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Dialogue is the words characters speak to each other on screen. It's purpose is
to advance the story in some way. Audience emotional involvement is achieved
through the thoughts and ideas the words trigger.
An inherent drawback of dialogue is that it can take too long to process certain
information, or worst yet, misprocess it based on past experiences and
prejudices. This tends to limit the audience's imagination and may even distract
them. Dialogue, therefore, must evoke the right thoughts and emotions in the
quickest time possible.
Successful screen dialogue:
advances the story
involves the audience
achieves its goals quickly
An old precept is that movies are primarily a visual medium, so story information
should be conveyed visually whenever possible. The inherent drawback of
dialogue supports this. Nevertheless, dialogue plays an important, if not vital, role
in contemporary movies. This is due to the greater sophistication of today's
audiences. They can process more information than audiences of yore and do it
Fundamentalists will take exception to this, but an examination of any Woody
Allen movie will support the importance of dialogue. If anything, screen dialogue
must be written and edited with skill.
Characteristics of Screen Dialogue
Dialogue is not the most important part of a movie, but it can do harm if handled
poorly. Consequently, there are a surprising number of rules governing dialogue
Economy and Directness - Audiences get the meaning of dialogue very quickly,
so screen dialogue should not have the repetition and detail found in everyday
speech. It must be compressed to convey the most information in the least
amount of words. This is achieved by writing it with economy and directness.
Underwritten and understated dialogue maintains forward momentum and keeps
the audience interested.
Short Dialogue Blocks - Most people speak in simple declarative sentences,
and this is an important characteristic of effective screen dialogue as well.
Dialogue blocks should be short and simple. Long speeches should be avoided
because they sound unnatural. The blocks can be broken up with a response,
interruption or flash of emotion by another character. Perfectly balanced
dialogue should be avoided, except when used for affect during rapid-fire
Clear Flow of Ideas - A clear flow of ideas must be maintained as characters
communicate with each other. This is achieved by using "action and reaction" in
structuring dialogue. A character can react by expressing agreement,
disagreement, uncertainty or avoidance. Avoidance is an interesting reaction
because the character ignores what was just said by changing the subject or
following up on an earlier thought.
Editing Dialogue Scenes
Dialogue scenes should be edited in a way that visually stimulates the audience
as they watch the scene unfold. The novice editor, however, tends to edit these
scenes straightforwardly, cutting back and forth between characters in a
predictable, tick-tock pattern.
The key to cutting interesting dialogue scenes is twofold. First, the classic shot
structure, as discussed below, must not be used repeatedly, and second, picture
and sound must be treated as two distinct elements. This will increase the
creative possibilities and, in the process, avoid flat dialogue scenes.
Dynamic dialogue scenes:
avoid the classic scene structure
treat picture and sound as distinct elements
Classic Scene Structure
Dialogue scene coverage typically includes two shots, over-the-shoulder shots,
and close shots. There may also be a wider establishing shot and inserts. The
classic scene structure starts with the wide shots and then cuts progressively
closer during the course of the scene.
The example below starts with a two shot, cuts to alternating over-the-shoulder
shots, and climaxes with alternating close shots. The rationale for this cutting
pattern is that the progressively closer shots support the building emotion of the
scene. While this is true, the approach can become stale after repeated use.

Two Shot

Over the Shoulder Shots

Close Shots
Ideally, the director should be more creative in shooting dialogue scenes and
avoid repetitive use of the classic structure. One approach is to reverse the
classic pattern, cutting from close to wide shots. This can enhance suspense
because the audience is not sure of the geography and number of characters in
the scene. Another approach is to use a moving camera instead of cuts.
Structure Variations
Whether the director provides classic or innovative coverage, the editor must be
creative in giving life to the available material. This is achieved by manipulating
picture and sound independently of each other, which yields more cutting
choices. Here are the variations:
Full Sync - Picture and sound are cut fully in sync with each other. The picture
cuts back and forth between characters, accompanied by the related sync
dialogue. This is the most straightforward approach. Although it is the mainstay of
traditional dialogue cutting, it is the single greatest cause of staleness.
Alternating Picture - Picture alternates between characters, while dialogue one
character speaks. This is a key technique for showing the reaction of the listener
or to add variety when one character has a lengthy dialogue block. It can also be
used to add tension.
Alternating Dialogue - Picture stays on one character, while the dialogue
alternates between characters. This approach is used when one character's
reactions are more important or interesting than the other. It can also be used for
smaller bits of dialogue where the effect of cutting the picture back and forth will
throw off pace.
Early Dialogue - The dialogue cuts to another character before the picture cuts.
This is usually associated with an introductory phrase or address. It can also be
used to add tension.
Early Picture - The picture cuts to another character before the character
speaks. This is a less common technique but it can add variety when one
character has a long dialogue.
Different Picture - A somewhat radical approach is to use a different picture than
that of the speaking characters. The visuals could be of what the characters are
talking about or a related scene, such as a flashback. The results are like having
two scenes play simultaneously. This is a great technique for spicing up a really
mundane dialogue scene.
Fixing Dialogue Problems
The following techniques are used to fix dialogue problems such as flubbed lines
or noise on the soundtrack. They can also be used to obtain a slightly different
performance by actors:
Track Substitution - Track substitution involves replacing a line of dialogue with
the same line from another take. Some editors will even replace a single word to
save the preferred take. When the actor is facing the camera, care must be taken
that lip sync appears normal. If sync is out, it may be adjusted by increasing or
decreasing space time between phrases.
Wide shots are prone to poor quality dialogue tracks because it is difficult to get
the microphone close to the actors. One of the most common forms of track
substitution is to use the crisp track of a close shot with the wide shot.
Perspective can be adjusted in the mix, if necessary. Sync is rarely a problem in
wide shots because lips are too small in the frame to be discernable.
Dialogue Replacement - Sometimes dialogue problems are extensive and
cannot be fixed through track substitution. In this case, a technique
called ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement). In ADR, the actor re-records his
lines using the original picture and dialogue as a guide. The new lines are then
used to replace the old lines.
Years ago this technique was called loopingbecause the original dialogue was
physically cut into loops and played over and over until the actor could repeat the
line exactly. Today, the loops have been replaced with ADR, also known asEPS
(Electronic Post Sync). ADR is usually a last resort because of the time and cost
All New Dialogue - This aggressive approach is used to fix or clarify a problem
in the story. All new dialogue is recorded and then used to replace old lines.
Since lip sync will not be present, the character's back must be to the audience
for this to work.
Establishing the Source - Sometimes unwanted sounds on the dialogue track
can be made less obtrusive by establishing the source of the sound early in the
scene. This works best when the sounds are from an element natural to the
location. For example, the squawking of seagulls during a beach scene can be
made less obtrusive by showing the gulls in the opening shot.
Tips for Dialogue Editing
Here are some tips to keep dialogue scenes alive and interesting to the
Visual Flow - Edit dialogue using the dramatic context of the scene as a guide.
For example if a character is more dominant, maintaining more time on this
character will enhance this perception in the audience.
Audience Comprehension - Audience comprehension is so quick that in many
instances they can anticipate the end of a sentence. This should be considered
when editing to keep the scene moving along.
Rough and Fine Cuts - Pauses and hesitationsbetween dialogue shots are
generally found at the head of incoming shot. During the rough cut, however,
leave about a second at the tail of each shot. During the fine cut, trim this down
to about 8 frames (1/3 second) after the last word. This two step approach is
recommended because it is easier to remove frames than add them back when
finalizing a scene.
Editor as Director - Directors use a variety of techniques to convey information
in an absorbing way, including: perspective, off-screen dialogue, voice-overs, and
montage. As the editor, you can apply these techniques, too, even though they
are not indicated in the script.
If the material is available for creative treatment and the treatment is appropriate
for the scene, give it a try. Filmmaking is highly collaborative and the director will
often trust your judgment. To learn more about directing techniques, consider
taking our online Directing course.
Picture vs. Dialogue - Remember to think of picture and sound as distinct
elements. Sound can be handled with as much creativity as picture, including the
use of montage and changes in perspective. The courtroom scene in Dial M for
Murder is essentially a dialogue montage, while perspective of dialogue is
manipulated throughoutLifeboat.