How to get feedback on your screenplay

Getting feedback seems easy, but trust me when I tell you that the time, the energy, the heart and passion that we pour into our screenplay will make us strangely defensive of our work.

Even when we solicit feedback, we hate to be told that what we have written doesn’t work, because what we hear is, “This writing sucks, you’re a bad writer, you’re wasting your time. Give it up!” But what people are actually saying is, “Something here didn’t work for me. I think it could be improved.” Unless the person involved actually says, “This writing sucks, you’re a bad writer, you’re wasting your time. Give it up!” in which case, I suggest not going back to them for feedback.

So here is The Hollywood Screenwriter’s Journey guide for soliciting feedback. It is very simple. It is just once sentence and one facial expression. And here is it:

YOU: (smiling) Thank you. That’s a very interesting insight.

That’s it. That’s all we need. No matter whom we ask, and no matter what they say about our screenplay, we will simply smile and say, “Thank you. That’s a very interesting insight.”

We are allowed to vary it slightly so as to not look looney tunes crazy, but we will stick to this as closely as possible.

We will not defend our screenplay. We will not argue about their idea, their suggestion or their motives. We will not tell them that they clearly didn’t “get it”, or mustn’t have read it properly. We will not go into lengthy explanations about how if they understood screenwriting they wouldn’t be mentioning that part of the screenplay. We will not stop them mid-sentence explaining that we, “didn’t want feedback about that character at that stage, but just whether the story is working”. We will simply smile and say, “Thank you. That’s a very interesting insight.”

Later, once all the anger and hurt we felt as they spewed out their stupid, ill-informed comments has subsided, we can sit down and sift through it all to work out what is useful and what isn’t. But here is a little secret; all feedback useful, in some way. I’m not saying we adopt every suggestion made, but they said it for some reason. Something confused them or didn’t work for them, or didn’t ring true. If it had, they wouldn’t have mentioned it.

The same is also true of positive feedback. When someone tells us they love a scene, or a character or a line, what we hear is, “I knew I was a genius.” But remember, this is the same idiot who two seconds ago told you that your lead character wasn’t funny. What makes him more correct now? Nothing.

Plus, I have a dirty secret to share with you. People who care about you will want to find something nice to say about your screenplay even if it’s not there. I can guarantee you that between 40-95% of the nice things they say in their feedback are only there to balance out the myriad of things they found to bitch about. If we really want to weed out the lies, they will sound extraordinarily vague compared to the criticism. Such as, “Loved all the stuff with parrot” or, “It flows really nicely”, whereas they had a good five minutes on why the boy shouting at his dad felt forced and clichéd.

Remember, either way, good or bad, we get feedback on our screenplay to choose the ideas that can help us improve our work. The key word here is choose. And the only way to get all the choices we can is to smile and say, “Thank you. That’s a very interesting insight.”

So who do we give our screenplay to in order to get this wonderful feedback? This is actually more difficult than you’d think. The perfect feedback agent is a balance of four things:

  • Your access to them and the chances of them reading it quickly.
  • Their ability to tell you the truth about your work.
  • Their ability to read and visualize a screenplay.
  • Their ability to understand the good and bad in your screenplay and vocalize it in a way that is useful and positive.

The perfect feedback agent would be a childhood friend who drifted out of your life ever so slightly but has since become a world-class screenwriter and who recently reached out to you on Facebook to become friends again, and maybe even collaborate on a project. If you have any of them, you’re set. Unfortunately, that’s a pretty specific set of qualities. Most of us will end up using:

  • Spouse/partner
  • Friends
  • Work colleagues we like
  • Other writers we may know (who may also be friends)
  • Our one industry contact

I’m going to suggest excluding any industry contacts we have at this stage. If they truly have a route into the industry, then we don’t want them to read our work until it’s as good as it can be, and it’s not there yet. We will come back to such contacts later on.

All of the others are just fine, but each one carries its own challenge. Some spouses/partners are great at telling us the truth, others will be scared about hurting our feelings. Friends are usually better about being honest, but there’s no reason that they’ve ever read a screenplay in their lives, and will end up comparing it to films they’ve seen, instead of screenplays they’ve read.

Other writers will be more adept at understanding the craft, but can sometimes be so desperate to show off their own knowledge and brilliance at writing that they overwhelm us with feedback that is confusing, irrelevant or unnecessarily harsh.

On the other hand, you might find someone who is unfailingly positive about everything. I had a feedback agent like this. He was an incredibly smart guy who was also a writer and a good friend of mine. We even collaborated on some TV projects. Every time I gave him a screenplay, he would call me up and tell me that I’d just written Citizen Kane. In fact, it was better than Citizen Kane. And he wasn’t just blowing smoke up my ass, he truly believed it, and he had all sorts of evidence to back it up. It was wonderful to chat to him as it made me feel so good about myself and all the work I’d put in. There was just one problem; he was wrong and I knew it. The best I could figure was that he just genuinely enjoyed reading screenplays. He would be the worst development executive in the world. He would want to buy every script he read.

However, such feedback is just as useful as feedback from people who are relentlessly negative, and of course much nicer to listen to.

There is no such thing as perfect feedback or the perfect person to give it to us. Find four or five people that you believe will tell you the truth and get them each a printed copy of your screenplay. It’s hard enough to read a screenplay, don’t make them do it on the computer.

Ask them to read through it and whatever they feel to write it in the margin as they go with thoughts that are as honest as they can be.

Let them know that we want the script back at the end. Their verbal feedback notes will be great but they will forget a lot after they have read it. Seeing their notes as they went though will be invaluable to us.

Each person is going to give us a completely different experience in terms of what they take away from it and how they communicate that to us. In each case, take from it what we can, and remember:

YOU: (smiling) Thank you. That’s a very interesting insight.

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