The Elusive Search For Screenwriting Perfection: Is Good - Ever Really Enough

Its Good Enough To Ship2

How do Bridezillas happen?  They happen when someone seeks absolute perfection where absolute perfection is impossible.  They happen when 99% isn’t enough.  They happen when you have someone who believes that everything must be in the right place or it should never be done at all.  Bridezillas should never be writers!

The best writing advice I ever heard was from a professor at my alma mater who told me that the greatest skill a writer can have is to know when his work is done enough.  I was, at the time, writing a paper on the gentrification of Washington D.C. during the 1990s, and I mistook the advice to mean that I could stop when I get to the bear minimum of pages required, not do a spell check, say “Eh, it’s good enough” and go to the local bar to have a 22 ounce glass of some frothy IPA I convinced myself was delicious, but really I hated and was just trying to convince that girl in my “Federalist and Anti-Federalist Writings of Pre-Colonialist North America” class that I was cultured and mature. - - Don’t judge me. We’ve all had that phase.

What this advice really means is that perfection is elusive.  You’ll never get that last percentage point.  Hell, you probably won’t get the last five.  You can spend two months getting your script from the idea to second draft.  Another month to get it to a third draft.  Another few weeks to get it to a pretty solid fourth draft.  Another month to get it to a fantastic fifth.  At this point it’s at about 95%.  You re-read it.  “My God!” you exclaim, “This is great!”

But….

“The father character becomes a bit flat in the second act…”

“Maybe it could take place in Cairo instead of Lebanon?”

“What if I made this about World War I instead of World War II?  I mean, World War II movies are a bit played out…”

Pretty soon you’re formulating plans to get it from 95% to 100%.  And you’re feeling good.  You spend two months re-writing it to take place during World War I or changing the father figure or location.  Now it’s at 96%! Fantastic! 

Pursuit of excellence
But that’s not good enough.  You want 100%.  So you re-write again.  Haha! Slightly better!  After another month of writing it’s at 97%!  It’s almost there! You smooth out some dialogue, change the parents to a homosexual couple to make it edgy, and now after another month you’re at 98%! Woohoo!  Except you realize that you spent four months taking the script from 0% to 95%, and then another four to raise it three percentage points to 98%.

Was it worth it?  No.  Probably not.  It was already good ENOUGH.  Sure your artistic integrity screams at you, demanding you to keep the script shelved until it’s at 100% because why bother otherwise? 

But go ahead and ask some writers if they feel every draft they turned in was perfect.  Hell, even Oscar-winning screenplays are never perfect.  They’re simply good enough.

Now this doesn’t mean that you should just give up after a first draft.  But as a writer, it’s very important to be able to look at your work objectively and be able to figure out that perfect point where it’s quality work, but trying to make it any better will not be worth the time.   It’s important to know when the Law of Diminishing Returns comes in, and every hour of work will give you less and less results. 

The real consequence of this sort of Bridezilla obsession with perfection is that it will keep you from shipping.  Steve Jobs once said “Real artists ship.”  What he means is, real artists deliver.  Anyone can have fifty projects all in a suspended state of “being worked on” and “just one more draft and I think it’ll be done maybe.”  It takes a REAL writer to be have a stack of scripts he’s done with.  It takes a real artist to ship.

And at first it looks daunting.  You see writers with credit after credit on IMDB.  You read about a writer selling two specs to Warner Brothers.   Meanwhile you’re still working on the 14th draft of your romantic comedy with Vampires and a great supporting role written for Elliot Gould, and you’re wondering what the secret is.  What did these writers do to actually finish their screenplay?  Well, now you know the answer.  They were able to read their script and realize that it wasn’t 100% perfect, but it was good enough to put out there.  It was good enough to send to that friend of yours with a cousin at ICM.  It’s good enough to send to that competition.  It’s good enough to ship.