I’m happy to report that my NYU class, Writing The Screenplay in Eight Weeks is sold out and there’s a waiting list! Meanwhile, I’m learning how to act. My acting teacher suggested an exercise to improve our dialogue “chops” and I was amused that it was similar an exercise I’ve used for years. I’ve included a written version here and hope you enjoy it!
The Overheard Conversation: How To Strengthen Your Dialog In One Easy Exercise
I was getting my hair cut, and sat next to a colleague who teaches drama,
and has written several scholarly books on the topic. Before leaving the
salon, I asked her what was the one thing she thought any screenwriter
should do to improve his or her dialog.
“Become a lurker,” my friend said without hesitation, and held up a pad that
contained a hastily scrawled account of my own conversation with our mutual
Hair God while my hair was being cut. I was surprised that my speaking
voice on the page seemed clipped and terse, compared to Jeff, a strikingly
handsome gay man with a Mohawk and a distinctive southern drawl.
My friend nodded and said, “I always carry a pad and pen, so whenever I
have an opportunity, I practice writing down real people talking. By recording
the conversation, I can make the connection between the way words sound
when being spoken and the way they ‘read'”. Jeff came over and said, ”
What are you two beauties chattin’ about here?'”
“You, ” We said in unison.
“Oh pshaw, darlin’ there is NOTHING interesting about lil’ old me.”
My friend and I shared a smile. Nothing interesting??? The attempt to render
spoken dialog into written dialog will help train what I call your “ear-to-hand”
coordination, and as you practice you will soon see that you can now hear
your imaginary characters more clearly, and your sense of scene structure
Here’s the exercise:
Step 1. Find a place where you can easily overhear a conversation, such as
a hair salon, a bar or restaurant. Locate potential victims and get yourself
Step 2. Using paper and pen or pencil write as much of the overheard
conversation as you can, and trying to be a little subtle is recommended.
Step 3. Put your work away for fifteen minutes, and then reread it, aloud, as
if you had created the scene yourself.
Step 4. Set a timer and write a brief scene where one of the two characters
you have just eavesdropped on is very late to a meeting and the other
cannot just leave. The inevitable argument that will arise will give you a
structure for exploring the way each of these “voices” might respond-gold
for us writers.
To recap, listening to real people talking and recording their spoken words is a great way to improve your dialog.
Here’s to your successful writing,
Professor Marilyn Horowitz