost.
As far as the writer who is resistant to changing his/her story? Passion for the material is a good thing. Stubbornness oftentimes is not. This is especially true with screenplays which are part of a collaborative process we call filmmaking. You have to be able to step back from your story and look at it with an objective eye, or at least as objective as possible. Remember: The critique is about the story, not you. It’s not a personal thing, although at times it may feel like it. Rather it’s all about the story, trying to make it the best damn thing possible.
Bottom line: Do some thinking about what type of writer you are relative to feedback. If you are resistant to outside opinions and changing your words, you likely need to work on that and become more open-minded. Writing several scripts and having them reviewed by professional script readers will help to disabuse you of your pretensions. If on the other hand you are easily swayed by opinions, make sure you are in touch with the key foundational elements of your story and protect them as fiercely as possible.
And by all means, try to find, join, or create a writers group, making sure the participants have story analytical skills you can trust.
GITS readers, what suggestions do you have? Please click on Reply and head to comments to carry on the conversation.