Great performances, direction, cinematography, and even production design are all essential for creating an engaging dialogue scene. But one of the most important aspects of a great dialogue scene is effective editing. Editing can make or break a dialogue scene even if all of the other filmmaking elements fall into place. So how do you edit a dialogue scene? What editing techniques can be used so that a dialogue scene stays interesting and engaging? We’ll learn how to edit a dialogue scene and what techniques go into a great dialogue scene in this article. 

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How to edit a dialogue scene

1. Understand the story

They say that editing is the last rewrite of the film. This is especially true when it comes to editing dialogue scenes. Just as a director might change dialogue from a screenplay because it doesn’t work for a take, an editor might cut or arrange dialogue in the edit. The key to doing this well is to understand the story of the film and how the scene plays into that story. 

This all starts with asking the right questions. What is each character’s motivation? How does this conversation affect the plot? What is the conflict in the scene? 

Take this scene breakdown from There Will Be Blood one of PT Anderson’s best films. While the focus is on how Paul Thomas Anderson directs dominance and disgrace, the editor had to have a solid understanding of this to cut the scene together. 

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The answers to questions like these can come from the director or screenwriter. Filmmaking is an incredibly collaborative process. And being on the same page with the director about the story will help you edit a scene more effectively.


2. Create the pace

Editors are largely responsible for creating the pace and rhythm of a film. How long they hold on a shot or how quickly they cut through shots can greatly change how a scene feels. To better understand this, let’s take a look at a scene with a bad pace. 

This video essay by Thomas Flight analyzes how the lack of pace in this dialogue scene from Bohemian Rhapsody makes it feel awkward and ultimately ineffective. 

Bohemian Rhapsody's Terrible Editing  •  How to edit dialogue scene

Pacing is something that an editor should constantly be aware of and cut to. Again, understanding what pace the edit requires traces back to understanding the story. While the dialogue of the scene can also impact pace, how you cut the dialogue will be more impactful. For example, leaving a pause in between two lines or cutting it out can change the feel of a conversation. 

How to edit a dialogue scene

3. Start with the master shot

Assuming that the director shot a solid master shot of the dialogue scene, it’s always a good idea to start the scene with the master shot. What is a master shot? A master shot establishes the geography and location of a scene.

It also orients the characters’ positioning for the audience for when the scene cuts in closer. Take a look at our video breakdown of types of camera shots to learn more about the master shot and why it’s used. 

Ultimate Guide to Camera Shots: How to edit a dialogue scene  •  Subscribe on YouTube

As you can see from The Godfather: Part II example in the video, master shots also have a storytelling ability that utilizes character blocking to portray conflict and relationships. 

Starting a dialogue scene with medium shots or even close ups can leave an audience confused with the geography of a scene as well as the story. Staring with the master shot will help you avoid these problems.


4. Utilize close ups for emotion

While some dialogue scenes play out entirely in a wide master shot, many utilize intercutting close ups of characters. It is important to understand the effect of a close up so that you can use it effectively. Our video breakdown of the close up shot analyzes the impact close ups can have on an audience. 

Close ups have the unique ability to showcase even the most subtle emotions of a character. These moments can be even more emotional if you use the close up sparingly or even save it for the most emotional moments of the scene. 

Close up shots can also fragment and distance specific characters from a group. This is great for creating conflict. Cutting back and forth between two characters’ close ups can help establish this conflict visually. 


5. Reaction shots are important

The driving force behind a dialogue scene may be the dialogue spoken by a character, but just as much information can be found in a character’s reaction to what is being said. Capturing a character’s reaction can reveal emotion, establish conflict, and make a dialogue scene more interesting.

Take this scene breakdown from Game of Thrones for example. Note how the reaction shots of characters allows the editor to suggest to the audience how they should feel about the scene.

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Reaction shots are one of the most important techniques that an editor can use when editing a dialogue scene. A key to cutting to reaction shots is our next tip — using J-cuts and L-cuts. 


6. J-cuts and L-cuts

J-cuts and L-cuts are two ways to utilize overlapping sound to make a cut more smooth. The best way to understand L-cuts and J-cuts is by visually seeing examples of them in well known films. Take a look at this video breakdown of the J-cut and L-cut at the end of this video to better understand the technique. 

Dialogue editor: The J Cut & The L Cut 

To recap, a J-cut is an editing technique used for scene transitions in which the audio of the next scene precedes the shot change. This means that the audience hears the next scene before they see it. 

An L-cut is a film editing technique in which the audio from a preceding scene carries over the image of the following scene. L-cuts allow editors to have the sound or dialogue of one scene linger into the next. 

L-cuts specifically are helpful for editing reaction shots. They allow an audience to see a character’s reaction and hear what they are reacting too simultaneously. When you are editing a dialogue scene, be sure to use J-cuts and L-cuts to help keep your cutting smooth and seamless. 


7. Use cutaways and insert shots

Dialogue scenes are a type of scene that is most at risk for becoming dull and boring. Great dialogue should of course be the driving force behind a great dialogue scene. But utilizing cutaway shots and insert shots can introduce a visual variety in the scene that can make it more interesting. 

In this scene from The Godfather, a cutaway shot of Johnny Fontaine is brilliantly used to supplement the story that Michael is talking about, making the dialogue even stronger.

Dialogue editor tips: The Godfather

Dialogue scenes can become repetitive if it simply cuts between characters talking. A way to break this visual repetition is by using insert shots. Insert shots of the character's actions can make a simple dialogue scene visually interesting. It can even help create a rhythm. This is a common technique in Quentin Tarantino’s directing style

In this scene from Django Unchained, Tarantino uses insert shots of pouring a beer to break up the shot reverse shot repetition of the dialogue scene. 

Dialogue editor tips: Tarantino food examples

The only downside to this tip is that it heavily relies on the coverage the director and cinematographer have decided on. However, even if there is a lack of inserts and cutaways that were shot for the dialogue scene, you can get creative by other coverage that might be relevant to the scene. 

Dialogue editor tips

8. It’s the director’s film

It is worth mentioning again that the edit is famously called the last rewrite of the film. That being said, it is also the director’s film. As the editor you must trust your instinct for story and editing and edit the way you see best serves the film and story. 

However, if a director says you cut out a necessary line and he wants it back in the scene, they have the final say. Plead your case for why you cut it, be collaborative, but at the end of the day, remember it is the director’s film. 

Remember that editing a dialogue scene is not simply splicing together lines that characters say. You are forming the story of a dialogue scene with all of the editing techniques and tools at your disposal. Hopefully these tips and steps have added to your editing repertoire so that you have the tools necessary to cut a great dialogue scene. 


Walter Murch’s Six Rules for Editing

One of the best ways to learn any facet of filmmaking is to learn from those who are experienced at their craft. In our next article we talk about Walter Murch, an award winning editor, and the six categories of editing that he believes are essential for great cutting. Learn more in the next article. 

Up Next: Murch’s Editing Rules →
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