Polishing a screenplay, or doing a polish on a script, is a part of the screenwriting process that few screenwriters ever go into detail about when asked. Even when plied with liquor.
Sure, we've all heard writers and producers use terms like “tighten it up” or “give it some polish” or “tweak it for production,” but what do any of those terms really mean?
I've been reading screenplays professionally since 1994, and started my own script coverage service, Screenplay Readers, in 1999. Over those years, I've come across countless screenwriting articles on “how to write your first draft,” or “how to write your script in X number of days,” or variations on that evergreen maxim, “writing is rewriting.”
But for some reason, the specifics of what goes into a script polish have been given rather short shrift, by comparison. And that begins by first breaking “the script polish” process down into two general goals a screenwriter needs to focus on when sitting down to polish her script.
Those two general goals are maximizing impact and minimizing risk.
Maximizing Impact: Making Your Script as Powerful as It Can Be
The primary goal of a script polish, naturally, is to make that script tighter, more entertaining, and more sellable as a motion picture or tv show. Writers seem to forget that their screenplay is first and foremost a blueprint — a blueprint which dozens, or perhaps even hundreds of paid, skilled people will be asked to follow if your script is produced.
That is, every word on every page of your screenplay is a word spoken by a paid actor, or a set designed by a paid production designer or set decorator. Every line of action on your page is a stunt that needs to be planned by a skilled stunt coordinator, or a heavy dramatic moment that needs to be shaped to perfection between the director and the actors.
Every single line of dialogue, description, or action may look like tiny, cheap black pixels on your screen right now, but those cheap little black pixels represent hundreds of future man hours and perhaps millions of dollars when that script comes to fruition as finished, produced motion picture or tv show.
That's why it's so important to approach the script polish as one of your last opportunities to make everything about that “blueprint” as powerful and as impactful and as entertaining as it can be.
When we're writing our first draft — or even twentieth — we're typically focused on simply making sure things work in a basic, functional way: Do scenes connect? Does the character face danger? Does she grow from Act One to Act Three? Do events in Act One set the story in motion? Do subsequent events or actions drive the story forward?
To sum all that up by straining an automotive metaphor: our main job as screenwriters during those initial drafts is to just get the car off the assembly line and make sure it, you know, drives.
But during the polish, our main job is much different. Our job becomes making sure the driver of that car feels good sitting in it, experiences exhilaration just as much when the car hits straightaways as they do when it hits curves, and maybe even revels in that “new car smell,” so to speak. In other words, the polish is all about dialing in the overall emotional impact for the script's audience.
So to maximize that audience impact — to maximize what our audience/readers feel and think — during the polish, we writers need to ask several key questions.
And these questions need to be asked of every single act, every single sequence, every single scene, every single paragraph, every single line, and every single word in our screenplay.
4 Questions to Maximize Your Script's Impact
The questions are as follows, and are to be asked in sequence of every element in your script:
1. Is the act, sequence, scene, paragraph, line, or word even necessary?
That is, does the entire act serve a purpose? Is the scene you've written serving some sort of function? Is the line of description you've written completely redundant because you've already given us that information previously?
Or even — at the micro level, and at the risk of seemingly nitpicky — is the word you've written just as redundant as that aforementioned scene? Is it just taking up space? (For example, do you really need to tell us that such-and-such character is wearing a cape of very dark Crimson red? Or could we get by with just red?)
2. Next, if that element is necessary, is there a more brief way to convey it?
Screenplays are visual, not literary. If you can keep our eyes moving down the page by using fewer words, it makes for an easier, more visual, more impactful read.
3. And if it's already brief, is there a stronger way to convey it?
Is there “chaff” in your scene that gets in the way of the “wheat?” Joan Jett famously said “Don't bore us; get to the chorus,” although I severely doubt she used a semicolon.
A script polish, put simply, needs to look for opportunities to take flabby scenes and pack them tighter. Get into your scene later if that helps. Or, if your dialogue suffers from “Tarantino-itis,” consider nixing a lot of the small talk and get to the stuff that matters most, faster.
4. If it's already strong, is there a more original way to convey it?
A polish is about your signature as a writer. If you spent ten drafts making your script functional, then your polish is your opportunity to look for moments where an element (act, sequence, scene, line, word) can be more creative or original, or something we haven't quite seen before.
Minimizing Risk: Helping the Reading Lower Her Guard
The second goal of a script polish might seem perfunctory, or boring, because it has a bit to do with technicalities, such as grammar and spelling. But it's so much more than that.
I look at the goal as being simply to remove as many non-creative excuses as possible that a reader might have for putting a script down mid-read.
By “non-creative excuses,” I mean excuses that have nothing to do with the creative elements of your script, such as the characters, story, dialogue, etc. I break these non-creative elements down into two primary categories: Presentation and Strategy.
Whether it's bad spelling, bad grammar, improper punctuation, poor usage or word selection, or just plain ole bad script formatting — professionals who read scripts see these things and immediately feel queasy. I'm feeling queasy right now talking about it.
Your primary purpose in properly performing the Presentation portion of your polish (preferably) is to assuage any doubts in the reader's mind that, when reading your script, they're in the hands of a professional, competent writer.
Simply put: if you botch the presentation in any way, you fail to assuage those doubts.
If you fail to assuage those doubts, you lose the reader. If you lose the reader and they're an assistant, that assistant won't pass your script up to their agent or producer boss. If you lose the reader and they're an agent or producer boss, the agent or producer boss won't ask their assistant to read anything else you send them ever again.
So it's vital that you get this right.
To that end, before doing any sort of script polish or last pass on your script's presentation elements, it's absolutely essential that you step away from your script for a good period of time — I recommend at least forty or fifty years — then come back to it with fresh eyes. (Kidding! One week minimum is all that's needed.)
And then, after you've had some time away from it, read every single word, slowly. Too often we writer types race through from draft to draft and we end up skimming our own work, missing glaring typos.
It's equally important during the presentation polish that you not rely on the spellcheck or grammar checker that comes standard in your screenwriting app. Truth told, I can't name a single screenwriting app with a spellcheck/grammar check function that works well.
Instead, use a third-party spellchecker such as Grammarly or Ginger. But be warned, even Grammarly drops the ball. A lot. So you might want to check for errors that Grammarly misses by using the spellcheck tool in Google Docs, or, really, whatever other third-party, dedicated spellchecking app you prefer.
Whatever you do, just make sure you take the time to slowly, manually, read through your script, word-for-word, at some point in your script polish.
Check Your Formating
With regards to script format, thar be oodles of guides out there that show you how to do this right, and most screenwriting apps keep you “coloring within the lines,” so I won't do a deep dive on the intricacies of script format, but I will give you a few pointers that are important to remember during the polish:
- Don't include your WGA registration number on your title page. This flags you as an amateur.
- Don't fiddle with the margins or element margins in order to “cheat” your script's page count.
- Use bold, underline, and italics sparingly. Save them for big moments you'd like the reader's attention to be drawn to.
After you've (following the first tenets of this article) maximized your script's impact, and after you've made sure your presentation is as tight and clean as can be, the final step in your script polish needs to be putting on shoes.
But not just any shoes.
You need to put on the shoes of every person who's going to be reading your script.
That is, imagine your script going out to several different entities: a major studio, a low-level TV producer, a neophyte agent or manager, a no-name actor.
Then imagine you're each of those people and read your script, asking yourself “Am I enjoying this?” “Am I getting what the writer is trying to say here?” “Is this interesting?” “Is this marketable?” “Can I make money with this?” “Would I, as an agent, be comfortable sending this out to A-list actors or producers?”
Next, try on some different shoes.
Imagine your script in the hands of someone from a completely different culture, race, age, gender, or overall worldview.
And then ask yourself those same questions.
Your Shoes Matter
See, Hollywood is increasingly a place where people of all different backgrounds are converging (although it's still very much a work in progress), so getting yourself out of your own “bubble” is paramount when considering how your script reads from the perspective of people with different backgrounds.
If you get into one of those different “bubbles” and then ask those questions above, and it turns out that any of the answers make you feel at all squeamish or unsure, or make you feel like there's a strong possibility that someone from background X or Y who's reading your script may have a negative response to it, stop and take a moment.
Dive into that element or scene which you think might be problematic for that person from that background and ask yourself honestly: Can this scene or element be tweaked a little to avoid that situation? Is there a cleaner or stronger way I can present this?
Avoiding controversy is not always easy, and it's definitely not the main goal of what I'm suggesting. I'm not suggesting you censor yourself.
The Strategy goal of your script polish is simply you, the screenwriter, getting out of your own head and imagining the script being read by different types of professionals, and by people of different backgrounds.
To repeat: the goal isn't to avoid offense. The goal is to make sure you're not needlessly shooting down your script's chances of getting read by a reader of any kind — whether she's a straight black studio head or a gay white college intern. The goal is to avoid rejection of your script for stupid, preventable reasons.
Make Your Script Polish Count
Spec scripts usually have just one chance to wow a reader. The script polish is the screenwriter’s last chance not only to make sure that every little moment, and every big moment, is as powerful and as entertaining as can be, but also to make sure that everything about the script’s look, feel, voice, and message combines in such a way that any reader can feel confident in recommending it to others.
Without these two key goals, a script polish is just moving words around on the page — a process which becomes indistinguishable from writing just another draft. A polish must have purpose. These two goals are the purpose.
What do you look for in your script polish? Let us know in the comments.
For today's practice, take fifteen minutes to give the scene below a script polish.
First, pare down this scene to its absolute essentials. That is, give us only what we need to picture the scene as we read it as if we're picturing the scene on a movie screen. Keep things moving. Eliminate all unnecessary words — across all elements (dialogue, scene heading, action, etc.)
Then, strengthen the words that remain. Take liberties with all of it. Use more vivid terms and more colorful, impactful vocabulary.
When you're done, share your polished scene in the comments below, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers.
INT. WEST ANGELES HOSPITAL ON THE WEST SIDE OF LOS ANGELES — DAY
BOB MELVIN (40's) is a man with crossed eyes who is six feet tall wearing a tan suit and leather shoes and carrying a briefcase and is also carrying a laptop that is from the 1990's. He is blond and has a beard and has a mean look on his face, probably from the years of working in a coal mine, pretending to be Loretta Lynn, which is funny because that lady played in the movie Coal Miner's Daughter.
He greets DOCTOR DEATH (80's) — five feet tall, buck teeth, wearing a clown wig and lab coat and holding a clipboard with a photo of his wife, Tilda Swinton. He has a surly demeanor and tends to throw his weight around.
Hello Doctor Death. I am here to inquire about my wife. I need to know whether or not she is going to recover from her marshmallow allergy. This is very important to me, as I am her husband.
Hello Bob Melvin. Your wife has just undergone some serious surgery and we are working on returning her to you as quickly as possible. I can assure you that we did our absolute best in working on her. I would like you to see these slides I took during the surgery, showing what we did.
Doctor Death then pulls out a remote control and clicks it. The lights in the room turn off and a slide projector projects an image on the wall of Doctor Death hanging out with several STRIPPERS in a hot tub.
Oops. Wrong slide.
What did you come up with? Here's an example of how I would do it:
INT. HOSPITAL — DAY
BOB MELVIN (40's) — tall, crosseyed, wearing a suit — stands with his old laptop.
DR. DEATH (80's) — stocky, short, buck-toothed — enters.
Doc. How is she?
The surgery went well. Let me show you what we did.
Dr. Death whips out a remote, dims the lights, and fires up a slideshow.
SLIDE: Dr. Death with some strippers in a hot tub.
Oh, crap. Wrong slide.