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!