MEET THE READER: How do you know when it’s time to stop writing?

Writers can whip a screenplay off quickly, or take years, mulling over the rewrites. Ray Morton helps writers answer the question to know when it’s time to stop writing.
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how to know when to stop writing a screenplay

As we all know, writing is rewriting. You don’t just write one draft of a screenplay – you write a first draft and then you write another and another and another; reworking, revising, and refining until you get it right.

However, while you can’t just scratch out a single draft and be done with it, you also can’t work on a script forever, although some do try – I know a few aspiring screenwriters who have been working on the same script for several years; one guy I know has been working on the same screenplay for over a decade.

While working on a script over a long period of time may give you the chance to perfect it, doing so will more than likely cause more problems than it will solve.

· There’s a certain energy that can be infused into a screenplay by writing it (relatively) quickly. The concentrated vigor required to compose a script in a compact period of time often seeps into the piece itself. Energy is always an asset in a dramatic narrative, so this is a good thing. However, when you work on a script for too long, you run the risk of draining all of that energy out of a piece. The result might be perfect, but there’s a good chance it will also be lifeless.

· When you write a script quickly (again – relatively), you don’t have the time to endlessly ponder the creative solutions to your story and character problems. In the wrong circumstances, this can lead to disaster, but under the right conditions this can result in the writer solving script problems somewhat intuitively, which can add a degree of creative spontaneity to the piece that will really bring it to life. If you spend too much time on a script, you will have a great deal of time to think out every single element in the piece. This may result in a script with impeccable logic, but it also result in a script that is drained of creative spontaneity and – therefore – life.

· Another problem with taking a long time to write a screenplay is that the script’s time may pass. The subject matter of some screenplays is timely – based on a current issue or trend – so if you take too long to write it, the subject matter may no longer be relevant.

But even scripts that don’t have time-sensitive subject matter can be affected by an overly-long gestation period. Every script is conceived and begun in a very specific moment in the cultural zeitgeist. Whether intentional or not, that cultural moment becomes part of the script’s creative DNA and is reflected – sometimes consciously and sometimes not – in the script’s concept, perspective, themes, and attitudes. If the script takes too long to finish (or if it floats around too long after it’s finished), that moment will pass and the script, no matter how timeless its subject matter, will inevitably feel dated.

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· Taking too long to write a script – no matter how good the final result – is bad training for being a professional screenwriter. Most professional screenplays are written in a relatively short, structured period of time on a tight deadline. This is how the pros do it. And that’s how you have to learn to do it to if you ever hope to turn pro.

So now the question is – how do you know when it’s time to stop writing?

For me, when a script is working – when I am confident I have a good story and good characters – it’s an intuitive thing. When I’m writing something solid, I am continuously generating ideas – constantly thinking of new scenes and characters and bits; fresh dialogue, gags, plot twists, and themes: changes, fixes, new directions, and revisions. It’s a fertile and fun and exciting process and when I’m in the heat of it it’s pretty much a non-stop process. However, once I’ve solved most of the main creative problems and revised the piece from rough to workable, the process starts to slow down – the new ideas come more and more slowly as they are less and less needed. And so, when I’ve reached the point where I’m simply searching for typos, then I know I’m done.

This process is usually a relatively compact one – several months if I am working full time on a screenplay; around a year if I am busy with other things and only writing in my spare time. If I’m working on a script for longer than that, it’s usually because I’m stuck on some problem that I haven’t been able to solve. 

When I was just starting out, I would keep banging my head against the wall for weeks and months on end trying to solve that problem. With experience I have learned that if I can’t solve a problem in a relatively short period of time (a month at most) that means there’s actually a bigger problem – there’s something seriously flawed with the script’s basic premise, the story’s core structure, or the conceptualization of the protagonist. Which means I have to either rethink one or more of these essential elements so that I can fix the problem and move on with the writing process or I have to stop working on the script and move on to another project. So many of the people I know who have been working on one script for years haven’t figured this out and they press on, making excuses such as “I just haven’t figured out the story yet” or “I’m just stuck on this one point.” 

It’s vitally important to learn that if you haven’t figured out the story or are still stuck on one point for an extended period of time, this means you’re not going to figure it out – the script isn’t working and it’s time to move on to something that will work, rather than taking forever to labor on on something that doesn’t.

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Another reason writers take so long to pen a single script is because they can’t make up their minds. Lawrence Kasdan once said that writing is deciding. There are many, many ways you can go with a storyline or a character and many choices you can make with the wording of the dialogue or the details of the action. Some of these options are clearly not as good as others and when this is the case the decision is easy – you choose the better one. Quite often, however, the possibilities are equally worthy, with the only difference between them being that they are  different. In this case, the choice is harder: “Do I go with Option A or Option B?” There is no right or wrong answer – it totally depends on your creative instincts and preference. And this is where a lot of writers, especially beginners, run into trouble. 

In such cases, the problem lies not with the material, but with the writer – in their confidence in and anxieties about their talent and abilities and instincts. Writers who don’t have sufficient faith in themselves will experiment constantly with an endless series of possibilities for their screenplay, but never actually choose one of them. Without making a definitive decision about which way to go with a story or a character or a bit, these writers get stuck in a place in which they keep going over and over and over their script – constantly twisting it this way and that – without ever actually finishing it. 

If you find yourself caught in an endless cycle of making changes just to make changes, it’s a sign that what you are struggling not with your script, but with yourself. At that point, you should probably put the script down and put your energy into fixing yourself rather than your work. You can always come back to the script when your confidence is in a stronger place. Hopefully things will then go better. And faster.

Take all the time necessary to write a good screenplay. Just don’t take all the time in the world.

Copyright © 2020 by Ray Morton

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