The time has arrived to widen the circle and bring in a few other readers for reactions, thoughts, applause. Some say friends do not give friends first or rough drafts of screenplays to read. This is partially true. They need to be more than friends. They also should be compassionate, interested, reasonably well-informed readers. But, even if they are not all of those things, they still may have some interesting things to say about your work. And you ought to value the people in your life who are willing to read your work clearly and openly express some honest opinions and feelings about it. These interactions can be valuable, bonding, uplifting experiences. They can also be a huge emotional drain. This goes with the territory. Creative work requires blood, sweat and even tears. Getting feedback can be an easy, straightforward, vibrant experience. It can also be painful and even chaotic at times. You cannot control it. But you can shape the process wisely. The main thing is to get some feedback, filter the ideas and opinions you receive, use them to inform a few of your own, as you create an agenda for your rewrite.
So go ahead and widen the circle. Find a small crew of readers who trust. One size does not fit all. Friends do not always ask friends to read their scripts. One may be great with story or characters and understand how movies and screenplays work. One may be an avid moviegoer and fantastic for gut reactions but not for anything the least bit diagnostic. One may be a wonderful spell- checker. And another may love you very dearly and yet be highly critical so that it almost seems, shockingly, that they are somehow weirdly rooting against you. (Hmm. That would make an interesting sub-plot in a screenplay.) In a workshop or writing class, reader responses are moderated. There are demands on civility. Brutal honesty is permitted but not brutality. So, when you are putting together a circle of readers for your work, be selective. You want honest, constructive reactions. You want a measure of sensitivity to the creative process. If you want undying praise, blind to all faults, give it to someone who will give you that also. But, trust me, your mother(or mother-figure) may surprise you. The loved one may put the harsh critic’s hat on. And the friend you consider your harshest critic in life may turn out to be kind and helpful to your printed words. Interesting things happen when creative work is shared with colleagues, friends, family.
But this is all gold really. If they read it and give you some thorough responses, that is a great gift. Listen carefully. Note down their responses. They may not get things that tiny edits will cure. They may have answers to the story problems that are dead wrong, and that go against the grain of what you really want your film to be. But their ideas about the story, characters and plot will be useful anyway. They may have good advice. And they may have bad advice. You want compassion, empathy, kindness. Sure. We all deserve that all the time. Mainly though, for this read, we want data. We want to know what is working, what is not working. Not necessarily why. You use their responses to figure out what is and isn’t functioning right and why. Gauge the responses. Find the trends. Carefully consider the good ideas. And try to understand what issues the bad ideas are trying to redress. Do thank them for taking the time and effort to read your script thoughtfully. And if they did not read it thoughtfully, dock them from your pool of readers. Or just put a mental asterisk next to them in the My Screenplay Draft Reader Master List because you never know where the next great idea, great insight about your writing may appear.
Here is some great news. You are not just the screenwriter. You are also the most important critic and evaluator of your draft. You will read it first and last. You will seek opinions from other readers and listen to them carefully. They may have some excellent ideas for you. But it is up to you to set the agenda, to use their reactions to form your plan for how to proceed with the next draft of your script. So after some quality time away from your first or rough draft, it is time to give the script to Reader #1. You. Go ahead. Pick up the pages and read them carefully AND openly. Give it a discerning yet fair and compassionate reading. That means keeping an open mind. Cut the writer some slack. You cannot fire the writer. Don’t even think about it. Because the writer is irreplaceable. You need that person back in the trenches for the rewrite and beyond.
Try to see the movie you put on the page as you read. Make notes, reflect on the changes you believe need to be made. Write down quick reactions, new ideas, questions, concerns, complaints, goals on a separate sheet of paper. Put an exclamation point next to things that please you: Surprising things. Personal bests. Dialogue that works well. Description you appreciate. Scenes that really work. And let yourself celebrate the successes. Reinforce the positives. Maybe even force yourself to smile to yourself.
Of course, there will be bad news, too. For every writer. There may be fundamental issues of plot structure, character development, any number of things that you will have to address. The writing work may only be half done (or less) in certain areas. Xs and questions marks in the margins of the above. Be selective. Try to isolate problem areas When you get to the end of your first read, you should have a few pages of notes and a heavily marked-up script. This is a start. Writer-Critic needs to be filtered and interpreted just like all others who may read the script at this stage. The good news is that once you understand what it is you need to do, the rewrite agenda will start to fall into place. If you have a solid plan, rewriting script pages is usually easier, more enjoyable and gratifying than working from blank pages, writing that first draft. I swear it’s true.