Cutting Dialogue from your screenplay, a masterclass in minimalism for Screenwriters

McKendrink on Film MakingAs I have been rewriting Rocketboy, I have also been re-reading some of my favourite screenwriting books. I have been looking for tips, tricks, insights and wisdom on the screenwriting concept that writing is rewriting. But it’s also about being tough in those rewrites. Killing your darlings. There are a few very good books on film making around, but among the top five for me is ‘On Film-Making’ by Alexandra MacKendrick. It’s simply brimming with timeless instruction on both direction and writing. Here is an excerpt from the book that is one of my favourite stories about re-writing.

Cutting Dialogue

…I have a story to tell of an early experience. I do so with slight embarrassment, since it probably does me little credit but it does at least illustrate a point. Shortly after 1 had been put under contract, the studio starred developing a story that was meant as a musical of sorts. The storyline was unremarkable, dealing with the marital problems of a very young couple.’ To work on these scenes, the producer had hired a well-known British playwright. One scene involved a situation with the young wife who, while shopping, runs into a man with whom she had had an affair before she met her husband. Reminding her that she had left something (a pair of skates, as I recall) in his apartment, he takes be, back there and, with practiced charm, makes an attempt to seduce her. Being rejected, he accepts the situation with grace.

It was not a scene of any great originality, and possibly because of this the writer put a great deal of effort into making it as fresh, sensitive and original as he could. The result was a beautifully crafted piece of work. But it was twenty-five pages long, and the producer and director were much dismayed. They saw it as a one-act play in its own right that would badly interrupt the progression of a film really intended as just a sequence of musical numbers. The playwright, a thorough professional, recognised this problem. But when invited to cut it down, he discovered he was not able to reduce it by more than three or four pages, and even those cuts were painful to him. He gladly agreed to let some other screenwriter tackle the job.

The second writer assigned was much more experienced in writing for film. One of the so-called ‘rules’ of thumb at our studios in that period was that no scene in a film ought to be much longer than six or eight pages (four or five was what to aim for). This new writer was much impressed with the original scene (unlike most screenwriters who always seem to discover flaws in the work of others) and worked hard on the cuts, even to the point of some drastic alterations of the original scene structure. But when she came back with a scene that was still a dozen pages in length, she had to confess she did not know how it could he further reduced without completely wrecking it. Producer and director felt they were in serious trouble. In some desperation, they remembered that the studio had on its payroll a young man who had been given his first job in the script department not because he was accomplished in writing dialogue, but because he compensated by using certain skills learned when he had been an illustrator and cartoonist. They handed the problem to me.

‘How short do you want it?’ I asked. ‘Just cut it down as much as you can,’ they said. I was impressed with the dialogue of both previous versions, well aware that it was better than 1 could ever do. Quite nervous, I spent a whole day in very careful analysis not of the lines of the dialogue but of the structure of the scene. I thought about the characters, I tried to define their feelings and impulses. I marked the beats of the scene, the identifiable moves, the shifts of intention and changes in mood. I also studied the placement of the scene within the story as a whole. Then, still highly insecure, I decided to go out and just forget about the problem. This, in fact, is for me a standard procedure. When a writing dilemma appears insoluble, it is not a bad tactic to push it deliberately out of your consciousness while you go off on other business, or indeed play. Find companions who will talk with you on other matters. Play a game of tennis. Go to a concert. Go for a long walk. Get drunk. Any preoccupation that, by preventing exercise of thought, pushes the problem down into your subconscious, or at least semi-conscious, mind. Then, just before going to sleep, briefly recapitulate the unsolved dilemma in your mind.

What happened to me was what happens to many of us who use this method. I was jogged into wakefulness in the very early hours by an idea that seemed rather preposterous. I got up at dawn and wrote a first draft. Then, after breakfast, I polished it a little and took it in to the studio. With some trepidation I gave it to the typists of the script department. These young ladies are very wise in the politics of the studio and I was not much reassured to hear them in fits of giggles just after I had closed the door on them. An hour later I was summoned to a meeting with the head of the script department. As I approached his room I heard more laughter. All too conscious that my contract was up for renewal, I entered to find that the producer, director and head of the script department were all there, all involved in the hilarity. Sobering up, the director told me that I had solved the problem and that he would shoot the scene precisely as I had written it.

I should describe my apparently brilliant solution and scintillating dialogue. The scene opens in the empty apartment of the would-be seducer. As he enters, he carries the shopping basket of the young wife that he rapidly discards, and moves toward a record player. By the time the young woman has appeared in the doorway, looking round the room that clearly holds some memories for her, music has begun to play, emphasising those recollections. The man moves over to her, saying nothing, and offers to help her with her overcoat. With only the slightest of hesitations, the young wife lets him take it, and he deposits it in a chair next to the side table on which he starts to mix a drink, again without needing to ask her what she wants. Accepting it, she obviously notes he has remembered her tastes. She smiles at him and goes on listening to the gramophone record. But when he joins her, carrying his own drink, he leans close to kiss her lightly on the nape of the neck. She turns quickly, with a small shake of her head.

                  YOUNG WIFE
(negative inflection)

                 WOULD-BE SEDUCER
(makes face, questioning)

She looks at him. He looks back at her, and his expression becomes more serious.

                   YOUNG WIFE
(quietly, with tenderness)

The seducer accepts the rejection with good grace. He moves away, opens a closet, and after a moment returns to present her with the skates. He is amused but respectful.

                    YOUNG WIFE
(giving the word several meanings)
Thank you.

There were two results of this version that consigned to the waste-paper basket the costly efforts of writers with vastly greater talent than my own. The first was that, as played by two actors of considerable ability and naturally appealing personality, the scene worked much better than it may have deserved to, and since the other versions were never seen, nobody could ever tell if they would have played any better. The second was that my contract was renewed and I was privately noted by the Chief Executive of the studio as a youngster who might eventually be better at directing than at writing. (Years later, I read that Raymond Chandler felt that one of the best dialogue scenes he had ever written in a Hollywood movie contained only one word: ‘Uh-huh’, spoken three times with different intonations. It is the same anecdote.)

It may be worth reminding students that such wordless scenes are, in some respects, just as challenging to the screenwriter as scenes of snappy and clear dialogue, since they depend on very careful examination of the mute behavior of the characters, the use of props, and the staging of the action. Such scenes, of course, must also take into account those situations that have preceded it, as well as the entire dramatic structure underlying the film as a whole, an understanding of which must always precede the invention of dialogue. To a strong degree, in cutting these twenty-five pages of dialogue to three non-verbal noises and a single word, I had remained absolutely faithful to the playwright’s original story.

For me this is a wonderful example of a number of concepts.

1. Less is more. Screenwriting is the art of saying the most with the least.

2. Use the audiences ability to make meaning out of very small things. Audiences LOVE interpreting and extracting meaning from subtlety. This is a great example of that, and honestly, it’s the hardest thing in the world to do effectively.

3. If you can tell the story without dialogue, it’s always better.

An inspirational story from an extraordinary book. Buy it.

Onwards and upwards!

Chris Jones, Film Maker and Author

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