Jeanne’s Tuesday Screenwriting Tips: Polishing a Screenplay

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I’ve been blessed to have some amazing screenwriting mentors over the years. Finding one isn’t easy, but once you do, it’ll change your writing forever. The first step is to open your mind, put your ego aside, and get ready to learn more than any screenwriting book can teach you.

I’ve discussed rewriting a screenplay many times, but today, I want to give you tips for polishing a screenplay that I’ve learned from Unknown Screenwriter. This isn’t rewriting or fixing typos. This is tried and true techniques to make your script read fast and furious… and slash pages like a serial killer.

After you’ve gone through the basic rewrite and your story is solid (a check on structure, character development and making sure all the unnecessary scenes are cut), it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty.

Step One: Cut the fatty descriptors.

On this pass, only look at the descriptors. Wordy scripts drag a reader to a crawl. Read each and every word and decide if it’s really necessary. Is there a way you can say the same thing in a shorter way without losing the meaning? Bonus Tip: This is why I love Twitter. Learning how to write in 140-character bits is an amazing editing tool.

Let me give you an example from our script, Slavery by Another Name.

This is how the original descriptor read:

Train whistle BLOWS.  Whites and blacks bustle about the manure-littered COBBLESTONE STREETS, dodging the CLANGING electric trolley, carriages, a few early automobiles and open wagons driven by muddy black teamsters.

This is how it reads now:

Train whistle BLOWS. Whites and blacks dodge a CLANGING electric trolley, a few early automobiles and carriages driven by muddy black teamsters.

With those tweaks, the script lost a line without losing any of the meaning. Believe me, those lines add up. I promise you, you’re going to be shocked at how many you can slash.

Step Two: Cut the dialogue.

No doubt, while cutting the descriptors, you cheated and snuck into the dialogue boxes and did some slashing too. That’s fine, but there’s more to do.

In phase two, you’re only going to focus on the dialogue. Don’t even READ the descriptors. Just read the dialogue out loud. You’ll be able to see if it flows well. I compare it to closing your eyes in a movie theater and listening to the words spoken. All dialogue flaws will POP!

I did a screenshot of a scene we sliced using these techniques.

This was the first pass of the slice. When we went through and did the dialogue pass, we slashed even more, but this will give you an idea of what I’m trying to describe.

SBAN scene 2

Tips: Choose every word carefully.

1. While you’re going through your entire script and cutting, also make sure to challenge every single word and sentence. Take a long look at your verbs. Are they action verbs? Do they help the reader visualize the scene? The answers should be yes and hell yes.

The more visually you can write, the quicker the read will be.

2. When you are cutting, see if things you say in dialogue can slash words from your descriptors and vise versa. Often times, you do double duty without even realizing it.

3. If your slugline says INT. REESE HOUSE – KITCHEN, then you do not need to say, “Reese and Clara linger at the kitchen table.” Strike the word “kitchen.” We already know that’s the room they’re in. Yes, it’s just one word you’re striking, but every word adds up.

After implementing these tips, your new version will be lean and mean and a reading dream. By the time we were done with the murdering of fatty prose, we had lost 9 pages on the script!

Now, get on it, and let me know how many pages you were able to cut!

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mentor-series-email-image-square_mediumGet Script Magazine mentor series with Oscar-winning producer Ed Saxon (Silence of the Lambs).

I had the honor of meeting Ed at last year’s Screenwriters World Conference. I can’t possibly express how critical it is for a writer’s success to learn from people who have achieved it themselves. Plus, Ed is just one funny guy who delivers invaluable lessons every writer needs to know.

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15 thoughts on “Jeanne’s Tuesday Screenwriting Tips: Polishing a Screenplay

  1. Michael Q. Martin

    Jeanne,
    Great article. My 120 page screenplay is already down to 115 pages! I have a few questions regarding using UPPER CASE in descriptors. I was raised in the sit-com world. (My Mother was the late Madelyn Pugh Davis who co-created and co-wrote “I Love Lucy.”) In sit-coms all of the exposition is in UPPER CASE. Lucille Ball would get the script and look for “The Black Stuff” meaning the exposition where her physical comedy gags were blocked out. I have had to break myself of wanted to put almost everything in UPPER CASE. When do you use upper case or not? I’m realizing in features that you should use it sparingly. Like when we meet a character for the first time, when there is a specific prop or set decoration that is introduced or some big action moment. So that you are writing to help the casting director, prop master and set decorator know what is important for their jobs. But, if it doesn’t get past the reader, those people won’t ever see your script. I noticed in some of the Oscar Nominated scripts things work differently. In “Philomena” every time PHILOMENA or MARTIN are in the exposition they are in CAPS, but in other scripts, it’s only the first time we meet someone. In “Gravity” and scripts by Christopher Nolan (like “Inception”) that CAPS are used much more frequently. (I’m sure when you are the writer/director making your fifth movie, things are different.) So what’s the “rule” regarding CAPS. (And by the way, many of these scripts are the “Shooting Scripts” and not the script that was bought by the studio in the first place.)
    Also, FADE IN and FADE OUT at the beginning and end of scripts seems to be absent now. Am I correct?
    And thirdly, I’m tired of hearing in “Meet The Reader” where the reader is upset about seeing the WGA REGISTRATION NUMBER on the cover of scripts. Yes, I realize that most readers who work at major studios and production companies are not going to “steal” my script. But what about the others who are not so upstanding? Maybe putting the WGA REG NUMBER on the cover will make one of these bottom feeders think twice. Syd Field says to do it, but alas he has passed on and was from a different era. Any thoughts on this?
    Thanks, Michael

    1. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

      Hi Michael. I LOVE LUCY was one of my favorite shows! Kudos to your mom!

      OK, the subject of CAPS was addressed by Chad Gervich in this post:
      http://www.scriptmag.com/features/primetime-using-caps-in-a-spec-script-and-how-ready-should-a-sizzle-reel-be-before-pitching
      I haven’t read it in a while, but check it out. If that doesn’t help, my favorite formatting expert is Dave Trottier. He has a book called “Dr. Format Tells All” that is always on my desk. A great reference guide for all formatting issues.

      As for the registration number, I never put mine on my scripts. Yes, I register my scripts, but when a writer submits their scripts to an exec, it’s assumed they are either registered with WGA or copyrighted. You don’t need to put it on the cover. That’s what I do anyway. Here’s another post by Chad that addresses that:
      http://www.scriptmag.com/features/primetime-the-truth-about-protecting-your-work

      Thanks for adding your thoughts and questions. I’m sure other writers share these same worries.

  2. Kelan

    A great reminder that couldn’t have come at a better time for me.

    For those of you who can’t live without all your extra descriptors: become a novelist. Before you write me off as a smartass, that’s exactly what I did. But just because you can get away with more in a novel, doesn’t necessarily mean you should. “Novels that began life as a screenplay are tight and tidy, built on a solid foundation by seasoned storytellers.”

    Now as I return to the craft of screenwriting after many years away, I needed this concise reminder. Thank you, Jeanne.

    Gordon, I copied down your four questions to ask and put them on a Post-it note above my computer. Thanks!

    1. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

      Fantastic! I’m writing a novel myself (two, in fact), and am loving the freedom to crawl inside people’s heads and explore a way of writing we, as screenwriters, can’t indulge in. I agree, starting a novel by adapting your own screenplays is a great way to do it. That’s one of the reason’s Unk always puts it all out there in the first draft… to use as the basis for a future novel. Great minds…

      Welcome back to screenwriting. 🙂

  3. jeffguenther

    Great article, Jeanne. I recently got a script back from my reader. Guess what her first comment was. Yup: “Descriptives too long.” This was actually good news, because trimming descriptives is challenging (i.e., fun) and a ton easier than trimming dialogue (arrrrrrgh!)
    Nice comment, Gordon.
    Jeanne, I’d also consider trimming the words “electric” and “early,” since both are implied by the era of the overall story.
    Loved the http://jeannevb.com/projects/slavery-by-another-name-pulitzer-adaptation link!

    1. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

      Thanks, Jeff. Cutting dialogue is definitely tough. That’s why I love the tip of reading ONLY the dialogue out loud, without the descriptors. It’ll really help you see if it sounds natural or not.

      As for cutting, you’ll get addicted fast! It’s like playing a word game. I get so into it, I sometimes cut too much. Oops. 🙂

      Thanks for the nod on SBAN. It’s been 4 1/2 years. No pain, no gain.

  4. Kdiggs

    This is a great post! I really loved that you gave examples of simply things to change and make better. As a screenwriter we often think our work is fine in the first draft. During film school, I learned not to have on the nose dialogue and that less is more. These tips are helpful. I also use the book ” The Rewrite” by Paul Chitlik. Thanks, Jeanne!

    1. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

      Thanks. I wanted to be as specific as I could because that’s how I learn too. I need to see it for it to really soak in. As I tweaked, I kept saying to myself, “They’re going to love this tip!” My favorite part of ScriptMag is being able to share things I learn. After all, we’re all in this together.

  5. Gordon

    How much to cut is one of the hardest things for me as a writer, so I ask four questions:
    Does it advance the story?
    Does it add mysteries or provide reveals?
    Does it explore levels of conflict?
    Does it explore the characters?

    There are other questions I could ask, but I try to keep it simple. Writing is hard and complex enough, so if we start with simple we won’t get bogged down as easily.

    These four questions really help me in the rewriting process.

    The answers work for another question which looms over everything: How can I make it uniquely my story, something no one else could have written.

  6. Jeff RichardsJeff Richards

    Helen, I understand what you’re saying, but one of the traps that writers can fall into is overdoing nuance. We all know to avoid camera directions and too many parentheticals, but we can also overdo it on directing actors and designers. Obviously, the balance point is a matter of taste; there is of course such a thing as cutting too much, but many of the things that Jeanne cut from her script are, to me, areas that the production designer, director, actors, etc. will chose to bring (or not bring) to the final film. We definitely have to create the movie on the page, but it’s always a balancing act. And I promise that it’s better to have less nuance and a script that reads fast than more nuance and a script that feels bogged down.

    For example, in a recent action spec I wrote this:

    “An abandoned warehouse. Machinery, dirty, oil-encrusted. Light struggles through smeared, dusty panes of glass up high. Shadows. A few dust motes in a sunbeam.

    The door opens slowly. Two small cylindrical objects are tossed in, bounce through the sunbeam. They skitter to a stop. Fizzing.”

    There are two reasons that’s so descriptive. The first is, it’s a calm-before-the-storm moment and I really wanted to emphasize the quiet abandoned feel; it’s a caesura in a chase scene, so it’s a deliberate slow moment. And the second reason is, the script is only 109 pages long. I can promise that if the script was 122 pages, that intro would have been two lines tops.

    So basically, in my view, Jeanne’s notes aren’t “your writing must be this terse” but rather (like any piece of writing advice aside from 12 point Courier) situational advice. If your script is too many pages, or if you’re hearing “it reads slow”, then these are ways to cut down the fat without losing critical things such as characters and scenes.

  7. HelenBang

    I can see that you need to keep the script as lean as possible but I think some of the details are lost in the examples above.

    In the scene description the longer version emphasises the dirt (manure) in the streets, in the edited version that is lost.

    In the edited version we don’t know that Turner and Heflin are disgusted, just that they whisper to each other. Perhaps their relationship is clear from earlier scenes but otherwise whispering could imply flirting, passing on information, any manner of things.

    Also in the edited version we don’t know that Pace and Turner are confident. Perhaps it isn’t important but it’s definitely a moment which is lost in the edited version.

    The glance towards the blacks in the back has also gone. This is another detail which may not be very important in the story but if I look at a group of people before I look at an individual I think that’s relevant.

    If it isn’t on the page it isn’t on the screen.

    I once heard a screenwriter talk about being in meetings where every sentence began with “Do we need…?” until he felt like asking “Do we need another version of Jane Eyre?” (or whatever the adaptation was.) You can cut too much.

    Just my opinion of course.

    1. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

      I understand your confusion, Helen, but remember, you are seeing a screenshot, not an entire script. Everything I cut in that scene is obviously unnecessary when you read the scene in its entirety. The screenshot was merely the easiest way to illustrate what I was talking about without uploading my script to the site… which you’ll never see me do. 🙂 Thanks for your thoughts. I hope this clarifies.

      I’ll also add, the manure reference in that first descriptor would only have been important if my character was stepping in it. He didn’t, so I saved his shoes from the possibility, as well as the set designer from having to find manure to litter the streets with. Money saver to the producer reading it…

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