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Critiquing
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How to be a help without being destructive
 
 

CRITIQUING

From Writers Workshop Script Doctor
Copyright © 1994 by Dorian Scott Cole

Who can critique a script? In a sense, everyone. Everyone is an audience, and the main thing a writer needs to find out is, "Do they like my story?" That may be the only thing he needs to find out. But if the story has a weak element, he needs to find out what to fix and maybe how.

Not everyone can critique. Aunt Martha may not like anything she reads. Your Brother, Paul, may think everything except motorcycle action films is no good. Mother always likes everything you write regardless of how poor it is. Your neighbor loves screenplays but has the diplomacy of a wrecking ball. Uncle Steve, who teaches English Literature, can hold it to the flame of high art, but has no clue what a modern audience likes.

Another problem with critiquing is the person who wants to write the story for you. I once paid to have a novel critiqued and received five pages of excellent criticism and an offer to rewrite the novel for a substantial sum. But that wouldn't have helped me become a better writer. What I really needed was to know what I had done well, what needed improvement, and suggestions on directions to go. You can't become a better writer by having another person write it for you.

Even other writers aren't necessarily good critics. I sent a movie script to an agent who offered a critiquing service. What I received back was exceedingly poor criticism, nothing positive, and was informed that one particular scene in the comedy "was not funny." I learned that the writer knew nothing about comedy - not every scene in a comedy is supposed to be funny - even though that one actually was.

So, where does that leave struggling writers? In desperate need of feedback and finding it very difficult to get beyond, "Did you like my story?" Read on.

Writer's Groups

From Writers Workshop Script Doctor
Copyright © 1994 by Dorian Scott Cole

Writer's groups are one of the best ways to find support. The people who attend the meetings are mostly people who genuinely want to write, improve their writing, and maintain contact with other writers. 

Formal writer's groups, like those associated with arts councils, are usually attended by people who are reasonably sensitive to others' needs, and who typically don't assault each other's esteem. Most groups make their own bylaws or operating rules, so there is nothing consistent from group to group - it's strictly up to the members what they want to do. 

Writer's groups are never perfect, so be prepared for their peculiarities. The membership of groups is fairly dynamic from year to year. Many writers stay indefinitely, but others move on, burn out, or lose interest. New faces show up regularly - fewer than half come back. Groups typically split every year or so as special interest groups congeal, and form their own group, as in children's writing, women's issues, science fiction writing, screenwriting, playwrighting, romance writing, and poetry. 

Personalities also tend to drive groups apart: academic writers have a different mind set about writing forms than say a romance writer. If these differing groups aren't flexible, tension develops and people leave. Sex scenes and foul words, which may be legitimate to the story, may not be well received in a group. Test the waters before jumping in. Sometimes the group leadership forces a more rigid structure on the meeting than people want, or fails to provide enough leadership. Since groups for only screenwriters are rare, the writers in the group are accustomed to novels that tell exactly what a character is thinking and doing, so it is sometimes hard for them to follow and appreciate a screenplay. Thankfully, most members have had some experience with plays. The most important thing is to be supportive of others when they fail. I have seen many people bite off a larger chunk of a project than they can handle and a few weeks later fail to return because they are embarrassed. It's better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all. 

But most writer's groups are active, very accepting, friendly, more than willing to hear or read your work and give you feedback. In these groups, writers often have the opportunity, and feel comfortable, leading small seminars on writing topics, or just contributing helpful information. Frequently individuals are willing to read your work independently and give you more feedback - especially if the favor is returned and not requested too often. Events of interest in the region typically are announced by various members. Sometimes contests are run for the area, and often the group will publish an annual representative sample of their work. They often have or sponsor guest speakers - usually someone connected with the writing industry. Sometimes it's just a great place to meet a friend and become mutually supportive. 

How do you find writer's groups? Not in the phone book. Library bulletin boards and newspaper ads are the most common. Sometimes they are featured by local columnists. University writing teachers often know of groups. University bulletin boards sometimes list them. Playhouses (live stage theaters) sometimes have a bulletin board for such things; and the theater director or college theater department may know of groups. People connected with commercial writing, such as TV news; radio/TV/newspaper advertising; local publishers; high school theatrical, language, literature, writing teachers; newspaper columnists; or professional writers. 

Writer's groups are very frequently sponsored by community arts councils - contact your local library or county government. Some cities have active film groups. Contact the city or state film commission (responsible for enticing film makers to the state) for leads on film groups. For example, the Kentucky Film Artist Coalition regularly sponsored meetings for writers and actors and sponsored seminars with major talents from New York and L.A. Denver and other cities have chapters of Women In Film.

If you find nothing in your community, try starting one yourself - meeting at home is common, acceptable, and often preferred. Or ask the local library or government if there is free space available for a weekly or monthly meeting. Advertise for members in the newspaper, library bulletin boards, local supermarket bulletin boards, etc.

Workshopping Scenes

From Writers Workshop Script Doctor
Copyright © 1994 by Dorian Scott Cole

One of the more fun things about screenplays is that they can be worked with by actors. I have done story development, readings, and staged readings with both writers and actors. The people involved get to know your story and characters and provide excellent feedback. They can often suggest new directions to take. They also give you an immediate sense of whether the scene or dialogue works or not, and how to fix them. I have used improvisation to get ideas for developing a story and characters, and for getting past a sticky point in a scene. 

How do you find people to take part? Most people lead very busy lives, and many are somewhat shy and in doubt of their talents, so expect many people to decline. But many others are actively looking for opportunities to get involved in interesting projects - these are the ones you are looking for. Local small theater groups, such as community theater or traveling production companies, are one source. Usually only a small number of their membership is active in a current production or coming production, so the rest (they all are employed at full-time jobs but act for fun) may have some interest in a project like this to sharpen their skills. 

Writer's group members are often willing to read or act a part. The local arts council may sponsor a theater group. You may gain interest simply by advertising on bulletin boards. If you are interested in going this route, I recommend the book, The Playwright's Handbook, Frank Pike and Thomas Dunn, Plume, 1985. You may end up with a produced play as well as a screenplay (and a lot of fun and learning).

Feedback forms for friends

From Writers Workshop Script Doctor
Copyright © 1994 by Dorian Scott Cole

Many people will decline reading your screenplay because they don't know how to help. It's best to let people know specifically what you are after. For example, sometimes you just want to know if people enjoy the story or if they find it confusing anywhere. Other times you want to know how you are doing with a character. The best way to handle defining needs is to use a feedback form. You can create one for each situation, or you can use a more standardized form. I have had good success with forms, both with scripts and with staged readings. But expect that people will not answer every question - only the ones they feel comfortable with or have something specific to say. And some people prefer to give feedback verbally - they won't write a word. When you really want to know if you've produced a good screenplay, ask if they would pay to see it. It may not fit their personal taste, so ask if they would recommend it to others. A typical screenplay critiqye form appears after the following list of forms.

If you want to review or critique a movie, you can use the following forms:

Questionnaire

From Writers Workshop Script Doctor
Copyright © 1994 by Dorian Scott Cole

Screenplays can only be improved through identifying problems. Your input is valued. If you have a definite opinion, please provide candid answers, as long or brief as you wish. Thank-you!

What did you really like? _______________________________________________________________________________

When were you confused? _______________________________________________________________________________

Was there anything you really disliked? _______________________________________________________________________________

Were you bored? If so, when? _______________________________________________________________________________

Did the story live up to expectations? ___Yes No___

Was the dialogue too long? ___Yes No___

Were the characters unique and have a voice of their own? _______________________________________________________________________________

Did the characters seem real and have real motives? _______________________________________________________________________________

Was the dialogue too preachy? ___Yes No___

Would you recommend this screenplay to a friend? ___Yes No___

Do you feel you would have paid to see this? ___Yes No___

What age group do you feel this story would appeal to? _______________
 

Educational Opportunities

From Writers Workshop Script Doctor
Copyright © 1994 by Dorian Scott Cole

Educational opportunities abound. Most universities offer night classes for those wanting to get training in creative writing. Others, like Northwestern University, Chicago, offer full curriculums in writing, and sometimes offer extensions in other cities. As the film community migrates from Los Angeles, other communities are becoming centers of film activity, like New York and Miami, so universities there are offering full film curriculums. UCLA Extension offers courses on single weekends, multiple weekends, as well as regular courses. It also offers short courses in selected cities across the U.S. Many universities also offer creative writing courses by correspondence. These are worthwhile even though they are not specifically for film, because the most important part of writing for film is to get a good basic story developed. Other institutes, like Writers Digest, offer courses through correspondence which get you individualized professional attention.

How to be a help without being destructive
Copyright © 1994, 2002 by Dorian Scott Cole

Each time I am asked for a critique, as I open my mouth to give advice, I am struck by a recurring question: How will the writer perceive it? Am I going to come off like a maniac with a wrecking ball thrashing insensitively through the prized prose of some gentle soul? Or will I seem like a pompous ass stroking my own ego? Or as someone who says considerably more than he really knows? Or maybe a jealous writer waiting to slash the unwary victim to his yarn spinning soul.

That fear is born from seeing too many writers cease looking for feedback because they can't handle it. Writers invest hundreds of hours developing a beautiful story that is often a direct reflection of their abilities. They are creative people and creative people necessarily open themselves to the world so they can taste it with all their senses. When you have your tongue sticking out, you risk someone belting your jaw shut. Most writers don't thrive on criticism - they die on it. What they really need is encouraging words.

But on the other hand, writers have a very difficult time improving a script without effective feedback, and the world that buys words is a rough and tumble place. The writer could have earned several thousand dollars doing a part time job instead of writing this story - this is an investment. Personally I would rather hear a good sound comment on my writing about something a reader didn't like than a lot of well intentioned praise. I can't fix it if I don't know what's wrong with it, and my main intention is to make it the best it can be. Somewhere in that dichotomy between the fragile creative ego and the highly critical marketplace is where the literary critique falls. When a writer asks for an evaluation and a reader agrees to give it, a contract is formed. The writer agrees to hear constructive advice and the reader agrees to give it. Anything less is unworthy of both.

I'm a slow reader. It takes me 90 minutes to read a script, more if it is boring, and I refuse to give something that represents hundreds of hours of work less than a thorough evaluation. So I usually go through the basics: Concept, plot, characterization, dialogue, surprises, uniqueness, and of course the pitfalls. But I don't force a story into stereotyped ideas of how stories should be, and I usually avoid the fad advice that is always circulating because it typically is short sited or even wrong. I just focus on good story. (I do warn against the tragedy of selling Tragedy at the box office.)

I won't critique a story whose form I don't understand such as slow moving stories that are totally character driven and have only a shadow of a plot. They work for some, but they don't do anything for me (OK, you guessed it, I'm a guy).

The best place to start with a critique is to look for the good. Writers desperately need to hear that you enjoyed their tale. At some level I enjoy them all. I have never seen a story that didn't have some good quality to it, something the writer could build on. I try to note those good qualities for the writer: something good he can build around. There are usually several things a writer is doing right. Sometimes it's just script mechanics: spelling, format, shots (or preferrably the lack of shots). Sometimes the plot is great. Maybe he has just one fascinating character. I have never seen a story without at least one good quality and I like to note all the things the writer is doing well so he at least knows he has accomplished that much.

I avoid criticism, which may sound funny, but criticizing something just means running it down. I only give constructive criticism. That means telling specifically what can be done to improve the script. I try to help the writer move from wherever he is to a better place.

I usually try to make suggestions that will spark the writers imagination, or call elements or even loose ends to his attention that could be developed to improve "what's broke," or develop an effective subplot, or take the story in a better direction.

Some writers can't take constructive criticism at all and will react negatively to it no matter what. They and their baby are perfect, and that's fine with me.

Many scripts could be drowned in a deluge of criticism. This is overwhelming - it makes people feel like putting the story aside and forgetting the "Problem." It's much more important to help the writer get to the next level of development. For example, a writer who is struggling with making vibrant and engaging characters doesn't need to hear about developing a motif. 

What that writer does need is a lot of feedback about characterization. What did you really enjoy about the characters? What didn't work, why, and what do you suggest to make them better? If the hero came across as aloof and uncaring, then you need to suggest he make the character warmer. Add a couple of ways - show him in a more private scene baring his soul to his girlfriend as opposed to the rough exterior he usually shows to his business associates. 

I view scripts being developed in three basic levels. The first is characterization, plot and subplot development, and script mechanics. If these are in shambles, that's what I'm going to focus on. I'll mention the other elements, especially if there was something good, but these three have to be there first. 

The second level has to do with making a good story great. Writing so that there is unity of theme, crisp visual scenes, and a very thorough development. This is done by knowing how to develop a scene, subplots, pumping up dialogue, how to join scenes into segments - what a sequence is - and how to let a compelling piece of storyline drive a section of the story.

The third level has to do with aesthetics. Many stories can benefit from a motif and symbols; and exciting settings can add a lot to a story. If the script is beginning to address the second level, I'll mention these because they are part of the story, not add-ons. 

Unfortunately not every script can be turned into a winner. Some really good stories just have a very narrow audience, or the concept just isn't enough of a draw and usually fixing this just means writing another story. I try to keep in mind the commercial aspect and try to give some feedback about this - especially advising to seek other readers for their opinion because I have my own tastes and I'm not God even though my wife thinks I think I am... or something like that.

It helps a lot to have writing experience and to know first hand not only how to fix problems, but also know what you did wrong that created the problem. This is the good stuff that you can pass on that gets to the root of it much better than spouting dogmatic theory.

Although I make suggestions, I don't do any writing or rewriting - I think the only way that I (or any writer) learns is by doing it himself. If I have a working relationship with the writer, I will mark up the script. Otherwise I just write a separate note. I've found that seeing your script slashed and burned makes many writers sick. They write you hate mail.

Constructive criticism in groups can be good and it can be controlled. I have used it in writers groups and in staged readings of both stage and screen plays. There are four things to control: 1. Some people have no idea what is valuable feedback, so tell you anything. 2. Some people simply want to impress everyone with what they know, and they sacrifice the writer and his script in doing so. 3. Some people will go on and on forever, criticizing everything even though most of the script is well done, thinking that they "must" provide feedback. 4. Some people don't know constructive criticism from destructive, so they just trash the script. One thing to remember is that even the best works have flaws that can draw criticism, but that doesn't mean they need to be improved.

The way to avoid destroying the writer is to control written or face to face feedback by not leaving the feedback process and questions open-ended, but directing them through pointed and leading questions. Ask questions to try to get the feedback in perspective, such as, "Would you recommend this story to a friend?" Knowing what worked well is just as important as knowing what didn't work - if you don't know that it worked well you may destroy it in rewriting, so ask what worked. I ask only for constructive feedback, such as, "What do you feel really needed to be improved?" I often use a questionnaire. An example of a feedback questionnaire is given previously in this article.

    Note: The book, "Writers Workshop Script Doctor," is based on my analysis of years of script critiques done by National Writers Workshop, and on my own script critiques. I avoid "experts" in the field, believing one expert simply quotes another, and a "closed" system causes degeneration and prevents growth, while we should be seeking what is most productively an evolving target. Of course, many experts are excellent, but we should avoid feeding off of each other. My analysis presented a clearer picture of many of the elements that are consistently desired in the best scripts, and the difficulties inherent in achieving these. (As a byproduct, this allowed a delineation of skill levels and also indicated to me that there are levels of feedback that should be given, rather than flooding new writers with feedback that would demoralize them.) In post composition review of the book, I compared the material and advice that I presented in the book to anecdotal material supplied independently from a number of top studio executives from a number of seminars done through National Writers Workshop. My advice was remarkably consistent with theirs, which tended to validate the value of both. The Visual Writer Web site is a result of my continued work in literary analysis and criticism, supporting fields, and my own writing. The book and the Web site are predominately original work. I am currently adapting a semiotic approach to literary analysis to encompass the use of symbols that I believe "participate in our experience." (I do this work independently, and am not an academician.)

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