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I have seen it repeatedly over the years. Newer writers have an idea for a screenplay that they love, and they write the damn thing. This is huge. Finishing a screenplay is a big deal. Knowing that you can complete one of these things pays tremendous dividends later.
Now comes the rewrite. Great! Even better. The self-awareness to know that not everything you spit out is gold is also vital. They rewrite the damn thing, too! This is awesome.
But at some point, a writer must also know when to put a screenplay away.
I have seen way too many younger writers keep working on the same screenplay over and over again. They can’t stop working on it. It goes on and on. Over a year. Maybe two, sometimes even three!
If you’re getting paid for this, it’s one thing. Or the script is in excellent shape, and now and then, the writer goes back and tweaks it. Nothing wrong with that, either. Take a year off and revisit it with new eyes? Sure.
But if a screenplay isn’t working, and the writer can’t let it go, and their energy is spent exclusively on trying to get it to work over years…
It’s likely time to move on.
I learned this early:
I took the most significant leaps in the quality of my writing in between projects.
So much of a project’s success is determined in the early stages. The concept, the structure, the story…
A writer goes into any project with the limits of their skill and experience at that moment. They will, of course, grow through that project. They will get better as they write. It’s even possible they will outgrow the conception of the screenplay they’re working on!
This is an important point. The conception, structure, and story of a screenplay are still locked into the skill and experience the writer had when they initiated it. Sure, they can start over and change the structure, but what about the conception and the story? Their scene work may improve, but it’s working toward a flawed conception.
This does not even mention our human desire to hold on to what we can from previous drafts, let alone all the work we do to force those old scenes and moments to still fit!
This is how a writer ends up working years on a screenplay that was faulty from creation. All their new skill and experience keep working toward something that always had a low ceiling.
If they turn to a new project, they can use that new skill and hard-earned experience from the beginning. The new screenplay takes everything they’ve learned into account from the first notion. They avoid repeating the same mistakes. They’re not adding new code to the old code in some cumbersome goliath that’s just trying to hold the pieces together.
It’s all brand-new code — sleek, unencumbered by old, obsolete drafts.
After 25 years of writing professionally, the quality of my work fluctuates. I have a very high floor, but above that, different projects resonate at different levels. This last script I wrote was good, but a script I wrote a few years back was better. This is true for everyone. No one does better work repeatedly until they die.
But in those early years, I took great leaps from screenplay to screenplay. With those first six or seven projects, each one was better than the last. And none of them are nearly as good as what I routinely produce now.
I have noticed this with my students as well. Their second screenplay is always better than their first. And their third is almost always better than their second.
So instead of working on that same screenplay over and over again in the hope of overcoming its inherent flaws, don’t be afraid to move on.
You have more stories to tell. Much better work is ahead.
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