Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His new book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1script consultant. This means I read screenplays, assess them (via a written critique pointing out both the strong and weak points of the scripts in question) and (when asked) provide suggestions for correcting the weak points and improving the overall script.
I perform this service for a wide variety of clients – for producers, development executives, for established screenwriters, and for aspiring screenwriters. My reports are generally well-received by the first three categories of clients. But some of the aspiring screenwriters whose work I critique sometimes complain that my assessments are a bit harsh – that I focus more on the negative aspects of their scripts than I do the positive.
“Why can’t you be nice?” they ask plaintively.
It is probably true that I (usually) give way more attention to a script’s problems than its assets when I am assessing a screenplay.
There are several reasons for this:
- The first is that the good parts of a script don’t need my help – if something works, it works and once I have pointed that out, there’s not much left to say. Therefore, when I write my assessments I tend to devote more page space to a script’s problem areas – explaining why I think they are problems and how I think they can best be solved.
- The second is that scripts written by aspiring writers tend to have a lot of problems – a lot more than scripts written by experienced professionals. That’s not a dig – it’s just a fact. When you are just beginning, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. That’s nothing to be embarrassed about – it’s a necessary and unavoidable part of the learning process. And if I am assessing your script, that means I am going to point out those mistakes – all of them – even if the problems they cause far outnumber your script’s assets. And I don’t think that’s harsh – just the opposite in fact.
As we all know, screenwriting is a very tough business. You only get one shot to make a first impression with your script. And if you are to have any chance at success – at selling your script or getting an assignment based on it – then that script has to be excellent. Not just okay; not just good – excellent. So if I go easy – if I sugarcoat my opinion and tell you something is good when it’s not or if I fail to point out a problem I see in your work – just to be nice, then I am setting you up for failure. And there’s nothing nice about that.
So know that if you ask me to assess your screenplay, I am not going to be “nice.”
And it’s vitally important that you not take my lack of “niceness” personally.
A lot of beginning creative people (and – to be fair – quite a few established folks as well) take criticism of their work as a personal attack.
Something every creative person needs to recognize is that – as heavily invested in your work as you are (and no piece of creative work can be any good if its creator is not heavily invested in it) –your work is not you. This is important because, if you are serious about making it as a screenwriter, you are going to encounter a great deal of criticism about your work – from readers, executives, producers, directors, actors, reviewers, and audiences. If you take it all personally, your self-confidence will be shattered. Or else you will become so defensive and resistant that no one will want to work with you.
My first professional writing job was as a staff writer on a sitcom and working in the writer’s room in that show was the best real-world training I could have ever asked for. I came in to that show being very precious about my writing – I resisted any hint that my work wasn’t 100% perfect; I defended every plot point, every scene, every line, every comma; and I resisted every suggestion for improvement (after all, if something is perfect, it doesn’t need to be improved). But I got over that really quickly. Television waits for no man – scripts must be churned out with predictable regularity (if they’re not, then production gets held up – a delay that can cost millions of dollars). Nobody had any time to babysit an insecure new scribe and tend to his delicate feelings. If a script worked – great. But if it didn’t, then it had to be fixed and there was no time to waste sitting around listen to the original writer try to persuade everyone that something was good that everyone else knew wasn’t. If something didn’t work – a scene, a plot point, a character, a line – it got thrown out and everyone in the room pitched ideas for replacements. If one of those suggestions landed, it got used, but if it didn’t (and most of them didn’t), then it was rejected – not with meanness, but with ruthless efficiency (“No, that’s not it. Let’s find something else.”). And no one (including me, once I got over my specialness) took it personally – everyone recognized it was just the most practical way to do what we needed to do, which was solve the problems and make the script we were working on the best we could possibly make it.
That experience taught me what I feel is a very healthy way to approach critiques of my writing: I put my all into the initial draft in the most personal and subjective way possible. But when I am done and begin receiving feedback, I take a step back and move into a much more objective place. If someone has a problem what I have done, I don’t take it as an insult but instead as a challenge: I remind myself what I was trying to accomplish with element in question; assess how the problem the critic identified keeps the element from doing its intended job; and then try to come up with a fix that resolves in the problem in a way that allows the troublesome element to better achieve its purpose – either by changing it, replacing it, or cutting it altogether.
This is how I hope my clients will deal with the notes I give them – not as harshness, but as a well-intentioned, helpful challenge to be met with the same energy, creativity, and sense of purpose with which the initial draft of the script was created.
My criticism is not meant to discourage. It is meant to encourage – to encourage the writer to keep going, to make his or her script the best it can possibly be, and to fully realize the dream he or she had for the material in the first place.
And to me, that’s sounds pretty nice.
Copyright © 2017 by Ray Morton
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