Many levels of review – Part Two

Whenever someone asks me to review their writing, I try to be thorough and look at it from many levels. Yesterday, we looked at how I approach writing from the 30,000- and 5,000-foot levels. Below, we dig deeper.


The view from 1,000 feet: Now that I’ve identified the major structural and thematic issues and determined there is a reason to keep reading, I go back to the beginning and really start to peel things apart.

If I have a thing for character—and I do—I might follow an individual character through the story to see if I can reverse engineer the writer’s profile of that character. I am making this sound much more formal than it really is. Basically, what do I know about the character and are his or her actions and reactions consistent with that knowledge given: (a) where that character is now in the story; and (b) where he or she is trying to get or accomplish?

From the plot perspective, I begin to look at individual scenes and ask if the interplay between characters makes sense for their relationship and respective goals within the scene. For that matter, does each character in a scene have a clear goal?

How have the characters within the scene changed from one end of it to the other? Did one start with the upper hand and that power shift somewhere through the scene to the other character? This last point is not a necessity, but is merely one way a scene can experience reversal.

Likewise, is the scene clear with one predominant purpose or has the writer tried to accomplish too much too quickly, muddying the scene and leaving the reader uncertain as to what refers to what?

At a slightly broader level, how do the scenes play against each other? Are there smooth or logical segues from one scene to another, and if not, does the hard plot swing work? Does the scene in question set up a future one or pay off a previous one, and has it done this job effectively?


The view from 200 feet: Now I really start to get into the weeds, looking at paragraphs and individual lines. From the narrative perspective, does the reader have all the information he or she needs to make sense of the story? Does the scenery or environment serve almost as another character at this point, representing a source of conflict or support for your characters? Again, this last point isn’t necessary, but can be quite effective such as in movies like The Perfect Storm.

Alternatively, has the writer massively over-written the narrative, demonstrating his or her superhuman vocabulary and/or visual imagination at the expense of the story and poor befuddled reader? As a personal aside, this is my greatest sin as a writer…but then you probably already knew that. Can I recommend any broad strokes edits (not copy edits) to help reduce the clutter and maintain the flow for the reader?

If it’s a screenplay, does the writer interrupt the reader too often with small directorial nods to the actors? For example, during a particularly heated scene of dialogue between the protagonist and antagonist, is the writer constantly reminding the actors to furrow their brows or shrug? I try to determine whether these narrative directions are absolutely necessary to get the idea of the scene across.

The problem here is that the regular intrusion of direction takes the reader out of the moment, disrupting the story and the emotional power of the characters. The senses, if only at the mental level, are forced to trip back and forth between things like subtle movements and emotive energy. Thus, in even the most action- or tension-packed scenes, too much narrative can sap the energy of the scene such that the read becomes plodding. By removing these superfluous lines, the reading speeds up and the energy of the scene is renewed.

This brings us to dialogue, which is easily my greatest challenge in screenwriting. I think novel writing gives you a bit more leeway with dialogue but I am less familiar with the medium from a writing perspective.

When I review dialogue, I try to sense how natural the dialogue feels…perhaps even reading it aloud, if I am not certain. Are these sentences that real characters would say and are the lines apt for the character who is saying them? From what I have surmised about the character, would he or she use those particular words in that way or to that purpose? Is the character saying exactly what he or she is thinking (on-the-nose) or is there some sense of subtext, whether known to the character or not?

Similarly, is the dialogue as tight as it could be, saying only what needs to be said and in the best way? Now, please note, I did not say or mean to imply in the shortest way, with the fewest words. People rarely keep their sentences to a minimum, but rather when caught up in the heat of the moment, tend to spew a bit more than necessary. There is a cadence to an individual’s speech patterns, so each of the characters should have their own cadences.

In a conversation between two or more characters, is the subject and banter clear or am I left with some uncertainty about what line corresponds as a response to what previous line or thought. To map it out somewhat mathematically, it might read something like A then A’, B then B’, C then C’, etc., rather than ABC then A’, D then B’C’, etc., where each of the letters and its prime counterpart represent a thought and its response or reaction. By the same token, however, I have to be alert and sensitive to cases where it is perfectly natural for that character to blurt out a series of thoughts and the resulting confusion may be consistent with the plot.


Splashdown: Only once all of that has been settled, do I get to the cosmetic aspects of story review. This is where I might recommend copy edits and what have you to ensure the screenplay or novel is clean. This can include looking for stylistic inconsistencies (e.g., capitalization) or spelling errors. Personally, this part bores the hell out of me and I know that for every error or inconsistency I find, I have missed two or three others. As a courtesy, however, I will point out those that I do find and hope someone else catches the rest.

I find that by the time we reach splashdown, writers either love me or hate me…and I am okay with that. Although I prefer the former, I understand the latter and don’t take it personally. Putting your work out there for critique and possible criticism is difficult and not just a little nerve wracking. I applaud anyone who does that almost as hard as I applaud them for having written in the first place.

I just hope that, at the end of the day, I have helped the writer improve his or her work.

(Images are the property of their owners and are used here without permission because it’s more impactful.)

Book larnin’

Last week, one of my fellow bloggers expressed interest in screenwriting and wondered if I could recommend any good books to help him navigate this format of storytelling, and I promised to do it in a future blog post…well, guess what?

To be honest, my first piece of advice to anyone interested in getting into screenwriting would be to simply tell your story in whatever format comes easiest to you. Because, as I’ve said in a previous post, the most important thing is story. No matter how well formatted your screenplay, if your story doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.

Okay, that soap box being out of the way, my next advice is to take a class in screenwriting, because no matter how much you think you’ll write, there is nothing like the pressure of a deadline for 10 more pages to keep you motivated. And ultimately, until you’ve heard your pages read out loud, you have no idea if you’re getting your thoughts across or using the right words.

So now, on to books. There are few really good books to tell you what a script should look like, so I recommend you simply try to get your hands on several different scripts, whether film or television (although pick your preferred medium, because there are differences in presentation). There are several places on the Internet where you can get free scripts (and when I remember what they are, I will tell you), but for those with a couple of bucks to spare, I highly recommend Planet MegaMall for their breadth of scripts that you can purchase rather cheaply.

No one book will give you everything you need, so I recommend sitting in a bookstore and perusing as many books as possible to see which one fulfills some unconscious need today. Then, repeat the process several weeks later, because your unconscious needs will have changed.

For the best understanding of story as a whole, you can’t go wrong with Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. Using mythic structure, Vogler breaks down story into its key components and then contextualizes those concepts using popular movies. Knowing almost nothing about screenwriting, I wrote my first screenplay using these elements as a template.

To get more into the structure and execution of screenplays and plots, then Linda Cowgill’s The Art of Plotting is very good. Written very approachably, Cowgill goes through the fundamentals of a good plot (e.g., conflict, character, action) and helps you understand where your story may be faltering or be improved.

A little more into character and how character changes through the screenplay, Dara Marks’ Inside Story helps you understand the concept of theme, which will lead you to better understand the motivations of your characters. In a similar vein is Stanley Williams’ The Moral Premise, which examines how opposing forces within and between your characters will move them forward in your story and more importantly, make them much richer.

Somewhere between individual scenes and broader acts of a screenplay are sequences, which one of my instructors described as being equivalent to book chapters where a single idea is explored before moving to the next one. Paul Joseph Gulino’s Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach is your guide here, helping you pull your scenes together into the right order.

And the chief poobah of screenwriting books is Robert McKee’s Story. I was actually afraid of getting this book for quite some time as people warned me that reading it too early would make me too intimidated to keep writing. I can see where they were going, but it’s not that McKee’s writing is difficult to follow, it’s more that he talks about a huge variety of topics. Suddenly, you realize how many balls you’re juggling when you’re writing a screenplay.

Ellen Sandler’s The TV Writer’s Handbook is a great step-by-step, but you have to do the exercises to make it worth it. Pamela Douglas’s Writing The TV Drama Series is a little dated but still gives a fantastic overview of hour-long programs, spending the bulk of its time on how to break down and analyze a program, before it gets into actually writing an episode.

Scott Sedita’s The Eight Characters of Comedy is an interesting analysis of comedic archetypes in sitcoms. Written more from an actor’s perspective, it still offers valuable insights to the writer trying to understand or create characters. And finally, Peter Desberg and Jeffrey Davis’s Show Me The Funny offers amazing insights into how the minds of comedy writers work, but even more importantly, shows you that no two people will develop the same story from the same premise…so don’t sweat starting with cliché ideas.

That’s a lot for a first kick…I hope you find something in here to get you started.