This is a lesson I learned from my second agent. We were about to send out the first spec I’d done with him. He asked me to turn to page 42 where there was some dialogue along the lines of:
Kevin: Boy those hamburgers were good.
Julie: I think there’s one left.
Kevin: Want to split it?
And then Kevin and Julie went outside to the grill where the next scene happened. My agent pointed out that I used four lines of dialogue whose only purpose was to get the characters outside. It wasn’t that it was particularly bad dialogue, but it was wasted space. And space is precious in a screenplay. Moreover, wasted space slows down the read. The pace can feel like it drags even if each scene is progressing the story.
Finding these kinds of things is polishing. It’s a special stage of rewriting that you should do when you think the script is pretty much finished. In your earlier drafts you shouldn’t worry about this kind of thing too much. It’s likely a lot of your dialogue and action is going to change anyway so don’t waste the time. But when the script is solid doing a final polish pass can really elevate your material to a new level.
One of my screenwriting mantras is “do it once well not three times badly.” In other words, if you’re trying to get something across to the audience, find something that does it effectively and only do it once. For example, if you want to show a character is greedy it’s much better to show one instance of him being really greedy then three instances of him being kind of greedy. (Of course he should then behave consistently with what you’ve established.)
One of the primary things to do in the polishing phase is eliminate unneeded beats. Find those repetitive moments and cut out all but the best. And also cut out bits of action that don’t really advance plot or character – like my dialogue above. Sometimes you’ll need a transitory bit of dialogue to smooth the scene along, but one line would have accomplished the same purpose as the four I’d written:
Kevin: Let’s split that last hamburger.
Particularly watch out for the dreaded “greetings, introductions and farewells.” Too many weak scripts begin scenes with characters entering, greeting each other, introducing friends, asking how each other is doing, etc. It’s boring! Cut into the scene later. We don’t need to see the character arrive at the party; we can open with them in mid-conversation, drink in hand. And the same rule applies to leaving. We don’t need long goodbyes, just cut out of the scene. The exception, of course, is if something unusual happens in the greeting or exit.
And definitely avoid having someone introduce a group of characters to each other. It takes lots of space and the audience probably won’t remember the names anyway.
The same principles apply in descriptive paragraphs. Many writers start a scene by describing everything in the room. That’s unnecessary. If the slug line says we’re in a classroom we have a pretty good idea of what we’ll find in there. Pick a few specific things that tell us what kind of classroom it is and let us fill in the rest. If the chalkboard at the front of the room is just an ordinary chalkboard you don’t need to mention it.
Another tip is to bring up common items as they’re encountered. If a character turns on a lamp in the bedroom you don’t have to mention the lamp until they turn it on. We know bedrooms typically have lamps. But if there’s an enormous gerbil cage on the bed then that’s probably worth describing at the top of the scene!
Another common problem is overwritten action. It usually stems from the writer envisioning the scene as he or she writes and then describing what happens in detail. I particularly have a bad habit of writing the character “turns around” and does something. That’s because as the scene plays out in my head the character turns. But that’s almost always unnecessary. If the character is picking up a knife, for example, I can just write they “pick up the knife.” If on the set the knife is behind them I can trust the actor will figure out they have to turn around to get it.
Keep your action simple and spare. Only describe what’s needed to understand the scene.
Polishing isn’t just about cutting stuff out. You’ll also be looking for clunky dialogue and weak exposition. Basically, you’re fixing the little things that kind of slide by as one reads, but create an overall impression of a sloppy script that drags. It’s not always easy to ignore the forest and focus on the trees. You have to force yourself to go slow and evaluate every line and even every word.
But the result can be the difference between a good script and one that really pops!