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10/04/2005 - CRITICISM - DOs AND DON?Ts

Please note: This is a follow-up to an earlier commentary I had about criticism.

It has happened again. A writer friend I know got slammed on the "Zoetrope" website by someone who has NO CLUE on how to give proper criticism of a screenplay. I, too, recently got comments by a couple people that though one was very positive and one was very negative - both helped in the same way: THEY DIDN'T HELP AT ALL!

So, once again, I feel I need to shake the trees and write about giving and taking criticism. Where do I come off doing this? Well... First, I've been teaching screenwriting for well over 7 years. I've read and critiqued DOZENS of screenplays and I do not do 1 page or 2 page critiques of screenplays. I do pages, and pages, of comments and suggestions. I do not "half-ass" my review by spewing out tidbits of information that don't mean anything or help in any way.

So let us go over the "Dos and Don'ts" of screenplay criticism.

DON'T: Assume you know what you just read
WHY: It helps clarify to the writer that you "get" their script. If they wrote a comedy-drama and you missed the "comedy" part of it - your review might not come off in the proper way. An example I have given in the past: I wrote a "Film Noir" type movie that contained elements familiar with "Film Noir" (such as Voice-Over). The reader took to task my use of Voice-Over. They did not "Get" it. I should have explained better when I gave them the script that it was a "Film Noir" Type of movie.
BAD EXAMPLE: I, uh, read your screenplay.
GOOD EXAMPLE: Hey Susan. I just want to clarify that I read your "romantic comedy" script: "Bugs In My Hair" and I have some comments on it.

DON'T: Think that your word is law and you know all.
WHY: Many writers, okay pretty much ALL writers, are sensitive souls who think that you are about to validate their craft, their dream, their very existence. All you are doing is reading the script and telling them what works for you and what does not work for you. Reminding them that this is YOUR OPINION gives the writer pause and reminds them that even if you do not like it - it really is your opinion and someone else might have a different opinion.
BAD EXAMPLE: Listen and listen good, I spent four days reading your script and here's what I think about it!
GOOD EXAMPLE: Before I get started with the review, I just want to remind you that this is my opinion and that's all. Take it for what it is. Someone else might have a different opinion.

DON'T: Use generalizations
WHY: My biggest beef of any review (and this has happened to me recently) is when someone says something like: "It's great!" or "It didn't work for me." Both of those, frankly, suck. THEY'RE NOT TELLING ME ANYTHING! HOW was it great? WHY did it not work for you? If you explain more it helps the writer: If it was great - maybe I can make it better or, if I do a re-write, I don't want to screw up the scene that worked so well. If it didn't work for you, HOW did it not work for you? Character? Plot? Structure? Story? First Act? Second Act? Third Act? Climax?
BAD EXAMPLE: I think your character of Vivian isn't really that good.
GOOD EXAMPLE: Susan, your character of Vivian didn't really work for me because it seems like, in the first act she's shy and confused. By the end of the third act she's out-going and brilliant (by way of finding a cure for cancer). But I didn't really grasp the arc in the second act.

DON'T: Short-change the writer.
WHY: You are helping the writer with their script. What is the point in reading it if you are not willing to help them make their script better? Too often reviewers are quick to say it is bad but they do not have enough confidence in their own skill to either explain what is in their head or give examples of how to make it work.
BAD EXAMPLE: I didn't get that she was a doctor, maybe you should explain better.
GOOD EXAMPLE: I realized on this page that she's a doctor. You may want to show that earlier in the script by what she is wearing, or what is in her office. For example, in the opening scene in her office, you may want to note her certificates on the wall, or an x-ray viewer on the wall, or even a name-plate on her desk: "Vivian Carmichael, Pediatrician"

DON'T: Get personal
WHY: What is the point in hurting the other person's feelings? REMEMBER, REMEMBER, REMEMBER - THE WHOLE POINT OF REVIEWING A PERSON'S SCREENPLAY IS TO MAKE THE SCREENPLAY BETTER AND TO MAKE THEM A BETTER WRITER! It's not about YOU - so take YOU out of it! It does no good to attack the person's screenplay (or the person directly).
BAD EXAMPLE: This screenplay sucked. It was TERRIBLE. I had a hard time going through it and think you should quit writing.
GOOD EXAMPLE: You've spent a lot of time on this script but I feel that you may not be getting across what you really want to say. You may need to look at your plot again and see how clear it is. I was confused in the second act when I thought Jessie would leave (as he said he would) but then he stayed - that didn't make Jessie's character very clear - thus shifting the focus (in my opinion) of your screenplay.

DON'T: skimp
WHY: It proves to the writer that you care about their screenplay and that you went through it with a "fine-tooth comb." By doing so, it gives your opinion, your thoughts, some weight. They know you did not just read it on the bus home and spewed out a review after a couple drinks and your favorite wrestling show.
BAD EXAMPLE: I read through the first act and it was good.
GOOD EXAMPLE: Page 4: You have just introduced Vivian. What does she look like? Page 8: Jessie drove up in a car. What kind of car? Remember that cars can show character. Does he drive up in a Mercedes or a Yugo? Page 11: You note that: Jessie enters his apartment and sits down on his bed. He just got Vivian's phone number. Would he call her right away? Maybe he doesn't, but you might want to just "cut to: Jessie calling Vivian" It's up to you.

DON'T: Not give your opinion
WHY: The person gave you their script to read. They WANT YOUR OPINION. But, again, you have got to be clear. What I do is I have two sections at the end of a review that I put in: "If this was my screenplay" and "Final Thought." The writer has just gone through 10 - 40 pages of critique/comments/suggestions and they really want to know what I think. They should, hopefully, respect you as one writer respects another and they should, I know I do, want your opinion. Since you've already placed the ground rules that all your comments and suggestions are your opinion anyway - you might as well give the person your thoughts.
BAD EXAMPLE: Thanks for letting me read the script. Tell me if anything comes from it...
GOOD EXAMPLE: If this was my screenplay... I would probably make Jessie more active, he seems to be wandering through the story with really no focus. Vivian's character is a little too bland - I'd give her a past. Maybe an old boyfriend from med school that shows up or, to really mix things up - a patient of hers dies and this is the first time - how would she react to it? Would she close up? Would she reach out? Final thought: I think you're well on your way to a good screenplay. Take my suggestions and see what works for you. I still have some core issues with your character motivations - but those can probably be resolved with a scene, or two, or maybe some dialogue. Still - GOOD JOB!

DON'T: Fail to Acknowledge
WHY: It takes gumption and stamina to write a screenplay and everyone who writes one wants a pat on the back (even if the screenplay is not very good). Do not think that you are making a mockery of the system if you tell the person they did a good job. JUST GETTING THE SCRIPT WRITTEN IS AN ACCOMPLISHMENT IN AND OF ITSELF! Most of my critiques start with: CONGRATULATIONS! This other person has given birth to a baby. We are not sure if the baby is going to grow up to become a great scientist or a serial killer - but that is not the point at this juncture! The point is to acknowledge the script you are holding in your hands.
BAD EXAMPLE: I read your script. Here is my opinion:
GOOD EXAMPLE: Congratulations on finishing your screenplay! That's a great accomplishment and I'm really excited for you. You should be proud of that alone. Now, here are my thoughts...

DON'T: Assume you know all.
WHY: When I teach my screenwriting class I explain that I do not see ideas and/or screenplays as "Good" or "Bad" - I see them as "Easier to Sell" and "Harder to Sell." I can tell you right now that I'm not that in to "Horror Films" or "Romantic Comedies" - but someone else might LOVE these types of movies. So I usually judge a script on how the story progresses. If the writer is showing character or not. Does it hit the right beats? Is the structure strong? Just because it is not my "type" of film does not mean it is not someone ELSE'S type of film. So a quick judgment like: "I think the script is terrible and would never work." Is stupid. There is a VAST audience out there that might be hungry for just this type of film! In all honesty - you do not know. Even the big-wigs in Hollywood DON'T KNOW what will work and what won't. What makes you think you do?
BAD EXAMPLE: This story will never work. No one would ever believe that a highly respected doctor would date an out-of-work pot-head musician.
GOOD EXAMPLE: This story might be a harder sell - unless you're able to come up with more of an understanding between the main characters. What motivates her to take this risk? Why would he be interested? And what of his dream of winning "Star Search?" These are questions I feel may need to be answered before the script will sell. But, then again, what do I know?

DON'T: Forget it is their script and story
WHY: As mentioned before - it's all about the script and the writer and making both of them better. IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU! I can't make that more clear. Certainly you have an opinion and you have thoughts and words and suggestions and comments but IT IS NOT YOUR SCRIPT. Give your opinion, suggestions, comments - then BACK AWAY. It is not your job to suddenly "own" the story and try to change it to YOUR liking. Your job as a person reviewing the script is to simply acknowledge what you think works, what you think does not work, and give comments and suggestions on how the writer might make it all work.
BAD EXAMPLE: I think that you should change Vivian into a podiatrist instead of a pediatrician. And if Jessie moves from the drums to the guitar that makes him sexier. Also, Jessie's brother could be gay and he could bring his boy-friend over and...
GOOD EXAMPLE: Thanks for letting me read the script. Best of luck with it. I wish you great success!

DON'T: disappear
WHY: Critiquing someone's work is a dialogue that needs to continue. Inevitably the person may have a comment or question on your comment or question. Do not suddenly fall off the radar screen when they call or e-mail. If you are willing to write your comments - you must be willing to explain yourself (and, sometimes, you need a phone conversation to REALLY explain yourself). Do not hide away fearing that they might challenge you on something you wrote. They might and, gosh, you might be wrong. The whole point, again, is to serve the writer and the script - not YOU. So do not disappear into the ether after you have given your two (or two hundred) cents - open up those lines of communication. You just may learn something and you just may make a life-long friend.
BAD EXAMPLE: I'm going away. Don't try to find me.
GOOD EXAMPLE: Call me, write to me, e-mail me if you have ANY questions about what I wrote. If I was confusing in my explanation - PLEASE contact me. I want to make the script better and you a better writer!

IN CLOSING: Critiquing someone's work is a hard job. You do take a risk in a number of ways. Whenever I hand off one of my critiques I often fear that maybe I was too hard or didn't explain myself well enough or am afraid of discouraging the writer. Time and time again the writer calls me up and gushes about how my critique was really helpful, how they agreed, or disagreed, with my opinions/thoughts/comments/suggestions and the script gets better and the writer gets better and even I get better in the process.

This process should be fun and helpful for everyone involved.


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