Coping With Criticism

Coping With Criticism

I love it when a new set of eyeballs reads my script. But, like anyone, when that person offers criticism the ego takes a knock. After all, what do they know? They didn’t stay up all hours writing the damn thing!

Criticism is an essential part of any writing process, but more important is the ability to deal with this criticism effectively. Many times I’ve come across an amateur writer who dismisses criticism as a misunderstanding on the part of the reader. If the reader wasn’t completely won over by the script, they simply didn’t get it.

The amateur wants to debate the criticism, hopelessly attempting to turn the reader’s opinion around. “Don’t you see? In Act 2 Fred does this, so that’s why Jemima leaves home. It’s obvious. I’m not changing a thing!”

It may be obvious to you, but if the reader misses it, it isn’t the readers fault – it’s yours. No one knows the story in your head better than you. But the script is the tool by which you convey that story inside you to someone else. If they don’t experience what you hoped they would, your script hasn’t done the job.

The Reader Is Your Audience

When writing a script, a novel or an advertising slogan, you cannot dismiss any criticism. If your film were to be shown in a cinema, you won’t be able to address the audience afterwards and enlighten them to the bits they didn’t like. Similarly, attempting to persuade a reader that your script works, simply highlights that it doesn’t. If your script needs explanation to be understood or a pep talk to grasp the tone, or a lesson in script format to decipher, it has problems that you, not the reader, needs to address.

Recently, I received some criticism of my film script, Nightfall. The person offering the criticism was very tentative, wondering nervously whether I would be offended. Of course I wasn’t. The point he raised was that the script didn’t contain enough scares and wasn’t ‘street’ enough for a vampire film.

My first reaction was the urge to scream “It’s not a vampire horror movie!” But it’s not up to me to say. It’s up to the audience to decide what a film is or isn’t, after experiencing it. I can’t email every audience member after seeing the film to outline my real reasons for writing the film and what they should have experienced.

What is the Criticism Really Telling You?

Sometimes, the criticism may hint at the true problem without saying it outright. In this case, a little thought showed me what the criticism was really telling me.

The logline mentions that the script contains vampires. Therefore, some readers will have a clear genre or expectation in mind when they turn to page one. The problem is that my script is not a typical vampire slash and horror. The premise is actually a tragic love story where the vampires merely serve as a narrative device to create the dilemma.

In comparing the different reader feedbacks I’ve received over the years, those that didn’t know vampires were in the script read it for what it is – a tragic love story. And they provided feedback and appreciated it on that level. Others who were primed with the knowledge that vampires featured in some capacity sometimes felt caught out by a script that failed to offer the usual “Lost Boys” type theatrics.

Act on All Criticism

We will all receive a number of different and sometimes conflicting criticisms throughout the life of a script. How do you act on them all?

The important thing is to never dismiss a criticism, no matter how trivial or ridiculous it seems. Remember, the person making the criticism is still a typical audience member. You will never be able to please every audience member all the time, but by carefully considering every criticism you receive, you can build a picture of which issues should be a priority to you and which you may need to live with. Take into account your target audience. If readers from a similar demographic show a pattern in their criticism but you see them as a key audience for your film, you have a problem that needs to be addressed. If the demographic of the reader is less likely to be your target audience, you may decide to downplay the reaction if other readers are favourable.

By treating all criticism with this level of analysis and importance, you continue to write for your audience and not for yourself. After all, that is your goal.

After my criticism analysis, I have crucial information to help with my next draft. I need to recraft the logline to set up a more accurate tonal pitch for the film. I then need to look very carefully at the first Act to see how the tone is set and assess whether it is the right tone for what is to follow. It will never be “From Dusk Til Dawn”, but there is more than one way to create horror-film style tension without turning the love story into a slasher pic full of gothed up, leather coat wearing, long-haired vampires.

Whether the new draft can carefully straddle both genres is the challenge, but it is a challenge worth facing.

Comments

  1. Very true! Criticism doesn’t necessarily indicate that there’s something fundamentally wrong with your story; it could be the way you’re presenting it or any number of things. I was always told to remember “it’s only their opinion,” which can be a very important tip. You can’t just ignore someone’s criticism because you don’t like it, obviously, but if you realize the person has nothing constructive or valid to say, it’s safe to ignore it. One particularly clever gentleman commented to me on a short thriller I had written, “I don’t get it. Who is [the main character] supposed to be?” To which I couldn’t help but respond, “a character. In a story.” I don’t know exactly what he was looking for, but obviously it wasn’t that.
    He could have meant that he had trouble connecting with the character emotionally, or that he didn’t understand why the man was doing what he was doing, but there’s no way to be sure when the critic can’t verbalize his thoughts.

  2. Thanks for the valuable advice. I fired it (with postonfire, that is)!
    I’m trying to make a transition from amateur to professional, and I’m writing as much as I can. However, most of what I’ve written has been book reviews, interpretations of environmental news and a recent author interview. I’m about to review a photography show for the first time. Someday I’ll dive into truly creative writing, I think.
    Best wishes,
    Jim

  3. Kimota says

    Maybe ask a few follow up questions of your critic. “Is there a particular scene that illustrates your point?’ ‘Are you saying the main character wasn’t interesting?’ “What didn’t you understand about the main character?’
    Rather than dismiss the criticism, it could still be indicative of problems in the screenplay. Whether he can articulate the criticism or nt, he is still an audience member, and most of the audience will be made up of people who don’t know about three act structures, character arcs and foreshadowing. we need to work a little harder to extract the goods from them.

  4. Great tips. It’s hard to take criticism for something you worked hard on. This is a really good way to gain perspective and not take things personally, but find out how you can improve!

  5. Thank you for the wonderful article. Our world would be much better place to live in if people had your attitude on criticism. Unfortunately, the most run to judge other instead of listening to what was said.
    The way we are dealing with the criticism reveals our attitude towards other and thus portrays our love.
    In case of the blogging, the worst enemy is the clicks without the comments – such stats makes us helpless to respond anyhow and depicts not our politeness but the total apathy to everything that gives no direct profit to us.
    Unfortunately, we just talk about our spirituality.
    Therefore the tolerance towards other – the humbleness that gifts us the gratitude for the sunlight marks the literature that is defined the fiction.
    It was a great pleasure to read your post: I have sensed the alive heart here – you are welcomed to my Candleday (on all my locations on a web) I hope you will enjoy my pictures and your feedback will make my day too.
    Thank you once again
    Sincerely yours
    Tomas Karkalas
    http://candleday.wordpress.com

  6. Gotta say, I love this blog. I wish I had access to it way back in the dark ages when I started learning and practicing my craft. So many times a writer’s natural instincts and personal foibles negatively impact the work we are trying to do. Your advice and perspective must be right (because I agree with it so much lol). My reason for starting my blog was in large part to provide the answers to the questions I had when I was starting out. Nice to see someone else paying in forward and improving the writing community in novels and screenplays.
    Write on my friend.
    PlotDog