SCRIPT GODS MUST DIE: Writing Dialogue - The Cut Instinct

Paul Peditto talks about the notion of the cut instinct, and how less is more when writing dialogue.
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Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago, has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter @scriptgods.

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Every scene exists for a reason. When you outline, what you're doing is writing out the scenes that are essential to telling your story. Presumably, when you finish your outline, every scene exists for a purpose. You're ready to write the movie.

Approach each new scene in this matter: What am I trying to accomplish in the scene? Accomplish it. What do I have to say? Say it. Get in late, get out early. Say what you have to in the scene, get done what needs to get done, and move on. Fast, no fat, in and out of every scene.

Develop the cut instinct.

Look to the dialogue you wrote in the first rough draft. Look at it with an unflinching eye. What can be cut? Cut it. Does the scene still make sense? If the answer is yes, it stays cut. If you've left something out that has to go back in, then in it goes. That's the true measure of what's necessary: Does the scene makes sense without it?

  • 10-5-2-0

Let's try an experiment. I'll give you a scene with 10 lines of dialogue, you cut it to five lines. Then we'll take the five liner and cut it to two. Then we'll take the scene with two lines of dialogue and see if we can do with zero lines. Ready?

INT. KITCHEN - NIGHT

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BETTY, 40's, full array of Betty Crocker crockery about her, chops at an onion. A raw meatloaf log lays in a fry pan. The clock behind her reads 2:04am--an odd time to be cooking meatloaf.

HARRY enters. 40's, shirt tail out, rumpled sport shirt and suit, smelling of Guinness. He locks eyes with Betty.

BETTY
Where were you?

HARRY
What?

BETTY
Where were you?

HARRY
The meeting ran long. I stopped off for a nightcap.

Pointing to the raw meatloaf...

BETTY
You missed dinner.

HARRY
I grabbed a burger at the bar.

BETTY
I phoned at work. They said you were in conference with Melissa. Couldn't be disturbed.

HARRY
Betty...we've been through this. Melissa is a colleague. This is a professional relationship. I don't know what you're continuing with this crazy jealousy of yours. I've been through it a thousand times. There's no reason. Don't you trust me? You're my wife, I love you!

BETTY
Thursday you got in at 2:14 in the morning. Friday, 1:05. Tuesday it was 1:16--

HARRY
This is insane. I can't deal with it--

BETTY
You can deal with it?! I'm sitting here waiting for you for five hours with a meatloaf! You and your special Melissa Project! You think I believe you?! You ran around on me last year with that little Chick-fil-A cutie. Two years ago it was the Off-Off-Off Broadway understudy from Evita. How long do you think I'm going to just stay home at night and--

HARRY
Betty...you need to relax. Let's talk about it tomorrow, OK? Good night.

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Awful stuff. Killing us with exposition, backstory, needless repetition, and dangerously cliched notions.

So, 10-5-2-0. Let's cut it, hone the same scene in five lines of dialogue. Should not be hard.

INT. KITCHEN - NIGHT

BETTY, 40's, full array of Betty Crocker crockery about her, chops at an onion. A raw meatloaf log lays in a fry pan. The clock behind her reads 2:04am--an odd time to be cooking meatloaf.

HARRY enters. 40's, shirt tail out, rumpled sport shirt and suit, smelling of Guinness. He locks eyes with Betty.

HARRY
The meeting ran long. I stopped off for a nightcap.

Harry looks at the raw meatloaf...

BETTY
I phoned at work. They said you were in conference with Melissa. Couldn't be disturbed.

HARRY
Betty...we've been through this. Melissa is a colleague. It's a professional relationship. You're my wife, I love you. I really can't deal with--

BETTY
You can deal with it?! I've been waiting for five hours with a meatloaf!

HARRY
Betty...let's talk about it tomorrow.

Still lousy, but tighter. See how we lose nothing with the slashed five lines. Don't miss them because the intention of the scene hasn't changed: Jealous wife confronts late-arriving husband. Cut out the backstory, the repetition, we lose nothing, so out it goes. Now let's do it in two dialogue lines.

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INT. KITCHEN - NIGHT

BETTY, 40's, full array of Betty Crocker crockery about her, chops at an onion. A raw meatloaf log lays in a fry pan. The clock behind her reads 2:04am--an odd time to be cooking meatloaf.

HARRY enters. 40's, shirt tail out, rumpled sport shirt and suit, smelling of Guinness. He locks eyes with Betty.

HARRY
The meeting ran long. I stopped off for a nightcap.

BETTY
I phoned. They said you were... with Melissa. Couldn't be disturbed.

Harry looks at the raw meatloaf, looks at his wife chopping the onion savagely. He slips out of the kitchen.

Better. The purpose of the scene remains intact: Pissed-off wife confronting drunk, probably cheating--husband. It's a quarter the size it once was, but still isn't sharp enough, still not quite enough THREAT to it. Let's work it once more, and try it with zero dialogue.

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INT. KITCHEN - NIGHT

BETTY, 40's, full array of Betty Crocker crockery about her, chops at an onion. A raw meatloaf log lays in a fry pan. The clock behind her reads 2:04am--an odd time to be cooking meatloaf.

HARRY enters. 40's, shirt tail out, rumpled sport shirt and suit, smelling of Guinness.

Betty takes Ginsu knife to the onion, savagely slicing.

Harry looks at the raw meatloaf, looks to his wife...

SLICE! Ginsu blade gleaming...

Harry locks eyes with his wife. Her dried tears, long gone.

WHACK! Another slice at the onion...

WHACK WHACK WHACK! Ginsu blade savagely into the onion, cut into a dozen pieces.

Harry gulps, slipping out of the kitchen without a word. Her eyes, not once moving from his.

Ten lines gone, yet the intention is fully there, perhaps even clearer without the use of dialogue. The old expression remains true-- less is more.

Always challenge your dialogue, every line of it.

Develop the cut instinct.

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