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Breaking In: Abandon Ship? Or, Don't Give Up the Ship?

You've rewritten your script repeatedly. You've gotten excellent advice, and it's still not working! Should you quit? Or keep submitting and revising it? Here are Staton Rabin's 10 tips to help you decide whether "enough is enough."

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When writers send me their scripts for evaluation, they sometimes say, “I’ve rewritten this script about a thousand times on my own, and it’s still not working! I’ve gotten a ton of rejections. I am hiring you to read it and give me your honest opinion. Should I give up on it, or rewrite it one more time?” That’s a legitimate question. But it’s not one I can or should answer.

I can certainly tell a writer what’s wrong with his script (and what’s right with it), and exactly what needs to be done to fix it. I will be honest about how much work is really involved for him to turn it into a marketable piece of work. But I never tell someone that he should give up, since there are too many variables involved. I can’t know how passionate you are about your story, or if you are willing and able to do the work that it takes to fix it. And I can’t predict the future or know your capacity for learning and improving. Sometimes, writers really surprise me. A script may seem “hopeless” when I read the first draft, but after reviewing my notes and evaluation the writer comes back with a hugely successful rewrite that goes on to do very well in contests or generating attention.

So I never tell writers that they “ought” to quit working on a particular script, let alone abandon their hopes of becoming a professional screenwriter. But there are general guidelines any writer can use in deciding whether to abandon a project, or persist “until the last dog dies."

Here are my guidelines for when to consider giving up on a script.


1) … when a qualified screenwriting teacher or script analyst tells you that your script is conceptually flawed, and you see what they mean. It’s possible to fix almost any kind of problem in a script if you get the right advice and work hard at revision. But if it’s the concept itself that’s not working, fixing the script will either be impossible, or very difficult. That’s why pre-planning your concept and story is so important.

2) … when you know you don’t have enough time or motivation to do the work it will take to fix it.

3) … when several industry pros read your script, tell you that your story is not working, they all have the exact same “complaint” about it, and you have been unable to fix the problem in rewrites.

4) … if your life circumstances (possible examples: moving, going through a divorce, illness) are such that you really need to set the script aside -- temporarily or permanently -- because you can't focus on it and aren't in the right frame of mind to do the work.

5) … when a high-profile film project is in development or is already out there in the marketplace and it has exactly the same premise as yours and a similar storyline. Will readers of your script say (for example), “Wow! Great! This script is just like Pirates of the Caribbean. It’ll be box-office gold!” or will they say, “Oh, no! This is just like Pirates of the Caribbean. Nobody will go see this movie because this subject has already been done so well and so recently!”? That’s a good question, and one you must answer before investing any more of your time in the story.

6) … if you’re getting too intense about your script, you’re “stuck” and it’s not working, professional script advice hasn’t helped, and you need to take a break. Maybe forever, maybe not.

7) … when in the months or years since you started working on your script, you’ve become a much better writer, and know that your next script will be much better than this one.

8 ) … when you’ve done a large number of rewrites (without the script being under contract) and it’s still not working and not selling. What’s a “large number”? That depends. But, personally, I think that if you’ve done two or three massive rewrites on a spec after getting excellent advice from one or more competent script analysts, and it’s still not working or selling, it may be time to start thinking about moving on.

Certainly, doing 16 rewrites (as some writers have told me they have) on a spec script that isn’t under contract anywhere, is excessive.

9) … when it’s the only script you’ve written or ever plan to write, and you’ve worked on it for years and never shown it to anyone in the film industry. A certain amount of “obsession” is necessary for writers. Too much is no good. At some point, you need to let go of the “baby” and move on. Get your script out there in the marketplace and start work on another one.

10) … if you’re sticking with it just because you quit your day job to write it and don’t want to face the fact that you have to go back to your regular job. Remember: Never quit your day job till you are selling your scripts for large sums of money or getting hired to write screenplays on a regular basis. Better yet: Wait till they give you an Oscar® for screenwriting.

Of course, the caveat in all this is that if you are determined to keep working on or trying to sell your script, you shouldn’t let anyone talk you out of it. But one of the skills you must cultivate if you want to be a professional writer is the ability to accurately judge the quality of your own work and the accuracy of the feedback you are getting on it, and decide on the most productive ways to use your time. Persistence and optimism are necessary traits. But you also don’t want to spend your whole life working on or submitting a script that you will never be able to sell.

In my next blog posting, I’ll give you the ten “signs” that you should keep submitting or working on your screenplay, despite having received rejections.

Keep pitching. See you next month.