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Episode 19: Are you talking to me? Feedback!

by | Jun 30, 2021

Today we’re talking script feedback.  Where to get it, how to survive it, what to do with it, and how to give it.  But first, some links, lots of links this time!

And you can listen to this episode here!

And here’s the script to this week’s episode!

Hi, this is Joe Dzikiewicz, and welcome to the Storylanes Podcast, the podcast where I tell the story of how I’m making an independent feature film while I’m making it.

While I was editing the last podcast, I decided I had a lot more to say about feedback.  Where to get it, how I give it, how I receive it, how I use it.  This is a change in plan: last week I said I’d be talking about business models.  But I do think this is important, so we’ll spend another episode discussing my approaches to making the best script I possibly can.  Business models will have to wait!

Now on to feedback!

As I mentioned last week, one of the cheapest things you can do to improve the quality of your film is to improve the quality of the script.  Rewrite weak scenes, fix structure problems, make your characters better: all it takes is time and hard work.  And hey, if you don’t want to do hard work, there’s a lot easier things you could be doing with your life than making a movie!

For me, my first feedback comes from my wife.  As I’m coming up with the story, I tell it to her.  When I’m writing my first draft, I’ll read scenes to her as I write them.  And when I’m finished that first draft, I read the entire script aloud to her.

Now my wife isn’t a sharp literary critic.  Her many talents lie elsewhere.  So while she’ll occasionally point out things that don’t work or come up with suggestions of things that might work better, I really get two major benefits from reading my script to her.

First, reading my script aloud to an audience makes me hear it in different ways.  I will often find things that don’t work or lines that could be better when I read them aloud.  So when I read to her, I do so with pen in hand, ready to jot down notes.  That used to be a printed copy with a red pen.  These days I read from my iPad and use a stylus ready to markup a PDF.  Either way, later on I go back and address my notes.

 But there’s another thing I get from her.  She’s encouraging, a big fan of my work.  And that is invaluable.  It’s important to get a strong detailed critique from someone who will tell you where your work falls short.  But it’s just as important to have someone like your work, someone who encourages you.  And for a first draft, which is a precarious moment, having that encouragement is worth diamonds.

So my first advice on feedback: have someone you can share your script with who will be positive and who will cheer you on.  It’s hard enough putting our egos on the line while writing without having to get only criticism.  You really do need someone in your corner.

For my second bit of feedback, I have one particular friend who I’ll usually send my first polished draft to.  She’s also a screenwriter, so she understands the conventions and rules.  She also likes my work, so I get a lot of positive energy from her.  But she has more of a critical sense than my wife, and I can always depend on her for some valuable notes.

So, I get feedback from these two sources, and I do a couple new drafts.  Then it’s time to open the doors wider.

At this point, there’s a number of things I may do.  I’m in some writing groups, and I’ll bring the screenplay there.  And let’s take a moment to talk about writing groups.

I like writing groups.  If you find the right group, it can be a valuable source of feedback and support.  I’ve been in different groups with different ground rules and approaches.

For example, I’m in one particular group where at each meeting every member can bring around 10 pages of material.  The group then reads it aloud with everyone taking a role.   And then we discuss what we just read.

There’s a lot of value to that.  Hearing your words performed by others is a joyous experience.  But you hear problems when you’re an audience member.  And more to the point, you often get a feel for how much the material is connecting with an audience.  I’ve often come out of these sessions thinking, well, that scene didn’t work.  People were getting bored.  Time for a rewrite.

Sometimes you feel people get confused.  Sometimes they tell you outright.  That’s an awfully clear signal that your script needs work.  In fact, I’d say that’s one of the most valuable pieces of feedback I can get from anyone: that they didn’t understand.  I’m not always as clear as I think I am.

Perhaps it’s some concept in the story that I didn’t get across, maybe a character motivation.  Perhaps it’s some term that I think everyone knows but they don’t.  I often write stories about technology, my professional background, and it’s easy to lose people when writing about that world.

So while I may discount many pieces of criticism that I receive – and we’ll talk about that later – one type of criticism that I always take seriously is when someone tells me they don’t understand something.  I’ll bend over backwards to clear things up.

Now as with anything, there’s a downside to this kind of group.  Writers’ groups rarely meet more than once a week, and usually in my experience no more than once every two weeks.  If you’ve written a hundred-page screenplay and you’re reading ten pages every two weeks, well, it’s going to take a while to get through.

The problem there isn’t the amount of time it takes.  The big problem is that by the time you’re at page 90, it’s been over four months since people have read page 5.  They almost always forget details from that far back.  And they’ll have little to no sense of the overall flow of the script.

For example, I’ve had groups tell me that things seemed awfully slow in the ten pages that we just read.  Well yes, some parts are slow.  That’s intentional.  With a screenplay, or anything in long form, you need to mix some slower scenes in with more intense scenes.  Otherwise the pacing won’t work.

In some cases, I’ve had people who complained about slow sections complement me on the overall pacing when they finally got to hear the entire script read aloud.

So be clear what you can get from this kind of group.  You can get a lot of good feedback on individual scenes, but no real help of the overall flow of the piece.

There are, of course, other groups.  I’ve also been in groups where you can bring in entire works at various stages.  Perhaps you’ll bring in an early outline and get feedback on it.  Later you might bring in a first draft.  Later still, a more polished draft.  The group reads the entire work and give feedback of the whole thing.

That’s quite valuable, and I always appreciate it.  You don’t get the benefit of hearing it read aloud, of being in the audience, but the people giving you feedback will have a broader view.

Some groups combine the two: you might have everyone read ten pages aloud, then discuss the overall piece.  The best of both worlds – though the temptation is always to have them read the best parts, when what you probably most need is to hear the worst parts.

So that’s reading groups.  Now let’s look at something similar, the staged reading.

A staged reading is when you gather together actors to read the script aloud.  And, hopefully, you have an audience.  Then after the entire piece is read, everyone has a chance to comment on it.

I’ve done this a few times on my scripts, and it’s incredibly valuable.  First off, having trained actors read the script aloud is better than having other writers read it.  They’re generally better at bringing things to life.  But you also get the chance to hear the entire thing, to get the audience reaction to the entire story.  The times I’ve done this have been incredibly valuable.

One thing I’d recommend on this is that you find someone who can moderate the feedback session, that you don’t do it yourself.  You should be spending your time registering the feedback, not asking questions.  That approach seems to work quite well.

One thing I should note about all of these, in these Pandemic days: I find that all these types of groups and readings work quite well over Zoom.  Which is helpful in these times.

My next regular source of feedback is the Black List site.  The Black List is a site for connecting screenwriters with people in the business, including both people who produce films and representatives like managers and agents who are looking for talent.  I’ve never gotten any real bites from those people, but another thing they give you is feedback.  For seventy-five bucks you can get one of their readers to review your script and give you about a page of feedback.  They also rate your script in a bunch of categories.

I often get feedback from the Black List on my scripts, but honestly, I don’t think the feedback I get there is the best paid feedback available.  It’s fairly high level and doesn’t get into a huge amount of detail.  And the readers often have definite opinions on what they like and don’t – I’ve gotten some feedback that showed that, reading between the lines, it seemed that the reader had some issues with what I was writing – perhaps not like a genre, or for some other reason my script struck a nerve.

Similarly, feedback from contests, something that most screenwriting contests provide, can be helpful, but it’s fairly high level.  So it’s okay, but not the best.

What’s the best source of written feedback?  The best I’ve gotten is from coverage services.  In particular, I’ve gotten feedback on several of my scripts from a company called Coverage Ink.  There’s a link on the Storylanes website.  Though do note, there are other companies that provide coverage services.

When I order from Coverage Ink, I typically get a 10-15 page document on my script.  It contains a logline, a synopsis, several pages of notes, and ratings in several different categories.  It finishes with an overall assessment of script and writer.  I’ve gotten a lot of value out of the coverage that I’ve ordered.  It’s more expensive than a Blacklist reader report – it runs $139 for a feature, with lower rates for TV pilots – but I’ve found the amount and quality of feedback much higher.  You usually don’t get the chance of exposure to executives in the business through Coverage Ink, but if what you want is feedback, I recommend them.

Typically when I order any of these, I’ll get two or three reports.  One reader can have idiosyncratic views, but if you get the same feedback from several different readers, you should probably pay attention.

Finally, there’s script consultants, people you can hire to read your script and give feedback.  I’ve experimented with that a little.  For my first screenplay, I hired a script consultant named Pilar Alessandra.  She read the script, then we had an hour-long discussion on it.  I got a lot of value from that, but it was pricey.  From looking at her website, it looks like she doesn’t offer exactly that service now, but I recall it being around $500.   And it took several months after signing up to get time with her – she’s a busy lady.

Since then, I’ve found another good source of consultation.  Roadmap Writers has a diverse set of executives and different programs for getting their input.  I’ve had luck with one program where the exec reads my script, I get twenty minutes to discuss with them, then I have two weeks to make updates that the exec reads followed by another meeting.

There’s a couple of nice things about this approach.  First, these are people who work in the industry – managers, producers, production company execs.  They have a feel for what’s going on out there, and their feedback reflects that.

Second, I find it incredibly valuable not just to get feedback, but to have that discussion, that give-and-take.  They point out something that didn’t work for them, then you can discuss approaches to fixing it.  A couple of times during those discussions we’ve together come up with an idea for something that really made a moment in my script pop, perhaps a visual metaphor that would make for terrific cinema.  And, of course, it’s a pure pleasure talking about my screenplays with people – something that applies to writer groups too.

I found the Roadmap route to be a lot cheaper than other consultant services, around $300 for consultants with two people.  Plus, of course, there’s the chance that the exec will like your writing so much that they’ll offer to represent you or buy your screenplay.  I’ve known that to happen to people, though for me, the feedback itself is the thing of most value.

I’ll also note: I’ve found the Roadmap consultants to all be wonderful to talk to.  They are constructive in their criticism, and the discussions are always pleasant.  They aren’t necessarily as blunt as they might be if something just doesn’t work, but perhaps that’s a good thing.

So, there you have a whole bunch of types of feedback.  I’ve used them all over the years, and I’ve used them all for Smart House.  You get varying value from all of them.

Now one more thing I should note: if you’re paying for feedback, and you get poor quality feedback, then complain.  I’ve had this happen a couple of times: it was clear by the feedback that the person did a shoddy job, or was biased against my point of view.  So I complained, and I got a round of free feedback in return.  Remember, you’re the customer here.

Of course, it’s valuable if you’ve gotten several bits of feedback from the same service and one of them is way out of line from the others.  Then it’s easier to say that this person just didn’t get it.  I had one script that scored an 8.5 out of 10 in one contest run by one particular company, and a 4.5 in another contest run by the same contest.  I was able to point out the discrepancy and it helped my case: I ended up getting a free contest entry as a result.

While we’re talking about feedback, there’s two other major topics I’d like to discuss.  The first is receiving feedback.

First off, receiving feedback is hard.  It’s one of the hardest things about being a writer.  In fact, it’s one of the hardest things about being an artist of any sort.

When you are an artist, you pour your heart and soul into your work.  You have to – that’s the only way you’re going to make anything good.  And then you send it out into the world.  And people stomp all over it.

It’s going to happen.  You could make the best thing in the world and there are people who will hate it.  And who will tell you that they hate it.

And it doesn’t matter how good you are.  Stephen Spielberg is by far the most financially successful movie director in history.  Moreover, he is one of the greatest visual storytellers of all times in any medium, right up there with Michelangelo.

But even Spielberg gets bad reviews.

And sometimes, he even deserves them.

So when you receive feedback, you are courting rejection of the things that are closest to your heart.  That’s just the way it is.

And you have to do it.  There’s no use letting that thing just sit on the shelf.  You have to get it out into the world or it will never truly come alive.

So how do you deal with it?  Well, I find that receiving feedback follows those famous steps for dealing with death.  Fear, denial, anger, bargaining, acceptance.

Fear.  Often, when I get an email from a feedback service, I’ll let it sit in my in-box.  I won’t open it for a while.  I’m not ready for it.  I’m afraid to read what it has to say.  Fear has taken hold.

But then I open it.  And I glory in the nice things that it says – and there’s almost always some nice things, the feedback services make a point of it.  But then I’ll read a criticism, a complaint that something doesn’t work. And invariably, my first response will be, they don’t know what they’re talking about.  They just don’t understand what I’m getting at.  They’re not my audience.

Denial.

You know what?  Sometimes I’m right about that.  Sometimes they don’t understand what I’m getting at.  Sometimes they just don’t like the things I like, or they’re triggered by something I wrote, or they have some other idiosyncratic response that won’t be universal.  Or maybe what I’ve created is for a niche audience, and they’re just not in the niche.

But it’s my job to read, listen, and consider that they may be right.  And that’s where getting feedback from multiple sources comes in.

If I get feedback from five sources, and four of them love it and one hates it, then maybe I’m justified in ignoring the one.  The person is an outlier, and you can’t please everybody.  So okay, move on.

But if four of the five think there’s a problem, there’s probably a problem.  Even if I don’t think so.

So that’s denial.

Anger is just a more extreme form of denial.  If denial is, “They just don’t get this,” anger is, “WHAT ARE THOSE IDIOTS THINKING?”

Same rules apply as for denial.  Only really, anger isn’t useful.

Bargaining.  This one’s fun.

Okay, so maybe there’s a problem.  But I can just add a line and make the problem go away.  I won’t mess with my magnificent structure: I only need to make this little tweak.

Sometimes that’s true.  But sometimes major screenplay surgery is required.  You can’t always fix a problem with a minor change.  Even if you think you can bargain the universe into thinking that a minor change is all that’s needed.

I find it hard to dive into that major surgery.  Because here’s the thing: if I make a major change in my screenplay, that first draft is going to be worse than what came before.  Maybe it’s on a path to get a whole lot better, but the earlier draft has gone through many rounds of polishing, and the new stuff is going to be rough as sandpaper.

There’s a concept in computer science called a local optimum.  That’s when the solution you have is better than anything close to it, but maybe not as good as something a long distance away.  That’s kind of what happens with screenplays.  It takes a strong stomach to do that major surgery, and sometimes I can only force myself to do it by pretending it’s not real, it’s only a draft, I can throw it away.  I almost always keeps it, but that’s not what I tell myself when I’m writing.

Anyway, we’re through fear, denial, anger, and bargaining.  Time for acceptance.

Acceptance usually takes me a while.  Sometimes days.  Sometimes even longer.

But once I’ve accepted the feedback, I’m ready to fix the problem.

Which is a whole other discussion.

Anyway, here’s my typical lifecycle of a draft with feedback.  I write something.  I’m certain that it’s brilliant, best thing I’ve ever written, amazing stuff.  I get feedback.  Someone points out something that isn’t working.  I’m convinced he’s an idiot, because it’s perfect.

I put it aside a bit.  Hmm, I think.  Maybe he has something.  I go back in, make changes, improvements.  I wonder how I could ever have been so mistaken about the previous draft, it clearly had major flaws, thank God I’ve fixed that trash.

But the new draft, ah, now that one’s perfect!  Might as well get some feedback, but they’ll love it because it’s flawless!

Lather, rinse, repeat.

I should probably mention one other stage that I don’t generally go through but some people do.  And that’s depression.  Some people receive negative feedback and conclude that this means they’re a bad person or will never be any good.  That’s one reason you should always be careful when giving feedback: you really are directly touching someone’s ego.  Be kind.

But just because someone doesn’t like something you wrote doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.  It doesn’t really say anything about you as a person.  At most, it says your piece needs work.  So do the work.  Or take up some other activity: there’s a lot of great things to do in this world and there’s no law saying everyone has to be a filmmaker.

One other thing about receiving feedback.  When you’re receiving feedback in person, like from a reading group or a screenplay consultation, you will occasionally be tempted to respond to a bit of feedback by arguing or explaining.  You know your work is good: you only have to explain it to the other person.

Don’t do that.  You’re almost never going to convince them that they’re wrong, and you’re only wasting everyone’s time and convincing them that you’re hard to work with.

If someone gives me feedback that I disagree with, I just make a note and resolve to think about it later.

Well, I try.  I don’t always succeed.  But then, if you thought I was perfect, well, surprise!

I have found it occasionally useful to explain my thoughts for one key reason: my intention may not be clear in the written artifact.  I can explain my thinking, see if the person giving feedback got that, and, if not, find out from them if they think my intent is reasonable and, if so, try to figure out how to make it more clear.

Anyway, that’s how I go about receiving feedback.  How about giving it?

That’s a tricky one.  I try to be nice, but if I think there’s a problem, I’m not going to hold back.  When getting feedback, I want to hear the problems, and bluntness doesn’t bother me.  So that’s what I give in return.

I will say this: some types of feedback are more useful than others.  That said, here’s some common types of feedback and how useful I find them.

I already mentioned feedback that indicates that the reader didn’t understand something.  That’s the absolutely most useful feedback.  I’ll almost always act on it, even if only one person doesn’t understand.

I also find it quite useful to hear when there are boring parts.  If you lose interest, let me know – and let me know where.  That’s quite useful.

Some people don’t like suggestions of how to change things.  I do.  Especially if we can have a conversation, a bit of a give-and-take.  I have incorporated suggestions from people into my screenplays.

Grammar or spelling mistakes, pass them on.  I’ll definitely fix them.

In general, then, I guess I find most kinds of feedback useful.  I may not use all the feedback I get, but I’ll consider it.

And consider it not just immediately.  I often go back through my notes from feedback sessions, or reread written feedback, when I’m gearing up to do another draft.

There is, however, one kind of feedback that I find of little to no use.  And that is when someone suggests that I essentially rewrite my script as an entirely different story.  Or, perhaps, tell me to throw out the central idea of the script and rewrite it with a different premise.  In essence, the person is telling me to write an entirely different script.

I once wrote a screenplay called “Here Comes the Fraud.”  It’s about a guy who is hopelessly in love with a girl who has no interest in him whatsoever.  So when she goes on a reality love show, the guy decides to go on in disguise.  And by an amusing series of events, he ends up going on three times in three different disguises.  The whole film is the story of him trying to balance all these different roles while winning her over.  Comic farce in the vein of Toosie.

One guy who read it told me that the guy should be after an entirely different character and the whole thing should be him trying to win her.  And having him play all those roles?  Forget it.

In other words, throw out my premise and write an entirely different story.

It was the most useless feedback I’ve ever gotten.

Hey, if you don’t like my story, that’s fine.  No one has to like everything.

But tell me to throw out the entire story and rewrite as something else?  Yeah, I’m not going to do that.  So save your breath.

(And that script was a semi-finalist for the Austin Screenwriting Competition.  So maybe I was onto something.)

Anyway, that’s feedback.  How I get it, how I use it, how I give it.

And this is an incredibly important topic.  The script is one of the most important parts of the film.  It is vital to make it as good as it possibly can be.  And to do that, you need feedback.  Strong, honest feedback.

Next time we’ll get to business models.  What it means to a film, what I’m considering for business models, and anything else I find useful to discuss about them.

In the meanwhile, check us out at Storylanes.com.  There you’ll find the script to this episode, along with useful links that I mentioned.

And one piece of bookkeeping: I suspect I’ll be doing an episode every two weeks.  Doing it weekly would be too much work while I’m also trying to make a film.  So expect that next episode two weeks from now.

And until then, this is Joe Dzikiewicz of the Storylanes podcast.  Talk at you later!

 

 

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The Storylanes Podcast gives a screenwriter’s point of view of the structure of the screenplay of movies and TV shows.  Each episode does a deep-dive analysis of one movie or show, examining how the story is structured and how al the elements come together to create the story.

Each episode also includes a chart of the scenes and other key elements of the script.  You’ll find those charts here, along with the scripts of the episodes themselves.