The 'Subtitle Script' Approach To Economical Dialogue

Last week, I spent two or three days working on the subtitle script for Stormhouse.

A subtitle script is a time-consuming document to compile, which is nevertheless vital for making your film accessible to people all around the world.  There are a few different variations of subtitle script, but this one was for the purposes of dubbing Stormhouse into foreign languages or presenting onscreen subtitles.

In one column, the subtitle script lists every single piece of dialogue and significant actor-made sound.  In a second column, an abbreviated version of dialogue is presented, if the original dialogue is lengthy.  This is, as you'd imagine, to help fit subtitles onto a screen.  Each line also has to be supplied with an exact timecode of when it happens.

But enough of that: I'm not here to babble specifically about subtitle scripts.  They're fairly dull, functional beasts.  Compiling the script did, however, make me think about the economics of dialogue.  Because occasionally I would prefer the abbreviated version of a line as I typed it into that second column.

Most of the time, an abbreviated version of the dialogue would lose something which I would prefer not to.  Just a tiny thing, whether it be detail, shade, humour or subtext.  I cut it anyway, for the sake of the subtitles/dubbing.  But every now and then the abbreviation made a line leaner and meaner, with zero regrets.  In fact, I occasionally wished I'd originally written the line that way.

So here's a suggestion, which is clearly just another way of looking at the editing process.  Next time you're going through a script-draft, looking to improve it, apply The Subtitle Script Approach to dialogue or indeed your action lines:

What would the abbreviated, subtitle-script version of that line be?

Does a line repeat something which you've already established?

Could the sentence structure be more direct?  Less passive?  Less fiddly?

Do pointless qualifying words lurk within these lines?  Does something need to be "really bad" when it could simply be "bad"?

Can you lose direct replies to questions - the "Yes"es and the "No"s - when the answer is made obvious by the words which follow?

Basically: can you tighten lines without losing something you'd really prefer not to - and without making them SO abrupt and staccato that they resemble a Uzi round?  If so, gouge away until those lines are pure fillet steak.

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Adaddinsane said...

It was Russell T Davies (or was it Tony Jordan) who said: "you keep taking words out until it stops meaning what it's supposed to mean."

Ken Armstrong said...

A bloody-fine suggestion, I'd say. (Pun intended) I'm constantly paring and paring at my dialogue and I rarely see it suffer for any cut I make.

I shall subtitle my theatre plays immediately.

Stand well back please...