Dumb Little Writing Tricks That Work: Listen to a movie

August 21st, 2009 by

Let’s say you have a moment of clarity.
And you admit to yourself…
That your ability to write dialogue could use a boost.

I’ve run across a lot of tricks re writing dialogue…
But this one is absolutely the best.
Here’s what you do:

Step 1: Select a DVD for a movie that is known for its stellar dialogue.
Step 2: Insert that DVD into your DVD player.
Step 3: Turn on your TV.
Step 4: Turn your chair around so it’s facing away from the screen.
Step 5: Deposit your butt onto the chair.
Step 6: Listen to the movie.

That’s right.
Do not watch the movie.
Listen to it.
And if you’re still confused by my advice, let me make this very clear:

I am asking you to sit in a room…
With your back to the TV…
Looking like a complete fool…
Then listen to the movie.

If you can get past the whole “complete fool” thing…
You can learn a lot.

In particular, you are listening to…
The length and shape of each side of dialogue.
The collection of those exact words into those sides of dialogue.
The pacing of the language in the movie.
The emotion behind each word.
Phrases that grab your attention.

If you really want to benefit from this exercise…
As you hear each side of dialogue…
Imagine what that side looks like in screenplay form.
When I’ve done this in the past…
I imagined the words being typed out in my head…
As they were spoken by each character.
I could even see how the page of dialogue laid out in my imagination.

One thing in particular to pay attention to…
Is how does each character sound different?
Not their voices…
But the combination of the words they use…
Their word choices…
Slang, lingo, formality vs. informality.

The point is…
You’re trying to immerse yourself in the words spoken by the characters.
Immerse yourself in the world of dialogue.

If you do this several times…
With different types of movie genres…
I’ll bet you’ll have a kind of Gestalt experience…
Where you suddenly grok dialogue in a way you’ve never gotten it before.
That knowledge may be more instinctual than conscious…
But I’d be hugely surprised if the next time you sat down to write…
You would have a whole new level of understanding about writing the words…
That your characters speak.

This has been another edition of “Dumb Little Writing Tricks That Work.”

UPDATE: Courtesy of Jeff’s comment, check out this link where you can listen to audio versions of movies. It’s called Listen To A Movie: For the Cubicle Workers of the World. Now you don’t even have to turn your chair around to listen to a movie. Just plug in your headphones to this website. Gotta love the Internet! And thanks, Jeff, for the link!

5 thoughts on “Dumb Little Writing Tricks That Work: Listen to a movie

  1. Jeff says:

    This very "dumb little trick" is probably what got me into all this trouble in my life in the first place. Trouble, of course, being the need, urge, unquenchable thirst for movie writing.

    As a kid, prior to the advent of the BETAMAX (heh heh, had to toss in some ancient history), I would put my little MONTGOMERY WARD cassette recorder next to the TV speaker and audio record movies. When the SONY WALKMAN came out (the iPod of the 80's, for you young youngsters out there) I'd bop around the neighborhood, tuned in to my favorite movie.

    Even when a reader HATES my scripts, they'll always complement me on my dialogue, which, I guess, I can directly attribute to pumping cinematic audio straight into my brain during my formative years.


    Oh you betcha'.

    For the record, the first batch of movies I had taped were AMERICAN GRAFFITI, HIGH ANXIETY, and CORVETTE SUMMER. (yes, the Mark Hamill/Annie Potts, er, "classic.")

    Anyway, here's a neat link to continue the grand psychotic tradition of listening to movies…


    It's remarkable. Audio files of ENTIRE movies. I don't know who the lunatics are who run this thing but it's an amazing thing.

    Have fun!

  2. Scott says:

    Jeff, thanks for that story and the awesome link. It's funny, but when my oldest son was about 4-5, I made audio recordings of his favorite movies as he used to like to listen to them while playing, drawing, etc.

    Now that I think about it, I wonder if that's why he became so enamored of music soundtracks. Perhaps that helps to explain why he's in a dual degree program in college, including a music composition major at the New England Conservatory.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Re: "dumb little writing tricks" – You make it too easy for us, Scott! Thank you (though I wasn't able to make the link work… Can you post the address?!)


  4. Scott says:

    Fixed the link in the post.

    Also have the link included in Resources.

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