Posted by: steveonfilm | November 23, 2008

Returning the Favor

One of things all amateur screenwriters have to do is read the screenplays of other amateur screenwriters. I call this “returning the favor.” It’s one of the only ways to get decent feedback on your script.

Sure, you can send it to friends, but unless they understand what a screenplay is their feedback is usually pretty worthless. That’s not to say you can’t value their opinion (anyone can tell you if your story sucks or not) but you can’t usually rely on them for any type of substantive feedback. For example, a friend isn’t like to be able to tell you when a scene goes on for too long.

Nope, for that you need to let another screenwriter read your stuff. Which in turn means you need to read their stuff when they need a reader too.

I read a screenplay earlier this week from someone I’ve never met. Adam is a friend of one of my fraternity brothers who lives out in L.A. Adam read an earlier draft of Bystander and the first act of my current draft of Marianas. He gave me some good solid feedback. Now it was time for me to return the favor.

This is the first time I’ve read a screenplay from someone other than my friend Ryley (of course I’m not including screenplays I’ve read of movies that were already made). And honestly, I can’t really give Ryley feedback, nor does he send me scripts for that, since he’s a professional writer and is sort of past that sort of stuff from a guy like me.

At any rate, since I was never in “film” school so to speak, I never really had the chance to read other people’s stuff. Sure, when I was at SCAD we had some small shorts that we went over with each other. But this was a three to five page script that was more of a glorified storyboard than actual screenplay (I transfered to UCF before I took any of the real screenwriting classes). I can only imagine reading Adam’s script was much akin to what it is probably like being in one of those classes.

That’s not to say that Adam’s script was bad. It wasn’t. But it wasn’t good either. The story is a coming of age story about two friends at college. There are some roommates who had subplots as well, but the central story revolves around these two friends. It was 88 pages, and a pretty quick read.

It was an interesting experience. I saw a lot of things that Adam does that I used to do a lot. Starting a scene way to early. Ending it way to late. Having scenes ramble on without any clear intent. Scenes would occur where you knew the writer was trying to get at something specific, but they just weren’t getting it across.

While the story wasn’t ground breaking, or getting into any new territory I hadn’t already been with other stories before, it defiantly has potential. And for the first time I had to figure out how to critique something without sounding like I was tearing it down. They called it constructive criticism in my English classes in college.

I pointed out a few technical improvements Adam needed to make. But outside of that, I just told him, as a reader, what more I wanted out of the screenplay. What seemed off. What I liked. What I didn’t like. Where can he expand. Where he can cut. Coming in at 88 pages he’s got some more real estate he can work with (maybe ten more pages if he needs them).

I tried to take the mindset of looking at this as if it was my screenplay, and what I would do to improve it. I’m not sure if thats the right way to go about it or not. What do you think? I didn’t say things like “what I would do here is this” or “I would change the scene like that.” Instead I would look at something and when I caught myself wondering I would jot it down. Then I basically just said, “Hey, here are my thoughts.”

If any other writers come across this post I’m curious as to how you approach peer reviews?

Is there a technique, or method, that you like to follow?

How do you go about approaching the delivery of your feedback? Brutally honest? Or restrained criticism?





  1. Brutally Honest.

    I learned a long time ago as a writer, its hard to get people to read your scripts, no matter how much they promise to. So when they do, you want them to be as honest as possible. It sucks to have someone read something and say, “It was pretty good. I’d make it more dramatic.” What the hell does that mean? It’s about as useful as saying, “hey man, your dog could take bigger dumps.” Ummm…Thanks.

    Also, You don’t owe this person anything, and they don’t owe you anything. So better to get harsh criticism from someone who doesn’t matter, rather than someone who does — like an agent, or an executive, or a manager, or talent. And not that you don’t matter to him, but you are there to help him as a writer, not get him a job. Be critical so they can foresee problems before others do, and give them the chance to save it. There’s nothing worse than burning a connection because everyone who read your script thought it was good, then you find out it isn’t.

    But, something else you mentioned I find as a problem. Sometimes when I’ve read scripts and gotten mine read I get/give the response, “It’s good. Solid, but I have no real big suggestions.” This commonly happens because the script you just read was a good scripts, but overall it didn’t turn you any specific way, didn’t really do anything for you. In that case I step back and ask why. There’s something that nagged me throughout the script that really bothered me, or didn’t. That’s what I have to put in there. sorry man, I liked the script, but it didn’t do anything for me and here’s why… If you can’t explain it, then it boils down to there wasn’t enough to make a story. And the best answer to give, is make a story out of it. Read Robert McKee’s Story if you have to, but if not, just remember story is what moves people. It’s not enough to be riddled with plot points, or follow someone through their everyday life. It has to become significant, and if it doesn’t do that, it will not sell. Plain and simple. Better to know from you than to think its a “Worthwhile” script. Everyone has great intentions in writing, but that doesn’t make their writing great. It’s your job to tell them that.

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