Screenplay feedback and accepting that something is broken
I did a staged reading of Begin, a screenplay I recently wrote. It went very well, with lots of laughs in the right places and the audience stayed tuned in throughout the 90 or so minutes of the reading, in large part because the actors nailed it so well. There are two reasons why I love doing a reading like this: feedback from the audience and feedback from the actors.
From the audience you learn where it’s working and where it stalls and where it’s funny and where the jokes land flat. And from the actors you learn if you’ve written roles that are fun or interesting to play. And you can see if the characters come to life when the words are spoken out loud, or does it just feel like someone’s reading some lines? It helps to have actors that prepare and commit to it.
Afterwords, we did a Q&A, where I was asking questions of the audience to get their feedback on some of the story and theme issues that I’ve been struggling with — mostly things that were pointed out as weaknesses by Blcklst readers.
I asked the audience: “I’ve gotten some feedback that said that the reader was not clear about what the theme or the point of the story is. Do you agree with that comment and why” And I saw many heads shyly nodding.1.
A lot of the feedback was related to the main character, about why he was making the choices he was making and how it seemed like things were happening to him, very funny things, but things that didn’t necessarily relate to his larger arc or the theme of the film. This type of feedback is invaluable because it provides another data point, more evidence that this is in fact a problem, not just something one reader had an issue with. But it’s also a bit strange to me, because I know exactly what the theme is, and in my head it’s so obvious that I was worried that it would be too obvious.
But when 20 people nod their heads in unison, it’s hard to ignore. I tried to communicate something and I failed, as much as I wanted to believe that everything was working well. And now that I’ve accepted that, I can begin the work of addressing those issues and with some luck, take it from “a funny movie” to “a really good movie that’s also funny.”
I used to have this feeling, like a fear of putting stuff out into the world because I wanted everyone (or the people I care about) to just say “this is great, I love it, it’s perfect,” so I wouldn’t have to change a thing. But I’ve been braver lately and try to seek out critiques from people that will be honest about the issues in what I write, so that I can make my work better.
It’s really hard to do that and admit that something I love is broken, but I don’t know if there’s another way to improve as a writer (along with practicing a whole lot). And getting there required changing my mindset from “making something good” to “continuously improve as a writer.”
After receiving zero response to my first question, I remembered that I had to tell them that they had permission to say negative things, which opened things up quite a bit ↩