The difference between mediocre screenwriting and solid screenwriting often comes down to the screenwriter knowing the difference between what’s working in her script and what’s not.
Beyond the various euphemisms for cutting your favorite moments (e.g. “Killing your darlings, ” or its less popular counterpart, “Drowning your puppies/kittens”), there comes a time when you need other people to look at your screenplay and offer their input. When they say nice things, it feels amaze-balls, but when they say not nice things— when their opinion is that something is rotten in your Denmark — that can hurt. It can hurt real bad. And if you’re not prepared for that blow to the “feels,” your screenplay may never recover.
Learning how to “take a hit,” or receive criticism, is something all successful artists must learn, whether they’re screenwriters or directors or musicians, or anyone working creatively. Being able to accept and evaluate critique is essential to the artist’s improvement.
Detach from your screenplay before receiving script notes or coverage
Defanging the criticism is an important step in evaluating it fairly for its merits. To begin with, if your script is at the stage where outside input is being asked, then you need to have an emotional detachment from your work. The work.
Remember, when the screenplay is sold, it won’t be your baby anymore. The filmmaking craft is collaborative, no matter how singular the vision of the screenwriter. If you want a pure interpretation of your vision, take up sculpting.
Being able to separate yourself from the material is vital if you’re committed to feedback and critique.
“Cherry pick” the script notes that work best for you, but choose wisely
Another key mindset for making the most out of screenplay feedback and script notes is to remember that not every critique is worth considering.
Knowing when to dismiss certain script notes is essential to becoming a better screenwriter. But how does a writer cherry pick her feedback?
Let’s imagine you’ve submitted your script to a half-dozen friends and fellow creatives, and maybe a service or two. Those folks read your script and provide you with a stack of notes ranging from glowingly positive to some half-baked ignorant slop put out by one of the dozens of fly-by-night script coverage “experts” who haunt the internet. Now you’ve got the unenviable task of sorting through these opinions searching for ways to improve.
Criteria, in the form of questions to ask of your feedback, to help sort the cherries from the chaff:
- Who’s writing the feedback? Is it a friend who’s a casting agent, who’s been in the business 40 years? Or is it Matt, the intern?
- Is the overall critique intelligent and cogent? Or does it read like some angry movie reviewer wrote it?
- Does it feel like the person giving the feedback really read your material? Or does it feel like they skimmed? That is, do they miss obvious points? (Keep in mind, though, just because you might think you’ve conveyed a certain point very clearly, it doesn’t mean you have. You’ve been living with the script for X number of months of years, so certain things are perfectly clear to you, when they might not be for a first-time reader.)
Cherry picking is really all about choosing the advice you agree with or the suggestions that make sense to you, and ignoring the rest.
But alas, a caveat: If you cherry pick notes from multiple readers, certain notes might not sync so well.
For example, what if one script reader sees it as a horror comedy and the other a psychological thriller? That can be a pretty wide gap. So be careful. Cherry-picking between these two very different visions of your screenplay might result in a mish-mash of recommendations that might not jibe tonally.
Look for script notes that repeat from reader to reader
When looking at all of the script notes, it’s a good idea to notice when the different interpretations overlap or find common ground. This can feel good and affirming when several readers report that they love a certain scene or character, but it can also result in everyone noticing that typo on page 3. (You know the one.)
The overlaps you really want to watch for are the places where the readers see a problem but don’t seem to offer a solution. That is, notes where they say something is wrong but offer no solutions or ideas on how to make it right.
While this sounds like the opposite of helpful, it’s actually one of the best notes a writer can get.
Why? Because if one script reader says your script has a specific problem and recommends a specific solution, that could mean that there’s a genuine problem and there’s just one obvious way to fix it — the reader’s way.
Or, it could mean that the problem isn’t with the script itself, but with that particular script reader’s vision of your script.
But if multiple script readers point out a problem and can’t come up with a solution, then it’s much more likely the problem really is a problem, and not a matter of the reader’s vision of the script competing with yours.
That means there’s more work to be done, but that’s a good thing, because if you’re “losing” multiple people due to a certain scene or moment in your screenplay, you can bet others will have a similar reaction. Recognize such patterns in the script notes and act on them. I know. More work. But they say “writing is rewriting” for a reason.
So to sum up: accepting and utilizing script feedback is all about detaching from your screenplay, picking the notes you agree with, being open to the ones you don’t agree with, and then looking for patterns and repeating notes from different readers. Most importantly, be open to suggestions and ideas. Don’t close yourself off. The point of receiving script notes or coverage is to improve your script. The more you do that, you’ll find it’s not just your scripts that are improving, but it’s you improving as well.