Three Steps to determine if your WIP should RIP
Guest blog by produced screenwriter Rick Hansberry. Be sure to submit to Season 4 of this year's Query Letter Contest.
Three Steps to determine if your WIP (work-in-progress) should RIP (rest-in-peace).
We’re Writers – Aside from newspaper reporters who must submit stories daily, we all have those creative bits of future screenplays on our Desktops and Hard Drives.
They are the right number of pages, formatted correctly, spell-checked, and ready for industry submission, except for one thing – they don’t work.
Maybe it was spelled out in the Notes from a trusted reader. Maybe it came in the form of a rejection notice. Maybe it came from a fellow screenwriter; but it came, and it lives rent-free in your mind. It’s messy too. Always gumming up your thoughts.
This is a work-in-progress script (WIP), and it needs to do one of two things: A) Turn itself into your next option, sale, or portion of your portfolio of marketable material; or B) Rest In Peace (RIP) and leave its existence or a portion of it behind.
We all struggle with a troublesome Work in Progress that either doesn't have a strong ending or compelling beginning; or suffers from a weak second act; or isn't generating positive feedback. So how many times and ways do you revisit the script before moving on? [Get Pro Coverage through SS]
There are only so many hours in our approximately 4,000 weeks on earth, and we have to make our precious writing time count. If you have a piece that still holds its grip on you, it obviously holds its strong points. The secret to fixing it is to keep you energized to fix its problems.
My suggestion is to try these three approaches:
Change the perspective of the Protagonist
If it's a drama of a guy that gets the girl, switch the story's perspective to the girl's perspective. I wrote “Chasing Forever,” a music-oriented feature about a rock star on his farewell tour hinting that he would finally reveal the long-kept secret of the girl behind his most famous song. It was told from his perspective, but it didn’t convey the impact it needed, resulting in a lot of “So what?” comments. There was little at stake, and it didn’t cause enough of a conflict – then, I shifted the story to be told from the girl's perspective, and the script came to life. It created high stakes and life-altering circumstances to deliver maximum impact right down to the climax. The resulting film soared and ended up winning several film festivals as a result. You can view “Chasing Forever” here.
If that approach to your Work-In-Progress doesn’t work, try:
Add a Ride Along or New Character near the end of Act One
A number of stories need that ‘key data’ recap after an engaging and fast-paced first act that allows the audience to catch up and catch their breath now that they’ve become invested in what happens. Introducing the new character toward the end of the first act allows that character to essentially learn everything that happened so far, either by being told, shown, or used to provide this information to the audience.
“The Old Man” used this role to perfection, bringing in Amy Brenneman’s character to learn Jeff Bridges’ past. The entire opening was given to setting up the long-standing history between Bridges and John Lithgow but left lots of room for intrigue and mystery. As Jeff Bridges methodically carries out his plans, he’s forced to share necessary background information with this new character to fill in the same blanks the audience is questioning.
Now, you may learn one of two things. Inserting a character like this makes your story better and compelling and frequently cures the Second Act tune-out OR, as happens most often, you’ll find no need for this character in the third act and feel like it only hurts the story. Not necessarily true.
Ultimately, the character can be dropped in the rewrite/polish, but the 'process' of adding and creating the recitation of key data to the audience may point out to you, the screenwriter, where your existing weakness is in the working draft.
If that approach to your Work-In-Progress doesn’t work, try:
Fake It ‘Til You Make It
By now, if you’ve read enough advice from Screenwriting Staffing and other industry professionals, you know that you ‘can’ do it, because if money was on the line, you better believe you would deliver. So, you’ve got the imagination and the wherewithal, just force the issue with a fake deadline for yourself based on notes from trusted readers. If consistent feedback says the ending doesn't work - imagine you've been hired on assignment by a Producer to deliver a new ending by midnight. And stick to it. [Find screenwriting work on our Job Board]
It’s really a trial run. The end goal is to be a paid screenwriter, right? I received a call from a Producer once asking if I could turn his 40-page outline into a feature film. I proudly told him ‘yes, no problem.’ Then, he explained, “Great, can I have it ready in about two weeks? That’s when I’d like to start shooting.”
Cue screenwriter me inserting the dialogue: “Say what now?”
Yes, he was serious, and yes, the notes were a launchpad for what would become my second produced and distributed feature, “Evil In Her.” It was a challenge to overcome, but there was an established deadline, and I knew I had to make it to get paid. Just create that scenario in your head, and it just might work. Evil In Her is available to stream on Amazon. [This lead was found through SS's Premium Membership]
MIND GAMES ARE WHERE WE LIVE
Don’t be a hater here. Yes, I’m suggesting you fabricate an imaginary deadline but consider where you are – you’re stuck and looking for solutions. What better place than the imaginary?
Also, we are dreamers with the ultimate luxury to hopefully see our daydreams play out on the screen. Why not include us in the imagination factory?
Creating urgency and high stakes should become a staple of your writing arsenal. Take any situation and make it mean something if the goal is not met or the objective is not achieved. The ultimate high stakes make a catastrophic end for the hero, and he or she will do anything to avoid it.
Bottom line - there comes a time when you must move on from stale material instead of continuing to revisit stuff that just doesn't gel. These three strikes (if you will) will help make that decision to keep it in the WIP drawer or send it to the graveyard of writing experiences to RIP. Sign up for free to read more screenwriting blogs like this.
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Blog written by Rick Hansberry:
Rick Hansberry is an award-winning screenwriter with more than 25 years of industry experience. With several produced credits on his IMDb page, Rick has written, produced and directed several short films. 2017 saw the release of two feature-length movies, "Alienate" and "Evil In Her." 2018 brought the release of another award-winning short, "My Two O'Clock". In 2019, Rick wrote, produced and directed his first web series pilot, "Clean Slate" and delivered creative and narrative material to an Emmy-winning documentary, "This Is My Home". Watch out for new productions from Rick later in 2022, including the feature roadtrip dramedy "Baggage Claim" (with Nikki Neurohr); a short romantic comedy, "Impression" (with Brooke Vanderdonck) and a horror feature, "Crimson Shadows" (with Chloe Carroll).
Rick is presently working on new shorts and features. He has dozens of scripts available for production and is also interested in spec writing, collaborating and adapting stories for the screen. Many of his scripts can be found on Script Revolution: https://www.scriptrevolution.com/profiles/rick-hansberry
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