Evaluating Your Screenplay Tips

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Script Readings

Script readings are a great way to evaluate your script. Hearing your words spoken and seeing your scenes blocked brings your script to life in a way that reading from a page never will.

The simplest way to host a reading is to gather a few friends together. "Do the reading over a few drinks. It's cheap and fun," says screenwriter Andrew Bennett. Try to assign each major character to a different person, but people can double up on the minor roles or the narration.

Or consider a public reading. "I staged a public reading of my script before I attempted to write a new draft," says screenwriter/director Mary V. Dunkerly. "I taped it, which allowed me to review the entire process at my leisure."

Try to find actors to participate. Most screenwriters know at least a couple of actors they can approach. "Actors have fantastic instincts for getting to the essence of things," says director Randa Haines. "When an actor says, 'I don't understand this moment,' that's a terrific help to the writer. It means something needs to be clarified."

One of the biggest advantages of a reading is hearing your dialogue spoken. Does it flow easily, or do the actors struggle with it? Does each character sound distinctive? Is every word essential and does it move the story forward? "Listening to the actors, I could pinpoint where the dialogue dragged and where it was working," says Dunkerly.

Haines also suggests inviting a director to participate. "A director can help a writer move things around. She might look at the staging and suggest putting this scene before that one, or cutting all the dialogue out of another scene and making it purely visual. The actors can try the director's suggestions, and the writer gets to see the scene played out in two, three, or five different ways."

During a reading, refrain from directing or interpreting the action for the readers in any way. Allow everyone to work directly from the script. If their interpretation is wildly different from yours, that's a pretty good indication that the movie in your head isn't coming across on the page. Stay in observer mode. Take notes, and consider taping the reading. Encourage comments at the end. Write out a questionnaire so that you cover all the bases. Ask questions about your hero's goals, the plotline, and the pacing, and anything else you'd like more information on.

Whether an informal gathering of friends or a more formal event with professional actors, rehearsals, and invitations to industry players, a script reading is an eye-opening experience that can transform your writing.


Giving Feedback

Sooner or later you'll be asked to give feedback, too. This is a great opportunity. Believe it or not, giving feedback will improve your own writing. It's easy to see where someone else has gone wrong, but harder to spot the same weaknesses in your own work. Giving feedback will teach you what to look for, and searching for solutions to help another writer will train you to solve those same problems for yourself.

When giving feedback, remember the following:

Keep your comments friendly and encouraging. Critique the writing, not the writer. Focus on improving the script, which is helpful, not on improving the writer, which is insulting.

Look at things from the author's point of view. Try to figure out the story the writer is trying to tell, and keep your comments focused on that.

Start with the positive. No matter how bad a script is, find something nice to say, even if it's just complimenting the writer for finishing the draft. Preceding a negative comment with a positive one softens the blow.

Two positives to every negative. Point out parts that are working well as you search for the problems. Keep the ratio as close to two pluses for every minus as possible.

End with the positive. Close your critique with one last positive, encouraging comment. Think of it as a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

For positive comments, use the pronoun "you." "The way you got Sally out of that bind was really original."

For negative comments, avoid using "you." Instead of saying, "You lost me in the next scene," say "I got confused," or "The next scene was confusing."

Start with the big picture. If the story isn't working, address those problems first. Don't overwhelm the writer with the small stuff.

Point out a problem, don't offer a solution. "I'm having a hard time understanding why Joe loves Clara" is helpful. It lets the writer know what is unclear. "I think Joe should be in love with Clara's sister instead" is less helpful. The writer is left to wonder why you feel that way. It's okay to point out a problem and then make a suggestion—if you keep your suggestions pertinent and leave plenty of room for the writer to find his own solutions.

Frame your comments as follows:
• I don't understand who/what/when/where/why/how …
• This part feels slow/confusing/redundant…
• I had a hard time following when…
• This scene is very funny/exciting/moving…
• I really empathized with the hero when…

Giving feedback requires attentiveness, thought, and sensitivity. Learn to do this for others—and then apply your new skills to your own script!


Receiving Feedback

You've spent months on your script, and now it's time to show it to other people. But what if people hate it? Will you ever live it down?

Receiving feedback can be scary at first, but you won't grow as a writer until you plunge in and take this very important step. Don't worry, you'll get the hang of it. Eventually.

Take a deep breath, and follow these guidelines:

Make a distinction between your work and yourself. When someone points out a problem in your script, you don't need to take it to mean there's something wrong with you personally.

Avoid the temptation to shut down or to argue with the reviewer. Listen to what they have to say without explaining yourself. Remember, you have ultimate control over your script. Only you can decide what works for your script and what doesn't. You don't lose anything by listening. The best response to a review is, "Thank you."

Listening to others is different from implementing every suggestion. Some reviewers will give you terrific suggestions that fit your story perfectly and take it in the direction you want it to go. Great! Use those. Others will give you terrific suggestions—for a completely different story. Hmm. Skip their suggestions, but do look at your story again to see if it could have possibly led them astray. Learn to differentiate between useful suggestions, suggestions that aren't very useful but point to a problem, and totally useless suggestions.

If the feedback isn't clear, ask questions. Keep the questions pertinent and focused on the work. For example, if the reviewer says, "The scene between George and Becky is confusing," you may want to ask them to explain exactly where in the scene they got confused. Don't ask, "What do you mean it's confusing!?" That sounds defensive and gets everyone off track.

Avoid asking for feedback if you know what's wrong with your script. Fix any problems you are clear about first. When you ask for feedback, you're requesting someone's time and attention, so be considerate of them. Don't make them do unnecessary work.

Pay special attention to problems that multiple readers point out. If only one person out of several readers had a problem, you can probably ignore it. But if several readers bring up the same issue, then be sure to address it.

Concentrate on your screenplays and the clarity of your vision. In time, you'll learn to attach ever less importance to other people's opinions.


Professional Readers

Another source of feedback is the professional script reader. Below, Barb Doyon, professional consultant and owner of Extreme Screenwriting, tells us how to go about it:

"Use a professional consultant before marketing a spec script. The screenwriter is the last person to see shortcomings in his work. A professional consultant offers an objective opinion and helps ready the script for the market. Screenwriters who market scripts before they're ready have greatly affected the way the industry looks at specs. If you want to get beyond the slush pile and be considered a pro, have a professional consultant review your material first.

"Find consultants through word-of-mouth. Ask other screenwriters who they use, and question them to determine if a specific consultant fits your needs. Send the consultant an e-mail asking for referrals. Check out their Web site, if they have one, and look for client testimonials. Have the consultant's clients won or placed in contests, optioned or sold scripts, or secured representation? If a consultant has been in the biz for several years with no track record, then look for someone else. The point is to further your career.

"Don't use friends or family as reviewers. If you have to explain what INT. or EXT. means, then that person shouldn't be reviewing the script. Anyone who knows you personally isn't a candidate for providing an objective review!

"One review is not enough. To get a thorough indication of where your script stands on the spec market, always get several professional reviews. Do a side-by-side comparison and change problem areas mentioned by more than one reviewer. Don't use two-reviews-for-the-price-of-one services because the reviewers are in the same company and may compare notes. You want independent reviews from parties who don't know each other.

"Don't pay money for studio-style coverage, which provides things you already know, like the logline and synopsis, and tends to give vague comments, like the dialogue is too on-the-nose. Instead, find a reviewer who gives story notes. These often include page references so you can spot the problems easily and advice on potential fixes. Both types of review can be useful, but the goal is to help you improve the material and compete on the spec market.

"Don't market a script before it's ready! When a screenwriter finishes a script, it's like a hot potato that he wants out of his hands and onto the market. Slow down! If an idea is really hot, it can wait forever. The spec market is fierce. You're competing with A-list writers, as well as other aspiring screenwriters. Taking the time to make a script the best it can possibly be shows you're a professional."

Prices for services start around $80-$100 and go up from there depending on the consultant's experience and reputation. Verify any service you're considering before you pay!

Learn More:
Barb Doyon offers a free and very informative newsletter for aspiring screenwriters. Sign up through her Web site: http://www.xtremescreenwriting


Your Trusted Circle Of Readers

No writer should be without a trusted circle of readers. You may get loving support from your mom or your best friend when they read your drafts, and that's well and good. Besides and beyond validation, however, you need to surround yourself with clear-thinking readers who are willing and able to give candid feedback.

"Find and keep very dear anyone who tells it like it is," says writer/director Joy Perino. "Honest—not mean or fawning—feedback is precious and very hard to come by." If you're taking a screenwriting class and there's a classmate whose work you admire, suggest an exchange. Approach a former writing instructor you've stayed in contact with. Or consider joining a critiquing group. Find one by going where writers hang out—bookstores, cafes, the library—and looking for or posting a notice. If you can't find a group in your area, consider joining one online.

A few precautions, however. Avoid critique groups that only tell you how wonderful you are, as well as the ones where everyone tears everyone else down. Both types exist. Neither approach is helpful. Join a working group, not a social club. Make sure there's a submission schedule and a minimum critiquing requirement, and that the group actually sticks to it. Even if you have to join a group of non-screenwriters, you can make it work if you all give great feedback and are supportive and consistent. I was a member of just such a group for three years, and I learned an awful lot. To help us all out, I wrote up a screenplay critiquing primer and introduced everyone to the screenplay format. It worked really well for us.

Building your trusted circle of readers takes time, but once you do, you won't know how you ever lived without those precious people. Don't forget to them in your Oscar® acceptance speech.

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