Feedback

Writers want their scripts to get better. And for that we all need readers, and from them we all want specific and constructive feedback. But although feedback is great, it would really be a lot easier if the script was just perfect to begin with.

I bring this up because I just got the feedback from that BlueCat Screenplay Festival I mentioned a while back. I did okay in the contest – Aftershocks placed in the top 10% of all entries – but I did not advance to the semi-finals. One of the reasons I entered this particular festival (after entering several others at various points since the script was first finished) was for the “writer feedback” which was included with every entry.

Whenever I read somebody else’s stuff, I try to be constructive. This means being direct without being mean. Like one of my best screenwriting instructors used to say: no excuses. If the reader doesn’t “get” something, if it isn’t there on the page, that’s the writer’s fault, not the reader’s. After all, that is what the writer’s job is: to put it on the page. Whether I’m reading stuff for a friend, in a class, or in a writers’ group, I’ve always felt that the point of writer feedback is to point out what isn’t sufficiently on the page, what it is the reader doesn’t “get”, and hopefully try to explain why. So when I read feedback of my own stuff, I try to keep this in mind, I try to be objective and non-emotional about it, I try to forget that I wrote the thing and look at it as an outside observer who has been hired to simply make the script better.

This is hard. The head of the BlueCat contest even admits that the writer’s instinctive emotional reaction when hearing negative feedback is to usually conclude that the reader is “an idiot” who isn’t smart enough to grasp the material. Did I have this feeling about my reader? No.

But…

Aftershocks is a “puzzle” script, where the characters and the reader have a kind of mystery to solve. It is also semi-linear, with a few different timelines going parallel to each other (one in the present, one about 5 years ago, and one about 15 years ago) which are supposed to comment on and reveal aspects of each other. And there is something else… which I can’t tell you about.

Intelligent people I know have read the script and have failed to grasp the solution to the “puzzle.” Others have read the first 10-20 pages and have told me it is too obvious, that “hidden” clues are all too visible and that nobody would have any doubt or suspense as to the outcome. Others have read it and said the “puzzle” was perfectly done – they “got it” at the same time the characters did and not a moment before. This is kind of frustrating when it comes to trying to make the script better. People read it and give you their feedback, and you tweak the material to try to improve it, but since they’ve already read the script they can’t just read it again and tell you if the puzzle was easier or more difficult the second time: they already know the solution.

So part of entering the contest was to get yet another vote – hopefully an authoritative, definitive vote – on how effectively the “puzzle” is constructed.

And in this respect the feedback was pretty frustrating. Overall, the reader had some nice things to say:

  • “The writer does a good job with Jim, who is a complex character that we can care about. We feel his conflict, how he both wants and doesn’t want to forget Deborah and get over her. The idea of a hard drive in his head is an interesting one, as is the idea of him programming himself…. Overall I think Jim succeeds as a character, and his actions are believable.”
  • “Most of the other characters are also nicely drawn. We meet the individual toll-takers, each of whom have their own personalities. “
  • “The action lines are crisp and clear, and the dialogue is believable, with plenty of subtext.”

When the discussion turns to stuff the reader didn’t like, the comments are at first specific and very helpful, especially when discussing characters and some context that I admit I may have skimmed over too superficially. Good feedback. But when it comes to the stuff I was really paying for, the discussion of the mechanics of the puzzle itself? The guy barely mentions them.

  • “…I think there needs to be a clearer explanation of exactly what [Jim’s] job at Optichron had been and what the company was trying to do. Jim obviously misuses the computer equipment that was installed in him. I think it would help if we knew what Optichron’s goals were when it designed the equipment and how the medical community has received it.”

What was Jim’s job 5 years ago? What were the goals of the company he worked for? If these details were important for the mystery or the story, they would be necessary. But they… aren’t.

  • “Also, what’s the meaning of the pager that Jim throws on the dash right before the earthquake starts? It seems as if it should have a meaning since we see it so many times, but it’s never explained. I assume it ties in with what Jim was doing at his job at Optichron, and again, we would use more explanation of that.”

It was at this point that I kind of threw up my hands. This was a visual detail, nothing more. The guy worked for a computer company years ago, so he had a pager. During an earthquake it fell down. That is the meaning of the pager. There is no more meaning or explanation. The reader then did start discussing the solution to the puzzle (so I can’t quote his notes here or I’d give it away), but, again, only in terms of the specific meanings of the little objects and details, the red herrings.

But again, the reader can almost never be wrong. Maybe some of you who have read the script agree with the guy’s concerns.

Did the reader “solve” the puzzle himself? Did he do this before or after the characters solved it? Was it too easy? Too hard? Just right? The reader never says. Looking back, I realize that giving me this information was not the specific job the reader was supposed to do, but it would have been helpful, and with a script of this nature this was the one thing I was looking for.

Do I sound defensive and/or emotional about all this? I don’t mean to. The feedback was good, and the subjects that the reader addressed (characters, context issues, others I haven’t touched on here) were addressed clearly and constructively. If you’ve read the script and you’re curious about what else he brought up, let me know and I’ll forward the notes to you. But I suppose every writer has certain issues foremost in his mind, the burning questions, and feels that discussions about all the other elements are pretty much irrelevant.

I can’t really fault the reader for not answering the specific questions this format could not allow me to ask. But am I frustrated? Yes. The script still needs more readers.

If only the script had been perfect in the first place…

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