Rather than spur a micro-analyzed philosophical debate impossible to win, allow me to first clarify: the process of writing a screenplay does end.
Because it has to.
A protege of Mario Puzo isn’t locked up in some Bronx basement still writing The Godfather in an eternal, Sisyphean loop of infinite futility. It was written, it was produced, and it was released. Script done. The End. Or “fin,” if you’re into that sorta thing.
This whole “you’re never done writing a screenplay!” nonsense is nothing more than buzzy seminar filler and pseudo-screenwriting advice to arouse, I guess, comradery amongst writers. But it’s easy for some to take this claim literally and sit stoic on the fallacy that no matter what they do, they haven’t “finished” their script. It’s one of the easiest ways to spoil a sense of accomplishment.
So they edit, rewrite, tweak, polish. . . usually without professional guidance, erroneously making an educated guess at what needs work, and sometimes executing so many revisions they end up with nary a semblance of what was probably a pretty decent script to begin with. And the rewrites continue. They become Sisyphus–with a Final Draft file instead of a boulder.
Eventually, the absurdity ends. They give up. It’s a sad state of affairs, and I’ve seen it happen so much, I’m convinced some writer in Ohio is sitting on the next Back to the Future but won’t send it to anyone because he heard once that “scripts are never finished.”
The reality is. . . part of this statement is true. It is, like many screenwriting topics, kind of a grey area.
Writing for film and TV (and theater, sure) is unique in that you’re drawing up a blueprint of what will, or can maybe-possibly, become a finished product: a motion picture or television series. When you finish a novel, you finish a novel. It doesn’t have to be published to be considered “complete.” A painting is finished when the artist decides it’s finished, independent of it hung on a wall or displayed in a gallery.
With screenwriting, we don’t have that luxury. The goal of screenwriting is to get your script produced, and along the way, it’ll be optioned, sold, and almost certainly go through several rounds of development. Scripts have been rewritten on the fly, during production, in post-production, even. The writers on Friends, for example, and several other sitcoms I’m sure, would rewrite a line of dialogue or a scene if it didn’t spark a big enough laugh. By that definition, no, scripts are not “finished.” You just run out of time. You’ve heard that phrase before, and it’s true when it comes to filmmaking as a whole.
As is the case with all up-and-coming writers, few of you have reached your ceiling of talent, which can take years. Or decades. You know when you go back and re-read something you wrote years ago and think, “Wow, I allowed human beings read this?” It’s humiliating, and we all do it (I’ll probably revisit this article weeks later and be like, “eh”). Your writing itself is a process. You improve with every script, with every scene you write, and learn from every mediocre line of dialogue and cliche plot twist. So that old script you finished in college isn’t actually finished because you didn’t really know what the hell you were doing back then. And trust me, you’ll think the same thing five years from where you are now because creative people always see room for growth.
There’s good news / bad news here. And they’re both the same: it’s out of your control.
Say you finish your script, and it gets picked up by a producer. They may very well hire another writer, or writers, to fix certain areas they believe need fixing. Pieces of the screenplay outside of your comfort zone, or level of expertise. This happens more often than not, and unless your agreement gives you control, you have to roll with it. Or find another producer. If you’re a writer/director/producer with a rainy day fund, congratulations. Get some script notes, tighten things up, finance it yourself, and film your way to festivals (how’s that for a buzzy seminar one-liner?).
A good consultant or manager should advise a writer to work on a script until they’re simply unable to upgrade the draft–that magical point where you’ve fully realized their personal creative potential on that story–and then circulate your project. See how it fares to best gauge your skills, while working on new and better stuff. In this scenario, a script is finished when you have taken it as far as you can.
Dr. Bob Rotella, one of the preeminent sports psychologists and someone I’d recommend highly to writer/athletes, advocates the very zen philosophy of “giving up control to gain control.” Writers would benefit tremendously from this theory.
At some point, you have to let go of a script, accept that it best personifies your current abilities, and send it out–to a professional reader or consultant who can help you take it to the next level, a potential manager or agent, a competition, or a production company searching for new material. You’re not giving up, of course. You’re merely pushing your script to the top of the hill.
*See that? How I tied everything up with the rock analogy, as anticipated? The last paragraph took five drafts, but I finally had to stop because it wasn’t getting any better. Practice what you preach.
For 12 years, Matt Misetich has worked in development as a script analyst and story consultant for production companies, managers, top writing competitions, and filmmakers. He has been a core executive at Script Pipeline since 2008 and helped a number of writers break into the industry, including contest-winners Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman, Divergent) and Tripper Clancy (The Ambassadors, Stranded). Besides instinctively quoting The Simpsons in everyday conversation, he’s writing literary fiction and developing feature and TV content that will probably not win many awards.