Dealing with Critiques and Rewrites: The Story, The Page, The Theme

by Ann Marie Williams © 2020

When you receive a critique, it’s helpful to determine which comments pertain to one or all of the following: 

  1. The story (the vision you have for your story — this may or may not be accurately conveyed on the page).
  2. The page as it’s written (the story that’s on the page — this may or may not accurately represent the story you envisioned).
  3. The theme (the message or moral of your story and/or the perspective and point of view the story conveys).

Knowing which element the critique addresses, can help you determine how (or if) you should implement the corresponding rewrites.

For example, perhaps the critic suggests you alter your climax. Is that because:

  1. The climax doesn’t satisfy the setup (story)?
  2. The story is written in a way that doesn’t accurately convey which moment is meant to be the climax (page)?
  3. The critic disagrees with the statement your climax makes (theme)? 

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.

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 page — discussed below). 

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, would make your initial concept carry more impact, or make your protagonist more relatable.

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, as mentioned above, if the critic is suggesting a different vision because the critic misunderstood your vision for the story, then you’ll need to identify why that is… which brings me to:

Critiquing the Page 

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 true 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 ultimately 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 ultimately 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 the critique was written 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.

Themes can be very broad, or very specific.

Love conquers hate.

Good triumphs over evil.

Hard work reaps rewards.

That sort of thing.

Anyway, while I believe a critic’s personal views on the world should not affect how the critic judges the quality of a script, book, teleplay, stage play, etc…. it does happen. So, when you’re analyzing a critique of your work, you’ll have to determine if it’s the story, the page, or the theme that’s the critic took issue with.

If it’s the theme, then 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 the critic has a personal issue with the message, but because the theme could make your story 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 finished work won’t attract a large enough audience to cover the investment of time, talent and dollars, to get it produced.

But, again, the decision to change your theme (or not) is still up to you.

In Summary

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. 

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 book front cover

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), Professor of Film John Bernstein (Boston University, College of Communication), 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).

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