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5 Signs You’re Beating a Dead Horse Screenplay and Need to Move On

18 July 2013


 July 18, 2013
Category: Uncategorized

I feel qualified to write about this topic, because getting caught in a rewrite loop is my Achilles heel.  I will hang onto a screenplay until it’s wrenched from my bloody fingers.  If anyone gives me a note, I feel compelled to implement it.  They must know better than me, right?

Here are five signs you need to let that old chestnut rest and write something new.

1)   Every time you try to work on it you feel like throwing up.  And not from excitement.

You have dragged this old nag around the ring several times, restructured, changed characters, and it’s still not working.  You dread opening up the file.  The words are so familiar that you can’t even read them anymore—they just swim before your eyes.  Yet you keep changing it and changing it and…

Yes, changing it some more.  This feeling of nausea is not the kind you get when you are trying something new, or stepping out of your comfort zone.  No, this is the sick feeling of repetition, running in place, wasting time.

Close the file, think about what you’ve learned from this project and move on.  It hasn’t been a waste of time, but a learning opportunity.  What pearls of wisdom can you take with you to your next script?

2)   You’ve sent it out to everyone you (and your agent) can think of and nothing’s happened.

Still, you believe if you just made a few changes, they’d respond differently.  Like actually call you back.  Silence is a very big piece of feedback.  Even if you get someone on the phone and they tell you WHY they passed, their reason will probably not be the whole truth. They want to stay friends with you so when you write your next project (the one that actually works!) you will sell it to them.

Don’t chase people.  It’s a waste of time.  Unless someone gives you a reason that really seems true, and they say they’d be interested if specific changes were made, it’s probably not worth your time.  Most likely, they would have bought the script the first time around if they were truly interested.

3)   You insist on rewriting it over and over because it’s not “perfect.”  

Guess what.  It never will be.  You’re clinging because you’re afraid of sending it out, of being rejected, or of admitting you’ve “wasted” time. All this fear is a form of resistance.

This is my personal favorite. I keep thinking the more I work on the project, the better the script will be.  Not true.  I now believe there is a threshold of “awesomeness” that every script has.  Once you reach this peak, most of the changes you are making on your own are probably lateral moves. It’s still the same basic story, with the same protagonist and themes.  If you completely reboot something, that’s different.  But tweaking here and there will not substantially change the marketability of the project.

Leonardo da Vinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”  You could conceivably dress up this orange pony until the cows come home.

It’ll still be an orange pony.

4)   You’ve been working on it to the exclusion of all other projects for more than two years.

Working on a script for more than two years is not unusual.  However, if you’ve been working on this script for two years, and have not been developing any other ideas, it might be time to let that script go.  If you think it’s good, send it out– to a contest, agents, producers…  If it’s bad, put it in a drawer and chalk it up as a learning experience.  While you’re rewriting, you should always be working on your next project.  Outlining/pitching/researching etc.  You need to have more than one ball in the air… Otherwise it’s very difficult to forge a career that lasts. Most professional screenwriters have a ton of abandoned projects.  It’s just part of the creative process.  Again, what wisdom have you gained from this script?  What fatal disease infected your horse, and how can you avoid this malady in the future?

Sorry, but I’m loving belaboring the horse metaphor.

5)   Your script doesn’t have a strong enough hook.   And deep down, you know it never will.

This is probably the single most common reason people should give up on a screenplay.  There is no central conceit or conflict or character that holds our attention.  And no matter how much you pussyfoot around this fact, it’ll never change.  The central nugget of the story is just not compelling or original enough.

Some ideas are good, and some are bad.  Most fantastic writers have worked on dog projects.  Not everything is a chunk of gold, some are made of coal and worse.  Be proud of yourself for trying this idea and learning something about what makes a good movie.

Once you’ve slaved and slaved over a bad idea, you pay a lot more attention to the “concept” of your next one. This is probably the single most important part of the creative process.  Does the idea have enough juice, enough humanity, enough genuinely engaging conflict and originality to pull a viewer in?

If it’s a generic idea, it’ll be a generic script.

In conclusion, veterinary students, abandoning a project is not failing.  It’s just part of the creative process.  Not every idea will work.  One of the reasons Pixar is so successful is that they are not afraid to face the music and reboot or bail on a project when necessary.

Work hard on each script.  Work smart.  Know when you’ve got something and when you don’t, no matter how hard you’re trying.

Most importantly, trust your INSTINCTS.

We all know when our horses are dead.  It’s just really hard to bury them.

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