SCRIPT GODS MUST DIE: Writing Dialogue – The Cut Instinct

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?

onion-647525_640INT. 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.

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.

onion-697191_640

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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9 thoughts on “SCRIPT GODS MUST DIE: Writing Dialogue – The Cut Instinct

  1. grfrazier23

    Unless Betty is the type of person who keeps to herself and avoids confrontation, I don’t think she’d remain quiet upon his return. I think she’s been waiting five hours and she’s going to say something. By cutting all the lines of dialogue, you lose the conflict of the piece. I’d at least keep some of the minimal dialogue and not go entirely cold turkey on it. Or meatloaf, as it were.

    1. mash

      you could have Harry open the door awkwardly, drop his car keys as he struggles slightly to put them on the key holder by the door, at which point the wife pauses and watches,dried tears and bitterness written all over her.

  2. Leona Heraty

    Hi Paul,

    I like the 2 lines of dialogue the best, because I think they get the overall meaning of the scene across to the audience just fine. I think the audience is smart enough to figure out from the time on the clock, Betty furiously chopping the onion and Harry’s shirt tail hanging out and he’s smelling of beer, what he’s been up to, and that Betty is mad as hell at him. IMHO, the 2 lines of dialogue are perfect.

    Thanks for the excellent article! 🙂

  3. Bonzohead

    The non dialogue version at the end does not convey the same character information as the original ten lines. Maybe its important that there were others before Melissa? Maybe Melissa is an important character in the story?
    This is also true if the five and two line versions.
    Although the ten lines are intentionally inept, to say that you lose nothing in the cut versions is not true.
    Besides, dialogue should have a richness and rhythm. Sometimes colorful and elaborate, sometimes not, depending on character and situation. If all it is is terse one liners, it is just flat.

    1. jeffguenther

      Maybe so, but we can’t really know from this theoretical snippet whether the lost information is important or not. The post does a fine job of illustrating the principles: emphasize the physical, minimize on-the-nose, obvious lines. Let’s just leave it at that. Let’s not speculate where you’d buy a clock that reads 2:04 a.m. or how you’d act out “smelling of Guinness.” I suspect Harry won’t be locking eyes with Betty anytime soon, so that can go, too. As director, I’d toss out the onion and use a scallion. A nice big one.

      CLOSE ON SCALLION…

      WHACK! Cleaver lops two inches off tip of scallion.

      CLOSE ON HARRY, staring at maimed scallion, eyes wide in horror. He scurries away.

      Good post, Paul. Educational and fun to kid around with. Hope you don’t mind. 🙂

  4. flyingfish182

    Sorry, Paul. I like the 10 lines of dialogue much better. Yes because it does tell me more backstory and delves deeper into the problems between Harry and Betty. The shorter dialogue leaves out much of the underlying friction and the dialogue-less scene doesn’t tell us anything about what has gone on previously. Just Betty is ticked off at Harry. But not why and that it has happened before.

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