Monday, September 28, 2009

Sometimes you're gonna lose the patient

It's a scene we've seen countless times on an equally countless number of medical dramas. A critical patient goes south on the operating table. Blood pressure drops, they're bleeding out, their heart stops. Our heroic doctors do whatever they can. They autotransfuse, they pull out the shock paddles, perform CPR and when all else fails, they do what us ER viewers know is always the last resort - they crack the chest and start shocking and massaging the heart manually.

But for all their efforts, for as much as those doctors try to practically force the patient back to life, there's often nothing that can be done. Some days, that's what it's like writing a spec script. I've seen it from both sides. There are plenty of times where I've dealt with the same writer who has come back to me again and again for notes and guidance. Sometimes they take my input and the story gets better; sometimes they don't take my specific suggestions, but my critiques encourage them to rethink some areas and come back with better ideas... and sometimes there's just no saving the idea.

Those are sometimes the hardest critiques I've had to give, and a great example of why a lot of readers find it easier to write coverage for companies and agencies than to accept business directly from writers. (Or for that matter, offer notes to friends and colleagues.) After reading many drafts and becoming familiar with a writer's abilities, I feel like I'm able to tell if the depth of the changes need is within their abilities. It doesn't necessarily mean that they're a bad writer, but it could mean they're not the right writer for this script. Or maybe they were at one point, but they've lost the passion for the idea, and now they're just flogging this dying screenplay, trying to salvage all the time they've invested in it.

Not every idea is able to be saved. There are some scripts that can't be fixed no matter what changes you make. Maybe there's a germ of an idea worth saving there, but if you've sent five, six or seven drafts around to the same people, and not only do they still have problems with it, but all these people keep having the SAME problems, you need to consider that the issue is probably one of two things:

1) These aren't the right readers for this script. Maybe they're burned out on it after seeing several drafts or maybe it's not their cup of tea. That's certainly fair. However, if readers with very different tastes - and those who haven't all read the script multiple times - keep coming back with the same issues as other readers, it might be time to give the script a rest.

2) You lost the patient. Maybe rewrites to fix other weaknesses have wound up muddling the core concept. Maybe your protagonists and their internal arcs are all wrong for the themes you're working in. Maybe you're playing in entirely the wrong genre. Or maybe you're just not a good enough writer for your script yet.

The hardest thing to do is walk away, and yet, some writers would benefit greatly from that. At least to the audience, it's always clear when our TV doctors aren't going to save the day - even if it takes those characters longer to realize it. The "heroic measures" become less considered and more often resemble a Hail Mary, or the doctor gets emotionally overinvolved in the case, to the point it blinds him to the truth that there is no happy ending. The next time you're buried in rewrites, take a step back and ask, "Is that me?"

I tend to outline everything to death, and I rarely start a script without having a good sense of what the structure is. However, there are at least two scripts where I feel like I lost the patient. Certainly, there are a lot of scripts I've written where I end up saying, "Okay, I've done everything I can with this one. I'm happy with it and I can show this to people without being embarrassed by it." Are any of those perfect? Probably not, but I'm comfortable using them as representations of my writing abilities.

But the two I abandoned were especially painful. Coincidentally both of those were projects with writing partners, though they fell apart for very different reasons. The first was actually only the second feature screenplay I'd ever written. It was a case where I think we were too quick to jump to the script stage. We had a decent concept and some killer set-pieces, but a lot of our character arcs and connective tissue were weak. There was simply no depth to it and yet, to get to our coveted set-pieces, we'd locked ourselves into a particular plot progression. The story just didn't hold together, and the only way we might have saved it was by scrapping everything and go back to square one with a willingness to throw out every idea and start over. At that point, neither of us had the energy for that.

The second one was harder in a lot of ways, because this partner and I spent probably about three years working on it, off and on. It wasn't the only thing I wrote in that time, but it was a story that both of us cared a great deal about. Without making this a much longer story, let's just say that there were at least eight massive rewrites on the whole thing and as difficult as it was to get each draft done, spending that much time on the script only made us more entrenched in getting it done right. Eventually it was clear that both of us had lost the passion for the story and our energies might be better served in developing new ideas.

There are some scripts you'll write that ultimately aren't meant to be shown to anyone else. Some screenplays are more valuable just for the experience of having written them. There are things about writing that no teacher, book, executive or reader can help you learn - you can only learn by doing. Now, if you're lucky, sometimes those "learning experience" scripts might be salvageable. However, since they were often forged out of inexperience, they might have structural deficiencies that make it more difficult to rewrite easily than something you've developed since learning "on the job."

My rule is that I never go a year without starting at least one new screenplay. At any time I've got an idea file of at least a dozen or two concepts. Sometimes I get as far as a treatment with those and decide I don't want to spend a couple months working on a first draft and then a few more months committing to a rewrite. Sometimes I get to the end of Act One and I'm still not feeling it - but I always make sure that every year there is at least one screenplay I commit to and take all the way. That ensures that even if I do get bogged down with a "critical patient" I don't let it consume me.

But never be afraid to walk away from your own writing. You'll learn something from it, and chances are it can make you a better writer.


  1. This is very informative. I'm in this exact spot right now. I've been working on a screenplay. Some clicks so well. But there are some holes that I just can't get around. I've started to question if this story idea just wasn't meant to be a screenplay. It was a valuable experience. I can't deny that. Maybe it was meant to be a novel.

  2. Good post bitter. Definitely something that comes to my mind often. Character arcs are bastards to execute flawlessly. Maybe if it was a 24 episode series the arcs could work, but under 2 hours?!

    I hope and pray I won't get stuck kicking at a dead horse for years. I try to 100% things (in the xbox world = achievement whore), but sometimes better judgment means dropping concepts.

  3. GREAT post, bitter script reader,

    You really have a lot of good things to say here. And you present your points well.

    I have a very hard time abandoning scripts. About two months ago I really wanted to write a sci-fi, but try as I may I could just sence there was something missing with it... I haven't abandoned that story, but, like you, I found another idea was more fully formed and I'm going with that now. Will get back to the sci-fi script after this one, see if anything's changed.
    I think it was in "The 101 Habits of Successful Screenwriters" by Karl Iglesias where Akiva Goldman says (something to the affect), "Screenwriters are just tenatious." I've alway rallied around that. I like to see ideas to completion.

    Like you, bitter script reader, I too don't believe in retiring on a script. There's only so much you can do for a patient. When you've given it your all, it's time to move on.

    Anyway, GREAT post. Good job. I like your style!

  4. Humans are always better at foreseeing tragedy and negative outcomes than they are at solutions. When we see triumphs, it is rarely a good one for everyone, but usually a one side wins and other side loses affair which reflects back on our negativity and simplicity of thinking.

    So it should come as no surprise we often conceive stories whose entry into the fray is appealing from if nothing else a purely visceral standpoint, but we neglect in advance to see a way out that works, especially as we develop the way in. Our conscience is more often than not what gets to us and we say to ourselves, "eh, that's not really how this person would respond. It's too early to be past the emotional pain. It's not realistic."

    But it is always good to try if for no other reason that it helps us to sharpen our emotional understanding. Don't it bother you then. Welcome every time you come up against the wall as a chance to refine your vision process in advance. Eventually most of them get to where you can step outside linear time and you just sort of see the entire arc of them in front of you and you get a sense of what is too much to deal with in the space of a single episode. The rest at that point is fitting the decorations to the framework.

  5. I don't think I could have come across a greater omen than this post. I'm approaching the 9 month mark on mine and it's just time to move on to newer projects.

    Of the many things we can learn from Guns N' Roses, probably the best lesson is Chinese Democracy. Axl Rose re-recorded that album a dozen times over 15 years trying to make it perfect. And while yes, there were some great tracks on that record, there were also songs like "Madagascar", crappy old ballads that he should have just let go.

  6. This is a great post. Often an idea is not a movie, but you have to write a script to figure it out. Take heart. Keep writing. You learn something from every script.