The Joys of Rewriting, Pt. 3

You’ve had your reading. You’ve heard the comments and the questions. Now what?

First, let’s deal with the comments. Observations are useful. “I was confused by…” “I felt taken out of the play when…” “I really liked…” These are all useful comments. When someone is confused or lost or wanders out of the world you create, it’s up to you to decide if it was just that one person, or whether it’s a problem with the play that needs fixing.

How do you decide whether to take a comment to heart or to ignore it? There are two litmus tests I use: one, are they the only one who had this problem? If, out of ten people, only one person has this issue (particularly if the others specifically didn’t find it to be a problem), it may just be that one person. The second litmus test, considering that the only person who really matters in this is you, is whether somewhere, deep in your gut, you agree with the comment. If Sara says that she felt the wedding ceremony came out of nowhere, even if the others didn’t, if somewhere in the back of your brain, you think “perhaps she’s right,” maybe there’s a little work to be done.

Be aware that often a comment about a problem in the play is not really about that particular moment in the play. For example, the reason everyone says that Scene 8 doesn’t work is because the characters weren’t set up properly in Scene 3. This is sometimes tough to decipher, but try to read between the lines and figure out what the comments are really telling you.

The second type of comment, the prescriptive comment, I usually ignore. Someone suggests that you should “change the title” or “give Jerry more stage time” or “reset the play in a fast food restaurant.” That’s the play that THEY would write, not the one you wrote. Do I ever ask for prescriptive comments? Only from people who know my work very, very well and “get me” (for example, in my writers group or from a theatre professional with whom I have an ongoing relationship). And usually I’m looking for some specific suggestion about a problem spot.

My preferred feedback from a reading comes in the form of a question. “Why did Ben leave Baxter’s?” “What happens between Scenes 1 and 2?” The great thing about asking questions is that it allows the playwright to answer them on his own terms. Is that piece of information important for the audience to know? If so, how can I make sure it’s in the play in a way that doesn’t scream “exposition” and slow things down?

See my article “How to Have a Useful Play Reading” for more on this topic.

Remember, even if you decide that some particular area of the script needs strengthening, this does not mean you automatically gut the entire script. I’ve seen far too many writers, particularly younger or less experienced ones, throw everything out and start over. Don’t take this step unless you absolutely have to—and sometimes you do—because if you do, it’s really starting with a new first draft, and the whole process begins again.

And in the end, remember to go with your gut. Don’t let the feedback change your play into something you don’t want it to be. Even someone who is very experienced may not be a good match for your particular piece, and their feedback can hurt rather than help—if you let it. I’ve seen it happen. You and you alone are the final arbiter of what changes.

Good luck, and happy writing!

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