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How Do You Know When Your Screenplay is “Finished?”

By Marilyn Horowitz

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Leonardo da Vinci wrote, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”  What he meant is that at a certain point all artists must stop work on a particular project and set it free into the world. Personally, I like the analogy that says a work of art is like a roast: eventually you have to take it out of the oven or it overcooks and is ruined. Knowing when it’s time to stop tinkering with your script is a challenge, but as a writer it’s one of the most important decisions you will make, and you can never rely on anyone else to make it for you.

So, how do we do it?

First we have to define the word “finished,” which can mean different things in different mediums. When a novel is finished, it’s published and that’s the end of the writer’s work. With a screenplay, however, “finishing” might be only the beginning of the process. There’s an old saying in Hollywood: “A screenplay is written four times—first by the writer, again when it’s filmed, again when it’s edited, and finally when it’s marketed.” Since that’s the case more often than not, you as the screenwriter must commit to your own definition of “finished.”  This means that when you read it yourself you feel happy and proud. If possible, have three other people read it and only make changes if all three agree on a correction. Professionally, I define “finished” as when the script is purchased, because this is when it’s finally out of your hands.

In deciding when to declare your script finished, it’s important to remember that script revisions are part of the filmmaking, not the writing, process. Keeping this in mind is also a good way to avoid getting your heart broken when a producer asks you to rewrite a script you thought was done.

For example, a student worked with me for a year to revise and polish a screenplay that she’d begun in one of my New York University classes. I knew it was finished when I read it in a single sitting. I wasn’t distracted by poor punctuation or formatting. I was invested in the characters from page one, and I didn’t see the excellent surprise ending coming. (As a muse, I have to “forget” story endings so I can respond to them freshly with each read.) Shortly after she sent out the script, my student was elated to learn that a producer wanted to option it from her. But I was more nervous.

“Katie,” I said, “it’s not going to be what you think.”

“What do you mean? They love it.”

I nodded sadly. “Do you remember an Off Broadway play called I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change?”

I hoped it wouldn’t happen to her, but as often does, Katie’s option deal arrived with a check and 10 pages of confusing script notes. We read through them.

“I don’t know why they bought this,” she said. “These notes seem like they want a completely different script!”

“They want it to be their version of your script.”

I told Katie that she was now onto the second version of her “finished” script: the one that would be filmed. I suggested she meet her producer halfway, taking only those suggestions that wouldn’t change her story too much.

She soon recovered from the shock and did an able job incorporating the producer’s notes, as well as working with the director.

Is it the same script she sold?

Yes and no. The story is essentially the same, but many details were changed based on location availability, budget, and casting. The main thing is that the film is heading towards production because Katie was willing to declare her script “finished” and send it out into the world. I asked her how she felt about having her screenplay turned into a movie.

“Exciting, but my new story will be a novel, so I can keep it the way I wrote it.”

I don’t blame her. I recently had my own novel, The Book of Zev, published. Many people have read it and told me it would make a great movie, but I’m not sure I want to go down that road, for all of the reasons I have discussed.

Still, if Hollywood comes knocking...

About Marilyn Horowitz

Marilyn Horowitz is an award-winning New York University professor, author, producer, and Manhattan-based writing consultant, who works with successful novelists, produced screenwriters, and award-winning filmmakers. She has a passion for helping novices get started. Since 1998 she has taught thousands of aspiring screenwriters to complete a feature length screenplay using her method. She is also a judge for the Fulbright Scholarship Program for film and media students. In 2004 she received the coveted New York University Award for Teaching Excellence.

Professor Horowitz has created a revolutionary system that yields a new, more effective way of writing. She is the author of six books that help the writer learn her trademarked writing system, including editions for college, high school, and middle school. The college version is a required text at New York University and the University of California, Long Beach.

Professor Horowitz has written several feature-length screenplays. Her production credits include the feature films And Then Came Love (2007). Her new novel, The Book of Zev is available on Amazon.

Screenwriting Article by Marilyn Horowitz

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