A few weeks ago I asked for suggestions for blog topics on Twitter. Marc Wobshcall responded with, “How many rewrites are too many. When to dump a project.”
It’s a complex question, so naturally the answer is complex. As long as you have an idea that can make the script notably better, you haven't done too many drafts yet. I did over 40 drafts of Sweet Home Alabama before I sold it.
Of course, this assumes continuing with the project is worth the effort. Sometimes it may be better from a career standpoint to just move on – such as when a movie with a depressingly similar concept to yours comes out. Also, note that I said “notably better.” I believe in polishing a script as thoroughly as possible before sending it out, but the reality is you can always noodle with a script. Eventually it’s just becoming different, not better.
I think what Marc’s really talking about, though, are those times when a script just isn’t coming together and you don’t have a clear idea how to make it work. It happens to most writers – it’s certainly happened to me. When do you give up?
Before I address giving up, let me discuss techniques for preventing this situation in the first place. I’ve noticed many of my students reach a point in the outlining phase when they get frustrated and just want to start writing the first draft. They’re imagining great scenes and dialog in their heads and want to get them on paper.
It’s a trap.
If you have a clear, well-defined idea of what you’re trying to do before you start that first draft, you’re less likely to run into a wall down the line, or worse realize three drafts in that you need to fundamentally reconceive your story or character. If your idea isn’t working in the outline phase, it won’t work in script form. It’s even possible there’s a fatal flaw in the underlying concept – in which case spending months or years writing drafts won’t solve the problem.
If you do have great ideas for scenes or dialog, my suggestion is to go ahead and write them down. And then get back to outlining.
I now develop all my ideas as pitches first, even if I plan to spec them. Then I try those pitches out on trusted friends to get their reaction. I don’t proceed to draft until I’m sure I understand the fundamental core of the story and character, and that those things are compelling and viable. A pitch helps you hone and focus your vision.
Hitting a Wall
Let’s say, though, that you do hit a wall. You know your script isn’t working but you don’t know how to fix it. Maybe you’ve given it to several people for feedback, and the feedback is contradictory or confusing or just doesn’t seem right to you. How do you know when to abandon a project?
I’ve thrown out two scripts after the first draft because I just didn’t like them. It actually was surprisingly easy to let them go. I felt no compulsion to keep working on them, and I had tons of other ideas. I also think many writers have a bad script in them that they just have to get out (for some reason these are often coming-of-age stories). So get it out and move on. There are no wasted scripts. Even if they don’t sell, you will grow as a writer by writing it.
If you’re feeling like your script is hopeless, I would recommend not thinking of it as “abandonment” but rather as “setting it aside.” I have several times gone back to troubled scripts a year or two later and discovered, with the aid of time and a better perspective, I knew exactly how to fix them. Other times I’ve gone back and realized the story was fatally flawed at the core level. Or that, though I could see how to fix it, I just wasn’t that interested in the idea anymore. It’s much easier to face (and admit) these facts when you’ve had some time away.
So if you can’t see the solution now, put the script aside and write something else. If you’re in this for the long haul – and that’s really the only way you’ll ever get a movie made – you’re going to write a bunch of scripts. You’re probably going to have to write a bunch before you sell your first one. Might as well start the next script. You learn something from every script, and sometimes what you learn will be the solution to an earlier project’s problem.
A caveat to this: I would not suggest abandoning a script in the middle of the first draft until you’ve got several scripts under your belt. In my experience, you will hit at least one rough patch on every project. You have to learn to push through those and finish. It takes experience to tell the difference between a tough problem and a fatal flaw.
I wouldn’t even really recommend abandoning scripts after the first draft. I believe in allowing the first draft to be bad. Writing is rewriting – rewriting is where you make stuff good. However, if you're three or more drafts in and you feel like there’s no hope, give yourself permission to move on.
Of course I’m talking here about spec scripts. When you’re writing or rewriting screenplays for assignments you kinda have to finish. But in those cases if you can’t find the solution they’ll probably fire you anyway, so the question of whether to move on will be out of your hands!
For information on how to find the core of your idea and build a pitch, may I humbly suggest The Hollywood Pitching Bible.