Finishing a script

A question came up from a newer writer the other day:

How exactly do you know when to call a script done and finished? Do you just keep coming back to it indefinitely for revisions?

From a creative standpoint, perhaps William Goldman said it best:

A script is finished when you still see problems, but have no idea how to fix them.

From a practical standpoint…

A script is finished when your editor, client, or employer says it’s finished… or when you go to production/publication.

When you don’t have an editor, client, or employer involved, when you’re working on your own material, the reality is, you say when it’s doneand it’s really pretty arbitrary.

There’s no magic word count to hit to call a script done. There isn’t a certain number of edits or rewrites that signifies a script complete.

At the end of the day, like any artistic endeavor, you just reach a point where you’re satisfied enough to “stick a fork in it,” and call it done.

Perhaps, in a way, there’s a law of diminishing returns in play. Where you reach a point, like squeezing a lemon, the effort to squeeze only deliver a drop or two of juice.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that genuine story craft is complex… and the process of editing never really ends. Read something you wrote last month and you’ll likely see some spot to improve, heck read something your wrote an hour ago and you’ll likely see something to improve.

This is compounded by a really tricky aspect in the creative arts…

the longer you practice your craft, the better you become at it, but also, the more your own style and voice becomes refined. Like aging a fine whiskey. Over the years the flavor becomes something totally different than when you started…

I don’t know any artist or writer that can look back at their work from 5 years ago in complete satisfaction and contentment.

All that said, here’s a couple of things to keep in mind to keep yourself from endless revisions.

Use an Outline

When I develop a story, I spend an extra long time in discovery and develop a nigh-bulletproof outline.

When I execute the script and tick off all the points in the outline, I know I’ve hit all the major points. Having faith in my outline gives me the confidence that at a fundamental level, I know the story at that stage is solid. Anything I want to revise or further embelish after that is simply messing with the icing on the cake.

Beware of Big Ideas

In my hard-boiled 40’s detective horror WIP that I never have time to work on, the story revolves around a NYC cop caught up in a mess of supernatural Cthulu inspired horror and a cult trying to take over the city.

After the script is done, I expect to do all the standard edit passes tweaking the specifics and messing with that icing… but when it comes to completely new ideas, especially big ideas… I’ve got to be careful.

Big new ideas are a warning flag.

A single big new idea is not a big deal. Maybe something about the love interest comes across wrong and bam, I get the big new idea to make her a sister instead of a girlfriend. It requires quite a bit of rewriting all those one-on-one scenes, but the idea of sibling love works better than romantic love.

No problem. Especially if you let a script sit for any amount of time. Once you distance yourself from a story and kind of forget about the structure you worked so hard to establish, sometimes you see things from a untethered vantage point which gives you big new ideas.

The problem is, as we see with the girlfriend to sister change, big new ideas are structurally and sometimes fundamentally disruptive.

To further stress  the point, what if I came back and said, you know what, I want to get rid of the supernatural Cthulu horror element and make all the antagonist opponents completely human. No more monsters, zombies, or whatever.

That’s a really big new idea. In fact, it’s so big, I just knocked my story out of the horror genre and into Thriller territory.

Now you might be in the boat of asking, “So what?”

It’s your story and if you want to implement major big new ideas, do it! Make the story better.

And there is some truth to that train of thought. But… there’s a big but.

If you spent the time in discovery and built out a solid structure, big new ideas have a way of undoing that effort.

Big new ideas can leave you in a bad place; a basically new story with not properly developed bones, or the original story, in a sick state suffering from a skeletal disease.

If you get one, or possibly two big new ideas on a story after completion, you’re probably ok… but if you find yourself getting a big new idea every time you step away from the script, this is the tell-tale sign that either your original story structure wasn’t as solid as you thought, or you’re simply revising the story to such an extreme scope, you need to go back and rework your fundamentals.

Track What you Love

Here’s a final tip to recognize when you can call a script finished.

Early in your story development process, after completing your outline, take a few minutes and shorthand yourself a note about what you love about the outline and the potential upcoming story.

Make this real personal. Like a diary entry to yourself.

Now, at the completion of the script, do the same exact thing, but reflecting on the actual script this time.

Since a bunch of time likely passed from the creation of these two personal letters, you’ll likely enjoy going back and reading both side-by-side.

How do they stack up?

Did the passions of the outline convey through to the execution of the script, or did the script deliver on some new points.

Let these both versions of notes act as a guide for your final edits of the script.

Whether you’re refining and tweaking, OR bringing in some of those potentially explosive big new ideas, everything should fall in line with your two notes on what you love about this story. If not, you’re moving away from why you wrote the story in the first place and while not necessarily wrong, you should definitely be aware of it.

When the script gets to a point that captures everything in your two notes, in spades… have confidence it’s a good time to get the cutlery.

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Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, Amazon, and in select stores around the U.S.