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.
CLEMENTINE: Oh. So…
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.
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.
PAT PEOPLES: EVERYbody?
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?
PAT PEOPLES: Wow.
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 STANDS ABRUPTLY.
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.
TIFFANY (CONT’D): YOU COCKY, JUDGEMENTAL SON OF A BITCH! [Patrons look] Forget I offered to help, it must be a CRAZY idea because I’m SO MUCH CRAZIER THAN YOU ARE, HA, HAA, HA, HAAA, I’M A CRAZY SLUT WITH A DEAD HUSBAND!
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 –
HE STARTS AFTER HER, BUT THE WAITRESS STEPS INTO HIS PATH.
OLDER WAITRESS: Slow down, Raisin Bran, we got the check. All $3.79 of it.
SHE TEARS THE CHECK FROM HER PAD AND HANDS IT TO HIM AS HE WATCHES TIFFANY WALK OUT THE DOOR.
PAT PEOPLES: (searches his pockets) Dammit, where is it? I have the money, I swear.
THE WAITRESS WATCHES, DOUBTING HIM. HE PULLS OUT THE TWO TWENTIES.
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.
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.
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.
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 about dialogue as we can. It’s such a tricky skill to master and hopefully these exercises can help demystify it. Here’s yesterday’s “You vs. Pro” if you haven’t read it yet.
In this opening scene, which takes place 50 years in the future, SAM FREEMAN, a “memory diver,” is preparing to go inside the brain of a comatose soldier to try and save him. The soldier’s father, ADMIRAL BLOCK, and Sam’s boss at the hospital, TRENT HARKNESS, head into the operating theater with him.
SAM, admiral BLOCK, and HARKNESS enter the operating theater. Block’s son HARRISON is already hooked up to the Rig.
SAM: Listen, Admiral… I think, given your son’s prognosis, speaking as his therapist… I don’t want you to get your hopes up, ok.
BLOCK: What the hell are you saying? He’s my son!
HARKNESS: No no no, what Dr. Freeman is saying, sir, with this kind of procedure-
SAM: What I’m saying is that maybe it’s time to let go. Do the decent thing, let your kid fade out. Lord knows he could use some peace.
Harkness, mouth agape. Block, turning fire engine red.
BLOCK: You may want to think carefully about the next words that are going to come out of your mouth.
SAM: Or maybe you want to think about what you’re signing your son up for. The years of therapy. The pharmacy’s worth of drugs to get him even remotely close to stable. The drain he’ll be on his family, financially and emotionally. He’ll know. Oh, he’ll know. And he’ll hate every minute of it.
Harkness is turning white as a sheet. Complete shock.
SAM (CONT’D): That’s what you want for him, I won’t stop you. But maybe you should think on whether death isn’t kinder than your selfish need to prolong a life that’s already over.
Block, teeth bared, GRABS Sam. PUSHES him against the wall.
Harkness snaps out of it. Frantically calls for some orderlies to pry Block off Sam.
SAM: Go ahead, get it out. Let loose. Come on. Do it.
Block, muscles taut with fury. We realize Sam genuinely wants Block to beat the shit out of him. And after a couple of tense seconds, Block sees it, too.
BLOCK: You’d like that, wouldn’t you?
He releases his grip. The ORDERLIES burst in, ready to regulate. Block holds up his hands; the orderlies hang back.
BLOCK (CONT’D): You don’t know my son. You don’t know shit. (to the orderlies)
It’s okay, I’m good.
HARKNESS: I’m terribly sorry, Admiral. I assure you, Dr. Freeman will-
But Block’s not paying attention to Harkness. He stands next to his son, strapped into the Rig.
BLOCK: When he was seven, Harrison brought home a stray dog. Mr. Tails. Ugly mutt. Kid loved that damn thing.
Block runs a hand through his comatose son’s hair.
BLOCK (CONT’D): One day, they’re out playing, dog gets hit by a car. I see the animal’s in pain, dying. Try to explain to Harrison what’s the humane thing to do.
Block fixes Sam with a hard stare.
BLOCK (CONT’D): Wouldn’t let me near the dog. Kept kicking me. Punching. Kid’s seven, and he’s putting up one hell of a fight. Knew he’d get his ass whooped, too. Didn’t care. Just needed me to take his damn dog to the vet. Wouldn’t back down.
There’s a stillness in the room, punctuated only by the sound of biomonitors beeping in the background.
BLOCK (CONT’D): I know my son. I know what he’d want me to do. If there’s even the smallest chance…
A silent understanding passes between the two men. Finally, Sam nods.
SAM: I’m sorry for what I said. It wasn’t my place.
BLOCK: You said what you thought you had to. No harm in that. But next time you suggest euthanasia to a parent, I recommend you keep your trap shut.
Sam clicks his cyberdeck into the Rig. Removes the dust plug from the datajack in his skull.
Harkness is staring daggers at Sam. This isn’t over. As he lies down and reaches for the data cable:
SAM: So what happened to Mr. Tails?
Block’s eyes cloud over.
BLOCK: You got work to do, doc.
SAM: Yeah. I suppose I do.
Sam jacks in. His eyes close.
RIG OPERATING SYSTEM (V.O.) Begin playback: March 18, 2057.
FADE TO WHITE.
In this next scene, a father, Matt, is preparing his daughters, 17 year old Alexandra and 10 year old Scottie (yes, Scottie is a girl), to have their last moment with their mother, who’s been in a coma and has just now been taken off life support. Matt is particularly concerned about Scottie, who’s been slow to grasp the magnitude of her mom’s situation.
[Elizabeth] now lies with no machines at all. Around her BALLOONS droop, FLOWERS wilt, get-well CARDS lie in a pile. Elizabeth too is wilting and drooping. Her skin is pasty, and her cheeks are hollow.
SCOTTIE: How come Mom isn’t on any more machines? Is she getting better?
The adults exchange glances. Dr. Herman approaches Scottie.
DR. HERMAN: You must be Scottie. (off her nod –) Scottie, I have a present for you.
Dr. Herman hands her a little squeaky RUBBER OCTOPUS she pulls from her pocket.
DR. HERMAN (CONT’D): That’s right. It’s an octopus. Such a funny creature with its eight legs. But did you know octopi are actually extremely intelligent, like dogs and cats? They have unique personalities, and just like us they have a lot of defense mechanisms. I’m sure you know about the ink sac. She uses ink to confuse her predators. She can camouflage herself. She can emit poison, and some can mimic more dangerous creatures, like the eel. I keep her to remind me of our defense mechanisms — our ink, our camouflage, our poison, all the things we use to keep away hurt. The reason Dr. Johnston invited me here today is to meet you, Scottie. I’ve heard a lot about you.
SCOTTIE: Like what?
DR. HERMAN: I’ve heard that you’re a wonderful and unique and spirited girl.
Dr. Herman shoots a look at Matt before continuing.
DR. HERMAN (CONT’D): And I’ve heard your mom’s not doing too well and that she’s going to die very soon.
All watch Scottie react to this news.
SCOTTIE: Dad, is that true?
MATT: Yes, Scottie. It’s true.
DR. HERMAN: You’re going to have to be a very brave girl right now, and you’re surrounded by people who love you. I came to meet you and tell you that if you ever want to talk about what you’re feeling, I would like to talk to you too. I can help you face what’s going on without all the silly defense mechanisms that work for an octopus but not for us.
DR. JOHNSTON: Okay. Thank you, Dr. Herman.
Dr. Herman looks at everyone with great sincerity before leaving. Scottie is left holding the octopus. She drops it, and it squeaks a little.
ALEXANDRA: What the fuck was that?
DR. JOHNSTON: Yes, well, they say she’s very good one-on-one.
SCOTTIE: So Mom’s going to die for sure?
DR. JOHNSTON: Yes. We worked really hard with her, but three other doctors and I agree she’s in what we call an irreversible coma. Do you know what that means?
SCOTTIE: It means she doesn’t have a brain anymore.
DR. JOHNSTON: Not exactly, but… yes, that’s the general idea. So we’re doing exactly what she wanted us to do if that ever happened. That’s why she’s not attached to the machines anymore.
ALEXANDRA: It’s for the best, Scottie. Look at her. She’s not happy like this.
DR. JOHNSTON: The purpose of medicine is to heal, and we can’t do that now.
MATT: Do you understand?
SCOTTIE: Yes. What will we do with her body?
Dr. Johnston looks to Matt for this one.
MATT: First Mom’s going to give some of her organs to other sick people, so she can
help save their lives. That’s a really neat thing she’s doing. Then we’re going to… we’re going to scatter her ashes in the ocean. You know how Mom always loved the ocean.
SCOTTIE: Her ashes?
Scottie looks at her mother, picturing her as ashes.
SCOTTIE (CONT’D): When will she die?
DR. JOHNSTON: Any day now, I’m afraid. But you still have some time.
DR. JOHNSTON (CONT’D): Well. Let me know if you have any more questions.
MATT: Thanks, Sam.
The doctor leaves, and the room is quiet. Scottie is in a sort of trance.
ALEXANDRA: Come here, Scottie.
Scottie goes to her sister, who takes her in her arms.
SCOTTIE: Do eyeballs burn?
SID: Hey, Scottie. Don’t think about stuff like that.
Okay, let’s take a look at our first scene, which is from an amateur script called “Firstborn.” At the outset, the scene appears to have a lot going for it. We have clear goals (Block wants to save his son. Sam’s trying to convince Block it’s a bad idea). We have conflict (stemming directly from this difference in opinion).
We approach the scene from a slightly unique angle. You’d expect a doctor to fight for a patient’s life. In this case, Sam’s fighting to end the patient’s life. So the scene has a slightly different flavor to it. And yet, something feels off about it. The dialogue isn’t popping the way it should. Why?
Well, the first thing I noticed was that a lot of lines had what I call “hiccups,” additions or pieces of text that screw up the rhythm of the line. Take this line for example: “You may want to think carefully about the next words that are going to come out of your mouth.” The hiccup here is “that are going to.” “That are going to” shouldn’t be in this sentence. It should just be, “You may want to think carefully about the next words out of your mouth.” Reads better, right?
Or check out this line: “No harm in that. But next time you suggest euthanasia to a parent, I recommend you keep your trap shut.” This sentence doesn’t even make sense. “The next time you suggest euthanasia, keep your trap shut.” How can he keep his trap shut about euthanasia if he already suggested it? What’s meant to be said here is that the next time Sam thinks about suggesting euthanasia, he should keep his trap shut. It’s a small oversight, but a hiccup that gives the reader pause. Once these hiccups start piling up, the read becomes difficult and frustrating.
Next, there were a series of cliché/cheesy lines. Stuff like, “He’ll know. Oh, he’ll know.” The second “Oh, he’ll know,” is overly dramatic and unnecessary. Later, when Block realizes Sam wants him to beat him up (for reasons that aren’t clear to me), Block replies, “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” How many times have we heard this line in movies and TV before? Hundreds? Thousands? Once something becomes overused, it feels lazy and cheesy.
But, of course, the worst line of all is, “When he was seven, Harrison brought home a stray dog. Mr. Tails.” Adding the dog’s name is a hiccup here. Stopping after “dog” would’ve been preferable. But the real problem is that by going back in time to tell a story, you take us out of the immediate conflict of the scene. This is why I advise to stay away from flashbacks or mono-backs (monologues focusing on backstory) if possible. It’s not that they can’t work. It’s that they rarely work.
To better understand why this dialogue doesn’t work, let’s examine why the dialogue in the second scene does work. For those who don’t recognize the scene, it’s from the film, “The Descendants,” which starred George Clooney. The script, written by Alexander Payne, Jim Rash, and Nate Faxon, won an Academy Award.
So what’s so good about this scene? Well, I’m guessing none of you picked up on this while reading it, but notice how this is the most heartbreaking scene in the script, the finally-letting-go scene, and it contains zero emotion. What I mean by that is, there’s no yelling here, no crying, no fighting. It’s a very calm matter-of-fact scene. With that in mind, ask yourself which scene is more emotionally moving to the reader, the first or the second? The second, right?
You’re going to hear it again and again on this site. Irony plays such a huge part in making the elements of a screenplay work. This is a scene about death with no emotion. That’s exactly why it works. Because it’s unexpected. It’s not the way you traditionally see the scene going down.
Speaking of untraditional, let’s take a closer look at the octopus. I think the octopus dialogue is genius, and I’ll tell you why. Imagine your version of a dying hospital scene. What’s the last thing you’d expect to be in that scene? An octopus. And that’s exactly why this works, because it’s so unexpected. It comes out of nowhere and throws this weird energy into the scene that tells the audience, “You do not know where this is going.” And when we don’t know where something is going, we pay closer attention. Because we want to see where it goes.
Contrast this with the first scene. We all knew exactly where that scene was going. There was nothing unexpected about it, which was a big reason why you probably grew bored reading it. This was a problem yesterday as well. I was never in doubt about where that amateur scene was going. And the more expected something is, the more boring it tends to be.
The octopus becomes this weird failed attempt to placate Scottie. And when it fails, the rest of the room is left to pick up the pieces, leading to yet more unexpectedness. Who’s going to clean this up? What are they going to say to clean it up? These are the questions that drive the scene, that make us want to keep reading.
Yesterday, there were those of you who saw the amateur scene as better than the pros. Do you feel the same way today? If so, why? Share your thoughts. But try to articulate WHY you think the dialogue works (or doesn’t). “The second one is better” doesn’t help anyone. It’s only once you understand why something is or isn’t working that you’re able to apply that knowledge to your own screenwriting.
What I learned 1: The octopus – In well-worn scenes that we’ve seen a thousand times before, inject your own “octopus” into the scene to make it feel different.
What I learned 2: Hiccups – Hiccups are any additional words in your dialogue that aren’t necessary. But it can also be incorrect use of words, tenses, subjects, phrases. Hiccups are just as bad as spelling errors. On their own, they’re not a big deal. But once they pile up, they can spell doom for your script.
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 about dialogue as we can. It’s such a tricky skill to master and hopefully these exercises can help demystify it.
Our first scene introduces us to Boyd, a washed up cop, and Dominique, a drug addicted jazz singer. Boyd has just driven Dominique home from the station after she was released from a solicitation charge. As she gets out, she invites him up to her apartment for a drink. This is where the scene takes place (in the apartment). Outside of the car ride they just shared, this is their first conversation.
Boyd grabs a bottle of the good stuff off the makeshift bar.
DOMINIQUE: Not that one. That one’s for show.
Fishing inside a cabinet, Dominique produces the exact same bottle. She pours them both a drink.
Curious, Boyd sniffs his bottle, then sniffs what she’s poured. He smiles knowingly.
Dominique’s on one side of the large canopy bed. Boyd’s miles away, on the other side. Morning light creeps around the drapes.
BOYD: I saw you once.
DOMINIQUE: Don’t be coy, detective. I see you in the back, watching me. You think I don’t, but I do.
BOYD: One, remind me to pick a new spot. And two, it was a long time ago, Chicago. A club called Mister Lucky’s.
DOMINIQUE (playful): What do you know about Mister Lucky’s?
BOYD: I knew talent when I saw it.
BOYD: Which makes me wonder –
DOMINIQUE: What’s a girl like me doing working at Club Cake?
BOYD: Something like that.
DOMINIQUE : Atoning for my indiscretions. And you? What kind of cop’s moonlighting for an asshole like Q?
BOYD: They say true success is knowing your limits and not letting others burden you with their expectations.
DOMINIQUE: What’s that? Some new age, 12 step bullshit?
BOYD : My way of saying we have a lot in common. Boyd raises his glass.
BOYD: To indiscretions and atonement.
DOMINIQUE: I’d thought it’d get easier.
BOYD: So did I.
DOMINIQUE : Daisy said you were a good guy. Are you?
BOYD: When I’m not burdened by expectations? — Yeah.
DOMINIQUE : I’ve got enough pricks in my life. I could use a friend with no expectations.
BOYD: Then I’m your man.
Biting her lip.
DOMINIQUE: Come on.
Dominique steps out of the ripped dress. Boyd’s eyes follow long legs and firm ass down the hall.
DOMINIQUE: Bring the bottle.
BOYD: Where are we going?
DOMINIQUE: To bed.
Sitting on the large canopy bed, Boyd’s confused. Off his look.
DOMINIQUE: That one’s for show.
In this next scene, we have Tom, a homicide detective, paying a visit to Vanessa, a successful novelist who’s a person of interest in a murder case. The two have met before, but this is the first time Tom is seeing her alone. Her house is a huge, a mansion. The scene takes place up in her large office.
He follows her inside. He watches her body. His movements are tentative, off-balance. She turns [the music] down.
On a table by the window, he sees [a computer]. Spread around it are newspaper clippings. They are all about him. We see the headline on one: KILLER COP TO FACE POLICE REVIEW. She sees him glancing at the clips.
VANESSA: I’m using you for my detective. In my book. You don’t mind, do you?
She smiles. He looks at her, expressionless.
VANESSA: Would you like a drink? I was just going to have one.
TOM: No, thanks.
She goes to the bar.
VANESSA: That’s right. You’re off the Jack Daniels too, aren’t you?
She is making herself a drink. She takes the ice out and then opens a drawer and gets an icepick. It has a fat wooden end. She uses the icepick on the ice, her back to him. He watches her.
TOM: I’d like to ask you a few more questions.
VANESSA: I’d like to ask you some, too.
She turns to him, icepick in hand, smiles.
VANESSA: For my book.
She turns back to the ice, works on it with the pick. She raises her arm, plunges it. Raises it, plunges it. He watches her.
TOM (wary): What kind of questions?
She puts the icepick down, pours herself a drink, turns to him.
VANESSA: How does it feel to kill someone?
He looks at her for a long beat.
TOM (finally): You tell me.
VANESSA: I don’t know. But you do.
Their eyes are on each other.
TOM (finally): It was an accident. They got in the line of fire.
VANESSA: Four shootings in five years. All accidents.
TOM (after a long beat): They were drug buys. I was a vice cop.
A long beat, as they look at each other.
TOM: Tell me about Professor Goldstein.
VANESSA: There’s a name from the past.
TOM: You want a name from the present? How about Hazel Dobkins?
She looks at him a long beat, sips her drink, never takes her eyes off him.
VANESSA: Noah was my counselor in my freshman year. (she smiles) That’s probably where I got the idea for the icepick. For my book. Funny how the subconscious works. (a beat) Hazel is my friend.
TOM: She wiped out her whole family.
VANESSA: Yes. She’s helped me understand homicidal impulse.
TOM: Didn’t you study it in school?
VANESSA: Only in theory. (she smiles) You know all about homicidal impulse, don’t you, shooter? Not in theory — in practice.
He stares at her a long beat.
VANESSA (continuing quietly): What happened, Tom? Did you get sucked into it? Did you like it too much?
TOM (after a beat): No.
He stares at her, almost horrified.
VANESSA (quietly): Tell me about the coke, Tom. The day you shot those two tourists — how much coke did you do?
She steps closer to him.
VANESSA (continuing): Tell me, Tom.
She puts her hand softly on his cheek. He grabs her hand roughly, holds it.
TOM: I didn’t.
VANESSA: Yes, you did. They never tested you, did they? But Internal Affairs knew.
They are face to face. He is still holding her roughly by the hand.
VANESSA (continuing): Your wife knew, didn’t she? She knew what was going on. Tommy got too close to the flame. Tommy liked it.
He twists her hand. They’re pressed against each other — their eyes digging into each other.
VANESSA: (continuing; in a whisper): That’s why she killed herself?
He is twisting her arm, staring at her, pulling her against him. We hear the DOOR behind them. A beat, and he lets her go, turns away from her.
Roxy stands there, staring at them. Her hair is up. She wears a black motorcycle jacket, a black T-shirt, and black jeans and cowboy boots.
VANESSA (continuing brightly): Hiya, hon. You two have met, haven’t you?
Roxy looks at Tom. Vanessa goes to her, kisses her briefly on the lips, stands there with her arm around her — both of them looking at Tom.
He walks by them, opens the door to go, his face a mask.
VANESSA (continuing): You’re going to make a terrific character, Tom.
He doesn’t look at her; he’s gone.
So what’s the big difference? The first scene is two people talking. The second scene is a SCENE.
What do I mean by that? Well, let’s take a look at the first scene. It’s not bad. But there doesn’t seem to be a clear goal for our characters. It’s more of a mish-mash of conversation interrupted by the occasional piece of backstory. “What’s that? Some new age, 12 step bullshit?” “My way of saying we have a lot in common.” Boyd raises his glass “To indiscretions and atonement.” “I thought it’d get easier.” “So did I.” “Daisy said you were a good guy. Are you?”
“I thought it’d get easier??” Where did that come from?? This seems to be the beginning of a new beat in the scene, a new segment of conversation, which is fine. You can switch gears in a scene . But the problem with this scene is that it never quite finds the gear it wants to cruise in. It feels like it’s always switching gears. This is usually due to the writer being unclear on what his characters want in the scene (their goal). If the writer doesn’t know what they want, he has the characters talk to fill up air, and that almost always results in bad dialogue.
I see a lot of beginners writing this way. They have a vague idea of where they want the scene to end (in this case: the characters having sex), but they haven’t thought about what each character wants that will lead them to that goal. So the dialogue essentially becomes a time-wasting feature until one of the characters says to the other, “Let’s go to bed.”
If, for example, Boyd really wants sex from this girl (his goal), you can play with that. It’s not going to be as strong as a detective probing someone about their role in a murder, but stakes are relative to the characters and the situation, and you can make some of the simplest goals feel important. For example, let’s say we make Boyd a sex addict (He doesn’t have to be. He can just be horny. But I’m raising the stakes a little). Boyd’s goal in this scene, then, is to have sex. Once you have a goal, you can create obstacles to that goal, and now you have conflict, which creates tension/drama.
The way the scene’s written now, Dominique is making it clear she’s going to have sex with Boyd no matter what. I mean she’s practically got it tattooed on her forehead. That means everything in the scene is a foregone conclusion, which is boring. Instead, what if Dominique is fucking with Boyd, just like Vanessa is fucking with Tom. One second Dominique is being flirty, the next she’s stonewalling Boyd. It’s driving him crazy. He doesn’t know if she wants him or not. By doing this, the GOAL IS IN DOUBT. And if the goal is in doubt, the dialogue has purpose. Because it means Boyd has to use his words (his dialogue) to get something.
The second scene is from Basic Instinct (I changed the character names in hopes that you wouldn’t know). Whereas our amateur scene just plopped its two characters down into a room, you can tell the scene in Basic Instinct was CONSTRUCTED. What I mean by that is that pieces were put into place to mine as much drama as possible from the scene.
The very first thing that happens is Tom sees the newspaper clippings of himself on the desk. This is significant because Tom thought he was coming in here as the dominant party. This switches things up. It means Vanessa has become the dominant player. These kinds of things always work – where you change the assumed dynamic between the players in the scene. A cop is supposed to be in charge around a suspect. But now, the suspect is in charge, and that gives the scene an exciting unpredictable energy.
Next, the scene has clear goals. Tom wants to find out information about the murder from Vanessa. Vanessa, on the other hand, her goal is to intimidate Tom. She wants him to know that if he’s going to look into her as a suspect, it’s going to come at a price. This creates a TON of conflict, which is the fuel for any great scene. Looking back at that first scene, I’m not sure I noticed any conflict.
Next, we have subtext. Tom’s not coming right out and saying “I think you’re the murderer.” That would be boring. He’s digging, he’s probing. Nor is she saying, “Don’t fuck with me, Tom! I will make your life miserable.” That also would be boring. She’s showing him that she’s looked into him. She’s crunching ice. She’s pushing his buttons.
Next, the scene builds. Each segment of the scene escalates the tension. The tension near the end of the scene is higher than the tension at the midway point which is higher than the tension at the ¼ point which is higher than the tension at the beginning. That’s good writing, when a scene builds up, when you feel that air being pumped into the balloon. Go back to the first scene again. Notice how ¾ of the way into the scene, the energy doesn’t feel that much different from the energy at the beginning of the scene.
Finally, Eszterhas (our writer) throws a little twist into the end, by having Roxy show up. It’s not a huge part of the scene, but it’s a calculated measure. Watching Vanessa flip the switch and become rosy and sweet shows how calculating she is, how easy it is for her to go from one extreme to the next, which is scary if you’re Tom.
There’s a lot more to talk about with both of these scenes, and I encourage you guys to point out what you find. And hey, if you want to rewrite the opening scene to show the writer how you’d make it better, by all means, go ahead. I’d be interested to see what you came up with. This week should be fun!
What I learned: Sitting two people down and having them talk is usually not enough for a scene. What Basic Instinct teaches us is that you should construct the elements of your scene in such a manner as to create and build tension.