Thursday, 30 August 2007


The Red Planet script I recently submitted was my first that utilised the ‘Power of Three’ peer review method, or at least a Chinese Whispers passed-down version of it. The experience was useful, but flawed. (This may be because I was using a Chinese Whispers passed-down version of it, having never attended Adrian Mead’s celebrated seminars where he expounds upon it properly).

Yesterday, I was musing about posting sometime soon about my experiences, as it may help someone learn from my mistakes (e.g. don’t use a Chinese Whispers passed-down version of it, you idiot!). Then, I read English Dave’s amusing recent post lambasting the whole process, even down to its name! So, it seemed timely to get my thoughts out there. And they are here:

In Robert McKee’s infamous tome, 'Story', he talks about pitching your script to someone, and watching their reactions: when are you losing them, when are they looking confused, excited etc.? This is a very useful thing to do for testing a pitch, and for testing the quality of your story. But, for a spec script, it’s all about how it reads, and – as anyone who follows Lucy Vee’s blog, will know – that read can go well or go badly, and this will often have nothing to do with the quality of your underlying story. So, what’s to do?

Amusingly, McKee tells us that the best reaction we could hope for is a hushed silence at the end of our pitch, as the pitchee takes in the God-like genius of our work. Anyone who has ever asked for peer review will know: this never happens. Never. (Or, at least, not to my scripts; and I suspect I am a God-like genius.) The reason for this is that, if you ask people what they think, they want to give you value. And blanket praise seems a bit empty; except to your Mum, maybe. (Your Mum – not mine: she’d give the late Alexander Walker a run for his money.)

Everyone thinks they’re a critic. And everyone is, of course, exactly right. So, who should review your work before you send it to the important someone who might want to make it?

  1. You. You’re best placed to get this script right, but you’re biased. The only real way I’ve ever found to get the right objectivity is to leave a script in a drawer for a lengthy period. By then, though, that important competition deadline will probably have passed. Plus, there’s a lot of dick-swinging that goes on about rewriting. Yes, it’s important never to send out first drafts. But whenever I hear “I never show anything to anyone until I’ve done at least twenty drafts", I always think “What - no one?” All scripts are made for collaborative media, after all, or else you wouldn’t need a script; so, there’s something amiss to me in writing something so hermetically. But then, I’m not a rich, world-famous writer, so don’t take my advice.
  2. Punters. There’s no shortage of them - we are all punters of TV and film, and we are all knowledgeable about what works and what doesn’t. But, unless you’re prepared to hand out scripts on the street, you’re going to have to know the person first. And that brings the problem of familiarity.
  3. Friends and family with no screenwriting knowledge. Let’s face it - they’re probably going to be too easy on you, or too hard on you. The balance is hard to find, but not impossible.
  4. Script reading services. Prohibitively expensive if you’re going to use them for every single draft of every piece of work you do. And readers employed by these services have their prejudices too. And it’s probably best to get more than one set of coverage on a screenplay to get a wider idea of its merits.
  5. A screenwriters’ group of your peers. Screenwriters’ groups have two purposes: 1) to help people’s work become better with assistance and critique, and 2) to act as a friendly support group for aspiring/desperate writers. These two aims can end up being contradictory, and you often find ‘rules’ like “you must always start on something complimentary”. Which is no help to the writer if it’s a lie. You might find yourself in the position – as I have been – where you really want to say “This script has absolutely no redeeming features, and you should give up on it now”. But you keep quiet, and try to say bland things about what needs to be developed. Then, in the next session, it’s your turn and no one holds back. They tell you your latest opus is rubbish, and you’re wasting your time. You get upset. You leave the group never to return. True story. Ish.
  6. Professional writers, producers or mentors higher up the chain that you. It’s hard to find someone who believes in you, and has the time enough to give feedback more than once in a while. I have been lucky enough to find more than one professional person who has offered to read my work on occasion, and has even tried to get it to people who might want to make it. Nothing’s come of these efforts, so far, but those contacts are there for ever (I hope). Whether they would still be speaking to me if I sent them scripts on a regular basis, though, is unlikely.
  7. A virtual screenwriter’s group (i.e. your peers in the blogosphere). Similar issues to the screenwriter’s groups, but people find themselves able to be more honest in print, I think. And, there is the possibility that you might make contacts here that are in the process of becoming professional writers / producers / mentors, and will review and champion your work because they remember when you were very complimentary about them on their blog. (Everybody go to English Dave’s and say nice things. He might offer to read your work!)

As for the Power of Three method: I think it has many advantages, and specifically addresses some of the drawbacks I’ve mentioned above. The idea is to have three rounds of review, with three different people each time: 3 x 3. Hence the name – it’s got nothing to do with empowerment. It’s got nothing to do with the power of three, either, but it’s only a name, and it would be hard to sell a review method where you have to find 27 people to comment on your script.

The main drawbacks I found were mostly of my making: I’d missed the rule about only getting questions back from the reviewers, not comments or suggestions. Even if I had known, it’s hard to stop fellow writers making suggestions, so you need to be aware of it, and as disciplined as you need to be. A very wonderful, and much appreciated, PO3er gave me the note “I’d like to see more of the mother”. There’s not a lot I can do with that, unless I interpret it as “Where does the mother disappear off to?” But that might not be what he meant exactly.

Also, I hate the unbearable feeling of a being a clod. I get loads of notes in the first round saying “use less adverbs” and I always feel like I should have spotted that myself. Why do I use too many adverbs? I always do it. It’s my first draft sin (alright, one of them). Still, it’s cheaper for this to be pointed out by a scribo-mate than a professional script reading service.

I was unlucky with not getting stuff back in a timely fashion, and this seriously limited the time I had for my third round. I think it was my mistake for using this method for Red Planet. It’s a free competition, so obviously all my reviewers were working on their own entries, and I don’t want to be interrupting their script every five minutes to remind them to do feedback on mine.

Lastly, people sometimes argue. It didn’t happen to me, but I’ve heard tell of writer’s sending email after email explaining the intricacies of the screenplay that the reviewer has missed. You may even be tempted to reply clarifying something yourself. Don't. No one will thank you for it.

One final word about peer review: find a jaded cabbie.

I took a cab to the shoot of ‘Lent’ - a big deal for me, the first ever time a screenplay of mine was being professionally made. We were shooting near Pinewood (not actually in it, though - so near but so far) , so the driver had welcomed many film types into the back of his taxi over the years. He insisted that I pitch him the story while we drove, and I gave it my all. I'd been working on it solidly, and knew it inside out, and I swear it was the best I've ever told it.

I finished, dramatically, just as we were pulling up to the house where we were shooting. There was the crew, there were the vans, there was the camera. Best of all, there was the crane they'd just used for the opening shot. It looked very impressive, and I swelled with pride. The cabbie ruminated on my pitch for a second, then gestured towards the house, crew, crane, and camera, and said "This seems like a lot of old fuss, just for that." That's the last time I'm pompous enough to swell with pride, I can tell you. Welcome to the movies!


I’ve always wanted to put links at the bottom of a post, and feel like a big shot. So here they are. Hope they’re useful.

Adrian’s official, non-Chinese Whispers handout on Power of Three posted on Lucy’s blog

One of the reputable script reading services recommended therein!

English Dave’s recent post on Power of Three, and the informative comments made in reaction to it

David Bishop’s thoughts

An interview with Adrian Mead (Shooting People members only)

Robert Mckee’s Story Seminars


Jason Arnopp said...

That cabbie story's a winner, sir! It almost made me splutter orange juice onto my keyboard, but it's a winner nonetheless.

Yes, it's important to remember that PO3 people aren't actually expecting answers to the many questions they're asking you. Unless they add, '(I really would like to know)'. It's nice when people are genuinely curious, every now and again...

Stuart Perry said...

Thank you, sir. Next time I will endeavour to actually get you to splutter OJ on your keyboard with an anecdote. You've raised the bar!

martin said...

the "questions not comments" rule is really about being diplomatic and sparing the feelings of the writer, according to Mr Mead. "What you were trying to do here?" is politer than "This makes no sense. Fool."

Personally i think the content is more important than the form. whether the reviewer says "could you make more use of the mother?" or "I want to see more of the mother" or "maybe the mother should turn out to be an alien!" then you get the information that the mother needs work.

I like getting suggestions myself - I can see how some people would be annoyed by them, but if they're wrong, or ridiculous, or i just don't like them, then I just ignore them - it's worth it for the occasional one that has the gem of an idea that's worth going with.

Stuart Perry said...

Interesting that Mister Mead said that, Martin, because I'm not sure I agree with him. I think it's possible to be just as undiplomatic in a question as it is in a comment. Besides, what I'm getting loud and clear from the transcribed handout, is that the sort of questions you're really after - if you want to do the pure PO3 - are, for example, "Why does the mother not intervene sooner?" rather than "Can you make the mother into an alien?". In other words, you're wanting questions about the narrative as it stands, not about what could be changed.

I'm with you, though: I don't see a problem in getting suggestions. Don't forget though, that PO3 has a built-in benefit. If one person mentions the mother (question or comment) you can consider whether you want to change it. If two people mention her, you'll probably want to tinker. If three people mention her, you've probably got a big problem there.