Got an email from a guy whose script I critiqued a few years back. He's thinking about reworking the script again. And that got me thinking on the question: when do you declare a script done? When is it worth rewriting? When do you decide it's in a permanent vegetative state and you can't resuscitate it?
The question's always out there once you have scripts on your shelf. How long do you continue rewriting them? Should you come back to old scripts?
Generally I don't like to come back to old scripts. Most of my old scripts have bad hooks or the stories are seriously flawed. If the hook's no good there's nothing to do -- the script may suggest a better hook, but then you're writing an entire new script anyway. If the hook is good but the story is flawed, then you're doing a page one rewrite, probably, and again, it's a whole new script. In that case you're probably better off leaving the script on the shelf.
Personally I hate rewriting scripts I wrote more than a few years ago, because I'm a better writer now than I was then. My characters then were a little functional, and my stories were too predictable. I wrote them too fast. So they have all sorts of problems that don't feel like they're worth fixing.
But then occasionally the flaws are fixable. I just wrote up a new treatment for an old script of mine. The hook was good, but the characters were a little thin and on the nose, and the fireworks at the end made it more expensive than it needed to be. Up till recently I really hadn't done anything with the script since my then agent first sent it out to development people and it got a big fat nothing of a reaction. The treatment reworks the characters and reduces the fireworks, and also moves the action from New York to Montreal, so I can get it set up here. Now I've got a director friend interested. Hopefully we can find someone who wants to pay me to do the rewrite off the treatment.
I guess the answer is: if you still love the hook and the flaws are at a rewrite level, rewrite it. It's equally a mistake to leave something on the shelf that's one or two rewrites away from something you can sell. If it's on the shelf, your efforts count for nothing. Almost all writers need many drafts to get the script to where it needs to be. M. Night Shyamalan wrote somewhere that it took him five drafts to think of the twist in The Sixth Sense
and another five drafts to perfect it. I have no idea what a draft is to M. Night, but you get the idea.
If you're looking at a page one rewrite, then it's stickier. When you rewrite an old script you're building on something that's already there. That can give you a firmer foundation. What worked then still works, and you can fix what doesn't work. You'll get a second draft out of it, instead of a first draft. And if the foundation is garbage, it's easy to chuck out.
The problem is when the foundation is just a little bit off. Then if you're human, like me, you're probably going to leave it that way. Then you're building on a weak foundation. That's the problem with reworking something old: you're probably a better writer now. In that case you better be willing to really go to town on the script and rethink it from the ground up. The beauty of being a writer is you can always replace what's there for the price of your time and a few ink cartridges. The challenge of being a writer is being willing to toss out a little bit more than you think you need to toss out and rethink everything. If you just graft new ideas onto an old body, you get Frankenstein.