Recently, my Intermediate class students all had a difficult workshop session. Most of the comments on all of their scripts were not positive. The comments were constructive to be sure but even constructive criticism is hard to take. It still means "this isn't working." I wrote them an open letter that then became this article. I've expanded it a bit from the original form.
There's a war going on inside you.
Your head and fingers are in constant battle. What you see with your mind's eye about your script never ends up to be what actually gets to your fingers. Why is that? I blame...uh, Canada (that's from the movie "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut" and I'm just kidding so relax.)
Here's the problem; it's too easy to write that first flush of great scenes that you see so clearly when that concept comes to you. After that it's nearly impossible to clearly see the ramifications of that work. You think you know the story but unless you've carefully charted out each moment, sh*t happens.
Even if you've carefully charted out your script you take side trips; a character inserts himself or herself demanding more attention than you had intended. Maybe a piece of information comes to you or you have to change something that you thought worked.
Also, each day you're a different person and your mood, attitudes, sense of life changes. If you're doing the work properly, you are writing from your subconscious mind and that changes - a lot - as you process each and every moment of your life.
A script seems simple but is maddeningly complex.
Most of the time, what you have in your head is not what ends up on the page.
And many times, even if you're hitting all the notes, you're missing something critical that won't fold the story into a neat package. This is fine. It's part of the process and it takes whatever time it takes. There is no measure as to how long it should take or how many times you should start over or how many times you should rewrite. Conversely, there's also nothing wrong with putting that script aside and moving onto another one. I've had scripts in which I've written 20-30 pages then set it aside for a number of years before coming back to finish it. I don't ever sweat that stuff and you should not either. When you find the right fit you will know it; trust me. What is in your head will match what your fingers are typing.
As I was re-reading the book "Final Cut" about the movie "Heaven's Gate" I was struck by how many times Michael Cimino (recently deceased) rewrote a script that he had worked on for years. A lot of it was for production realities (although he didn't have many impediments to what he wanted) but some of it was to make characters or situations clearer.
Cimino added the bookended opening and closing that takes place back East deep into the pre-production process. He added them for many reasons, some good, some bad, but the point is he was still conceptualizing the James Averill character, his main character and how that character is presented to the audience. Really? Hadn't he already figured that out many years previous? Apparently not.
Perhaps you're thinking that "Heaven's Gate" is a bad example of the process since it was an abject failure in all senses. That is not my point. What I'm saying is that Cimino was not without major chops as a writer. He won awards, was writing for A-list productions. He knew what he was doing even if he got lost on HG.
He just had this self-aggrandized, overly-inflated sense of how good he was after he won dozens of awards for "Deer Hunter." But his process was still honest and true. He knew scripts take time to develop. He was willing to put in that time, to suffer whatever creative conflict and pain necessary. He tossed out reams of work and reworked material again and again no matter how sure was that those pages had worked at one time.
Now this whole thing is amazing to me because it points out a fundamental truth about us as writers. Here's something that Cimino had sweated over many times and people were still confused by certain aspects of his script. He himself was still unsatisifed with a story that he had known for years - that he had researched and fought for many times.
He was sure his script was perfect. And yet he rewrote based on comments. And this is typical. It is the process.
In my journey, I've heard of writers doing a dozen rewrites AFTER a script was pronounced "perfect" by everyone. "The Wrestler" took years and many, many rewrites. Seventeen, eighteen, dozens of rewrites are typical for any and all reasons. That's the way it is and if think it is or will be different for you then you're not writing enough because you just haven't come up against it yet.
It is part of your creative process and you must embrace it. There are no shortcuts. Even mature work sometimes needs work. You can rail against it but you just have to learn to love to hate it.
It's Perfect. We Can Fix It.
I've written entire scripts for producers that I thought were perfect and gotten many, many compliments from execs or posiitive coverage from script readers only to have the Big Boss say "I don't like this, start over." This has actually happened three times in my career. On one occasion, a producer told me "Write me a suspense film and pull out all the stops - sex, violence - I don't care how graphic." When I turned in the script he said, "I can't film this. You have to write me something different." I screamed, kicked and - wrote a new script. Imagine - an entirely new concept and script after writing a concept that was vetted and approved.
Scripts, writing, is hard. Everyone thinks it's just a matter of putting together scenes - I've spent 25 years understanding how terribly wrong that is. And even knowing what I know, I still fail - a lot. The difference, perhaps, is I accept that it's okay to fail and I embrace that failure because I've also discovered that just on the other side of that failure is success.
I've always said that one person is an opinion (unless it's the big boss) and several is a consensus. Listen to the consensus if you're getting one. Hear what they're saying - and what they're NOT saying. Process the comments through your writer's filter. Trust your subconscious mind - it has never let me down and I promise if you're doing it right, it won't let you down.
And remember that 1) it's a journey, 2) it's part of the process of writing - any writing - and you have to love it. And hate it. And love it. And...