How to Get the Most
By David Trottier
Virtually all screenwriters seek feedback on their work before they begin marketing it. Whether that feedback comes from a writer’s group, a fellow writer, a story analyst, or a paid script consultant, it’s important to maximize the benefits of that feedback.
Evaluating the evaluation
First of all, the feedback you receive is not the final word on your script. If the feedback comes from a working writer or a paid consultant, read the comments carefully. After all, this person has viewed your work through the lens of experience; his or her comments are worth serious consideration and reflection. At the same time, if a suggested change doesn’t feel right, don’t make it just because it came from a pro.
Upon receiving notes from anyone, evaluate your feelings about those notes. The truth often hits hard. You need to decide if that feeling you have is an inner recognition that the comment is “right on” or if that feeling is a signal that the comment is not right for your story. And it is your story, not the reader’s.
The most common comment I hear from clients goes something like this: “Dave, I kinda knew that already. I just needed someone to tell me.” I hear that comment so often that I’ve concluded that virtually all writers (especially those with some writing experience) have an inner sense of what is working and what is not working. Listen to what Joseph Conrad called the “inner voice that knows,” but at the same time, make sure that voice is revealing dramatic truth and is not just an emotional reaction to your hurt pride or an excuse to avoid the pain of another revision.
You will gain much more from an evaluation if you approach it with an open heart rather than with a defensive mind. That’s easy to say and hard to do. If you feel your “baby” is being attacked, that feeling almost always results from a misperception. That consultant or fellow writer is likely trying to help you, so reframe your perception of the feedback process.
If you receive comments from more than one person, as in a writers group, then look for patterns in the comments. If two or more people react to your scene in the same way, give those comments greater weight. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are right, just that they have the same perception of what you have written.
A few script consultants allow you to call back with questions. In those situations, use that follow-up time wisely by having on hand a list of questions and concerns with the meatier ones at the top of the list. In some cases, you may want to ask the consultant for a clarification of what he meant by a particular comment. This conference is really a story meeting about how to improve the characters and the story for maximum impact on the next reader.
You may also want to discuss proposed changes. Such exchanges often bear additional fruit. I have many fond memories of discussions resulting in new and wonderful ideas that may not have otherwise occurred. In a recent discussion, my client was listing ways to make her character more active, especially in the third act. I mentioned that, in a way, the movie really belonged to another character. And she said, “What if I made him the central character?” And then pieces starting falling into place for her.
If you are in conference with a writer’s group, your attitude needs to reflect complete openness. You want to encourage comments even if they are hard to swallow. It’s not the time to defend your work; instead, gather all the intelligence you can. Later, you can evaluate that intelligence.
For that reason, I don’t recommend a written response to a script evaluation unless you are overseas and it’s problematic making a phone call (although there is always Skype). I state that because, in my experience, most written responses are generally just rebuttals and defenses that seldom lead to a productive exchange and which often get mired in unimportant details. You paid good money for the consulting time, why spend it explaining and defending? On the other hand, there are situations where it helps to explain your intent to a consultant or fellow writer in case he or she missed that or to get a reaction.
Once you have revised your script based on comments from your writers group, a fellow writer, or a script consultant, you may want a second round of feedback. Before asking for that feedback, make sure your revision is substantive. I have often found that changes based on a previous evaluation are cosmetic in nature.
Recently, a screenwriter told me, “Well, Dave, I added a scene between Molly and Jim to give the script ‘heart.’” Well, does that scene move the story forward or is it just there so two characters can emote? Maybe you need to tweak or revise every scene Molly and Jim are in. Maybe Molly and Jim themselves could use a makeover.
When I evaluate a script a second time, I do not read my previous evaluation because sometimes revisions made invalidate comments I made in the first evaluation. After all, it is a new story now with characters that have been redrawn. In my opinion, your reader needs to see the revised script as a new work.
In any situation where your work is being critiqued or where you are receiving notes, stay focused on the goal of crafting a work that is both worthy of praise and marketable. I wish you the best in that effort.