Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Film Courage: When Should You Abandon A Screenplay?

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me at the end of 2014, and then again at the end of 2015. There were 36 (or more) segments total. That's almost a year's worth of material! So why not add a new craft article and make it a weekly blog entry? All I have to do is write that new article, right?


The two screenplays I talk about here (and everything else on "the shelf") had gone all the way to FADE OUT. It's so much easier to fix a screenplay that is written than one that is not. The shelving thing only works if you don't abandon them!

You are halfway through a screenplay and it just isn’t working... what should you do? If you finish it, it is just going to be a finished terrible screenplay - why waste the time on that when you could write something better?

We have all been there, and in the clip I say that you should just finish it, even if it stinks. Here’s why - if I have a finished screenplay that needs a serious rewrite, I am much more likely to do that rewrite. But if I have a half finished screenplay, that’s not a rewrite, that’s a write plus a rewrite... And I will never do that. You might be different, but that just seems like too much work to me. It’s not just rolling a boulder uphill, the boulder has sharp spikes coming out of it!

One of the problems with quitting a screenplay is that it becomes a habit - and I know many writers who have the first forty pages of dozens of screenplays, but not a single one that is finished. They are quitters. The minute it gets difficult, they quit. The minute they hit a rough patch, they stop writing instead of figure out the problem and get past it. Here’s the thing: there is no market for the first 40 pages of a screenplay. Nobody cares about the first 40 pages of a screenplay - that’s garbage. People buy *finished* screenplays. Finished. Finished and rewritten a couple of times until they are great. That’s what matters. Those 40 page misfires? Nobody cares. And these people quit after the first rough patch! Screenplays are filled with rough patches that you have to struggle with and stick out and figure out.


"Talent is a wonderful thing, but it won't carry a quitter," Stephen King.

When things get difficult or unpleasant, is your first thought to quit rather than stick it out and see if it gets better?

Do you quit writing a script if you get bored?

Do you quit writing a script if you get to that difficult part of Act 2 when it's all an uphill climb?

Do you have a bunch of half written screenplays and half read books and failed relationships and half finished projects?

Do you just quit at the first sign of difficulty or boredom when you try to watch a foreign film or something else that might take just a little work on your part?

Are you trying to avoid work?

Anything that might require a little effort on your part?

Are you a Quitter?

Hey, Bill, watching a foreign film with subtitles and a plot that only makes sense to French people isn't the same as writing screenplays!

I don't think so. I think it's all the same.

You are either a Quitter or you see things through to the end. You get over that difficult Act 2 hump. You do the next rewrite and the one after that and after that. You stick it out. The key to success is sticking it out. Not being a Quitter. Not giving up when things get rough. The things about those French films is that the first few can be work, but after a few you get the hang of it, you build up your “French Film Muscles” (which is different that Jean Claude Van Damm who is Belgian, like Hercule Poirot from MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS) and it becomes less work with every French Film until you actually might enjoy watching French Films! So stick it out!

Now here's the thing: sticking it out is no guarantee of success. You could finish that screenplay (or French Film) and all of the rewrites and still not sell it or even get anyone to read it.

But Quitting? Guaranteed failure.


I know this from experience. I have not finished a script and had someone looking for just such a script... And I have also been the one with the finished script because I stuck it out when things got tough or the script started to bore me or it required that 4 Letter Word that everyone hates: WORK... and had the very script that someone was looking for. I also have watched a lot of French Films - LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL is a French Film. It has lots of explosions!

And I have learned that even when I stuck it out and the script still didn't turn out and I shelved it, I had still ACCOMPLISHED SOMETHING. Finished the script. And many of those scripts I eventually figured out how to fix, and some sold and were made into films. Because I could rewrite a finished screenplay. That was doable. But a half finished script? That's not a rewrite, that's a *write*. I could still do that, but it's a double whammy. It's pushing the boulder uphill AND it's covered in sharp spikes. A finished screenplay is still in play - it's still *something*.

So step one is DON’T QUIT! Stick it out! Do the work, even when it becomes hard - finish the screenplay!


Okay, now that the Quitters have all left the room because I used that 4 Letter Word (“work”), what should you do when you hit that wall? When you are stuck and you want to quit? When you want to abandon the screenplay or novel or French film? Should you Phone A Friend or Poll The Audience or do some sort of 50/50 like on WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE?

Nothing irks me more than people who hit a roadblock in their story and go to a messageboard to “poll the audience” for ideas on how to get past the roadblock. The reason why is because every story is it’s own story, the story that *you* are telling, and if you gave 10 writers the same basic story idea and they all wrote a story, you would end up with 10 different stories about 10 different things... because we all see a story from our own individual angle. It’s YOUR story and no one else can know what happens next. Sure, you might just be looking for random ideas from others that might spark something, but eventually you will get into a situation where you are working on an assignment against a deadline and there is no one else but you to spark those ideas. So figuring out how to get past the roadblocks in a story are things that you need to learn to do by yourself. Writing is a “by yourself” occupation (until you get the producer’s notes and the star’s notes and the director’s notes and the gaffer’s notes... but even then, they expect YOU to figure out how to implement them). You go into a room alone and write (even if it’s a Starbucks). So you will need to be self reliant and figure out how to spark your own ideas. You can’t Phone A Friend... but you can do some form of 50/50 - figure out the possible answers and then narrow them down. So here are five ways to get past the roadblock...


The most common solution - skip it until your brain is fully functioning, I outline my screenplays so I know that this scene made sense and worked in my imagination at some point in time... but there just isn’t enough coffee in the world to figure it out today. I could spend the whole day trying to figure it out... and maybe never succeed... or I could move on to the next scene and write that. But before I jump ahead, I leave myself a note...

When I'm stuck I look at the scene I'm working on and ask myself:
1) What is the purpose of this scene in the story?
2) What are the pieces of information this scene must communicate to the audience?
3) What does the protagonist (or antagonist) want in this scene?
4) What stops them from getting what they want? What is the struggle?
5) What will happen if they don’t get what they want or need in the scene?
6) What does the protagonist (or antagonist) *feel* in this scene?
7) What do I want the *audience* to feel in this scene?
8) What are the important events that happen in the scene (for later scenes)?
9) What happens at the beginning of the scene?
10) What happens at the end of the scene?

Those ten things are a “placeholder” for the scene when I move on to the next scene... and most of the time answering those ten questions helps me figure out the scene well enough to write it. It may not be the best version of the scene, but the best version will come in rewrites. I’m just trying to move forward instead of stack stuck in the mud. If I can’t figure out the scene, those ten things are the clues that will help me later, so that I know what the heck the scene was supposed to be when I come back to write it. The events at the beginning and ending of the scene are there to help me get on to the next scene - if I know the outcome of the scene and figure out a basic idea of how the scene will end, that helps me get into that next scene.


Often it isn’t the scene that I am trying to write that’s the problem, it’s that I have taken a wrong turn a few scenes back, and I need to back up to that fork in the road and take a different path. So begin by going back one scene and looking at the possible outcomes of that scene and the “trajectory” of the story due to those outcomes. If you had chosen one of the other possible outcomes, would you be back on the right track? Think through what would happen next if you had taken a different path... if one of the elements fro the ten things above for the previous scene had been different, where would you be now? What direction would you be headed?

Sometimes going back just one scene will show you where you took the wrong turn, sometimes you will have to go back a few scenes. Don’t delete the scenes that you have already written - the wrong turns that lead you to a different destination - save them in a file just in case this ends up being a wrong turn, too! But usually when you spot the wrong turn, you will see the route that leads to the destination and you will be back on the road and making good time again!


Often the reason for being stuck is that there are too many possible directions to take the story and you don’t know which is the best way... or none of the possibilities seem attractive. This is when I usually go to theme to try and break through the block. In the “Outlines & Thematic” Blue Book and several articles for Script Magazine, I show how every single element in a story is connected. Every character, every scene, every line of dialogue, everything is part of that whole... so when you get stuck if you look at what that connection is you might find your way out.

In one of my Script Magazine articles I look at ANTMAN & WASP and how each of the main characters is part of a troubled father daughter relationship, so if you were writing that story and got stuck, you might want to look at how the scene effects the farther-daughter relationship in that plot thread and what it’s doing to resolve that troubled father daughter element... and if the answer is “nothing” than maybe you have found the problem with the scene. Or maybe it has everything to do with that, but the scene writes that thematic element into a corner and you’re stuck... and have to rethink how the scene deals with that issue.

In a couple of Script Tips I look at writing my BLACK THUNDER screenplay for Showtime that was remade by Sony as a Steven Seagal flick a decade later - and how the theme was Concealment For The Purpose Of Deception - and how characters often conceal important information about themselves from others in order to protect themselves, but that concealment may be doing more harm than good. So if I got stuck on a scene when writing that script, I went back to that theme - what is the connection between this scene and concealment? Who is trying to conceal information and for what purpose? What would happen if that concealed information were discovered? And often this showed me the path for that scene. Hey, this was a movie about fist fights and things that blow up, but knowing that theme helped me get it written in 3 weeks to make a deadline. Whenever I got stuck I had a key to the story that might open that door that got me through the scene. So look at your theme - since it secretly connects everything, how is this troublesome scene connected?


Story is conflict, and the antagonist (or force of antagonism) is the source of that conflict. Sometimes you get stuck because the conflict has dissipated and there is no strong reason for the story to continue. Nothing is driving the story anymore, so it’s out of fuel and coasting... and you need a conflict fill up.

This can be caused by a week central conflict, or an unmotivated antagonist, or a protagonist that isn’t part of the conflict (on the sidelines and every once in a while the conflict touches them, but they aren’t the target of the conflict). Those are serious structure issues, and though I don’t usually suggest rewriting until you have finished the first draft, this may be a case where you want to do back and solve the basic structure issues before moving forward. But maybe if you know what the problem is, you can keep moving forward just by figuring out how you will fix it and imagining that you have made that fix earlier so that you can get back on track with this scene. Many problems are based in basic structural issues and the protagonist not being the target of the conflict, which explains all of those books on structure and the general focus on structure in screenwriting.

Connected to this is the External Conflict. We are writing SCREENplays so we need conflicts that show up on screen. If your conflict is internal and emotional and can not be seen on the big screen, that will often lead to a dead end or nothing actually driving the story. I like to think of stories as a Protagonist must resolve an emotional conflict in order to resolve a physical conflict or else something bad will happen. So you may have the emotional conflict (which is internal and can not be seen on screen) but your story may have a weak physical conflict and no “or else” factor... two things that the antagonist brings to the story. So the reason for your story stalling out might be a weak antagonist or a passive antagonist or no antagonist at all... and usually the antagonist drives the story. They bring the conflict.

Conflict is the fuel that runs your story - the antagonist (or force of antagonism) is the source of that conflict... so if you have lost sight of the antagonist and the conflict, your story can hit a roadblock. You may think that it’s you as a writer that’s out of gas, but ot’s your story that is out of gas. Go back and fill the tank! (Or charge the battery, if you drive an electric story.)


The two things that drive a story are the antagonist who brings the conflict and the protagonist whose need forces them to deal with that conflict. So you might be stuck because your protagonist has no strong need. Just as a passive antagonist can cause your story to stall out, so can a passive protagonist. This is the flipside of the antagonist issue and often pops up in action and thriller and horror screenplays where the plot is driving the story. The protagonist can end up uninvolved in that story and you wonder why they heck they are putting up with all of these problems? Why don’t they just go to a summer camp other that Crystal Lake? If the protagonist doesn’t have a strong enough need to continue down the road that puts them in danger, you will be constantly trying to find excuses for them to keep going... and will run out of excuses the way a story without a strong antagonist runs out of gas (or electricity) and just peters out.

So the problem might be the Protagonist’s Need. If they don’t have one and are just a pawn in the story, that’s a problem. If they have a weak need (“But I want to go camping!”) that is also a problem. You may need to rethink your protagonist and find the reason why they MUST keep going down the conflict road no matter how bad it gets. Again, you can either go back and fix this or move forward and finish the first draft and then go back and fix it. There are writers who can get stuck in a GROUNDHOG DAY loop rewriting the first part of a screenplay forever without ever moving forward... and if you suspect that might be you, it’s better to finish the screenplay before going back to fix problems.


I think the most important thing is to put in the WORK and figure out how to get past that roadblock and reach the end of your screenplay. Get it finished. After you type FADE OUT it may still be a screenplay that doesn’t quite work, but it’s a *finished* screenplay and you are more likely to come back to it later. I have a bunch of finished screenplays that don’t quite work, and now they are “shelved” while my subconscious figures out the problems... and it usually does! I had a script with a great high concept that hit a few snags along the way - it was a mystery and only had one suspect - so when I finished it I shelved it until I could figure out how to solve that problem. A couple of years later I was grocery shopping or something and figured out how to solve the One Suspect Problem... and furiously jotted notes and then did the rewrite. But I’m not sure my subconscious would still be working on that problem had I not finished the screenplay... if I didn’t have all of that WORK invested in that story.

Yes, you will sometimes get halfway through a screenplay and you want to quit. You get partway through a foreign film and you want to quit. You get halfway through some classic novel and you want to quit...

But if you do, you are a QUITTER!

You are avoiding the HARD WORK required to reach the goal and ACCOMPLISH SOMETHING! You are like a marathon runner who just gives up! Hey, man, this running stuff is hard, I'm just gonna quit and grab a beer...

Don't be a QUITTER!

Don’t abandon that screenplay!

You can’t Phone A Friend or Poll The Audience... you just have to do the hard work and figure it out on your own. And you can do that! It’s not easy, and you may want to quit every once in a while... but don’t! Just work hard until you break on through to the other side of that roadblock! You can do it!

Good luck, and keep writing!

- Bill






Your story is like a road trip... but where are you going? What's the best route to get there? What are the best sights to see along the way? Just as you plan a vacation instead of just jump in the car and start driving, it's a good idea to plan your story. An artist does sketches before breaking out the oils, so why shouldn't a writer do the same? This Blue Book looks at various outlining methods used by professional screenwriters like Wesley Strick, Paul Schrader, John August, and others... as well as a guest chapter on novel outlines. Plus a whole section on the Thematic Method of generating scenes and characters and other elements that will be part of your outline. The three stages of writing are: Pre-writing, Writing, and Rewriting... this book looks at that first stage and how to use it to improve your screenplays and novels.

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

Awesome just discovered your blog and am working through your blue books!

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