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How To Strengthen Your Dialogue In One Easy Exercise

By Marilyn Horowitz

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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 dialogue.

“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 dialogue into written dialogue 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 will improve.

Here’s the exercise:

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 situated.

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.

3. Put your work away for fifteen minutes, and then reread it, aloud, as if you had created the scene yourself.

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 -- which is gold for us writers.

To recap, listening to real people talking and recording their spoken words is a great way to improve your dialogue.

Good luck and Happy Writing!

About Marilyn Horowitz

Marilyn Horowitz is an award-winning New York University professor, author, producer, and Manhattan-based writing consultant, who works with successful novelists, produced screenwriters, and award-winning filmmakers. She has a passion for helping novices get started. Since 1998 she has taught thousands of aspiring screenwriters to complete a feature length screenplay using her method. She is also a judge for the Fulbright Scholarship Program for film and media students. In 2004 she received the coveted New York University Award for Teaching Excellence.

Professor Horowitz has created a revolutionary system that yields a new, more effective way of writing. She is the author of six books that help the writer learn her trademarked writing system, including editions for college, high school, and middle school. The college version is a required text at New York University and the University of California, Long Beach.

Professor Horowitz has written several feature-length screenplays. Her production credits include the feature films And Then Came Love (2007). Her new novel, The Book of Zev is available on Amazon.

Screenwriting Article by Marilyn Horowitz

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