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Sunday, December 13, 2009

I've been giving feedback in various forms for perhaps 20 years. Because I do script evaluations over the Internet, in addition to my work for producers, I'm can run across wildly irregular material. Working with both professionals and aspiring writers has taught me a few things about giving effective feedback.

What do you do when you come across a bad script from a friend or colleague, and you want to be honest without being destructive?

When I do notes, the first draft can occasionally be horribly negative. I go through the script making little "oh, for heaven's sake!" notes to myself. There's nothing wrong with making this kind of note, so long as you don't communicate it to the writer. The notes are helpful because often I can figure out later on (from the ending of the script, or upon reflection) what the writer was trying to do. Often the writer's intentions become clearest where he succeeds least, because it's the most ambitious scenes that show what he was going for.

Then, after reading, I write up the main body of my notes. These are the real notes that I'll eventually send.

I try to always start with a compliment. We had a rule in our writing group back in LA that the entire first round had to be compliments. That helps prevent writer hara-kiri. In the rare cases where I can't find something I like about the craft -- an ear for dialog, or a clever twist -- I compliment the research, or the imagination, or how heartfelt the material is. Everyone has a tendency to jump in with criticism. If you start with something nice to say, the criticism will go down more smoothly.

Then I try to figure out what the movie is. No one writes a script without having a movie in their mind. They may not have got it on the page, but they had a vision in their mind. What was it? What is an even better version of that?

If you can make a really strong case for what the movie should be, then you can skip a good deal of your criticism; it becomes moot. I read a script recently where a lot of the scenes seemed irrelevant. But I could see that there was a potentially powerful relationship that wanted to be placed at the core of the movie; the story of that relationship was the movie the script wanted to be. So rather than saying, "a bunch of your scenes have got nothing to do with anything," I was able to say, "I think the core of the movie is the relationship between Parker and Schwartz, and if you focus on that relationship, you'll have a stronger movie." If the writer then puts the Parker-Schwartz relationship at the center of his storytelling, the irrelevant scenes will simply fall away.

If you can figure out what the movie is, and sell that movie back to the writer, then you can often skip as much as half of your criticisms. Say the movie is full of aimless scenes of dull dialog. But you've discovered a powerful story motor lurking in the background. ("I think that Kiki is really trying to get her ex-boyfriend to take her back.") If the writer brings the story motor into the foreground, that will tend to focus the dialog scenes. They won't be aimless any more. They likely will be less dull, too, since something will be going on in them.

I'd always rather say, "Here's the movie I think you're trying to write" than "the script you wrote sucks because here's why." And the former takes care of a good deal of the latter.

Note that I'm not saying, "I'd rather see a movie about Parker and Schwartz," or "If I were writing this, I'd throw all this stuff out and write about Parker and Schwartz." I'm saying, "It seems to me that the movie you're trying to tell is really about Parker and Schwartz. Their relationship propels the theme you seem to be interested in, and the failure of that relationship is what earns you the finale you wrote." You have to figure out the movie that the writer seems to be trying to write, even if he doesn't know it.

Sometimes, of course, you spot an opportunity for a stronger hook or a more accessible movie, but you can tell it's not what the writer has in mind. Then you have to say, "By the way, I think you're trying to write a dark movie about the futility of men's relationships,but if Schwartz was a girl, this could be a terrific rom-com, with a happier ending of course."

But leave it at that, and then move on to whatever the writer seems to be trying to achieve.

I think the most effective way to approach criticisms is to look at the elements of story. As I keep telling you guys, they are:

a. a character we care about
b. with an opportunity, problem or goal
c. who faces obstacles and/or an antagonist
d. who stands to win something he doesn't have (stakes)
e. and/or stands to lose something precious to him (jeopardy).

When scripts fail, at least 80% of the time they're failing because one of these elements isn't there or doesn't work. And it's amazing how many repercussions that has. A failure at the story level will take the fun out of your action sequences. It will sap the urgency and snap out of your dialog. It will make short scenes seem tedious.

For that matter, bad story elements almost always seem ruin your story structure. You would think you could theoretically craft a perfectly well-structured plot without stakes or jeopardy, or without knowing exactly what the heroine wants, but in practice, the writer senses that's something wrong, and starts throwing extraneous plot at the movie, trying to find what's missing, and sooner or later, the whole plot train derails as it goes searching for its missing elements.

Fix the story elements, and often the plot problems fix themselves, once you rewrite towards the revised story elements.

As you can tell, I think the key to good feedback is to say less rather than more, and to say positive constructive things rather than just pointing out what's not working. A good tennis pro won't fix your grip, your stance and your swing. A good tennis pro will fix your stance, and see if that fixes your grip and your swing.

Sometimes, of course, craft is lacking. The dialog may be bad because the writer just doesn't have an ear for dialog, or because he's not even a native speaker of English. At that point you do have to criticize. But even there, you can phrase a criticism positively rather than negatively. Compare these two remarks:

"All your characters sound the same."

"Try to give each character a distinctive voice."

These are basically the exact same idea. But one hurts. The other doesn't. The key to effective criticism is telling the writer what he could do better. No one likes being told they failed. But few people mind being encouraged to do better, especially if you tell them what the standard is, and how to get there:

"Try to give each character a distinctive voice. Ideally, you should be able to tell who's speaking just from the dialog, without seeing the character name. Look at each line, and see if there's some way you can tweak it so that it reveals something about the character's personality, in addition to communicating what they want to communicate. Tweak it so it sounds not only like something they would say, but something only they would say."

I usually wrap up my notes by giving a cleaned-up version of the page notes I wrote when I first read the script. I think it's helpful for the writer to know how the read went. I don't try to make myself look smarter than I am. If I missed something important, I'll leave in the notes that show my confusion (but with a parenthetical explaning that I got it later). After all, if I missed something important, maybe the writer should hang a lantern on it. Other readers will likely be reading less carefully than I am, after all. I'm getting paid to read, but they're working through the stack of reading that is keeping them from sleep and/or sex with their beloved. It's good for a writer to get a sense of how the read went.

One thing I never do is tell writers they're no good. I might say that the script is not there yet, or that the subject seems uncommercial. I might say they have a lot of craft they need to learn. But who's qualified to judge their potential? Maybe they need to write ten more scripts, and then they'll be good. George Lucas's early drafts of THE STAR WARS were horrible. I would hate anyone to read my early stuff. And suppose you're right, and they suck. So what? If they're a writer, they'll keep writing even if they suck. And now they're mad at you.

The final thing I do is sit on the notes for at least 24 hours. Often I come up with a much better way to put something, or a crucial insight, or even a "solution" for the movie, without even really trying to. I do a final pass, upgrading any remaining negative comments that might have slipped through, unpacking remarks that aren't clear, and adding in any new insights.

It's tempting to fire off notes right away, but hold off, just like you'd hold off sending anything you just wrote. You'd think people who are anxiously awaiting your notes would appreciate your speed, but if you turn notes around too fast, they feel you didn't spend enough time on them. And you'll always have more perspective the next day.

Everything I've read has a better version hidden within it. That's the version that's in the writer's head -- maybe only in the back of his mind -- trying to get onto the page. It may not be a movie -- sometimes it's a novel. Or a comic book. But there's always something better that just isn't on the page yet. If you can draw that out and sell it to the writer, then you're giving truly great notes.

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Great post. If I may criticize in a positive manner, I'd only say it's not long enough: Make this subject a whole screenwriting book. Writers who learn how to give notes get more from notes in return. Your knowledge in this area is remarkably good.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:45 PM  

Thank you, highmaintenance. But how do I pad this out to book length?

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 2:10 PM  

Excellent post. There is an art to giving story notes to make them both helpful and constructive to a writer. Otherwise, as you said, the writer gets defensive or defeated. In a way it's like directing actors -- the idea is not to tell them exactly how to play the scene or give line readings -- but for the director and actor to work together to help figure out the goals the character in the scene. (And I definitely second the idea of you writing a book...)

By Blogger VLucas, at 2:11 PM  

Fantastic post, you articulate exactly how I like to get notes and also I try to give them myself.

Too often, when I get notes, the notes focus on things not essential to the movie ... sometimes I want help focusing on that, rather than a character's name or footwear or whatever pet peeve the reader may have with a small thing ... I want help with the dna of the story at the heart of the movie, so I can get everything that doesn't contribute to the movie out of the way.

By Blogger Joshua James, at 3:11 PM  

The last script I read, the writer accidentally got a look at a page with a particularly bare knuckle evaluation of the ending- one that I had written for my own note taking and certainly not meant for general consumption.

Unexpectedly, he was happy with it and requested a chance to look over all the raw notes if he could.

As well as he took that one page, I think the liberal sprinkling of "WTF" and "seriously?" that I use to hang a flag on problems would have dampened his enthusiasm before too long.

It probably wouldn't help if I explained that it doesn't mean I think the script is bad or the writing is crap. It is just my shorthand for "it would help this sequence if it were made a bit clearer" and "do you think it is plausible for the character to do that given his history?".

It might help if I gave them a look at the notes I give to my own scripts. I don't give a crap if I hurt my own feelings and I certainly don't get the cushioning of an acronym when I find a WTF moment.

Oh, it looks like the link to your script evaluation page is broken or the page is munged in some way.

By Blogger Clint Johnson, at 9:27 PM  


Hey, maybe there isn't a whole book there. But this post left me feeling like their could be. And it would be different from all the other screenwriting books out there.

Maybe let it sit in the back of your head, and then, if another idea for a post on the subject comes to you, you post... And then you post another... etc.... And a year from now, you write me and say, "Wow, HMIG! There sure was enough for a whole book!"

Good luck, I'm rooting for you!

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:28 PM  

Great post! And a lot of times when something isn't working, the writer knows it on some level... I've never found notes identifying the symptoms of a problem very helpful - but notes dissecting the problem itself and suggesting solutions specific to the story often spark my own ideas for ways to solve the problem.

By Blogger Emma, at 12:33 AM  

Co-written with someone who was willing to have their draft savaged a few times, there's definitely a book there. It's a great post, and I imagine people would be excited to see it actually applied (with the bit of "behind the curtain" that implies). Tricky to pull off, sure, but I'd buy it.

-Rob D.

PS - If the collaborator could similarly take up the thread of "How to TAKE criticism"? Solid gold.

By Blogger Unknown, at 1:39 PM  

Wow, that hits home, especially this: Everything I've read has a better version hidden within it. That's the version that's in the writer's head -- maybe only in the back of his mind -- trying to get onto the page.

Thanks for that. I'm going off to ponder what version exists inside my head. And to see if I managed to accomplish that.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:44 PM  

Great post Alex! And yes I'd buy the book too.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:43 PM  

Glad to read this post, Alex, and look forward to trying out the advice here.

I like Rob's give-and-take-notes book idea - and I'll volunteer to get WTF'ed!

By Blogger Unknown, at 10:42 PM  

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