Sunday, June 7, 2009

Understanding Script Feedback (part 3 of 3)

RULE #3: NEVER TAKE FEEDBACK LITERALLY

Writers are rarely lucky enough to receive feedback from persons experienced and insightful enough to spot exactly where a script has failed. You would like to hear something like, “Your second act drags because your forces of antagonism fail to escalate after each of the protagonist's actions.” Instead, you usually get “Your second act was slow and boring.” Instead of, “You have not created a strong emotional need in the protagonist to anchor the story and motivate his actions,” you get “Your main character did things kind of randomly.”

To get anything useful out of feedback, the writer should not focus on what the reader has said, but WHY THEY SAID IT. Most of the time, feedback comes solely from the reader's gut reaction. They know they felt a certain way, but probably cannot tell you why.

Remember the beginning of this article. The opinion of your work exists in two separate realities, the writer's SUBJECTIVE REALITY, and the reader's OBJECTIVE REALITY. Now comes the time to reconcile the two.

Between the expectations you have of the audience's reaction in your subjective reality, and the actual impression made on the reader in the objective reality lies a GAP – a gap of miscommunication. Your attempt to communicate the ideas, images, and emotions that seem to bright and powerful in your head have somehow fallen short or gone astray, leaving your script to communicate something far less than you intended.

But how to close the gap? The worst way to go about it is to take all suggestions from feedback literally, and incorporate all of the diverse opinions you have received in an attempt to make everyone happy. I don't need to mention how studios make this mistake time and time again at test screenings, causing them to reshoot and reedit again and again to make everyone happy, turning would could at one time have been a serviceable story into an uneven, unfocused mess.

The reader does not know what target you are aiming for. They do not know what you in your heart really want your script to communicate. Their opinions are merely a gut reaction based on the unfinished evidence they have in front of them with perhaps a bit of imagination on the part of what THEY would do if they were writing this script. If you blindly adhere to the reader's suggestions and start altering your script just to please their tastes, your script will become a patchwork of bits and pieces that will mostly likely send the story off its original spine, becoming something unfocused and even more confusing. If anything, you will turn your script into something much different than what you originally set out to create. But worst of all, if a writer does this, he or she isn't fixing the real flaws. The writer is just putting band-aids on the surface, while allowing the underlying causes continue to damage and weaken their story.

To close the gap, a writer must behave like a doctor. When a patient comes into a doctor's office, the patient doesn't come out and state “I have pneumonia,” or “I have a viral infection,” or whatever is causing them to feel ill. Rather, a patient gives the doctor a list of the symptoms that have been bothering them. It is then the doctor's job to use these symptoms to diagnose the underlying cause. It is the same with your flawed screenplay. Your screenplay is sick. The reader's feedback presents you with its symptoms. It is the job of the writer to use these symptoms to diagnose the script's DISEASE, the underlying cause of your script problems.

It would be incredibly irresponsible for a doctor to send away a tuberculosis patient with simply a bottle of cough syrup and consider the patient cured. Even though the patient's coughing might stop, the disease is still there and threatens to kill the patient in many other ways. This is the same reason that it is foolish to follow the reader's advice literally. You will only be treating the symptoms, not the disease.

Granted, the ability to diagnose your script quickly and accurately requires a good deal of experience and knowledge of screencraft. Until your skills are honed enough to recognize what underlying problems can cause what symptoms, you might want to consider paying for a professional reader service. These pros can help you pinpoint the problem if all other self-analysis fails.

However, until that time comes, you can save yourself some money and begin your approach in the following manner:

Take a piece of your reader's criticism. Let's say it states that your climax falls flat. Ask yourself “What made the reader think that?” Look into your script to find the answer. An unfulfilling climax could be caused by a number of things from less than acceptable level of story conflict, to weak stakes, to a cop-out deus ex machina style ending. But only one cause will be specific to your script. Search your work with a objective, critical eye, looking for what possibly went astray and gave the writer that opinion.

Sometimes a reader can make a surprising misconception about your story, when your intentions were quite different. Let's say the reader describes your protagonist as a “brooding amoral toughguy,” when what you were going for was “ambitious frustrated dreamer.” This little misconception about your main character changes the reader's entire viewpoint of the story. What you must then do is go into the text, asking yourself “What made the reader get that idea that my protagonist is brooding and amoral?” Read over your scenes line by line and try to pinpoint where possible miscommunications took place. Maybe certain lines of dialogue ended up implying things about the character that you did not intend. Maybe you have not done enough in the character's scenes to bring the his specific qualities to the forefront. When you find these things, make an effort to correct them.


The ultimate goal of rewriting is to close the gap between your expectations and the reader's reality. Make sure the experience you want to give the audience is the same one that they receive. And the only way to do this is through empathy and understanding of your readers and the audience. Work hard to make your dual realities one in the same.

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