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Screen & Stage
Let's break down the types of comments you may have received. Observations are useful: "I was confused by . . ."
These are all useful comments. When someone is confused or lost or wanders out of the world you create, it's up to you to decide if it was just that one person, or whether it's a problem with the play that needs fixing.
So, how do you decide whether to take a comment to heart or to ignore it?
There are two litmus tests I use:
Be aware that often a comment about a problem in the play is not really about that particular moment in the play, but rather about something in the flow of information. For example, the reason everyone says that Scene 8 doesn't work is because the characters weren't set up properly in Scene 3. This is sometimes tough to decipher, but try to read between the lines and figure out what the comments are really telling you.
The second type of comment you might receive is the prescriptive comment. I usually ignore these. Someone suggests that you should change the title or give a character more stage time or reset the play in a fast-food restaurant. That's the play that THEY would write, not the one you wrote. Do I ever ask for prescriptive comments? Only from people who know my work very, very well and really, really get me (my writers group, a theatre professional with whom I have an ongoing relationship, my go-to people). In the case that I do want prescriptive feedback, I'm usually looking for a specific suggestion about a particular problem spot.
My preferred feedback from a reading comes in the form of a question. "Why did Ben leave Baxter's?" "What happens between Scenes 1 and 2?" The great thing about such questions is that they allow you to consider them and answer them on your own terms. Is that piece of information important for the audience to know? If so, how can I make sure it's in the play in a way that doesn't scream exposition and slow things down?
Even when you decide that some particular area of the script needs strengthening, don't automatically gut the entire script. I've seen far too many writers – particularly younger or less experienced ones – throw everything out and start over. Don't take this drastic step unless you absolutely have to – and sometimes it is the only solution. If you do, realize that you are really starting with a new first draft and beginning the whole process again.
In the end, remember to go with your gut. Don't let the feedback change your play into something you don't want it to be. Even someone who is very experienced may not be a good match for your particular piece, and their feedback can hurt rather than help – but only if you let it. You and you alone are the final arbiter of what changes and what stays.
Good luck, and happy writing!
Jonathan Dorf's plays have been produced throughout the United States, as well as in Canada, Europe, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Published by Brooklyn Publishers, Eldridge, Meriwether, Original Works, Playscripts, and Smith & Kraus, he is the author of Young Playwrights 101, a book for young writers and those who teach them. He created Final Draft's "Ask the Expert" playwriting and is the resident playwriting expert for The Writers Store, for whom he teaches "Introduction to Playwriting" as part of Writers University. Co-Chair of the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights, he holds a BA in Dramatic Writing and Literature from Harvard University and an MFA in Playwriting from UCLA. He is available to playwrights and screenwriters as a script consultant, and can be reached via email at email@example.com or through his website, http://www.jondorf.com.
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