Polish, Sparkle & Shine: 3 Steps You Can Take To Improve Your Finished Screenplay, Without Rewriting Your Script

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Rewrites are, of course, a crucial part of screenwriting. They put you closer to refining your narrative as you iron out potential hiccups and inconsistencies that might disengage a reader from your story. I’m not even talking about a complete pg 1 rewrite; merely redrafting specific scenes to improve the story, moving scenes around to better structure each act, and rewriting dialogue to better convey character intentions and subtext -- these are big undertakings that can take days or even weeks to straighten out. You start fixing one thing, and it effects how other things play out, and before you know it you’ve got an even bigger mess to fix. 

Rewriting is a literal house of cards. But once all that is said and done and you’ve got your story exactly where you want it, what are those small tweaks you can make that will take a script from good to great, from perfect to outstanding, from enjoyable to memorable? What can you do to your script right now to seal the deal with the next executive who reads your screenplay? Here are a few tiny improvements you can make to your script right now, that will add the necessary polish, sparkle and shine to make your script stand out for all the right reasons!

Make Character Intros Sparkle

Characters are the key to storytelling. Well-written characters give your audience a personality that they can connect to and empathize with. You’re likely already well-aware how important a developed, believable and textured character is to an engaging screenplay, but have you considered the importance of your character introductions?

“Love at first sight” is a common expression that you can apply to your writing. When you introduce a key character in a script, think about the details that might make them really jump out amid action description. Aim to give your readers a clear sense of how these characters will appear when they are inhabited by a talented actor or actress and outfitted with a unique wardrobe. 

There’s a stark difference between simply telling your audience that GEORGE has walked into a room versus giving George the gravitas he deserves when he first walks into a room. By describing the traits that might allow one of your readers to picture GEORGE in their minds eye – say, by describing George as twenty-five, boyishly-handsome but wearing a suit that doesn’t quite fit, you instantly build a visual picture for your audience. These descriptors are small, but tease your audience with details that make George feel less like a name on a page and more like a fleshed out human being.

Make sure to use descriptors that give off a sense of the character’s age, style and any other distinguishing traits that they might carry. But if you really want your character intro to be memorable, try couching that description in a significant, exciting action. Who can forget, for example, Captain Jack Sparrow’s iconic entrance to moviegoers everywhere as he appeared astride a sinking ship in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl?” If you introduce your character through a notable action that exemplifies their character, the impression they make on the reader – and eventually, to an audience – will likely be a memorable one. 

Polish Slug Lines

It might seem counterintuitive, but many yet-to-break-out writers tend to downplay the importance of slug-lines in their writing, treating them as a built-in mechanism used to break-up scenes rather an actual facet of storytelling. Not so fast – slug-lines are actually a very important element that can be used to give your reader a sense of the world that the story is taking place in. Vague slug-lines tend to translate to a vaguely-told story – if your scenes are simply set in locations such as INT. BAR or EXT. PARK, your reader will have few specifics to grasp onto.

On the other hand, if you populate your slug-lines with colorful specifics such as INT. TREJO’S CANTINA or EXT. PROSPECT PARK, your settings will in turn read as more vivid and more thought-out. Make sure to add detail to your slug-lines in order to really define the locations that your scenes are taking place in – specificity in regard to location description will give your reader a more intimate and natural sense of place, whether it be in a desert-planet cantina or a bustling waterhole in downtown Chicago.

This notion extends to the time of day – descriptors such as morning, evening, sunrise, sunset and even dusk, dawn or ‘golden hour’ are fair game in a screenplay, and a creative way to better communicate the passage of time in your story. By providing your slug-lines with a simple but well-thought-out upgrade, you will better exemplify your grasp on the script’s storytelling.

Shine and Refine Your Action Description

By now, you’re already aware as to how important action descriptions are in telling your story clearly and guiding the reader through each scene. The details you provide here help signal your reader as to what they should focus on, conveying the key beats of your screenplay. One mistake that writers commonly make, however, is a failure to really clean up action description before sharing their script with others. 

Beyond conveying story, action description also helps lull your reader into a rhythm. Flowery, blocky, dense descriptions will likely make your story feel significantly slower than it is. On the other-hand, laser-focused writing that locks into only the most important details of a scene will make your screenplay feel all the more precise, professional and, most importantly, guide the story forward in a logical, purposeful manner.

We’ve all heard of the term “purple prose”, which is largely employed when novelists embellish their writing with excessive and distracting wording. That very same term applies to action description. Consider going over your writing and re-examining the way you describe action in a screenplay – do you overuse adverbs? Are your sentences long and do they contain superfluous details? Do you focus too much on pointing out camera direction or blocking instruction that doesn’t add necessary additional context to the scene?

If guilty of any of the above, try trimming your sentences accordingly. The flow of your script will feel more deliberate if you employ shorter sentences instead of longer ones. Similarly, the details you provide in your screenplay will feel even more vivid if you only include information that will really make a difference in how your audience perceives the actual action of the scene. By avoiding and side-stepping flowery prose, your writing is more likely to stand-out to a prospective reader as a tighter, clearer and more focused read, and your intentions as a storyteller will be even more noticeable.

When you’re sending your script out to be read, its essential that you put your best foot forward. A screenplay is meant as a blueprint – a means to communicate your story to prospective collaborators, to take them on a journey that can best approximate a film or television pilot in written form. As a result, you want to make sure that your storytelling prowess is top-notch and that the most important elements of your script have a chance to pop and dazzle on the page.

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