Last Monday was our biweekly meeting of GLAWS Screenwriting Critique Group that meets at Los Angeles Valley College. Every other meeting we take fifteen pages of two submitted scripts, read through them and critique them. This is the second time since I have joined the group that my work has been up.
The first time showed me some big problems I had. My steampunk screenplay starts with the birth of my protagonist on the night a meteor hits just outside of town. The point of the meteor is that it causes my protagonist’s father to leave his wife while giving birth. He is a doctor and his skills are needed. There is a midwife, so he really isn’t needed there. And later on, you discover that the meteor marks the point where history changed from being as we know it to being an alternative, steampunk reality.
That’s it! That was the importance of the meteor. But that’s not how the group saw it. I opened up with a bang (literally) and people expected the meteor to be more significant. Bear in mind that this group is not particularly versed in steampunk. They do not know that there is a whole subgenre of the supernatural in the alternate Victorian world. Yet quite a large percentage of them thought that the meteor was endowing my protagonist with some kind of supernatural ability. That is a completely different direction than where I am going.
What this showed me was that I way overplayed the meteor. Sometimes you are so close to your subject that you miss obvious problems. In the second version they read (actually, the eighth draft) I cut back the whole meteor thing to less than half a page. Only two people speculated on supernatural abilities, which isn’t bad. That was one step forward.
Of course it can go the other way. You can know your character in your head so well that you forget to tell the reader some really important detail about them. Or, in rewrites, you can delete a character’s introduction. Then they just pop up in the middle of your story with no explanation.
These are some examples of major story problems. But a key reason for having a group read your work is to listen for repeated comments. In this second reading, a lot of people said they liked my dialogue. That’s encouraging, it’s something I’m doing right, and it’s my second step forward.
A lot also said I had too much exposition. I explain things too much. As one person put it, my characters are telling each other what they already know. That’s my one step back. But this is also a good thing. I tend to write long. My screenplay is 149 pages long. It should be about 120. Now I have a better idea of where to cut.
There is a natural progression of getting feedback. First, you show your work to your family. But they’re most likely to love anything you write because they love you. “That’s great, honey. Keep it up.” Then, you show it to your friends. Really good friends will tell you when something stinks. But they might not have the professional eye to tell you why. They might just say something like, “It just didn’t catch me.” But if you are serious about your writing, you need to take it to others who are equally serious. And hopefully led by a teacher or industry professionals. As I tell anyone who will read my work, “I rather you tell me it stinks than an agent or producer.”
If you live in or near the Los Angeles area, I strongly recommend you look up http://www.glaws.org/html/mainmenu.html . Their critique groups are one of the best opportunities they offer.
Where are you getting your feedback?