Sunday, January 28, 2007

How to Write a Constructive Review

Hey guys,

It seems that I'm the toast of
TriggerStreet right now as the new January, 2007, Reviewer of the Month. (Here's the Congratulatory Thread on the message boards.)

I'm told that I'll be inducted into the Trigger Academy, their "most prestigious voting body of members," and I'll be able to vote for nominees during their On-Line Short Film Festivals.

I was also given the opportunity to write an article on a locked thread on the message boards on How to Write a Constructive Review, which I wanted to share with all my friends in the Scribosphere. I wrote this in the spirit of the "What I've Learned" articles in Esquire.

Hope you enjoy it.



As the great
Mickey Lee Bukowski once told me, "Sometimes you just gotta lay the smackdown."

However - ONLY the most thoughtless, banal, idiotic, indecipherable, hideously written DRIVEL put together under the pretense of a "screenplay" deserves a smackdown. You'll know it when you see it.

Because we're about mastering the craft, not sending it to an early grave.

I don't know why, but the more challenging the review, the happier I am. I'm a glutton for punishment, I guess. If you don't enjoy punishing yourself, then I don't know why you'd want to be a writer.

I can objectively review any script except my own. A writer needs friends who can give you good feedback.

By the way, if you're just skimming scripts and writing short, thoughtless, generic reviews, then get off the bus. You're hurting yourself and you're wasting our time.

On receiving criticism - take it like a man.

And if you're a woman - take it like a man.

Get used to criticism. Execs, producers, directors, actors, and especially film critics can be even more brutal and quite often dumber.

Be of good cheer. You're amongst friends and fellow laborers.

Don't be harsh. Almost everything about storytelling is debatable. There are almost always multiple solutions to any one problem, and your solution may not be the best one.

The only thing that's truly black & white is format & grammar.

If you don't give a flying flip about format & grammar, well, you've been warned.

Because a screenplay ought to look like a @#$%ing screenplay. And a writer ought to know how to @#$%ing write.

I know a handful of professional studio readers. Believe me when I tell you that sloppy specs and bad grammar really pisses them off. At least I'll tell you when I'm pissed.

What Dave Trottier says about format is the law. And I'm the Chief of Police.

When you criticize someone over format, there's no excuse for being wrong because you could easily look it up.

Reviewers, beware: giants do, indeed, roam TriggerStreet. So far, I've encountered 2 people whom I would consider "brilliant" and 1 flat-out "genius." No, I'm not kidding. You never saw my review for the "genius."

And yet, geniuses don't write masterpieces every single time.

Then again, you can't underestimate the work of a genius just because you didn't "get it" the first time you read it.

If you truly care about the people you know on this site, you WILL do freewill reviews for them and THANK THEM for the opportunity.

If you're writing a review for a friend, you're not doing that person any favors by not saying what's wrong with the story. Just don't be harsh about it.

The point of a review is not to condemn but to push the writer to greater heights of craftsmanship. Although some writers need a good shove.

Do you know what it really means to get your script sold and filmed and distributed to the masses? It means that your weaknesses as a writer will become public knowledge.

And if your friend sells a script that YOU reviewed and that script turned into a film and it bombed and got ripped apart by critics and audiences alike because of its glaring weaknesses in the story - that you did not point out - you failed your friend.

I read every script twice. You'd be surprised by how much more thought went into it then you first realized.

Half the battle in a review is proving the worth of your opinions. You have to prove that you really read the story, that you really know what you're talking about, and therefore, the author should seriously consider your opinions.

Don't forget to praise the writer.

Don't forget to encourage the writer.

The world looks at us and they think that we're only as good as our last script. We know better. Success is a long-term devotion to the craft. We have to give our friends the breathing room to fail and never think less of them when it happens. And believe me, it happens to everyone.

Help them up when they're down.

It's better to share all of your thoughts in your review and be open about being wrong than to say nothing at all.

Some people say nothing in their reviews because they don't want to reveal their "secret insights" on screenwriting. Let me ask you - how do you know that what you know is correct? How will you find out if you're correct unless you talk about it?

Just because you have a different vision of how to tell a story doesn't necessarily mean that the author's vision is wrong. 10 different writers could tell the same story 10 different ways and they could all turn into 4-star films.

What you're feeling while you're reading a script is quite important and should be noted whether the author wants to hear it or not.

Life is full of subtext. Movies should be, too.

If every character in a story is saying exactly what they are thinking and feeling, give suggestions about how to incorporate subtext. There are no books on subtext. Plus, thinking of creative ways to avoid on-the-nose exposition will not only improve their scenes but will also sharpen your skills as a writer.

If you're not learning something new with every review you write, you aren't giving the scripts enough thought.

I love character depth. Make the author love it, too.

Every story has to be considered on an individual basis.

So you're reading a mafia story. That doesn't mean that the narrative should be exactly like "The Godfather." Or that a comedy should also be like the "Pink Panther." Just ask yourself, "Given the parameters of this concept, was this story told as well as it could be told?"

I'll praise a script even if the story parts do not fit the whole so long as the scenes play strongly on their own and the parts work together even if the whole leaves me a little uncertain. A lot of scripts are certain about its story as a whole but are made of careless parts. Forced to choose, I would take the strong parts over the whole.

Many film critics and TS reviewers behave like merciless logicians by pointing out each and every plot hole and logic flaw and thereby rejecting entire stories because of said plot holes no matter how small they might be, as if that's the only thing that matters in a movie. Well, it all depends upon the size of the holes, doesn't it? Most film students know that almost every thriller under the sun has plot holes and flaws in logic in them but they are still accepted and beloved by many because of so many other elements of quality craftsmanship. I think there's a sliding scale involved. If a movie takes itself seriously and yet you can't buy into its incredibly flawed plot, then yeah, it officially sucks. Unless, of course, it is a movie that doesn't really take itself too seriously and is INTENDED to be wildly impossible but entertainingly so, like, say, a James Bond movie, then okay, no problem. If a serious thriller can hold water for the most part (or not leak too quickly), I won't condemn a script over a few minor leaks.

TriggerStreet and my blog have given me opportunities I never dreamed would happen. To my great surprise, I was approached by one of my all-time favorite novelists. That's no exaggeration. All-time favorite. I completely love this woman. She's married, unfortunately. Anyway, she kindly asked me to give her feedback on two scripts she wrote, one an adaptation of her very famous novel and the other an original story. You know what? She made all the same amateur mistakes everyone else makes. We've all been there.

My reviews are usually 2,000 words - a thousand words for the running notes, another thousand for the review itself. The feedback I gave to the above-mentioned famous writer was 6,000 words - each. She's not as lucky as we are to receive regular feedback on this site from true students of the craft.

To this day, she asks me who I am, and I won't tell her. Hehehe...

I invited one other quite popular writer I know to participate on TriggerStreet. For a time, he really loved it. But his reviews sucked. Yet, he's a great writer.

There's no such thing as a perfect script. But sometimes a script is good enough.

And finally, not long ago in the world of film bloggers, Andy Horbal hosted a
Film Criticism Blog-a-Thon. I loved what Peet Gelderblom wrote: "It's one thing to challenge the opinion of others, it's another to proclaim absolutes in the name of Good Taste. A true provocateur doesn't hamper by discouraging thought, but stimulates others to think differently. Why is it that some critics judge like punishing Old Testament Gods when their function is not to damn or win souls, but to sharpen minds? A critic's pen should serve as a whetstone, not a sledgehammer."

To that, I say, "amen."

Unless, of course, you've written total drivel.


GimmeABreak said...

Richly deserved recognition!

Mim said...

You might find me quoting parts of this on the message boards when some of the less experienced members complain about their reviews or the problems they're running into.

Mickey Lee said...

Bravo. I think this is one of the best posts to that thread I have read.

And thanks for the quote!

Mystery Man said...

Thanks so much, guys.

I actually added one for the blog:

"Because a screenplay ought to look like a @#$%ing screenplay. And a writer ought to know how to @#$%ing write."

Hehehe... I thought that might've been a little too crude for TriggerStreet.

Mickey, I should've asked you first to make sure you felt it was okay to quote you like that. And I'm sorry. I'm being told that I have to remember to treat the blog and any articles I write as if I was a journalist and ask permission to get quotes. I won't do that again. But, ya know, I really love your quote. It deserves to be immortalized.


GameArs said...

Apparently, you are as dedicated to helping people become better reviewers as you are to helping people become better writers.

Write on, bro!

Mystery Man said...


I'm glad I know you, Carl.


bob said...

That was some mighty fine words of wisdom there MM. I'm probably one of those people who gets too hung up on plot holes and story logic. I can't help it I'm a scientist (half vulcan half nerd). Actually I learned that from my wife, she's a master at picking out fatal flaws.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

"I'll praise a script even if the story parts do not fit the whole so long as the scenes play strongly on their own and the parts work together even if the whole leaves me a little uncertain. A lot of scripts are certain about its story as a whole but are made of careless parts. Forced to choose, I would take the strong parts over the whole."

I love ya, man, but what the heck does this mean?

Mystery Man said...

Hey, I love you, too, MaryAn.

I don't mind explaining this at all. It's an opinion I've formed over time. It's really about the big picture vs. the details. Some kids have a clear vision about the big picture of a story and write a story that has a definite arc and everything fits the big picture, but they were careless about the details and the way they executed the story. On the other hand, I've come across stories that just come out of nowhere and they're kind of existential and surreal and I'm a little uncertain about the story as a whole. Like there's this elusive open-endedness about the story, and I'm not sure how the parts fit together to form the whole, ya know? Yet, I can't deny the fact that the scenes and the details were handled beautifully and played out really well. (An example that comes to mind would be Ted Frothingham's "Sapna's Gift." Not sure I quite understood that story as a whole, but the parts were great. And thus, I'd give it good ratings even if I am a little uncertain about it.)

Hope that makes sense. You read all kinds on TriggerStreet.


Mystery Man said...

Another (real world) example that comes to mind would be Donnie Darko. Not sure yet how all those parts fit together to form the whole. I won't condemn it just because I haven't figured it out yet. I do love reading theories about it, though.

Same was true for Eyes Wide Shut.


Matthew Spira said...

Mystery Man said...


I'm glad I know you, Carl.


Hey, you said the same thing to me. I don't feel special anymore!


Mystery Man said...

Oh yeah? I thought I added "really really" to yours. Sorry about that.


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This review is nice and clean. thanks for the direction.

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