Workshopping: Scripts

Fourth in a series about writing workshops.  The first article was about general workshop guidelines, the second about short fiction, and the third about poetry.  The fifth will focus on workshopping and editing long fiction.

Scripts, including stage plays and screenplays, are quite a different genre to work on in a workshop, particularly if it is a general workshop without a specific genre.  (I imagine if you signed up for a scriptwriting workshop, you would know how to critique it and you probably wouldn’t be reading this right now.)

Scripts – particularly screenplays, which this article will focus on – are primarily about dialogue, while poetry rarely has dialogue and fiction has less of it.  Let’s talk about what you want to bring to a workshop in terms of scripts as well as what you should be looking at once you have the manuscript in your hands.

Part 1: What to Bring (and How to Bring It)

Before you bring a script into a general writing workshop, you should probably have a few key points downpat.

First, make sure you know exactly what you’re trying to get across.  This can be a bit difficult for beginners – in fact, in the first script I wrote, what I wanted was nothing like what actually appeared in the script.  This is important, especially if you want to get good, strong criticism, because you can ask for extremely specific criticism.

You should also make sure the characters have distinct mannerisms, including “catchphrases” or some such.  Everyone can associate some specific quotes with characters: “The name is Bond, James Bond,” or “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” or “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”  Strong lines like these – though only one is a catchphrase – is the basis of a script.  Keep your dialogue focused.

As an added bonus, format the script correctly so the readers have it in proper format, the way a director or actor would read it.  It’s very straightforward and simple to do if you write the script in a scriptwriting program, such as Final Draft or the free program Celtx.  Personally, I use Celtx, which is the best option for students or newcomers.  Programs like Celtx also offer a variety of formats, including screenplays and stage plays.

Part 2: How to Read It and How to Critique It

When you critique a script in a workshop, there are a few things to keep in mind in order to make your criticism as constructive as possible.

First, check if the plot is clear and say something if it isn’t.  If the writer brings in a partial script, this isn’t as important, but if he or she has brought in a one-act or short film, the plot must be exceedingly clear.  If you don’t understand who the main character is, suggest a way to explain a bit of backstory or characterize the lead a little better.  If you’re not sure why the couple is at a dance in one scene and on a lunar base in the year 2074 in the next, ask questions about how they got there and suggest a better or smoother transition.

Next, examine the dialogue and make sure you can tell each character apart by his or her speech, unless the writer intended them to be indistinguishable.  Characters should have different inflections – Northerners don’t tend to say “y’all,” for example, and poor peasants probably won’t call young ladies “fair maid.”  Each character should speak realistically for the person he or she is, and it should make sense in the script.

One other thing you should probably thing about, though it is purely subjective, is whether or not the script is interesting.  Would you see this play?  Would you watch this film?  If the writer is seriously pursuing the sale of this script, or the sale of any piece, it is important for him or her to understand if and why viewers would be interested.

Conclusion

As usual, when workshopping a script, it’s important to keep the entire thing in perspective.  Maybe this part that you don’t understand in Scene 5 makes sense when it all goes together.

It’s also important to remain civil and upbeat.  While it’s more than okay to criticize, it’s not okay to put the writer under attack.  If you feel like you cannot remain civil in a workshop, please either remove yourself for that piece or simply say a few words, like “I’m not sure what I think right now,” and ask to be passed over.

Remember: if you feel uncomfortable during a critique, let the workshop leader know so he or she can help you.  Don’t be scared to do it: that’s what the workshop leader is there for.

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