We’ve all been in this situation: a friend sends through a film or a play they’ve been working on, hoping to hear what you think. You agree, eager to support them, and begin to look over the first few pages. Maybe it’s a creeping realisation, maybe it hits you all at once … but the script is absolutely god-awful. The characters are laughable, the dialogue is as fake as it is overwritten, the plot makes no sense. Nevertheless, you trudge through page after page—trying not to do the math in your head as to how long they’ve been polishing this magnum opus—because you know what happens next. It might be a week, it might be a month, but that awful question is coming: “What did you think?!”
Okay, time for a disclaimer. It’s worth clarifying that this article is not designed to help you be mean. Leaving aside a somewhat sensational title (and introductory paragraph), our topic of discussion today is actually about giving good, honest feedback. Artists often struggle with this. They know the hurt of overly-negative criticism, and can curb their thoughts so as to save another’s feelings. At other times, there is a fear that their opinion—their expertise, perhaps from a past, similar situation—will not be received and understood without their being explicit and severe. So when you find yourself in a situation when you have been asked to give criticism, and the bad more than overwhelms the good, think about using the tools discussed below to speak methodically and unemotionally. Give your friend that respect, and they’ll ultimately thank you for it.
Before you launch into telling this person what you really think, ask yourself who they are. Clearly, they’re a friend; often, they’re a peer or professional colleague. But are they a writer? Are they doing this because they’re feeling out a career change/expansion, or is it simply an interest of theirs they’ve decided to share with you? And who are they in relation to you when they ask for your opinion? Are they a close friend? Do you currently work together, or plan to in the future? What’s their status in the industry in relation to your own? Do they look up to you? The person who puts themselves out there enough to send you their writing likely has a high opinion of you. Think about this before you crush them, or blow them off with a cursory “I really enjoyed it!” or “Can’t wait for the next draft!” Tailor your feedback to suit your relationship with this person.
Another important consideration is why you’re being asked to read this script in the first place. Are they a first-time writer looking for a confidence boost? A friend who wants to share something they’re proud of? Is the writer seeking funding for this project and wants your advice on how to proceed? Maybe they’re a colleague who has always enjoyed and expected your honest opinion. People seek feedback for different reasons; structure your thoughts accordingly, in line with what they are genuinely expecting to hear back. If possible, ask the writer which areas they’d like you to focus your feedback on. This will hone your approach, as well as ensure that you’re not focusing on areas in the script the writer is either unwilling or unable to hear criticism about. You can always pick these fights another day.
Structure Your Feedback
However you proceed, make sure there is a structure to your approach. If working chronologically through a script, write down page numbers or references to dialogue/action so the writer can follow your thoughts. Alternatively, you may wish to organise your feedback into categories such as character, plot, dialogue, action, style, etc. Different scripts will call for different approaches, especially if the script is for the stage and adheres less to the rigorous formatting of screenplay structure.
Even if you plan to chat about the script over a cup of coffee with this friend, write all of your feedback down. Give them a hard copy of your thoughts and speak from that, so your criticism feels organised and formalised; if you are delivering some harsh truths, seeing them in written form will make them appear far more considered than if they are rattled off the top of your head.
1. What Works?
The best place to start is with what works well already—even if you have to dig deep to find it. Let the writer know which parts are affecting you positively: it could be something as small as a particular scene, or line, or trait of a character. Of course, talking about what works can also suggest the things that don’t: speaking favourably about three of four main characters can let the writer know that more work needs to be done on the fourth. Saying you love the first and third acts says volumes about the state of the second.
2. What Doesn’t Work?
Be careful with this question. Often, the finality of such statements can lead a writer to thinking that a choice was either terrible (and worth abandoning completely), or that it didn’t work for you, personally. If you decide to say something in the script doesn’t work, be sure to back it up with reasons as to why.
3. What Could There Be More or Less Of?
Asking what could be amplified or diminished in a script is one of the most useful feedback tools you can utilise: notice how it’s not explicitly positive or negative. You could ask for more scenes with a character you currently feel is underwritten, or less dialogue in a moment that feels too exposition-driven. You could suggest that there be more time spent on a certain concept if it remains unclear, or less of a plot-line that ultimately goes nowhere. “More of” and “less of” notes are particularly effective because it becomes the writer’s job to appraise the importance (or severity) of the criticism. While they’re debating how much more or less of something they need, they’re generally far less focused on the validity of the note itself.
4. What Could Change?
This is often a more effective critical tool than asking “What doesn’t work?”, as it allows you to suggest things that may need to be modified—or cut entirely. If the script is a heist film devoid of any diverse characters, you might suggest swapping some genders. If a character speaks in nothing but cliches and bad jokes, you might suggest changing their personality so as not to feel the confidence that might lead to such utterances. Suggesting a change (any change) also saves you from having to suggest a solution—which leaves the writer in a position of power. What’s more, they have to address that you desired some kind of modification from what is currently there; they can’t disagree with the possibility of a different idea if it comes from them and them only.
5. Asking Questions
You can never go wrong with asking questions. A question always forces an answer, even if the writer fundamentally disagrees with the premise. If you think a character’s choices are nonsensical, ask what their motives are for this course of action. If a line doesn’t make sense to you: ask what it means. Much like suggesting changes, the very asking of a question means that something needs to be addressed. If the writer resists, remind them that you asked the question for a reason. If their defence is “you just don’t get it”, then compel them to clarify their meaning. It is worth mentioning that questions don’t always need to be negative. You will often find that the above feedback strategies lend themselves well to a question format: “Could there be more of that amazing character Judy at the pizza restaurant?”
Appraisal, Not Opinion
Giving feedback is always a delicate process—especially when you find the work you’re appraising lacking in numerous capacities. If you ever find yourself feeling despondent (or guilty) about the things you’re writing down to discuss a friend, remind yourself that your job is to help them create the strongest possible script they can. If there are things to fix, you can help them address those issues. And if you just don’t like it … that’s actually not the focus of what you’re meant to be doing.
Aim to give an appraisal—an evaluation of the script—rather than an opinion. If it’s not for you, that’s fine: not every script is written to appease your personal taste. In the end, you want to help this person on their journey, regardless of how bumpy its next leg promises to be. They have trusted you, they have chosen you. Meet them with this same respect, and bring all the enthusiasm you can muster. Your feedback on this script might just improve the next one. You can only hope, right?