Ways to Analyze Critiques of Your Writing: Identify the True Source of the Problem

March 30, 2019 by Ann Marie Williams

Reprinted (with slight modifications to fit the blog format) from Screenplay Competitions: Tools and Insights to Help You Choose the Best Screenwriting Contests for You and Your Script.

Does your story suffer from referred pain?

Have you experienced this situation when reading a critique of your writing: The critic points to a moment in your story that he/she found unnecessary and suggests you remove the moment entirely. But you can’t fathom removing the moment because it is crucial to the story, it’s perfect as written, and if you alter it then the rest of the story (or certain vital aspects of it) will change beyond recognition.

So… who is right?  You, or the critic?

If you are both honest in your assessments of the moment in question, then it is possible that you are both right.

How can two opposing analyses both be right?

You’ve probably heard of referred pain — the phenomenon that happens when there’s an injury in one part of the body but the pain is felt somewhere else entirely You injure your neck, for example, but your shoulder hurts instead.  Well, “referred pain” can be experienced in writing, too.

Referred Pain In Writing

Let’s say your critic makes the statement that scene 17 in your script seemed unimportant to your story and suggests you remove the scene entirely.

It could very well be that scene 17 is unnecessary and needs to be deleted. But instead of immediately implementing the critic’s suggestion, first try to figure out why the critic perceived the scene the way he/she did.

Remember, the critic isn’t as familiar with your script as you are.  So while it’s possible the critic correctly identified a problem with scene 17, it’s also possible the critic erroneously thinks the problem stems from scene 17.

In other words, it’s possible that a problem with scene 17 does exist, but the fix actually needs to take place at another point in your story.

Maybe scene 17 seemed unnecessary because it wasn’t set up properly back in scene 8. Or maybe scene 17 held a clue meant to resurface in scene 95, but scene 95 was overwritten and the reference got lost.

The critic is correct that the moment in question doesn’t pay off — as the story is currently written.  But you’re also correct in recognizing that the moment in question is crucial to the story and that the moment is written correctly.  So, there is a problem, but the problem isn’t stemming from that particular moment, but rather from a failure to set it up or have it pay off correctly.

In other words, you have referred pain in your script — scene 17 suffers from an issue with scene 8, or a problem in scene 95.

And this is something that the critic (who isn’t as familiar with your story as you are) might not be able to pinpoint.

But you know your story inside and out, so it’s up to you to do diagnose the true source of the problem.  You’ll need to get to the bottom of what doesn’t work, why, and where. Then you can go about fixing what actually needs fixing.

“Referred pain” can apply to any aspect of your story.  It doesn’t have to be an entire scene.  It could be a moment in a scene, a single line of dialogue, or it could be an entire character, a concept, a plot twist, the tone… Whatever it is, it’s in your best interest to figure out where the true problem lies.

Because there’s no point doing surgery on the shoulder when it’s the neck that’s injured.

Identify the true source of the problem


Ann Marie Williams is the author of Screenplay Competitions: Tools and Insights to Help You Choose the Best Screenwriting Contests for You and Your Script, published February 2019 by Bluestocking Press.

Screenplay Competitions has received endorsements from Dave Trottier (Author, The Screenwriter’s Bible http://www.keepwriting.com), Richard Walter (former Screenwriting Area Head, Associate and Interim Dean UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television), Matt Dy (former Director of Script Competitions at Austin Film Festival), and Harry M. Cheney (Chapman University Dodge College of Film and Media Arts).

Screenplay Competitions book front and back cover