by Alex Bloom (@ScriptReaderPro)
[This guest post comes to us from Alex of Script Reader Pro, a great resource for script coverage and screenwriting advice.]
An abundance of dialogue in a scene — specifically chit-chat between characters about events in the past or the future — often means the whole scene needs to be cut. This is usually a symptom of not first making absolutely sure each scene serves a purpose. That said, presuming that you’re working on a scene that deserves to be in the screenplay, here’s an exercise to stop overwriting dialogue when one line (or no line) would do.
The general advice is to: “Cut, cut, cut as much dialogue as you can,” “Keep the dialogue to three lines or less,” and of course, “Show don’t tell.” But this can be hard to do if the fantastic argument between Josh and Francesco that you’ve just sweated over for three days reads perfectly well in your head.
Stepping outside your head and seeing the dialogue objectively can be really difficult, and that’s why the “just cut the dialogue” theory might make sense intellectually, but often goes unheeded.
Here’s an exercise that will force you into writing short, tight, flowing lines of dialogue.
Go to an online transcript database such as Drew’s Script-o-Rama and find a transcription of a movie in your chosen genre. Note: you want to find a transcription — just the dialogue transcribed from the movie — not an actual screenplay.
Watch the movie. Even if you know it, watch it again as this will make it fresher in your mind and the exercise easier.
Now it’s time to go through the entire document and reformat all the dialogue so it’s back in shape. It’s as simple as that. Add the character names, put everything in it’s right place. You don’t have to worry about scene description, just focus on the dialogue.
When you’ve done the first one, repeat with another five films. Or preferably more.
Through reformatting scene after scene of professional screenplays, your fingers will naturally fall into the rhythm of writing more professional sounding dialogue. It’ll become lean and direct, rather than flabby and bloated, and it’ll also give it a more natural flow.
Scott Fitzgerald used to do a similar exercise, but with novels. He’d take a novel he admired and type it out word for word on his typewriter, just to get into the rhythm of the prose. It’s really amazing how doing this feeds into your own writing consciousness.
In fact, this exercise is so good it should be done by every screenwriter wishing to improve his or her dialogue, whether it suffers from overwriting or not. It does require some work, but the rewards will be tremendous.
This article was taken from part of the “Dialogue Module” from Script Reader Pro’s online screenwriting course, ScriptHackr: 7 modules of hands-on, practical exercises, and simplified theory.