The Big Lebowski

Believe it or not, I didn’t like this movie for a long time. I’m not really into the whole stoner culture and this film was basically a promotional tool for the Toke and Tug crowd. But I watched it again recently (sans the close-mindedness) and I was kind of blown away. The character work here is amazing (not that I should be surprised. It’s written by the Coens) and the dialogue is top-notch. And that’s the main reason I wanted to give it the Tuesday treatment.  I wanted to see if I could snag a few dialogue tips. You know, the more I study dialogue, the more I realize it’s less about the actual writing of the dialogue, and more about all the things you do before the dialogue. In other words, the characters, the relationships, the situation. If you get all those things right, the dialogue writes itself.  That observation is on full display here.

1) Introduce your hero in a way that tells us EXACTLY who he is – I know I put this tip in my book, but I couldn’t dissect this script without bringing up how perfectly it’s executed here. We meet “The Dude” (Jeff Bridges) at the grocery store, shopping in the middle of the night, wearing a bathrobe. I mean, how do you NOT know who this character is after this scene? And yet I continue to see writers introducing their characters in unimaginative situations that tell us little to nothing about them. Come on guys! This is a fairly simple tip to execute!

2) CONFLICT ALERT – You’ll notice that in pretty much the entire script for The Big Lebowski (almost every scene) people are in disagreement. Walter and The Dude have two completely different philosophies on life. Walter thinks Donny (Steve Buschemi) is a total moron and is always yelling at him. Walter pulls guns on bowlers who cheat. The Dude and Mr. Lebowski never agree. The Dude and the Nihilists don’t agree. The Dude and the thugs don’t agree. Since there’s zero agreement in every scene, there’s always conflict. And guess what conflict leads to? That’s right, good dialogue.

3) Use passionate characters to distract us from exposition-heavy locations/scenes – The bowling alley where our characters always meet up has NOTHING to do with the story. It’s merely there for expositional purposes.  Technically, our characters could be discussing this stuff anywhere (a coffee shop, a workplace, a restaurant). Here’s why the Coens are clever though. They know if the location is random, the exposition will stick out like a sore thumb.  So they create this bowling alley setting and have one of their characters be the most DIE HARD BOWLER EVER (Walter).  This is no longer a random setting.  It’s an institution.  Discussions here matter because this place matters to our trio (particularly Walter).  I see too many scripts where writers lazily place their characters at coffee shops to dish out exposition.  These scenes ALWAYS smell like exposition.  This tip is a great way to avoid this issue.

4) Give someone in a position of power a handicap – The irony behind this make-up always works. The extremely rich Mr. Lebowski is in a wheelchair.

5) (DIALOGUE) Conversation Diversion – An easy way to write some good dialogue is to create a diversion for one of the characters in the conversation, so that he’s dealing with someone else at the same time he’s dealing with the primary character. So in “Lebowski,” we’re at the bowling alley and the The Dude is asking Walter what the fuck they’re going to do about losing the money. At the same time, Donny informs Walter that the semifinals of the tournament are on the Sabbath. Walter freaks out because he’s not allowed to bowl on that day. So he’s yelling at Donny to change the day at the same time that he’s explaining to The Dude that they have nothing to worry about.  A conversation diversion is a great way to spice up dialogue.

6) Always try and escalate the stakes around the midpoint – Readers get bored quickly.  The key to preventing their boredom is to keep them on edge. A great way to do this is to make the second half of your story BIGGER than the first half. You do this by raising the stakes in the middle of the script. Here the stakes are raised when Mr. Lebowski tells The Dude that because The Dude took his money, he told the kidnappers to do whatever they wanted to to get it back from him. He then shows Dude a severed toe the kidnappers sent. This isn’t a game anymore. The stakes have been raised.

7) Give your character a plan then find a way to fuck it up. – Really, you should approach every story you tell this way. Give a character a plan (he has to achieve something) then fuck it up for him. The result is entertainment. This tool should not only be used for the macro, but for individual sequences as well. For example, The Dude plans to do a money drop with the guys who kidnapped Mr. Lebowski’s wife, Bonnie. Before you write that sequence, ask yourself, “How can I fuck this up?” Well, Walter asks The Dude if he can come along. He does, and halfway there, Walter says he’s got his own plan. He’s going to give them a fake suitcase of his dirty underwear and keep the ransom money for themselves. Adding Walter fucked things up.

8) (DIALOGUE) The One-Sided Conversation – This is another dialogue scene that always works. Create a “conversation” where only one person is talking the entire time. The audience is so used to a back and forth, that the lack of one is somewhat jarring and ignites the scene. Here we have the famous scene where Walter and The Dude go to the house of the guy they THINK stole their money. It turns out to be a 16 year old kid. Walter proceeds to grill the kid for the entire scene. The kid just looks back at him the whole time and does nothing (this is followed by the classic moment where Walter destroys his car).

9) Keep throwing shit at your protag – Just keep throwing terrible things at your protag. That’s all this movie is. Someone steals The Dude’s rug. Walter botches the drop, putting The Dude in danger. The Nihilists come after him. Mr. Lebowski comes after him. His car is taken. The suitcase is stolen. Hurl the worst things imaginable at your protag and watch him react. It’s always interesting.

10)  Do everything in your power to avoid writing two slow scenes in a row. ALWAYS KEEP THE STORY MOVING – The cool thing about this movie is that after every “slow” scene (which are usually the bowling scenes), something YANKS The Dude back into the story. In other words, there’s never two slow scenes in a row. All of these things happen after a slow scene: Mr. Lebowski wants to meet. Jackie Treehorn (the porn king) wants to meet. The Nihilists show up when he’s taking a bath. Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore) needs him to come over right away. They walk out of the bowling alley and their car is on fire. Lots of young writers think they need three or four scenes of detox before throwing the reader back into the story. This script proves that you only need one.

Bonus tip – For good dialogue, create an opposite dynamic between your two main characters – Whichever two characters talk to each other the most in your script, create the most exaggerated dynamic between them possible.  Because at their very core, they will be the opposite, their conversations will be filled with conflict.  And conflict = good dialogue.  Walter is a war vet.  The Dude is a Pacifist. I mean, how can these two NOT have great dialogue together?

These are 10 tips from the movie “The Big Lebowski.” To get 500 more tips from movies as varied as “Star Wars,” “When Harry Met Sally,” and “The Hangover,” check out my book, Scriptshadow Secrets, on Amazon!

  • Graham

    Great stuff again Carson – the kind of article that immediately gets me re-thinking about material in my own scripts.

    • carsonreeves1

      That’s why I write ‘em. Thanks Graham! :)

      • Graham

        Still haven’t had the benefit of the book – like I’ve said, I nearly always prefer ‘physical’ books – so still wondering if there’s any word on a ‘paper’ release?

    • Alexc

      Very true. It’s got me working this through two current projects of mine.

  • Malibo Jackk

    I thought this was going to be about bowling.

    • carsonreeves1

      I could use a post about bowling. I won’t disclose my score from the last time I played, but let’s just say I would’ve been happy to hit triple digits.

      • Bella_Lugossi

        My latest score was 63. I am an awful bowler. Yours can’t have been lower than that, or was it..? ;]

  • Avishai

    What the heck is Dialouge?

    • Avishai

      Been fixed. Now I can’t complain. Dang. I like griping.

  • Avishai

    Has the newsletter been discontinued?

    • ElliotMaguire

      I second that.

  • TGivens

    I love The Big Lebowski!!! Great example of brilliant screenwriting! Thanks for the tips!

  • JWF

    I love these breakdowns. The giving someone in a position of power a handicap tip is going right into a screenplay I’m working now, have been trying for ages to think of something to make this character feel more like a complete person and think this could do the trick!

  • ripleyy

    Another great article. :)

  • ElliotMaguire

    Yeah. I’m pretty ashamed to not have seen this movie. Again, great tips though, the most significant for me being the two slow scenes in a row. I like to keep my scripts under 100 pages. I find this helps.

  • Bella_Lugossi

    Thanks Carson! I really enjoyed this.

    I’ve always loved TBL, but I’ve never considered it a stoner flick. Remove the pot and the story still stands.

    Half Baked is a film that should be taken apart for GSU someday.

    Goal: get our friend out of jail
    Stakes: if we don’t he’ll get raped
    Urgency: he’s getting f*ckin’ raped!!

    I did enjoy both on different levels, but TBL is clearly the better dramatic picture. :]

    • Tor H

      If I may add something, the urgency comes from the impending release of the guy (Tommy Chong) who can protect Kenny (the friend) from getting raped, so that lights a fire under his other friends.

      Huh. Even a goofy comedy can teach lessons if it’s written well-enough.

    • James Inez

      Nasty Nate is coming for ya!

      • Bella_Lugossi

        The Squirrelmaster ain’t gonna be there for you all the time!

  • dkFrizzell

    The Carson abides… I don’t know about you but I take comfort in that.

  • Ewen Mac

    It’s a masterpiece. It totally defies the “character arc” theory because by the end of the film neither Walter or The Dude have learned anything; they didn’t develop, change, overcome a fear or character flaw etc etc They’re exactly the same at the end as they are at the beginning.
    It’s a rare gem, and so much more than a “stoner movie” – every line of dialogue is quotable.
    I could go on but fuck it – let’s go bowling…

  • carsonreeves1

    That was going to be one of my tips so I’m glad you brought it up. Even the smallest characters have something going on.

  • fragglewriter

    Great analysis.

  • Jonathan Soens

    You’re so correct about there being little bread crumbs scattered around about the stories in other people’s lives which would make interesting movies in their own right. I could see The Dude’s early life being its own movie. I could see an indie movie about Jesus, with him having to go around and inform his neighbors that he’s a sex offender. I could see a movie just about that nihilist lady who sacrificed her toe to serve as a prop in their ransom scam.

    The thing about vivid character histories is that not all of it is necessary to the story being told in the screenplay. It’s one of those things that bugs me when people preach that you shouldn’t ever include anything in a script that isn’t vital to the story.

    You can create a much deeper world for your characters to inhabit if you create the impression that they’re all living, breathing people who have been inhabiting this world since long before you sat down and read Page 1 of the script.

  • Poe_Serling

    As usual with these kind of articles, Carson throws out a few gold nuggets:

    “Introduce your hero in a way that tells us EXACTLY who he is…. ”

    I’d say this is one of the most important because not only does it pique the interest of the reader/viewer, but it also entices one to stick around a little longer and see where this story is headed.

    One of my favorite character intros is Normand Desmond in Sunset Blvd. – and hey, there’s even a bowling reference… how cool is that.


    It is grandiose and grim. The whole place is one of those abortions of silent-picture days, with bowling alleys in the cellar and a built-in pipe organ, and beams imported from Italy, with California termites at work on them.

    Portieres are drawn before all the windows, and only thin slits or sunlight find their way in to fight the few electric bulbs, which are always burning.

    Norma Desmond stands down the corridor next to a doorway from which emerges a
    flickering light.

    She is a little woman. There is a curious style, a great sense of high voltage about her. She is dressed in black house pajamas and black high-heeled pumps. Around her throat there is a leopard-patterned scarf, and wound around her head a turban of the same material. Her skin is very pale, and she is wearing dark glasses.

    So…. with the brevity of a few lines and no dialogue… you get: a creepy, decaying mansion from a by-gone era, an eccentric movie star past her prime, and so much more.

    Those two overlapping images of the interior of the mansion and Norma’s entrance tell you EXACTLY what kind of cinematic ride you are about to go on… perhaps even multiple times if you’re like me.

    • grendl

      Funny, you should mention that staircase in “Sunset Boulevard”, because it entails one of my favorite shots in all of cinema.
      At the very end of the film, when Joe Gillis has revealed his living situation and gigolo status to the female screenwriter, sending her off disgusted and heartbroken, there’s a shot from the front porch of that staircase and railing seen through the window over the door.
      The railing on the second floor is long and rectangular and resembles a strip of celluloid, and between two slats we see the ghostly visage of Norma Desmond almost as if caught in a silent stillframe.
      I don’t know if Wilder intentionally did that, but if he did I’m impressed. Or should I say more impressed.

      • Poe_Serling

        Thanks for pointing that out… next time I revisit Sunset Blvd, I definitely watch for that particular shot.

      • Marija ZombiGirl

        Wow… One of my favourite movies and I never noticed that :-( I actually got out the DVD to watch it again so I’ll be on the lookout as well.

        It’s funny how you can watch a movie several times and then suddenly, you pick up on a shot like the one you describe and go “Ok, genius !”. Doesn’t happen much in recent movies which is one of the reasons I love revisiting the old ones…

        • Poe_Serling

          Hey MZG-

          I finally rented The Possession… I’m glad I only spent a buck and some change on it. A bit of disappointment… considering that the filmmakers had the whole Dibbuk Box angle to work with.

          Overall, the film wasn’t very scary and quite predictable.

          • Marija ZombiGirl

            Yeah, it came out here a couple of weeks to “disastrous only” reviews so I didn’t chance it :-)

          • Poe_Serling

            Smart. ;-)

          • Xarkoprime

            Ah, I unfortunately watched that whole movie too.

            Immaturely my girlfriend and I laughed and made dirty jokes when characters said stuff about the girl’s “box”. It helped pass the time.

          • Poe_Serling

            Is it just me or does anyone else notice the uncanny resemblance between Jeffrey Dean Morgan (star of The Possession) and Brad Garett (co-star of Everybody Loves Raymond fame)?…. or am I taking crazy pills again.

          • Xarkoprime

            Lol I can see the resemblance.

            I thought he was Robert Downey Jr.’s older brother when I first saw him.

        • Crazdwrtr

          Carson, this really is a good article! I already see some tips I will use to the hilt in my next script. Particularly #3 — tired of writing bar and restaurant exposition scenes. Or if I do one, it will be filled with a bunch of naked little people! DIVERSION…see I’m learning!

    • New_E

      Love SUNSET BOULEVARD. Saw a pristine new print when they re-released the movie in theaters ten years ago, with some additional footage from the Paramount vault I believe.

      Was lucky enough to get my hands the new Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection on Blu-ray when it was on sale

      No such luck with Billy Wilder though. No BD collection in sight and individual BDs are either expensive ($20 for a non-Criterion release is expensive!) or Region B imports! There’s no great Billy Wilder DVD collection set either come to think of it.


      • Poe_Serling

        The Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection looks awesome.

        Speaking of Hitch…

        Any thoughts on the new film Stoker written by actor Wentworth Miller and starring Nicole Kidman? To me, it just looks like a sexed up version of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.

        • Marija ZombiGirl

          That Hitchcock Collection IS awesome. I don’t have it myself but my editor does. Sadly, it was too big to discreetly slip into my bag…

          • Poe_Serling

            Now be honest… has it ever crossed your mind of investing in a bigger
            bag? ;-)

          • Marija ZombiGirl

            I tried leaving with the thing under my arm, very naturally of course. But he noticed :-( I’ll figure out something !

          • Poe_Serling

            Trust me… a bigger bag is the answer. ;-)

          • Marija ZombiGirl

            The thing is two feet long, I’d need a weird looking bag :-)

          • Poe_Serling

            You need to think outside the box. Maybe go with a satchel… over here they’re the latest fashion craze.

            And let me put this whole thing into perspective for you…

            Quint would still be alive today if he listened to Brody’s advice about the ‘bigger’ boat. ;-)

          • New_E

            Wow. I wish I had THAT version. Mine is only a standard box set with a thin booklet.


        • New_E

          Funny you should ask about STOKER. When I first saw the trailer a few weeks ago – it definitely caught my attention. I do like psychological dramas of that kind. Add to it some nifty visuals and it’s a winner for me.

          I haven’t seen Park’s OLDBOY yet, but given its reputation, I guess I should.

          I’ve always been a fan of Nicole Kidman and I admire her brave and offbeat movie choices for a star of her stature. (BIRTH, THE HUMAN STAIN, FUR, THE PAPERBOY, RABBIT HOLE), so this should be good.

          Interesting that reviews from Sundance are so mixed. Some said it’s too much, some said it’s not enough. I guess we’ll see.

          When I first saw SHADOW OF A DOUBT, I was surprised to see how creepy Joseph Cotten could be. Talk about counter-intuitive casting!


          • Poe_Serling

            Over the years I’ve seen where numerous sources have cited Shadow of a Doubt as Hitch’s favorite film.

            And yeah, Joseph Cotten was always treat to watch in most of his roles. I was amazed at the quality and quantity of films that he made after Shadow of a Doubt in ’43 and into the late ’50s.

            30+ films which included Gaslight, Journey into Fear, The Third Man, Touch of Evil, Duel in the Sun, and probably my favorite – Walk Softly, Stranger.

          • New_E

            Peter Bogdanovich introduced the complete MOMA Hitchcock retro years ago (I think he wrote a Hitchcock biography and had worked with him somehow) and said so as well. He also made a big deal out of Teresa Wright and her role in the film.

            I’ll admit that when I first saw the movie, I couldn’t understand why. Of his earlier films, I prefer REBECCA, THE 39 STEPS, etc.. but the film has grown on me.

            I love Joseph Cotten, but don’t know what happened later in his career (clunkers & TV). I like GASLIGHT, didn’t see JOURNEY INTO FEAR, have an irrational dislike of THE THIRD MAN (dunno why), love TOUCH OF EVIL and the oversexed, campy DUEL IN THE SUN. Will be on the lookout for WALK SOFTLY, STRANGER.


          • Poe_Serling

            I never miss the opportunity to rewatch Rebecca… Hitch’s first American film and one of his best for sure.

  • Jonathan Soens

    Carson, I’m not sure if you’re still encouraging people to make suggestions for these movies you’ll analyze and give lessons from, but I have one.

    Brokeback Mountain is one I’d be curious to see broken down a bit. When I first saw it, I thought it was pretty good. Just saw it again recently, and I was surprised by how slow it was and how little was actually going on. If they wrote it as a story about a man and a woman having an affair spread out over years/decades, I feel like it would’ve just been terrible and boring and unwatchable. But it can’t just be the novelty of it being a gay movie that made it resonate with audiences.

    I’m curious what else was going on under the hood to make this screenplay work. Obviously they used some tricks to add stakes (the guy’s story about how, when he was a kid, he saw a couple of gay guys who had been killed because people suspected they were gay — which created a sense that these guys were in mortal danger despite there never really being any threats or action). I’m curious what else was driving this screenplay, though.

    • Will_Alexander

      I love Brokeback, so I’m gonna chime in. Beyond the beauty of the cinematography, music, and performances – on the purest level of the script – I think it has to do a little with dramatic irony and a lot with characters as their own antagonists.

      The dramatic irony is in us the audience knowing these guys are destined for each other long before they either know it or can admit it to themselves. And they become their own antagonists by eventually admitting what they want, but refusing to let themselves have it. They’re given an impossible choice: you can have your real, genuine life, but you’ll have to give up your artificial, safe, acceptable life.

      But I would love to have a deeper breakdown and examination of it, too.

  • ThomasBrownen

    I’m not going to lie… I’m just not cool enough to get this movie.

    I’ve been hearing for years from some friends that this is one of the best movies of all time, and is a definite masterpiece. So I finally got around to watching it… and, yeah, I don’t get it.

    Carson has a great review though. I liked his review better than I liked the movie. The Coen brothers always seem to do a lot right (especially the characters and dialogue), and yet… the story is so flat and dry.

  • grendl

    Most of the Coen Brothers movies are frustrating imo.

    There’s far too much moral ambiguity, to much quirkiness, too many things that occur that come out of left field which they expect us to buy as reality. Colorful quirky over the top characters like John Turturro and John Goodman start to send up warning flags in my brain.

    Is this satire? Are these caricatures like “Dr. Strangelove” I’m supposed to be laughing at. And who am I rooting for?

    Jeff Bridges, the laziest man in Los Angeles who’s obsessed with a rug?

    The Coens seem to simultaneously like and hate their own protagonists in a lot of their films. Does the Dude deserve this winding, confusing maze he’s dropped into? Dunno.

    It’s funny because Jeff Bridges stars in a film which I did like, to a greater extent than this one, called “The Door in the Floor” in which he divulges some narrative wisdom to his protégé and driver regarding his writing.
    “BRIDGES-I read your, um… your story.
    KID- OH, I thought you forgot.
    BRIDGES-No. I just didn’t have a chance to get to it before.
    KID- It’s not very good, is it?
    BRIDGES- Oh, it’s, uh… it’s very heartfelt, very… very personal. It’s, um…Well, it’s just a collection of personal anecdotes that don’t really add up to much.It’s, uh…
    KID- I was just tryin’ to see if I could write something that seemed true.
    BRIDGES- Oh, it seems true. It, uh,just isn’t very interesting.Sort of a…an emotional outburst, but, uh,it isn’t really a story.And that, uh… the guy, Hank…you know, the one who dies at the end?
    BRIDGES-You need to prepare a reader for something like that. Uh…It just… It didn’t seem like the way things happened.Well, You need to let your audience guess what’s gonna happen… youu know, anticipate what’s gonna happen…and then you surprise them.”
    The Coen brothers just surprise their audience. They never let us do the math. They give us dullards, and slackers and reactionary loud mouths and we never know who to root for, or if we’re going to look stupid rooting for them in the end.
    And as in the above quote we are never allowed to anticipate what’s going to happen. Things come out of left field every single scene, so that becoming emotionally engaged is impossible. We start detaching from protagonists when the storyteller refuses to let us into their skin, to see the story through their eyes.
    Sometimes it seems like the Coen’s wanted to be anthropologists, studying primates for reactions to whatever stimuli their cinematic experiments put forth. They seem afraid to endorse their own protagonists causes whole heartedly, and by virtue of that cowardice I can’t care what happens to anyone on screen. Ever. In any of their films.

    But, um, you have to guide them through it.

    You know what I mean?


    • New_E

      “There’s far too much moral ambiguity,”

      “The Coens seem to simultaneously like and hate their own protagonists in a lot of their films.”

      “The Coen brothers just surprise their audience.”

      “And as in the above quote we are never allowed to anticipate what’s going to happen.”

      I see all the above as positives.


      • Cfrancis1

        Ditto. :) I love the enigmatic nature of the Coen’s films.

    • Peace of Mind

      I do know what you mean. Never been a big fan of the Coens either (though, ironically, I really liked The Big Lebowski — Abide).

      I thought True Grit came off as pompous. The scene where Mattie goes head to head (dialogue wise) with Col. Stonehill (about the horses) is ridiculous — they sound/talk EXACTLY the same. Aren’t all characters supposed to have their own voice?

      Coens are really hit and miss, mostly miss — 1 good for every 5 bad.

      How the hell they go from Fargo and TBL to O Brother Wher Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers to No Country For Old Men is truly baffling.

      • Cfrancis1

        They talk the SAME??? No they don’t. She completely manipulates him and he is exacerbated by it. That’s not talking the same. The language is heightened but that’s a stylistic choice. The characters are completely different.

        • Peace of Mind

          No. She manipulates him with WHAT she says (her argument) not HOW she says it. Watch it again, they sound/talk EXACTLY alike — they’re twins.

          • TitsMcGee

            USE more CAPS, it’s TOTALLY effective!

          • Cfrancis1

            Right. I get that. But that’s what makes the scene so effective. She goes toe to toe with this redguy and totally fluxes him. Put it this way, when I saw this in the theatre, everyone thought the scene was hilarious. It’s a highly effective and suspenseful scene because she’s like 12 and she gets what she wants through incredible verbal and mental acrobatics. Yes, they may talk the same in terms of their words (I need to see it again). But the characters are clearly defined and amen the scene really effective.

    • Your Dad

      You’re a douche. “The Cohen brothers just surprise the audience, they never let us do the math.” That’s an issue with you? You want the easy out, the contrived bull? You sir, are part retarded. You’re literally saying, “D’em is using black magic me fancy brain can’t figure out! Make d’em stop me from thinkin’!!!” Short bridge, long walk. Thanks bro.

  • MWire

    But “This is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps.” isn’t great dialogue. ;)

    • J Abides

      That was the tv version. The real version is “This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass”

  • jae kim

    I’ve always loved the TBL since I first saw it in college, but I never really knew why. this breakdown is genius not only for its explanation of conflicts of the story, but how to set up dialogue.

    to set up dialogue, set up your character first! this is such a revelation because none of us amateurs think to do this. I’ll be the first to admit that when I think of writing a scene with conflict, I have two characters yell at one another like it’s an episode of real housewives of atlanta.

    this article should be read again and again daily until it’s fully understood. I know I will.

  • BoxGoblin

    I think these are all perfect examples of why you should flesh out your characters through character bibles or other means before starting a new script.

  • DrMatt

    One of the things I love about this movie, and a lot of the Coen Bros. films, is that they’re all essentially 50’s film noir plots but redone in really creative ways with wacky characters. The Big Lebowski, (hell even the TITLE is an homage to The Big Sleep!) is Philip Marlowe kidnapping plot, complete with false leads, a twist ending, a femme sort-of-fatale, the porn industry, and weird foreign thugs. It’s got all the ingredients plot-wise. But instead of just making a rip-off, they have it center around a lazy guy who smokes pot, takes baths, and bowls all the time. So they took a familiar concept, a kidnapping mystery, and took someone who’s the OPPOSITE of an active private-eye or cop and put him as the main character instead. I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned from their films. They do this all the time. Fargo is the same way. Pregnant police chief solving the case of a murder mystery. Yokel sheriff in rural Texas chasing trying to solve a drug-deal-gone-wrong mystery in No Country for Old Men. Blood Simple (which, Carson, I’d love to see a review on that, I think it’s one of their best written films plot-wise), is an infidelity film-noir plot, except this time, the private eye is the BAD GUY instead of the hero! So something I would add above would be is that instead of turning the genre trope on its head with the same old characters, keep the genre trope the same, and change the characters!

    People sometimes complain that their films don’t make sense, or don’t have a point, or don’t commit to a point of view. To them I say this: you don’t soon forget them though, do you?

    • James Inez

      Nice observation. I never noticed, but now that you mention it, I can see it. Very clever. Good idea to try with ones own writing.

  • denisniel

    this film is a masterpiece, and I, like Carson, didn’t get it completely when I first saw it back in 1999 (or whenever it was released)… However, the VIDEO TECHNOLOGY (as a grandparent would say) is here to change that, and thanks to it, I’ve been able to appreciate it more and more in the coming years…

    One of the things I most admire about the Coens in general is how they manage to make such entertaining and intriguing pieces, even though most of the time they’re talking about NOTHING… It must be the only case in which writers make films where theme – although interwoven in the middle of the script – bear absolutely no importance in the final product. These guys are talking for years, and saying nothing. And still, they are able to come up with some of the most interesting things to say. About nothing.

  • DrMatt

    The V.O. doesn’t actually tell us anything about the characters or story that we don’t find out on our own. It’s redundant, and some would argue purely a stylistic choice, one made more for laughs than anything else.

    I love it mainly because of Sam Elliot’s voice. I wish he would narrate my life. And I love it because it’s strange, weird, and not normal. I love their films because they’re NOT conventional. Not what’s expected. I don’t care if it makes sense, as long as it’s entertaining and enjoyable or makes me think. Which the VO does.

    I know there have been arguments that his character is more important than that, and if people want to chime in, feel free. I always just thought it was like a “fuck you” to people who don’t like VO, especially because you find out the guy doing the VO is actually a character who shouldn’t know what’s going on in the rest of the story. Is he God? Is that who he is? And the Dude is Jesus?

    Fuck it, Dude, let’s go bowling.

  • JakeBarnes12

    Great tips from the movie, Carson, as always.

    Saw this on opening night and walked out KNOWING I’d just seen a classic. I was very surprised the next day when the local Cali papers were lukewarm at best.

    Is it worth adding that what makes the Coens one-in-a-million writers is their unique take on life that allows them to make consistently surprising creative choices and produce such quirky characters and dialogue?

    Put another way, most of us could follow these tips to the letter and still lack the imagination to generate anything interesting.

    Just call me Debbie Downer.

  • John Bradley

    Reading this got me soooo excited to watch it again on my Netflix to see everything Carson had talked about, then when I went to look, it was gone!!!!!!! Aww cruel world!!!

  • JNave

    Great tips. I especially like #’s 1, 3, and 7. I need to keep these in mind when I write.

  • Avishai

    Has anyone requested The Usual Suspects yet?

  • Jay_Owen

    I was always struck by the pace of the dialogue. It’s not rapid fire, but there’s never really a point where a character isn’t saying something meaningful. Even if it’s not pushing the plot forward there’s always something going on to keep you entertained. The end result is a film where not a whole lot actually happens (it’s a lot of spinning wheels, intentionally so) yet I find myself closely engaged throughout.

  • Scots Chris

    Amazing movie. I saw this in the cinema with my wife on opening weekend and it was dead. Hardly anyone laughed. My wife and I nearly died of laughter. I knew she was a keeper that day.

    Great article, Carson. I think your point regarding the protagonist’s introduction is so important it’s my “what I learned” from this piece.

  • Xarkoprime

    I love today’s post for 2 reasons.

    1) I just found out I’m not the only one who didn’t like The Big Lebowski, even though I’m kind of tempted to turn it on again because it’s been quite some time since I’ve watched it.


    2) I learned about screenwriting from a movie that I had a no interest in.

    Good stuff Carson :)

  • john writer

    Also — make sure you include a giant painting of “castrating scissors” in every scene with the baby-starved Feminist character.

    Great article, Carson. Thanks!

  • DD

    cool articles about some 2012’s best movies:

    • jae kim

      this is awesome, thanks.

    • Crazdwrtr

      Thanks for this, DD! We all have those tough scenes to crack in our own work. So interesting to see how the best of the best handle those scenes in their scripts.

  • BrycePa

    Awesome article. First tip really stuck out for me. So from now on, all my characters that meet in coffee shops will be die-hard coffee enthusiasts. Thanks Carson :)

  • klmn

    Along these lines, Carson should review this film.

    That’s just the trailer, but It looks like you can watch the whole movie on youtube.

  • Paul Clarke

    Very well said.

    When all the same structure is there but the character doesn’t change, that makes it an old fashioned tragedy. Something found most commonly in comedies. It makes a great final punch-line for us to see a character act exactly the same, making the same mistakes he/she made in the beginning, because it’s not what we expect.

  • James Inez


  • New_E

    Nice article! LUUUUUV that movie. Must have seen it over five times when it came out!

    I usually don’t like “quirky”, but the Coen Bros always manage to build the quirky around interesting, well-developed characters.

    THE BIG LEBOWSKI and O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU are my fave Coen Bros movies.


    I’ll admit I have a harder time appreciating their newer films.

    Didn’t care for INTOLERABLE CRUELTY & THE LADYKILLERS (ugh!!!)

    I must be one of the few people who thinks that NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is overrated.

    Didn’t bother with BURN AFTER READING, A SERIOUS MAN, or TRUE GRIT. Wonder if I missed anything.


    • Poe_Serling

      Totally agree with your assessment of The Ladykillers – double ugh! And I remember enjoying The Hudsucker Proxy quite a bit – who knew a hula loop could be so much

      The Coen Bros’ True Grit had its moments… but I still think I’d give John Wayne’s version the nod in the end.

      • New_E

        I know. Not quite sure what that was about. Just didn’t get it from start to finish. Triple ugh!

        Forgot to mention that I love FARGO.

        And THE MAN THAT WASN’T THERE may have been the tipping point for me. All that came before was great, and what came after was… either new, different, questionable, or I just didn’t see. There was a lot to appreciate in the film: the acting, the look (great cinematography by Roger Deakins), and to a great degree, the story, but somehow, it just didn’t coalesce into an entirely satisfying cinematic experience for me.


        • Poe_Serling

          Oh right…

          The Man That Wasn’t There… or in my case The Film I Totally Forget About.

          I used to really dig the stuff that Billy Bob Thorton was in, but after things like Mr. Woodcock and Eagle Eye – not so much any more.

      • Malibo Jackk

        Just mentioning Coen’s True Grit makes me want to
        rent the DVD to watch the DVD extras again.
        (Hope I’m thinking about the right DVD.)
        There was an extra where they showed how they took over
        part of a small town and transformed it to turn back the clock.

        And all the effort and artistry that went in to doing that.

  • J.R. Kinnard

    I’m just like you, Carson. For the longest time I just didn’t “get” this movie. I thought it lacked focus and just wasn’t very funny.

    Then they started showing it on Encore a few months ago and I watched it again. It didn’t take long for me to be sucked in and realize how brilliant it truly is. I think its brilliance hit me right about the time the Nihilists put the marmot in the bathtub. :-)

    Great dialogue tips. Seriously, if I have taken anything away from this site it’s the importance of conflict within individual scenes. I think I was always good at plotting and figuring conflict over the length of the script, but my individual scenes lacked juice. It was mainly just connective tissue for the larger “important” scenes.

    Now I’m starting to realize that there are no unimportant scenes. It all matters. It all requires your utmost attention. Ugh… just writing that is exhausting!

  • Marija ZombiGirl

    I’m desperately un-cool ;-)

    • Poe_Serling

      lol. Isn’t time warp just another word for time travel? And if so, you just choose to go backward instead of forward…. we better check with Carson on all the TT specifics.

  • Malibo Jackk

    Domestic gross 17.4 million.
    Several people mentioned that they didn’t like it at first.
    (Thus the box office.)
    The audience doesn’t know what to expect from its first viewing.
    Then they see it again. And it’s a great movie.

    Makes me wonder if less complex movies have an easier go at the box office.

  • mseeke

    I am always instantly incensed when I see The Big Lebowski pigeon holed as a “stoner movie”. I am glad that Carson took an opportunity to take a second look. I really do think it is one of the best comedies of our time. The movie never ever tells you when the punchline is or where to laugh, which is another brilliant subtlety in the screen play.

    In reading a lot of these comments there seems to be a pervading opinion that either, nothing happens or the action is too disjointed to matter and that there isn’t any real substance to the story. I think overall, the main philosophical point of the movie is missed.

    The Dude is a modern day existentialist. The Dude is Camus’ Stranger. The Dude doesn’t ask for any of this stuff to happen to him, And despite the level of intrigue, remains emotionally unaffected by all the outrageous happenings. He smokes a joint while “watching a grown man cry”. The only positions he takes are parroted from other characters or observations, i.e. “Her life is in my hands” or “This aggression will not stand…man.”, and none of these positions are ever delivered with any conviction.

    The only active role he takes, of his own volition, is rebuffed with utter absurdity. When he wakes up from being drugged at Jackie Treehorn’s place he decides he has had enough of being put through this ringer and he intends to do something about it. He sees Jackie on the phone and taking notes, so when Jackie leaves the room, The Dude does the pencil rubbing on the notepad only to find a giant penis. That’s what he gets for trying to play an active role in the narrative (his own fate), a giant dick.

    Beyond that, Walter and The Big Lebowski drive the entire narrative and the dude is simply caught in the flow of events. It seems as if he is too lazy to remove himself from all this nonsense, but in reality, he just doesn’t care enough to resist. It is never the protaginists “plan”. It’s the Big Lebowski’s planned money drop and it’s Walters cockeyed scheme to replace it with “the whites”. It’s Bunny’s plan, it’s Maude’s plan, it’s the Nihilists’ plan, but never the Dude’s. The Dude only cares after Donnie is dead and there has been collateral damage and even that outrage is fleeting.

    To me, this is a movie about desensitivity and detachment while everything around us is charged with a seriousness that we struggle to grasp. The Dude just doesn’t even try.

  • crazedwritr

    it was sent out friday, jan 18th

  • Peace of Mind

    No. That’s not really worded very well. GOOD: Fargo and TBL to BAD: OBWAT, IC and TL and then to GOOD (again): NCFOM.

  • kidbaron

    Thanks for this, Carson. I was one of the few people that saw this flick in the theater. It tanked when was released. I hated it. I just seemed liked a lot of “sound and fury.” BUT I’ve come back to it over the years. It’s funny as hell. Also, as you pointed out, the Dude has so much to overcome. It amazing how seamless they all are. The story just flows and you are hanging in there to see if the Dude will put all together. I guess I need to watch it yet again.