No review today. Had to remove all of my nudes off iCloud. I mean technically I’m just wearing a speedo in all of them but you can never be too careful. Instead, we’re going to talk about every writer’s favorite topic. Say it with me now: DI-A-LOGUE!
Recently, I was giving notes to a young writer (we’ll call him “Nick”), and I asked Nick what he felt was his biggest weakness. “Dialogue!” he said without hesitation. “I can’t seem to get it!” Dialogue is such a tough thing to teach because a lot of it is so instinctual and situation-based. What’s right for dialogue in one scene (be subtle) may not be right for another (get to the point). But when you compare similar dialogue scenes, you start to see patterns in what works and what doesn’t. So that’s what I did for Nick. I took a guy-girl dialogue scene from his script and I compared it to a guy-girl dialogue scene from one of my favorite scripts, The Equalizer (Richard Wenk).
I’ll put Nick’s dialogue first. After you read both scenes and before you read my analysis, I want you to write down what YOU think works and doesn’t work in these two scenes. Go ahead and share those thoughts in the comments section if you have time. The idea here, today, is to learn by helping each other. I can give you my thoughts, but I’m sure there are some obvious things I’ll miss.
Nick’s story takes place in a small town. This is the 8th or 9th scene in the script. In it, 17 year old Mark is in science class, where he’s joined by attractive new girl, Rosie (also 17). Rosie just moved in from the city, and appears to be a rebellious type.
Rosie sits down next to Mark — He taps his pencil nervously.
MARK: You new here?
The abruptness catches her a little off guard.
ROSIE: Nope been here for years now. You just never noticed.
Mark freezes — Panic runs across his face.
ROSIE: I’m just playing… I’m Rosie.
MARK: Uh… Mark.
The class dumps the RED beaker into the GREEN.
ROSIE: I just moved here from Chicago.
MARK: Cubs or White sox?
Rosie feigns a smile.
ROSIE: Couldn’t care less.
She grabs the Blue beaker and dumps it into the Red beaker — This is why you pay attention. The silence draws out the awkwardness.
MARK: I hear… There’s great shopping up in… Chicago.
Mark’s nerves are getting the best of him — The beaker starts to steam a little.
ROSIE: Well it’s nothing compared to here… You know, with Wal-mart and Aunt Annie’s boutique.
Mark can tell she hates it here.
MARK: Yeah I guess it’s… Kind of a culture shock.
ROSIE: You could say that… More like landing on another planet.
MARK: In that case, welcome.
Rosie laughs a little, not sure if he’s a dork or just nervous. The rest of the class pours the BLUE beaker slowly.
ROSIE: So what do you do for fun around here and please don’t say the fair?
Mark draws a blank.
ROSIE: There’s got to be something.
Mark searches the room — He looks down at his backpack, his glove sticking out — Don’t talk about baseball — He looks ahead to the KID in front of him — He’s wearing a CUBS jersey — NO BASEBALL — Finally the window catches his eye.
MARK: I… Like to watch the storms come in.
Now let’s look at the scene from The Equalizer. In this one, McCall, a sort of washed-up former military man, is at a late-night diner he frequents, reading Old Man and The Sea. Teri, a hooker he sometimes sees in the diner, walks up. It’s important to note that the setup for the scene is a little different. Unlike in our previous scene, these two have met before.
TERI (OS): He catch the fish yet?
McCall glances up. Teri THE HOOKER pulling her earphones out. Pretty, late 20s. Few tats peeking out from her dress.
MCCALL: Just hooked it.
TERI: About time.
MCCALL: It’s a big fish. Don’t know if he can hang on to it though.
TERI (playful): Oh no.
MCCALL: Tooth and nail right now.
TERI: Maybe he’s too old.
McCall nods. They’re quiet for a while. Teri takes a bite of her apple pie.
MCCALL: Thought you were going to stop eating all that refined sugar.
TERI (with a mouthful): I am.
TERI: Any day now.
MCCALL: Bad for the vocal cords.
Teri looks away sheepishly.
MCCALL (CONT’D): How’s the singing?
TERI: Got myself a little machine to do demos. We’ll see.
MCCALL: Bet you’re good.
TERI: What makes you think that?
Teri smiles her first real smile. She shoulders her tote and starts for the door.
TERI: Lemme know what happens next.
The first thing I noticed about Nick’s scene was that the dialogue begins in a way that’s likely to induce on-the-nose conversation. “You new here?” We’re talking about exactly what’s going on. An unknown person just showed up. “You new here?” is too obvious. Now Rosie does follow this up with a sarcastic joke, saying she’s been here for years but he just never noticed, which is good, but the precedent has been set. The next line is Rosie introducing herself (on the nose). He then tells her his name (on the nose). She then says she’s from Chicago. Even if the characters are joking around, livening up this dialogue, it’s still stuck in that “on-the-nose” quicksand that’s hard to pull good dialogue out of.
Now let’s look at The Equalizer. What’s the first line there? “He catch the fish yet?” Ahhhh! Now we have a fun opening line, something for the characters to play with. They’re not talking on-the-nose, even though they easily could’ve. Wenk could’ve started with, “Haven’t seen you here in awhile” or “How you doing?” Both of these lines invite dialogue that will likely devolve into an on-the-nose conversation. Instead, we’re zipping into a fun subtextual conversation that allows the two to subtly flirt with one another.
One of the reasons The Equalizer dialogue is so good is because it revolves around a subject that has nothing to do with our characters – a book. This allows the characters to talk around the moment instead of about the moment. And I think that’s the big lesson here. When characters are talking about the obviousness of the moment (how they feel, what’s happening, what they’re thinking about, what they want), the dialogue has a very mechanical “move the story forward” feel to it. When you’re talking around the moment though, it just feels like two people talking. And that’s why the “Old Man and The Sea” dialogue reads so much better.
So the question here is, how do we fix Nick’s scene? Well, here’s what I told him. I said to write the entire scene again, but this time, the characters aren’t allowed to ask anything about each other. They’re only allowed to focus on and discuss the experiment. I bet all of you, following this simple advice, could write a pretty good scene (if you want to, go ahead and write your version in the comments). Because now, just like in The Equalizer, the characters aren’t discussing each other. They’re discussing the experiment. And their conversation (what their plan is, how they work together, how they solve problems together) is going to play out in a much more subtle way, which is usually more interesting.
Now I’m not saying this is the end all be all solution to dialogue. Like I said, dialogue is situation-based. What works in one place doesn’t always work in another. And as you can see in The Equalizer scene, McCall and Teri do end up talking a little bit about their lives – “How’s the singing?” – but this is a great way to think about dialogue in general. Avoid writing scenes where characters talk about their feelings, their thoughts, their interests, and the moment at hand. Instead, find something that has nothing to do with any of these things, and force your characters to communicate through that. You’re almost guaranteed to come up with a better scene.
Special thanks to Nick for allowing me to post his scene. Now I’ll leave it to you guys. Tell me what you think is wrong with the first scene, and what you would do to fix it.