Genre: Drama
Premise: A family who owns an upscale hotel in the Florida Keys sees their world turned upside-down with the re-emergence of their oldest son, the Black Sheep of the family.
About: We got another Netflix series here, this one from Damages creators Todd A. Kessler, Daniel Zelman, and Glenn Kessler. I never watched Damages cause it wasn’t my type of show. But I repeatedly heard about how well-written it was, which is why I decided to check this out. The show will star Friday Night Lights’ Kyle Chandler, as well as Chloe Sevigny and Steven Pasquale. The creators (Glenn and Todd are brothers) reportedly worked for an entire year on their pitch, which Netflix ate up. The Kessler brothers attended Harvard as well as went to film school at NYU. Not a bad pedigree.
Writers: Todd A. Kessler, Daniel Zelman, and Glenn Kessler
Details: 88 pages – First Writer’s Draft – 11/14/13

Friday Night LightsKyle Chandler will star, presumably as Sheriff John Rayburn

Here’s the problem when a business sector starts thriving. Everyone rushes into it. The excitement accompanied by this rush has the unintended effect of loosening quality control. Everyone figures there’s so much good going on, why stop it? Look no further than the boom of Reality TV. Do you remember when all you had to do to get a reality TV show was show up with a half-baked idea? Joe Millionaire! Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance!

Okay, okay. So that’s not that far from where we are now. But you have to remember that back then there was one-tenth the number of outlets for those shows. Finally, someone realized, “Hey wait a minute. We need some quality control!”

I think there’s a little of that going on with the TV boom right now. People are so excited that TV is doing well that they’re getting kinda lazy. Take WGN’s Manhattan. What’s the point of this show??? We’re gonna diddle around with a bunch of science nerds until they blow up Japan? Do we really need 7 seasons of television to tell that story? I don’t think we do. But people are so eager to fill up these original TV slots that they say, hell, why not??

I bring this up because despite the glut of shows hitting the airwaves, we haven’t had a true breakout show in awhile. True Detective maybe? But that was more of a mini-series. The Blacklist? Ehhh… I feel like the only people who watch that are James Spader’s family. I’m wondering if that’s a result of this lack of quality control, or if we’ve just reached a point where there are more TV slots than there are good writers. Granted, I’ve read some good TV scripts this year. But writing a good TV script isn’t the same as making a good TV show.  The only thing you have to go on is, have they done it before?  And today’s writers have.

The Rayburn family pretty much owns one of the islands in the Florida Keys. They have a thriving upscale hotel business that has made them rich beyond their wildest dreams. Each member of the family has something good going for them. There’s John, who’s the town sheriff. There’s Kevin, who has a thriving business fixing boats. There’s Meg, who helps manage the hotel, and then there’s mom and dad, who own it. Each of them are beyond content with their lives.

And then there’s Danny. The black sheep. He’s the sibling who never follows through on his commitments. Who only shows up when he needs money. Who hangs out with the sketchy crew. And who always screws up even the most minor situations.

So when The Rayburn family has their annual Family/Hotel weekend-long party-thing, guess who’s the last one to show up (if you guess John you are a bad reader).  Although I can’t say I blame Danny. The Rayburns idea of fun is holding family swimming contests and taking the canoe out for a morning paddle.

Things start to unravel at the ball-sized dinner when Danny purposefully shows up with a cheap townie in order to cause a scene. It’s revealed that Meg, meanwhile, is cheating on her boyfriend. And John is pulled away from the party where he learns that a second woman this month has been burned and drowned, this right before the big tourist season.

As is the case with all seemingly perfect families, we get the sense that this one isn’t as beautiful underneath as it is above. And this will play out in the worst way, when the family collectively makes the decision to do something unfathomable, something so terrible, that it will change their family…forever.

61st+Annual+Primetime+Emmy+Awards+Arrivals+kHwlBUQHx_WlChloe Sevigny will likely play sister, Meg.

I’m going to be honest here. One of the reasons I never watched Damages was because it looked like it was written by… hmm, how do I say this?  By entitled well-off, got-all-the-breaks in life Ivy League folk who write for like-minded people.  It kind of had that “You’re not invited to the adult table” exclusivity feel to it. It just looked so serious and smart.

Now I admit I don’t know if it actually played that way, but the first half of KZK definitely backs this assumption up. You can feel the writers’ pedigree slithering up the page. I felt at times like I was Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, sneaking into a Final Club where I didn’t belong. I mean where in life do people really worry about things like what table they’re assigned to for dinner.  It’s dinner. Bring out the food and let’s eat!

For that reason, I couldn’t relate to any of these characters, which made it hard to care about anyone. Ironically, the only character I related to on any level was Danny, because he looked down on this elaborate lifestyle. The problem was, Danny was such an asshole that I still couldn’t root for the guy.

Luckily, as the script went on, it started to feel more like a story, particularly when the dead burned woman showed up. But it was really Danny who kept this pilot afloat. He was our only source of conflict. It was like dropping a piranha into a pool of goldfish. Everywhere he goes, he makes people uncomfortable, he changes the direction of the moment. Which was exciting to read.

A perfect example is the big dinner. Danny shows up at the table with some half-wit waitress from town and just lets her drink as much as possible. The family, who’s supposed to appear perfect to the crowd, now has this townie-bomb slurping up every apple-tini in sight, preparing to do who knows what to embarrass the hell out of them. And that certainly kept me reading.

I will put my foot down and say there’s a device I’m seeing a lot of in pilot writing that I don’t like. And I saw it here too. The writer writes a big flash-forward teaser, one that implies something bad will happen later, and then skates by the next 30 pages on the assumption that this has generated enough suspense that they can use those pages to set up characters in the most boring way possible.

The 30 pages after our teaser amount to people preparing for the party. The sequence was obviously inspired by 70s movies like The Godfather and The Deer Hunter, but (and I know this will drive Grendl crazy to hear) audiences don’t have the patience for that stuff anymore. Not unless you’re packing some plot into those pages, giving us other things to look forward to. If you go ten minutes without something happening, your viewer is checking their e-mail.

Now in an interview with the writers (something I went searching for when nothing happened for ten pages), they said this was going to be a show that no one had ever done before on TV. So I was looking for any elements to back this claim up. I could only find one. Danny keeps encountering some woman that he’s both terrified and intrigued by. She seems to show up and disappear at the oddest moments, and we begin to suspect (or at least I did) that she may have been someone Danny killed in the past. It was weird and definitely peaked my curiosity.

But then something beyond unexpected happened that made this development moot. And I’m going to get into major spoiler territory here so you might want to turn away. Here was this Danny guy – the only interesting thing about this pilot – some might say the key to this pilot working, and then at the end, the family fucking kills him! I read it three times to make sure I read it correctly. But yes, they actually kill off the best character in the script.

Now there are a couple of hints here that this could be one of those flashback-type shows. Where we’re jumping forward and backward in time a lot. Which means Danny may not be entirely gone. But I thought that was a pretty bold move from the writers, and it turned what was a slightly above average pilot into something ballsier. I like when shows show balls. In a world where so many writers stick on 17, it’s the guys that say “hit me” that win the big pot.

I remember the Game of Thrones pilot script doing something similar. After spending its first 60 pages doing nothing but setting up an endless list of characters, it wowed us with the incest/push the kid off the tower ending. So maybe this should be a new trend. The kill or maim a main character at the end of your pilot move?

I don’t know. But with the pedigree of these writers and the reports of how much Netflix loved this pitch, there should be a big push behind it. It’ll be interesting to see where it goes.

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Drop a piranha into the pool. Instead of having to pull your pick axe out every time you want to dig for conflict, just create a “piranha” character, someone who IS conflict. Therefore, every scene you drop them into, the conflict writes itself. Danny was that character here.

Genre: Drama
Premise: When 30-something Milo tries to commit suicide, his estranged sister, Maggie, invites him into her home, where the two start the process of healing old wounds.
About: Writer/director Craig Johnson graduated from NYU film school a decade ago, where he originally conceived of this idea with fellow student Mark Heyman (who wrote Black Swan). The two eventually went their separate ways, coming back to the script only recently, where they re-focused it on its best asset, the brother-sister relationship. Johnson has one other movie under his belt, the little seen True Adolescents, which starred Mark Duplass. He’d been trying to get Skeleton Twins made for awhile with different packages, but it wasn’t until Kristin Wiig came on that he finally believed the movie would get made. And it did!
Writers: Mark Heyman and Craig Johnson
Details: 93 minute runtime


I actually saw two movies this weekend. The Skeleton Twins and The Maze Runner. For The Maze Runner, I tried to bring a little of that “opening day enthusiasm” typically reserved for movies like The Avengers and Star Wars.  So I lugged in a big block of cheese. ‘Cause it was a maze? Like rats in a maze? The theater ushers didn’t understand the joke and told me I either needed to eat the cheese, throw it away, or not see the movie. I sighed and threw it away.

The cheese turned out to be relevant in a different way in that most of Maze Runner was cheesy as hell. Even worse, it employed the classic screenwriting mistake of making the main character ask 60 million questions: “What is this place?” “Where are those guys going?” “What happens in there?” “What’s a runner?” “What’s that noise?” “What happens if they don’t come back?” “What’s a Griever?” Word to the wise – if your main character is always asking questions, he doesn’t have any time to, actually, you know, do stuff.

The movie really wasn’t that bad. It was just generic. I hate giving that note to writers cause it sounds so vague but it’s so often the problem.  Every choice feels like the first choice the writer came up with. A maze that changes. Seen it before. Spiders inside the maze? That must’ve taken a while to come up with. The lovable underdog fat kid. Oh, and let’s not forget the dialogue (Mopey character who thinks he’s going to die: “Take this [trinket] and give it to my parents when you get out of here.” Hero gives the trinket back to mopey character. “No. You’re going to give it to them yourself.”).

But the biggest faux pas is something you just can’t screw up as a screenwriter. You have to give them the promise of the premise. If you’re writing a script about a giant maze, that maze better be fucking a-maze-ing. And this one wasn’t. It basically amounted to tall ivy-covered walls with giant spiders running around in them. That’s it?? Your maze boils down to Wrigley Field meets Harry Potter?

Lucky for me, I also got my suicide on this weekend. But before I get to Skeleton Twins, I have to do some name-dropping. It was Friday night at the Arclight in Hollywood. As Miss Scriptshadow and I were heading to our theater we saw none other than KEVIN SMITH barge through the lobby (he was moving like a cannonball). I remembered that his movie Tusk was opening and figured he was going to watch his own movie. Which is kind of strange but also kind of cool at the same time.

The funniest part was as he walked through, every single person turned (around 100) and whispered, “That’s Kevin Smith. Hey, that’s Kevin Smith. That’s Kevin Smith.” I guess if there’s one place Kevin Smith is going to be a mega-celebrity, it would be at a cinema-loving theater like Arclight in Hollywood.

Anyway, we rode that excitement wave right into our suicide film, which I was only seeing because it got such a high score on Rotten Tomatoes (I’ll see anything above 90%). Usually I despise films like this. Depressed indie people being depressed, trying to commit suicide, then being more depressed. Count me out. But lo and behold, this ended up being one of my favorite films of the year!

30-something siblings Maggie and Milo haven’t seen each other for ten years. Coincidentally, on the exact same day, they both try to commit suicide. Maggie gets the call about Milo being at the hospital before she can off herself, so she goes there and asks Milo to come live with her and her husband, man-child but sincerely lovable Lance, until he feels better.

Over the next few weeks, Milo, who’s gay, reconnects with an older man whom we find out was his teacher in high school. In the meantime, we find out that Maggie, who’s trying to have a baby with Lance, is secretly taking birth control so she doesn’t have a child. She’s also banging her scuba instructor, which I guess makes the birth control a “kill two birds with one stone” type of deal.

We eventually learn that the siblings’ self-destructive ways stem from their own father jumping off a bridge when they were just kids. It seems, for all intents and purposes, that they’re just following the script, doing what daddy did. So the question becomes, can they put the past behind them and move forward? Or are they on a collision course with fate, one they have no control over?

First I lauded a script about two cancer-stricken teenagers earlier this year. Now I’m touting suicide entertainment. What’s wrong with me???

Not only was The Skeleton Twins good, but it succeeded where many other an indie film have failed. You see, when you don’t have a clear plot (like The Maze Runner – “Get out of the maze”), the story can easily get away from you. Without that big plot-centric protagonist goal, it’s not always clear where you’re supposed to take the story.

Well, in character-driven screenplays, like this one, the point shifts from achieving a goal to resolving relationships. That’s it. That is what’s going to drive the reader’s interest or not drive it. You create 3-5 unresolved relationships – characters with a big problem between them – and then you use your story to explore those problems. If the problems are interesting and you explore them in an interesting way, we’ll stick around to see what happens. Here are the four main relationships in The Skeleton Twins…

1) Maggie and Lance – she’s not sure if she wants to be with him.
2) Maggie and her scuba instructor – she’s trying to end the affair but can’t.
3) Milo and the old high school instructor – their relationship was cut off when they started it in high school.  They have to figure out where it is now.
4) Milo and Maggie – they still have a few things from the past to resolve.

The other big thing you want to do with these non-plot-heavy indie movies is throw a lot of plot points at the story. Remember, we don’t have that big goal at the end to drive the film (Win the Hunger Games!), so you have to, sort of, distract us from that.

The Skeleton Twins does a great job of this. Maggie and Milo’s mom (whom they both hate) shows up unexpectedly. We find out Maggie’s hiding birth control. Maggie has an affair. We find out Milo had a relationship with his high school teacher. Lance finds out Maggie’s been on birth control this whole time they’ve been trying for a baby. Maggie ironically forgets to take the pill, discovers she’s late for that time of the month. I mean, for a tiny indie movie, there’s a lot of shit happening here. And that’s the way you have to do it with these indies.

I think lots of writers believe that because it’s an “indie” they need to show 20 minute shots of characters forlornly looking out at the sunrise set to an 8 minute Iron and Wine song set on repeat. There are a few of those shots in here, for sure. But the reason The Skeleton Twins succeeds where all these other indies fail is because it really packs a lot of plotting into its 90 page run time. There’s never something not happening.

On the non-screenwriting front, it was genius to cast comedians in these roles. This movie would’ve crumbled under the weight of two dramatic actors playing ultra-dramatic roles. The reason the film never falls too far into depression-ville is because of the dry offbeat humor Wiig and Hader keep slipping into their performances. Even Luke Wilson was great as the husband. Both funny and sympathetic.

This was a hell of good film. I should’ve saved my block of cheese for it.


[ ] what the hell did I just watch?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius


[ ] what the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the price of admission
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Small indie movies need a lot of PLOT POINTS. You need to keep throwing things at the characters or revealing secrets to keep the story moving and alive. Go too long without anything significant happening and your script gets pulled into that “indie boring void” that so often dooms an indie film. Don’t become another one of those indie films.


All this week, I’ve been putting one of YOUR dialogue scenes up against a pro’s. My job, and your job as readers of Scriptshadow, is to figure out why the dialogue in the pro scenes works better. The ultimate goal is to learn as much as we can about dialogue. It’s a tricky skill to master so hopefully these exercises can help demystify it. And now, for our last dialogue post of the week!

All I know about our first scene is that it’s an introduction to Charlie Lambda, who’s a major character, and Diane, who’s a minor character. It takes place in a bedroom after sex.

The room is cluttered with furniture and wrinkled clothing.

DIANE sprawls across the bed in her underwear, awake. Charlie LAMBDA stands at a dresser mirror, shirtless, buckling his jeans.

DIANE: Leaving so soon?

LAMBDA: Night waits for no one, my dear.

DIANE: Neither do I.

LAMBDA: You wanna leave? Suit yourself. I’ve got money to make.

DIANE: You got a night job?

LAMBDA: Best there is.

DIANE: You a pimp, Lambda?

LAMBDA: You know, most women try to figure people out before they sleep with them.

DIANE: I like mysteries. I like solving them, too.

Lambda grabs a shirt, buttons it up.

LAMBDA: You play cards, Diane?

DIANE: I play poker sometimes.

LAMBDA: You any good at it?

DIANE: I’ve got bad luck.

Lambda chuckles. From the dresser, he picks up a deck of cards. He shuffles them without looking, and they fly from hand to hand and around the deck like magic.

LAMBDA: Luck’s just a matter of stacking the odds in your favor.

DIANE: You still have to shuffle the deck. That’s luck.

LAMBDA: That’s what you think.

He brings the deck over to the bed and hands it to the woman, who sits up.

LAMBDA: Find the aces.

He walks back to the mirror, produces a comb, runs it through his hair. Diane sifts through the deck.

DIANE: So you’re a card shark.

LAMBDA: I’m a professional gambler.

DIANE: And you cheat.

LAMBDA: That’s what makes me a professional.

DIANE: I can’t find the aces.

Lambda goes to the bed, sits beside her, and pats her on the back.

DIANE: You’d take cards over an easy lay?

LAMBDA: It’s better than sex.

DIANE: Oh, really?

LAMBDA: You don’t understand. Playing cards ain’t a game. It’s a way of life. It’s zen. It’s jumping into a pool of sharks and seeing who’s got the coldest blood.

DIANE: And that’s you?

LAMBDA: Babe, Charlie Lambda’s the coolest guy around.

Diane tries to hand him the deck.

LAMBDA: Keep ’em. I’m going hunting.

He goes to the door and opens it.

LAMBDA: Go back to sleep, Diane.

DIANE: If you’re not here when I wake up, I’m gone.

LAMBDA: Wanna bet?

DIANE: Some odds you can’t sway.

Lambda smiles and closes the door behind him. Diane rolls over to go back to sleep– The four aces are stuck in her bra strap.

In this next scene from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joel is coming home on a train. Clementine enters the car and tries to find a place to sit. She eventually sits across the car, facing Joel. After awhile…

CLEMENTINE (calling over the rumble): Hi!

Joel looks over.

JOEL: I’m sorry?


JOEL: Why what?

CLEMENTINE: Why are you sorry? I just said hi.

JOEL: No, I didn’t know if you were talking to me, so…

She looks around the empty car.


JOEL (embarrassed) Well, I didn’t want to assume.

CLEMENTINE: Aw, c’mon, live dangerously. Take the leap and assume someone is talking to you in an otherwise empty car.

JOEL: Anyway. Sorry. Hi.

Clementine makes her way down the aisle toward Joel.

CLENTINE: It’s okay if I sit closer? So I don’t have to scream. Not that I don’t need to scream sometimes, believe me. (pause) But I don’t want to bug you if you’re trying to write or something.

JOEL: No, I mean, I don’t know. I can’t really think of much to say probably.


She hesitates in the middle of the car, looks back where she came from.

JOEL: I mean, it’s okay if you want to sit down here. I didn’t mean to—

CLEMENTINE: No, I don’t want to bother you if you’re trying to—

JOEL: It’s okay, really.

CLEMENTINE: Just, you know, to chat a little, maybe. I have a long trip ahead of me. (sits across aisle from Joel) How far are you going? On the train, I mean, of course.

JOEL: Rockville Center.

CLEMENTINE: Get out! Me too! What are the odds?

JOEL: The weirder part is I think actually I recognize you. I thought that earlier in the diner. That’s why I was looking at you. You work at Borders, right?

CLEMENTINE: Ucch, really? You’re kidding. God. Bizarre small world, huh? Yeah, that’s me: books slave there for, like, five years now.

JOEL: Really? Because—

CLEMENTINE: Jesus, is it five years? I gotta quit right now.

JOEL: — because I go there all the time. I don’t think I ever saw you before.

CLEMENTINE: Well, I’m there. I hide in the back as much as is humanly possible. You have a cell phone? I need to quit right this minute. I’ll call in dead.

JOEL: I don’t have one.

CLEMENTINE: I’ll go on the dole. Like my daddy before me.

JOEL: I noticed your hair. I guess it made an impression on me, that’s why I was pretty sure I recognized you.

CLEMENTINE: Ah, the hair. (studies a strand of hair) Blue, right? It’s called Blue Ruin. The color. Snappy name, huh?

JOEL: I like it.

CLEMENTINE: Blue ruin is cheap gin in case you were wondering.

JOEL: Yeah. Tom Waits says it in—

CLEMENTINE: Exactly. Tom Waits. Which son?

JOEL: I can’t remember.

CLEMENTINE: Anyway, this company makes a whole lie of colors with equally snappy names. Red Menace, Yellow Fever, Green Revolution. That’d be a job, coming up with those names. How do you get a job like that? That’s what I’ll do. Fuck the dole.

JOEL: I don’t really know how—

CLEMENTINE: Purple Haze, Pink Eraser.

JOEL: You think that could possibly be a full-time job? How many hair colors could there be?

CLEMENTINE (pissy): Someone’s got that job. (excited) Agent Orange! I came up with that one. Anyway, there are endless color possibilities and I’d be great at it.

JOEL: I’m sure you would.

CLEMENTINE: My writing career! Your hair written by Clementine Kruczynski. (thought) The Tom Waits album is Rain Dogs.

JOEL: You sure? That doesn’t sound –

CLEMENTINE: I think. Anyway, I’ve tried all their colors. More than once. I’m getting too old for this. But it keeps me from having to develop an actual personality. I apply my personality in a paste. You?

JOEL: Oh, I don’t think that’s the case.

CLEMENTNE: Well, you don’t know me, so… you don’t know, do you?

JOEL: Sorry. I was just trying to be nice.

CLEMENTINE: Yeah, I got it.

I chose these two scenes for a reason. In the first one, we’re looking at two strangers talking AFTER they’ve had sex. In the second, we’re looking at two strangers who’ve just met (before they’ve had sex).

Take note of the energy in each scene. In the first scene, the energy is relaxed, subdued, almost lazy. Which makes sense. They just banged. They’ve already reached the pinnacle of their coupling. Generally speaking, scenes where people are relaxed and happy are bad scenes. You’d rather seek out scenes where there’s tension, where there are problems that need to be addressed.

But in Eternal Sunshine, there’s still an entire world of possibility with these two characters because they haven’t consummated their relationship yet. As a result, their scene’s bursting with nervous energy. There’s excitement in the uncertainty of the moment. We feel tension. We feel hope. We want this to go right.

This is why, generally speaking, you don’t want to consummate the relationship until as deep into the script as possible. Once you do that, the dialogue between the characters loses something. The air will have seeped out of their “relationship balloon” so to speak.

But even if you took all this “consummation” talk away (I was told Diane wasn’t a major character, so maybe we shouldn’t hold her to that status), something’s still missing in that first scene. Let’s take a look at the first exchange. “Leaving so soon?” Diane asks. “Night waits for no one, my dear,” Lambda replies. “Night waits for no one, my dear?” That doesn’t sound like something real people say, does it?

That’s not necessarily a harbinger of doom, though. Some genres produce stylistic dialogue. Take the dialogue in “The Big Lebowski,” for example. Clearly, characters aren’t always talking the way real people talk in that film. The problem is, I’m not getting the sense that that’s what the writer intended here. I feel like this scene is supposed to be grounded. And in that case, lines like “Night waits for no one” come off as overly written, like the writer’s trying too hard.

This cuteness continues when the cards are introduced as a quasi-metaphor. Writing in metaphors (or analogies or clever explanations) is a very writerly thing to do. It gives the impression of depth and cleverness. And it allows you to talk about something by talking about something else. But if the only reason the analogy exists is to achieve this effect, it feels false. It reads as analogy for analogy’s sake.

Now I get the feeling that cards might play a larger role in this movie. If that’s the case, then the introduction of the cards isn’t as misguided. But I think the problem here is the same one we’ve encountered in most of the amateur entries this week. I don’t know what either of these characters wants in the scene! I don’t know if Lambda wants her out or if Diane wants to stay. There’s no clear objective, which means anything they say will appear as “babble” to the reader. It’s not that the dialogue is bad so much as we don’t know the point of it.

Looking at the Eternal Sunshine dialogue, there are two things that stick out. First, the dialogue is much more realistic. It’s short, it’s clipped, it ping-pongs back and forth uncertainly. But most importantly, it’s imperfect. It really feels like two people talking.

That’s a mistake we writers make often. We want our dialogue to be so beautiful, that we carve and mold each line into a perfect specimen of auditory delight. Put a bunch of these ultra-developed lines next to each other and the conversation starts feeling false. We don’t know why, but it does. It isn’t until we realize that no one would actually say any of these individual lines that we understand what’s wrong.

And we never see that problem in Eternal Sunshine. Words are flying by seemingly willy-nilly, with no rhyme or reason. It truly does feel like real life conversation.

Secondly, lots of writers get obsessed with balanced dialogue. Balanced dialogue is when there’s a perfect balance to the conversation. Each word, for the most part, is responded to with a word in kind. “Hey.” “Hiya.” “How’s it going?” “It’s going good. How bout you?” “Going good here.” And back and forth and back and forth in perfect balance.

Real dialogue is unbalanced. It’s often weighted to one side or the other, depending on the character or the situation. Read the bottom half of the Eternal Sunshine scene. Clementine is basically having a conversation with herself. Joel’s just there to hear it. That’s a big reason why this dialogue feels so authentic. Unbalanced dialogue is real life.

What about you? What stuck out to you about today’s scenes? The first one felt a little too “written” to me. But I can see some of you just as easily attacking the “rambling” quality of Eternal Sunshine. Share your thoughts!

What I learned: Balanced versus Unbalanced dialogue. There’s no such thing as perfectly balanced dialogue. Some characters are going to talk more than others. Some characters won’t always answer when asked something. No matter how many times you’ve rewritten your dialogue, it should always feel a little imperfect, a little unevenly weighted.

Picture-536A picture that actually has to DO with today’s dialogue!

All this week, I’ll be putting one of YOUR dialogue scenes up against a pro’s. My job, and your job as readers of Scriptshadow, is to figure out why the dialogue in the pro scenes works better. The ultimate goal, this week, is to learn as much as we can about dialogue. It’s a tricky skill to master so hopefully these exercises can help demystify it.

Our first script is a black comedy. The scene takes place in a restaurant between 30-something Ellie and 40-something Patrick. To piss off her brother, Henry, Ellie is going on a date with Patrick. But Ellie doesn’t know a few things. She doesn’t know Henry owes Patrick a lot of money. And she doesn’t know that Patrick is a actually a psychopath. Patrick is also in the dark about the fact that Ellie is Henry’s sister.

Ellie sits with Patrick. They look at menus. Patrick’s phone rings. It’s Henry calling.

PATRICK (turning off phone): This fucking guy. Sorry. You ever just wanna beat someone to death for no good reason?

ELLIE: All the time.

Waitress comes to the table –

WAITRESS: Are you ready to order?

PATRICK (pointing to menus): Does it look like we’re ready to order? Cause our menu’s are open. Look, I’m even pointing to them being open right now.

Waitress blinks and walks away.

PATRICK (CONT’D): People are so rude, you know? They don’t even observe before they speak. Terrible.

ELLIE: It’s the body you gotta worry about… The dead body that would result from the random beating of someone for no good reason.

PATRICK: Oh yeah, but that’s an easy problem to fix and frankly its a very easy problem to fix.

ELLIE: Are you a dead body expert?

PATRICK: I am the dead body expert. Definitely.

ELLIE: “Definitely”, huh? So then, how do you bury a dead body?

PATRICK: Well, it’s not hard really. Shovel, dirt to shovel dirt, garbage bags. Location is more the problem. You gotta have a good locale. It’s like opening a hotel. Same rules, except it’s dead bodies.

ELLIE: So maybe a nice beach-front property? Palm trees.

PATRICK: Well that’s the opposite of what you gotta do. You gotta go for the shit parts. The shit parts of the shit parts. Upstate. Upstate’s really shitty. Just trees there… nobody likes trees.

ELLIE: I hate trees.

PATRICK: Too many leaves.

ELLIE: Yep. Exactly right.

PATRICK (looking at surroundings): Dead bodies, dead bodies, dead bodies…

ELLIE: So what do you really do?

PATRICK: … I work at a strip club.

ELLIE: You own the strip club?

PATRICK: No, I clean shit. I’m a janitor. If I owned it, I wouldn’t be working there. What do you do?

ELLIE: I’m a debt collector.

PATRICK: A debt collector? Why would you do that? You like making people hate you?

ELLIE: It’s a job.

PATRICK: It is a job. It is definitely a job. A terrible job, honestly, getting yourself yelled at all day for a good reason.

ELLIE: And what’s the good reason?

PATRICK: Well, you know, these people are in debt and they don’t need you telling them it.

ELLIE: It’s a job.

PATRICK I know it’s a job. I said it’s a job. I’m just saying it’s a really bad terrible one.

ELLIE: You clean shit for a living.

PATRICK: And puke and piss and I hate it. I got a terrible job.

ELLIE (about to get up, leave): So you have no right criticizing my shit job when you literally have a shit job.

PATRICK: Well then I’m sorry, I really am. But frankly, what I’m saying is I’m tired of a shit life. Literally. I got dreams. Exploration. Don’t you?

That last line resonates with Ellie. She closes her menu. Patrick snaps at the waitress, points to the closed menus, signaling that they’re ready to order.

The second scene is from Silver Linings Playbook. In it, Pat and Tiffany, both mentally troubled, have their first “date” together, although Pat sees Tiffany more as a potential friend. After getting out of the nuthouse, Pat’s sole objective has been to get back together with his wife, Nikki. The scene takes place in a diner where the waitress is pissed that Pat and Tiffany have only ordered a single bowl of cereal and tea.

THE RAISIN BRAN IS DELIVERED BY THE ANNOYED OLDER WAITRESS, who also puts tea in front of Tiffany. Pat opens the little box of cereal and pours it into the bowl.

PAT PEOPLES: Do you want to share this?

TIFFANY: Are you sure?

Pat pushes the bowl of raisin bran to the center of the table. They sit eating their raisin bran in silence.

PAT PEOPLES: How’s your thing going?

TIFFANY: What thing?

PAT PEOPLES: I don’t know, your dancing thing.

She looks at him blankly. Tiffany shrugs and nods.

TIFFANY: It’s fine. How’s your restraining order?

PAT PEOPLES: I’m not sure I’d call the restraining order ‘my thing’, but getting back with Nikki is, and I’ve been doing pretty well except for a minor incident at the doctor’s office–

TIFFANY: And the so-called accident with the weights.

PAT PEOPLES (a little bugged): Yeah. I wish I could explain it all in a letter because it was minor and I can explain it.

TIFFANY: I could get a letter to her, I see her sometimes with my sister.

PAT PEOPLES: Really? Would you do that? Where does she live now?

Tiffany opens her mouth to say, then stops.

TIFFANY: I’d be breaking the law.

PAT PEOPLES: I get it, it’s cool. Is it in this part of town?

TIFFANY: I have enough problems as it is.

PAT PEOPLES: No problem, I get it. So you go to her place?

TIFFANY: With my sister. She’s friends with Veronica.

PAT PEOPLES: Does Ronnie go?

TIFFANY: No, he feels weird about it and he’s super scared of anything to do with the law. Or you.

PAT PEOPLES: It would be so awesome if you could give her a letter from me.

TIFFANY: I’d have to hide it from my sister. She’s not into breaking the law, which the letter would definitely be doing.

PAT PEOPLES: But you’d do it?

TIFFANY: I have to be careful. I’m on thin ice with my family, you should hear how I lost my job.

PAT PEOPLES (CONT’D): How did you lose your job?

TIFFANY: By having sex with everybody at the office.


TIFFANY: I was very depressed after Tommy died. It was a lot of people.

She looks him in the eye, and then down, embarrassed.

PAT PEOPLES: We don’t have to talk about it.

TIFFANY (nods, looking down): Thanks.

PAT PEOPLES: How many people was it?



TIFFANY: I know.

PAT PEOPLES: Did you get any diseases?

TIFFANY: No, thank God. [She knocks on the table].

PAT PEOPLES (knocks wood also): What was it like?

TIFFANY: I thought we weren’t gonna talk about this.

PAT PEOPLES: We don’t have to.

TIFFANY: Do you really wanna know?

PAT PEOPLES: Absolutely.

TIFFANY: The good part felt very good, very free, very fun, very alive, and the bad part felt hot at first then lonely, then even more depressed, but I couldn’t stop and it turned into a pattern.

PAT PEOPLES: And you stopped.

TIFFANY: Yeah, I got fired, they put me on some meds, made me go to therapy. I moved home. Things are more steady now. But still lonely.

Pat nods sympathetic, doesn’t want to go there, looks away, changes gears.

PAT PEOPLES: Let’s go back to the letter. What if you secretly gave it to Nikki when your sister was in the bathroom?

TIFFANY: That works.


PAT PEOPLES: This is great, I have to go home to write the letter.

TIFFANY: Can I at least finish my tea?

PAT PEOPLES: WAIT. Did Veronica tell Nikki about the dinner we had? Why did your sister invite me? Was it a test?

TIFFANY: I kinda got that feeling, yeah.

PAT PEOPLES: I did a great job. Didn’t I?

TIFFANY: She said you were cool, basically.

PAT PEOPLES: What does ‘basically’ mean, that I’m some percent not cool?

TIFFANY: She said you were, cool but also, you know –

PAT PEOPLES: No, I don’t know.

TIFFANY: How you are. Relax, it’s OK.

PAT PEOPLES: What does that mean, ‘how I am?’

TIFFANY Sort of like me.

PAT PEOPLES: SORT OF LIKE YOU?! I hope to God your sister didn’t say that!

TIFFANY (stung and hurt): Why?!

PAT PEOPLES: Because we’re different people, Tiffany. We can’t be lumped together, Nikki won’t like that.

She looks at him, STUNNED AND HURT.

TIFFANY: You think I’m crazier than you are?!

Pat tilts his head and stares at her, like ‘Come on, it’s obvious.’ TIFFANY’S JAW DROPS, HER FACE TURNS RED, SHE IS FURIOUS. SHE THROWS HER NAPKIN DOWN.


People stare as Tiffany gets up, grabs her purse, and heads for the door as Pat SCRAMBLES to his feet in a panic.

PAT PEOPLES: WAIT! I’m sorry, Tiffany –


OLDER WAITRESS: Slow down, Raisin Bran, we got the check. All $3.79 of it.


PAT PEOPLES: (searches his pockets) Dammit, where is it? I have the money, I swear.


PAT PEOPLES (CONT’D): Ta-daa! Keep the change.

OLDER WAITRESS Really?! You’re the best tipper I ever met!

PAT PEOPLES (rushing out): Tell that to Nikki.

OLDER WAITRESS: Who the hell is Nikki?

If the posts this week were a competition, today’s entries would’ve finished the closest. Whenever you’re writing a “get to know you” scene, the trick is to do them a little differently. They’re SUCH common scenes that if you don’t find a fresh spin on them, they can die a long boring death on the page.

Which is no problem for these two scenes.  Both give us an offbeat intro. Patrick yells at the waitress for asking them if they’re ready to order. And Pat makes the kooky choice of sharing his small bowl of raisin bran with Tiffany. Unexpected choices at the outset of scenes tell me we’re going to get unexpected choices throughout the scene. So in both cases, I was in.

But I think I liked Silver Linings’ a little better. It was easier to read, and a lot of that had to do with its crisp short dialogue lines. Crisp and short leads to a quick rhythm, and I noticed that the chunkier lines in the first scene gave the scene a herkier-jerkier feel.

Plus, I encountered a few of those dreaded “hiccups” in the first scene. Early on, Ellie says, “It’s the body you gotta worry about… The dead body that would result from the random beating of someone for no good reason.” This line had me rubbing my eyes. I’d forgotten we were talking about dead bodies. I don’t know why because when I looked up above, I saw that the first line indeed mentioned dead bodies, but for some reason it didn’t stick, leaving me confused about what Ellie was talking about.

The line itself is also a classic “trip-up” line. “The dead body that would result from the random beating of someone for no good reason.” It’s hard to tell where the word-groupings start and stop in this sentence, making it unclear what exactly’s being said until you sound it out. It’s the writer’s job to identify these hard to read lines and figure out a way to simplify them.

This is followed by “Oh yeah, but that’s an easy problem to fix and frankly it’s a very easy problem to fix.” This is another trip-up line. I think the writer’s trying to be funny here, having the character repeat himself. But I’m not positive. Part of me thinks it’s a mistake. So again, I’m getting “tripped up.” And that’s twice in two lines.

But from there, the dialogue improves. And I generally like how both characters speak, especially Patrick. He doesn’t talk like someone whose every line has been carefully primped and preened for its big moment in the sun. He kind of stumbles over his words, speaks in fragments. “Well that’s the opposite of what you gotta do. You gotta go for the shit parts. The shit parts of the shit parts. Upstate. Upstate’s really shitty. Just trees there… nobody likes trees.” That sounds imperfect and therefore real to me, which is one of the reasons the scene works.

As for as the Silver Linings scene, like all good dialogue, there’s something going on underneath the surface (Tiffany likes Pat and is trying to get him). There’s also conflict, but it’s not as obvious as what we’re used to. Tiffany wants Pat, but Pat isn’t interested in Tiffany. He still loves his ex-wife.

If you look closer, you realize that this conflict drives the scene. We like Tiffany. We want her to get what she wants (Pat). So we stick around to see if she succeeds. In many ways, this becomes a mini-script. Once we know Tiffany’s goal, we can add obstacles to that goal, and those obstacles become the drama that keeps the scene interesting.

For instance, everything’s going well for Tiffany at first. Pat shares a bowl of cereal with her. Score! But then he finds out she can get a note to his wife (obstacle!) and success is in doubt. But Tiffany wisely realizes she can use this this note to her advantage, as a way to spend more time with Pat. But then Pat calls her crazy and she goes ballistic.

I think that’s another reason this dialogue works so well. The scene isn’t a straight line. It has highs and it has lows. Drama IS highs and lows so chances are, if you have these extremes in your scene, we’re going to keep reading.

But the real reason this scene works has nothing to do with the scene itself. It has to do with a decision that was made long before the scene was ever written. The scene works because these two characters are wackadoodles. They’re both “dialogue-friendly” characters. And when you write dialogue-friendly characters into your script, you’re guaranteed to have more instances of good dialogue, especially if they’re the leads in your film. That was the genius of Silver Linings Playbook. It gave us two mentally offbeat characters who naturally say a lot of weird and entertaining shit.

I’m interested to see how you guys call this one. Silver Linings is good but the amateur entry isn’t chopped liver. Weigh in in the comments section!

What I learned: In a “get to know you” scene, one (or both) of your characters will inevitably talk about their past. These stories HAVE TO BE INTERESTING. If you give us some boring shit about how they used to be a first grade teacher but decided to quit and go back to school, you’re better off not mentioning their past at all. Give us something interesting or zip it. Tiffany’s backstory is that she banged 11 guys at work and got fired for it. That’s the kind of story that makes the reader sit up and go, “Whoa.” It’s the kind of backstory that’s WORTH bringing up.

maxresdefaultEven more dialogue!

All this week, I’ll be putting one of YOUR dialogue scenes up against a pro’s. My job, and your job as readers of Scriptshadow, is to figure out why the dialogue in the pro scenes works better. The ultimate goal, this week, is to learn as much as we can about dialogue. It’s a tricky skill to master so hopefully these exercises can help demystify it.

This first scene needs little setup. It’s the first scene in the script, takes place in a restaurant, and has three characters, Johnny, Tony, and Paul.

JOHNNY, TONY, and PAUL are sitting around a table. Johnny’s suit jacket is slung over the back of his chair. They are all enjoying a small meal. Each man wears a red tie to signify their allegiance to their gang.

JOHNNY: You’re a fuckin’ moron aren’t you?

TONY: That’s a little harsh don’t ya think?

JOHNNY: No I think it’s the right word. There’s nothing wrong with robbery. Stealing is a gift handed down to us by our forefathers.

Tony answers sarcastically.

TONY: Is that fucking so?

JOHNNY: Yes, Tony, it’s fucking so. And if you don’t shut your lips for a second I’m gonna sew ‘em up.

PAUL: Hey, hey, Johnny, calm down.

JOHNNY: Hey Paulie relax. Don’t make this fucking personal. Anyway, do you know how much we paid for Manhattan Island?

Tony doesn’t answer.

JOHNNY (CONT’D): Five bucks. We spent five bucks on this ashtray and now it’s one of the biggest commerce centers of the entire world.

TONY: So what, at least they got something. I never left a five spot in a safe I just robbed.

Johnny rubs his eyes.

JOHNNY: Tony, Tony, you fucking idiot.

Johnny turns to the window behind him.

JOHNNY (CONT’D): Tony, you see your fucking Jaguar out there.

A Jaguar rests in the parking lot.

JOHNNY (CONT’D): Now imagine not knowing what the potential of a car was then being offered a buck for it. You don’t know any better so you take the offer, then I turn around and make a fortune, I’ve just stolen your fortune.

TONY: Yeah but if I didn’t know–

JOHNNY: It doesn’t matter. In the constitution it says that I am guaranteed life, liberty, pursuit of happiness. And how is happiness achieved in this materialistic world.

PAUL: Money.

John rubs Paul’s head.

JOHNNY: That’s right Paul, and if I have to steal to get the money that makes me happy then I’m gonna steal my mother fucking ass off.

TONY: All I was sayin’ is the plan better be tight.

JOHNNY: And just how long have you been doing this?

PAUL: Oh shit Tony, not again.

Tony looks at Paul like he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

TONY: No, no I was just sayin’.

JOHNNY: You were just sayin’ what? What was it that you just so happened to say?

TONY: I just wanted to make sure that everything was accounted for. That all things were taken into consideration.

JOHNNY: So you’re the fucking Don now?

TONY: That’s not what I’m sayin’.

JOHNNY: Alright was there another ceremony? Are you a made man now?


JOHNNY: But I am so everything I say goes. If you have a problem with that I can get you a nice pair of cement boots and you can take it up with a flounder.

Johnny pulls a folded piece of paper out of his jacket and opens it.

JOHNNY (CONT’D): Alright, so…

TONY: Alright, but Johnny…

PAUL: Tony just shut up.

TONY: What I was just sayin’…

PAUL It don’t matter.

The next scene takes place in a ratty cocktail lounge. 50 year old Billy Batts, wearing a cheap out-of-date suit, used to be a big shot gangster. He’s since spent a long time in prison and just got out. A sharply dressed HOOD approaches Billy with his girlfriend. This is the first scene in the script (it would later be moved).

HOOD: Billy. You look beautiful. Welcome home.

BATTS: (laughing and turning to the bartender): What are you having. Give’em what they’re drinking.

We see four other men, including HENRY HILL and JAMES CONWAY, standing near Billy Batts at the bar, raise their glasses in salute. TOMMY DEVITO and another beehive blonde enter. Billy Batts looks up and sees Tommy.

BATTS: Hey, look at him. Tommy. You grew up.

TOMMY (preening a little): Billy, how are you?

BATTS (smiling broadly at Tommy and the girl): Son of a bitch. Get over here.

Tommy walks over and Billy, too aggressively, grabs Tommy around the neck. Tommy doesn’t like it.

TOMMY (forcing a laugh): Hey, Billy. Watch the suit.

BATTS (squeezing Tommy’s cheek, a little too hard): Listen to him. ‘Watch the suit,’ he says. A little pisser I’ve known all my life. Hey, Tommy, don’t get too big.

TOMMY: Don’t go busting my balls. Okay?

BATTS: (laughing, to the crowd at the bar) Busting his balls? (to Tommy) If I was busting your balls, I’d send you home for your shine box.

Tommy’s smile turns to a glare as he realizes Billy is making fun of him. The men at the bar are roaring with laughter. His girl is looking glumly at her shoes.

BATTS (to the hoods at the bar): You remember Tommy’s shines? The kid was great. He made mirrors.

TOMMY (almost a threat): No more shines, Billy.

BATTS: Come ooonnn. Tommeeee. We’re only kidding. You can’t take a joke? Come ooonn.

We see that Tommy is still angry but begins to relax with Billy’s apparent apology, but as soon as Billy sees that Tommy is beginning to relax, he contemptuously turns his back on Tommy.

BATTS (facing the bar): Now get the hell home and get your shine box.

Henry quickly steps in front of Tommy who is about to explode. Batts is facing the bar and does not see just how furious Tommy has become.

HENRY (gently wrestling Tommy away from the bar): Come on, relax. He’s drunk. He’s been locked up for six years.

TOMMY: I don’t give a shit. The guy’s got no right.

HENRY: Tommy. He doesn’t mean anything. Forget about it.

TOMMY (trying to wrestle past Henry): He’s insulting me. Rat bastard. He’s never been any fuckin’ good.

HENRY: Tommy. Come on. Relax.

TOMMY (to Henry): Keep him here. I’m going for a bag.

Today’s comparison is kind of tricky. One could make the argument that the dialogue in the first scene, from our amateur writer, is better than the second, which is a scene from Goodfellas. It’s more colorful. More varied. The characters play off each other well. You don’t find any fun lines like, “If you have a problem with that I can get you a nice pair of cement boots and you can take it up with a flounder” in the Goodfellas scene.

And this is where discussing dialogue can be confusing. Because there are two big problems with the amateur entry that keep it from being as good as the professional one. The first is that the ultimate goal of the scene (and the characters) is weak.  Johnny is trying to convince Tony and Paul to rob something with him.

We’re occasionally strapped with scenes that have weak goals in our scripts, but it’s our job as writers to identify that problem and come up with a solution, some way to counteract this weakness and still make the scene interesting. In this case, the writer made a crucial mistake. He set the scene at a table. People sitting around tables talking is really hard to make interesting. So you’ve strapped an already weak situation on top of an unintereseting one.

Writers are aware when they do this either consciously or subconsciously, but instead of doing the hard work and rethinking the scene, they try to write flashy fun dialogue in the hopes of masking the problem.  If you’ve ever rewritten the dialogue a hundred times in a scene and it’s still not working, this is usually the problem.  It’s not that the dialogue isn’t working.  It’s that the underpinnings of the scene aren’t working.

The second problem is that there’s no conflict in the scene. Well, there’s a little conflict. Johnny’s giving the others a hard time. But true conflict requires consequences. If Paul and Tony act up, the worst you suspect Johnny will do is curse them out. Which means that you have a dialogue scene with no conflict. And no conflict means no tension, and no tension means no drama.

Let’s switch over to the second scene now. Notice how the dialogue is serving a purpose. The two main characters have goals. Each one is posturing, trying to be seen as the bigger man in the room. The stakes are high because this is very important to both of them, especially Tommy, who’s upset that Billy doesn’t realize he’s a big shot now.

Because our two characters have clear goals with high stakes attache, and that those goals contrast one another, you have conflict/tension between them. Compare the tension in the second scene to that in the first. It’s WAY higher, right? That’s because the writer put the elements in place ahead of time to ensure he’d get the most amount of conflict in the scene. And conflict is one of the huge keys to good dialogue.

This is one of the big things I’m realizing this week. The pros are laying the foundation for the scene first – how they’re going to make it build and pay off – then they lay the dialogue on top of that. The amateurs are just laying the dialogue down right away. It’s like putting a rug on a dusty dry-wall floor. The rug itself may be pretty (like all the fun banter in the first scene) but it doesn’t look right inside an unfinished room.

Now some of you may say this is another apples to oranges comparison. One scene has characters who are going to kill someone and the other just people talking. So clearly the more intense scene is going to win out on the drama-meter.

This is something else I’m trying to convey this week. The Goodfellas writer never would’ve written the first scene. He knows that three people sitting down at a table with no internal or external conflict is a recipe for boredom.

Think about it. Before the Goodfellas scene was written, the writer was faced with a choice of how to introduce these characters. He very well could’ve put Henry Hill, Tommy, and James at a table and let them chat.  Maybe show how impatient Tommy was with the waiter to convey his anger issues. But he knew that no matter how well he wrote that scene, it didn’t have anywhere to go.

So instead, he creates an outside source of conflict, Billy Batts, pitts one of our guys against him, and now we have ourselves a scene. We’ve got conflict, we’ve got tension. We’ve got a scenes that BUILDS. That’s a scenario you can draw a lot of good dialogue from.

Knowing all this, how would I improve the first scene?  Well, outside of writing a completely different scene, I’d look for a source of conflict, either inside the group or outside the group.  That’s one of the easiest ways to boost dialogue.

Maybe there’s a table of super-rowdy drunk college kids next to them. Johnny can’t seem to get through his sentences without another outburst of laughter drowning him out.  With each outburst, he gets more and more pissed off.  Maybe at one point, a kid gets up from the table and stumbles into Johnny.  Doesn’t even apologize, just walks off.  Notice how we now have a scene that’s BUILDING, that has suspense, like the Goodfellas scene, as we know Johnny is going to deal with these kids at some point, and it’s going to be good.  That’s one example.  Now you try.  What source of conflict would you use?

What I learned: Create an audience for your characters to add a different dynamic to the conversation. One of the reasons the Goodfellas scene plays so well is because it isn’t just a scene between Batts and Tommy. If that was it, Tommy might have let it go. It’s that Batts has brought in an audience. His insults aren’t intimate. He’s performing them in front of others so that they sting Tommy even harder. Writers often get wrapped up in just the two characters featured in a scene, not realizing that bringing in one of the dozens or hundreds of characters around them could give the scene a fresh new energy.


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