Pixar Rules of Story #8 – Knowing when you’re finished!
Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
Rule #8 relates to something we probably all have trouble with at some point – letting go.
Knowing when a project is finished and it is time to move onto something else is not always easy. The reason we struggle to let go is that we are all our worst critics and “know” that we can do better and improve the story. We are seeking perfection in our writing, something that we know, deep down, is unattainable, and Rule #8 hides a maxim that reveals how we are wrong to do that: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Don’t strive for perfection, know when you are finished.
Perfection comes when everyone – absolutely everyone – thinks your work is perfect. And this will never happen. You may send your perfect screenplay out into the world and get a different response from everyone who reads it (good or bad) but you won’t be able to address all the comments in a way that keeps everyone happy. To try and do so will stall your writing and, possibly, your career. If you keep working on that one project, striving for perfection, you won’t develop as a writer.
We need to work on several projects over time to develop our skills, portfolio and individual voice. We all know that the key to developing our writing quality is, well…. writing! We could spend years concentrating on one project, to get it as near perfect as possible and maybe even sell it… but that one sale will not sustain a career – we need more ammunition in our writing arsenal. So we must develop the skills to recognise when we need to step back from a project and decide it is finished. We need to be able to recognise when we are simply making the story “different”, not necessarily “better”. If you serve your story, write it to the best of your ability, then it is finished. Move on to something else.
But not necessarily forever.
While this rule is about avoiding the unreachable levels of perfection, it also hints at the need to just step away from projects from time to time. This is where stacking comes in – working on more than one project at a time. Finish a first draft of one project and then let it ferment for a while, don’t worry about perfection, just get it down then work on something else while you leave it. If you come back fresh to the project you will be able to develop it more effectively than if you leap straight into a rewrite after typing FADE OUT. Give it (and yourself) time to breathe, move onto something else. When you come back, you may surprise yourself and rediscover the story all over again – a “clean read” such as this, will give you a fresh perspective on the story.
However, the rule is also telling us that we need to know when to let go completely. If we are striving for perfection and just making changes for change’s sake and are struggling to make the story better, perhaps it is time to move on completely and abandon a project that we just can’t quite get to work. Writing, and failing, is all part of the learning process. Don’t be afraid to admit a project just isn’t working. As ever, you can still come back another time.
So, in summary, Rule #8 is all about learning to identify when a story is finished. Understanding that we will never attain true perfection and we should not try to do so at the detriment to our story-telling or ability to know when a tale is finished. It tells us that we need to take a step back from time to time, let a story ferment while we work on something else but, also, that we need to be able to recognise that a story just might not be working and it is time to abandon it and move on.
How do you decide when you are finished?
Do you find taking a break helps finish a story?
Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #9 – Avoid the obvious Choices
Please also check out the Introduction to the series if you missed that!
(Thanks again to Alex Eylar for permission to use his great images!)