by Ann Marie Williams
When you receive a critique, it’s helpful to determine which comments therein pertain to one or all of the following:
- Your story (the vision you have for your story — this may or may not be accurately conveyed on the page).
- Your script as it’s written (the story that’s on the page — this may or may not accurately represent the story you envisioned).
- Your story’s theme (the message or moral of your story and/or your perspective and point of view).
For example, perhaps the critic suggests you alter your climax. Is that because:
- The climax doesn’t satisfy the setup (story)?
- The story is written in a way that doesn’t accurately convey which moment is meant to be the climax (script)?
- The critic disagrees with the statement your climax makes (theme)?
Since learning how to identify which element a critique is targeting can affect how you implement both the critique and your rewrites, let’s take a closer look at each of these elements.
Critiquing the Story
When analyzing a critique, it’s important to determine if the critic accurately perceived your vision of the story. This is more than just whether or not the critic understood the plot. Try to identify whether the critic understand the way in which you want to convey the story: the theme, the tone, the structure, etc. (This is where loglines and summaries provided by the critic can be helpful since they offer a glance into how the critic perceived your story—but more on this in a later post.)
Identifying whether the critic understood your vision for the story will dictate how you act on the his/her suggestions.
If a critic did understand your vision for your story—great! Odds are the majority of his/her suggestions will help you find ways to convey your story in a more impactful way, but that will still be in line with your vision.
But what if the critic is sending you in a direction other than what you envisioned? Maybe the critic is directing you towards a different tone, or thinks your protagonist’s personality should be altered, or suggests changing your story’s ending.
When this happens, try to identify if the critic understood your vision but thinks going a different route would improve your story, or if the critic misunderstood the direction you wanted your story to take (which could be an issue with the script—discussed next).
If the critic understood the direction you wanted your story to take but suggests a new route, try to identify the reasons the critic suggested a new vision. Maybe the new vision would be more marketable, would reach a wider audience, or would make your initial concept carry more impact.
Maybe you’ll agree with the critic and decide to take your story in that new direction. Or maybe you won’t.
It’s still your story. It’s up to you to determine the vision you want to follow. Only you can decide if you want to change your vision or find another way to improve your script while still adhering to your original vision.
But… if the critic misunderstood your vision for the story, then you’ll need to identify why that is… which brings me to:
Critiquing the Script
Sometimes a critic ends up suggesting a new vision for your story not because they take issue with your theme or story but because the theme and story are not accurately represented on the page. In other words, what you’ve envisioned isn’t what’s portrayed in your script.
This means the critic might not even realize he/she is suggesting a “new” vision (because the story you envisioned didn’t make it onto the page). If that’s the case, you might have to analyze the critique very carefully to identify the source of your script’s problems.
For example, if the critic suggests your protagonist is annoying and needy, and you’re reaction is, “That’s not true! My protagonist is wonderful, and giving, and selfless,” then you have two possibilities to consider: either the critic didn’t connect with your character (which is possible), or the character you envisioned is not represented on your page (which is also possible).
Sometimes it’s obvious which is which. But sometimes it’s not. And this is one reason why multiple critiques can be so helpful—maybe you get five critiques and only one critic thought your protagonist was needy. Or maybe they all did. If you determine that your character is not reflected on the page as you envisioned, then you can go about rewriting that character to more accurately reflect your intent.
If you determine that the character is accurately represented and that the critic simply didn’t connect with the character, that’s fine, too. However, I’d still suggest that you try to determine if there’s a reason why the character was misconstrued.
In either case, you’ll need to carefully analyze every other suggestion from that critic because he/she was critiquing your script under the assumption that you wanted to write a needy character, so the rest of the critique will be written based on the vision the critic thought you were writing.
Critiquing the Theme
Theme is the message of the story. The point you’re trying to make. What the story means.
While I believe a critic’s personal views on the world should not affect how he/she critiques or judges the quality of a script, it does happen. So, when this occurs, you’ll likely have to sift through that critique to figure out which suggestions will help you achieve the best version of your story (versus which suggestions would change your story to match that critic’s point of view).
Now, sometimes a critic will suggest changes to the theme, not because he/she has a personal issue with the message, but because the theme could make your script difficult to sell or produce. A message or point of view might not connect with the majority of audiences. This doesn’t mean that the message is wrong or unimportant. But it might mean that the script won’t attract a large enough audience to cover a studio’s investment of time, talent and dollars, which could make the script difficult to sell, and perhaps the critic wants to bring this to your attention. But, the decision to change your theme (or not) is still up to you.
As you improve your ability to analyze critiques, you’ll be better able to interpret critiques and determine which ones will steer you towards the best version of your story.
Bottom line, whether a critic understood your vision or not, at the end of the day only you can decide if you want to change your script. Just be honest with yourself as to why you’re making the choices you’re making.
Want more? Check out the book Screenplay Competitions: Tools and Insights to Help You Choose the Best Screenwriting Contests for You and Your Script by Ann Marie Williams © 2019.
Screenplay Competitions has received endorsements from Dave Trottier (author, The Screenwriter’s Bible, www.keepwriting.com), professor 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), professor Harry M. Cheney (Chapman University Dodge College of Film and Media Arts), script editor Lucy V. Hay (www.bang2write.com) and Emmy-wining writer Ken Levine (Hollywood and Levine).