Thursday, June 2, 2011

What to ask a reader

Chris posed this question to both The Bitter Script Reader and me: Do you have any advice and or sample questions to submit to your 'readers' when handing over your script? Not like coverage or format things, but instead of  "do you like it," more like "if you were on your death bed, tell me something that you normally wouldn't about this script." 

(Here is BSR's take.)

First off, if your friends are facing imminent death, it's probably not very considerate to be asking for notes. Just sayin.

I avoid asking my readers any big questions until AFTER people read the script. I don't want to poison their read; I like to see what they come up with on their own, completely unprompted. Maybe you think there's a character issue, but a reader might love the characters and have plot issues instead. If I have a specific problem I need advice about, I usually wait until after the readers have read the script and have given me their first impressions - and THEN I ask about additional things or pitch rewrite plans. I'm super annoying. My questions kind of vary depending on the script...but I might ask about characters and their arcs, plot logic, predictability, theme, pace, tone, structure and humor.

If someone is telling you "I like it" and nothing else, s/he's probably not a discerning or helpful reader. If you live outside of LA, you may be limited to readers who have very little experience with or knowledge about Hollywood - and that's completely fine, but be aware that you're probably getting what I call "viewer notes." Viewer notes are comments that any casual viewer might say about a show or movie...things like, "I love the main character" or  "I don't understand why Joe did that" or "I totally saw that twist coming." These can absolutely be helpful - but ideally you also want to get notes from people who can think about your script from a place of development. Notes like "the tone was inconsistent," "I don't see a strong theme," "there are no real stakes," or "I think producers are going to put this down at page 20 because they think it's the same as THE BREAK UP." (Sigh.) It may take you a while to find people to give you really great notes - but definitely put that at the top of your to-do list. They're invaluable.

The highest level of notes are what I call "writer notes," which include brilliant suggestions instead of just pinpointed problems. A writer might say, "What if you started act two here instead of here?" or "What if you added this ticking clock here" or "I think you missed an opportunity for comedy here...Zoe should totally do this!" The best note-givers can see potential movies and shows outside of the framework you've already created. They might give you huge, world-altering ideas that you never would have thought of. Sometimes you have to shoot them down and say "that's not the movie I'm trying to write"...but other times, they make you see your script in a whole new way. Sure, you don't HAVE to be a writer to give these kinds of notes...but in my experience, you probably are.

If you want to push people to think outside the box, you might ask your readers who they would cast in the roles. This helps you figure out if your tone is coming across as intended. If you were thinking Ryan Gosling and they say Adam Sandler, you may have an issue on your hands. You might also ask about your reader's favorite part. Sometimes a moment you hate turns out to be what other people like, and vice versa.

Don't ask "is it funny?" unless you want fodder for your suicide note. Generally people will tell you the jokes they found funny - and boy, isn't it the best ego boost ever when someone copies and pastes your dialogue into an email, followed by HAHAHAHAHA. (And for God's sake, if you're reading a comedy script for someone and you think it is funny, tell the writer so. We are very insecure about these things.)

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Special Guest said...

My husband is my first reader, and every time he laughs, I have to fight the urge to run over and demand to know what page he's on. "Don't forget to put a checkmark there," I remind him.

Eitan Loewenstein said...


My wife is my first reader. If she stays awake the whole time, I'm gold.


Marquis de Gstaad said...

Someone once said that if you want the most honest comments from a reader, put someone else's name on the script and tell the reader "I'm thinking of producing this script. Tell me what you think."

brief episode said...

Hi Amanda, I like your blog but when I read scripts for people (network TV writers, Tony winners, people with deals at all major studios, etc.), the questions I always ask as a reader is what kind of a read do they want and where are they in the life of the project?

If you have already sent a draft to your manager who wants to get you an agent for staffing season for a spec script and he loves the A, B and C story lines but feels the dialog isn't true to the characters and wants a fix in the draft you're handing to me, it's really a waste of my time and effort as a reader to focus on the premise or whether you should even spec that show.

Over the year I have had several writers just ask me for "the highest level of feedback" or "be brutally honest" and then after spending a lot of time commenting page by page, they've told me, "Oh, that script already went out" or "I'm doing a rewrite and I have to follow the notes of the producers."

I always ask those two questions because I tailor my feedback to be the most useful for someone.

On the flip side, Orson Scott Card wrote that every writer should train their readers. Chris (the Bitter Script Reader) seems to have questions like that in his response.

When I moderate audience responses to staged readings of screenplays I ask
questions like, "What were your favorite parts? Were any parts confusing? Or repetitive? Would you want to watch this TV show? Does this seem like a 9 o'clock show? Does this seem like a blockbuster movie or an indy film?" etc. because people who aren't writers nevertheless can have a very sophisticated knowledge of the medium you're writing for because the modern western world acculturates us all to be experts in the entertainment we love best.

Unknown said...

Great post! It's so important to find "educated" writers to critique your work. They are the best. I used to use family but found they weren't honest enough because they were afraid they'd hurt my feelings. I quickly realized I wouldn't get better without honest feedback and found others on the same writing journey.