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.

BOYD: Thanks.

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.

Don’t be coy, detective. I see you in the back, watching me. You think I don’t, but I do.

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?

I knew talent when I saw it.

Dominique blushes.

BOYD: Which makes me wonder –

What’s a girl like me doing working at Club Cake?

BOYD: Something like that.

: Atoning for my indiscretions. And you? What kind of cop’s moonlighting for an asshole like Q?

They say true success is knowing your limits and not letting others burden you with their expectations.

What’s that? Some new age, 12 step bullshit?

: My way of saying we have a lot in common. Boyd raises his glass.

BOYD: To indiscretions and atonement.

They toast. 

DOMINIQUE: I’d thought it’d get easier.

BOYD: So did I.

: Daisy said you were a good guy. Are you?

When I’m not burdened by expectations? — Yeah.

: 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 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?


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.

  • http://screenplayamonth.tumblr.com FilmingEJ

    OT: Would anyone like to read a shit first screenplay from a (probably) shit screenwriter? Here’s your chance!

    Cake Bomb (comedy, drama): A prestigious pastry chef tries to prevent a disaster when a criminal organization forces him to make a cake bomb.

    Url: https://app.box.com/s/da63tr7grwml1c5fp4az

    In return I’ll give notes to anyone that wants it, because I think I’m really needing some feedback. Readers tell me my logline’s interesting, but nothing much past that.

    • Marija ZombiGirl

      I think your logline is a little vague…
      Why are the criminals targeting this particular chef ? (Who is he, other than “prestigious” ?)
      What are his personal stakes ? (Any relation to the organization, even involuntary ?)
      What kind of disaster is he trying to prevent ? Personal ? Worldwide ? (What is the purpose of the cake bomb ? Where is it meant to explode ?)

      • Cfrancis1

        Most log lines don’t go into that much detail. They are sparse descriptions to pique the reader’s interest. I think it’s pretty good as far as log lines go. I might change “tries” to something a bit more active, though.

        • Marija ZombiGirl

          I didn’t mean for the writer to ADD all that detail – just to ask himself those questions so as to choose the right words for his logline :)

    • pmlove

      Was this the one written in a month? How did you get on? Any lessons learned?

      • http://screenplayamonth.tumblr.com FilmingEJ

        Yep! I learned that it’s really, really hard to write a feature screenplay in a month :D but also, I learned that story structure isn’t something you can make up on the spot. I didn’t plan anything out thinking an outline would cripple my timeliness, but as it turned out, the process was waaayyyyyy more frustrating than anticipated. One of the things I learned about myself was that, I might come up with interesting ideas/premises, but the execution can win me over at times. Kind of like that songwriter that crafts killer hooks but a lackluster chorus.

        • pmlove

          Just read the first ten or so too – not much to add that Brittany hasn’t already covered (although expanding on the exposition-heavy dialogue, I’d also try to avoid ‘and by the way’ as it usually precedes an unrelated fact being inserted).

          A couple of notes – focus on character consistency. Even before Hoss’ change, which I agree comes too quickly, the ‘nobody seems to appreciate what I do’ section also seems out of character. Hoss is a confident, narcissistic personality. This dialogue is from someone far more self-conscious.

          I’d also consider having him fired for an outburst a la Christian Bale/Terminator, rather than changing his mind straight off the bat. This gives more time for a character arc later (I’m making some assumptions here about where this is going – ignore if they are wrong) and reduces the level of questions the reader will ask about his sudden change of heart.

          We get some back story and goals for the Director – might be worth naming him/her? If their story goes nowhere, I’d suggest you don’t need this.

          Definitely some good bits in there, the ‘How did you know my name’ bit, for example. Well done!

          If you haven’t read Hot Air, then that might be worth a look as the lead characters feel similar in tone.

    • brittany

      Hey, man. I applaud your bravery in putting your script up for review here. I went and read the first ten pages and I will say that you have a pretty good writing style, especially for this being your first screenplay, like you mentioned. Also, I really like the premise of a film being centered around an egotistical Food Network type of star. I’m a fan of those shows myself, so I am familiar with how they work. Right off the bat, Hoss reminds me of a mixture of Guy Fieri and Will Ferrell. The obnoxious yelling in the beginning has a real Will Ferrell tone to it, to me at least, and I thought it was pretty funny in an over the top comedy type of way.

      I also commend you on getting the story set up pretty quickly in the first ten pages. Just from what I’ve read so far, I’m guessing Hoss will come back into the business in order to make this “bomb cake” from your logline. Time permitting, I will return here and read some more as I am intrigued by the story in general and I feel like it
      could be lots of fun. So, having said all that, I think one of your biggest issues right now is dialogue. Don’t get me wrong, it all sounds pretty good as written, but the issue is more of you’re telling things more than showing. And I think this whole “dialogue week” on SS will benefit you greatly.

      For example, the scene in the restaurant with Tori is extremely expositional in that both Hoss and Tori ask each other “what’s up?” in an attempt to deliver personal information about themselves when you could easily show it in the description. The fact that Tori is a model can be shown by maybe having Hoss carry a magazine around with her picture on the cover? Maybe he likes to show it off to make people
      jealous? Seems like something he might do. Also, I think you display his disappointment with his job quite effectively in the beginning scene, so you don’t really need for him to repeat his feelings to Tori here.

      Also, the fact that Tori likes to draw, she doesn’t have to tell Hoss that. Maybe she reminds him about her drawing being displayed in an art show and Hoss has forgotten all about it because of the egomaniac that he is. And getting to the part when this poor Charles guy walks up and expects a cake to be made for him… I think you should go the other way around with it and have it to where he didn’t actually want a cake, but he was just there to take his order/collect his plates for cleaning? That way, I think it would make Hoss look even more like an ass and cause Tori to walk out on him.

      I also don’t think Tori simply telling him he’s “not a person” anymore is enough of a reason for him to snap. I think she needs to actually leave him. Break up with him. That way, at least it’s a drastic thing that happens and he most certainly wouldn’t be expecting it. Additionally, I think there needs to be some other pressures
      added in before that, like maybe his agent is about to dump him too because he’s such a horse’s ass. Maybe he’s got some viral videos out there where he’s man handling the paparazzi or something. Or even doing something stupid “Shia La Beouf style” like walking around drunk and pissing in mailboxes. This way, I think his spiral into wanting to change will make more sense. You have to hit bottom before you realize you have a problem and I think that’s what needs to happen with Hoss. And maybe Tori stays with him for so long because at one time he was young, innocent and hopeful, but now he’s turned into a monster and she’s had enough.

      Lastly, I think his bitch-fit where he kicks the cake around the TV set could be funnier. I mean, it is funny to see someone kick a cake around, but I would go more comedic with it. The main reason is because the paparazzi and everyone makes such a big deal about it, even going as far as to ask if anyone pressed charges. It just seemed a bit over the top considering what happened was actually really tame. I would suggest you have Hoss go ape-shit on set. Like maybe his director is treating him like a circus monkey instead of sympathetically asking if he “needs to talk” or whatever. And Hoss just snaps, throws the cake around, trashes the set, rolls around on the floor, just fucking loses it in general. Maybe he could end up in jail with a mug shot of cake smeared all over his face. And the paparazzi could hound him as he’s being released or something. I just think this needs to be an epic meltdown that makes him shunned from the TV world.

      So, I think I’ve rambled enough here for now. I plan on going back to read more, time permitting, but I hope some of this helps with your set up. Like I said, you do a good job of getting to things pretty quickly, but I think there needs to be slightly more build up a far as Hoss’s spiral and eventual decision to hide from the industry for a while until he’s contracted (or whatever the case may be) to make this bomb cake. I also looking forward to seeing how things move forward with Tori.
      Good luck!

      • http://screenplayamonth.tumblr.com FilmingEJ

        Thank you soooo much! I’m at school right now so I’ll have to read the rest of your comment later, but I can already tell this’ll be super helpful.

  • klmn

    The ice pick is a dead giveaway. I recognized the scene. Using that prop introduces some menace into the scene.

    And Carson, I think if you use the pre tag that you can just paste the scenes in. No need to retype them.

    For example, here’s a little bit from one of Saturday’s offerings.


    A tribe of NEANDERTHALS sit around their campfire.

    We hear the voice of SARAH, 25-

    SARAH (V.O.)

    Since the dawn of time, Man has

    looked at the stars and asked, “Is

    there life out there?”

  • Unfinishe

    Anyone remember the Pepsi Taste Test challenge? People were given sip cups, one labeled ‘p’ (Pepsi) the other labeled ‘q’ (Coke). Pepsi won. Coke executives dismissed it because it was clearly biased: “People prefer the letter ‘p’ to the letter ‘q,'” they argued. Secretly Coke conducted it’s own taste tests, and goddamn it, Pepsi won. So they engineered a new drink, calling it New Coke. New Coke beat Coke and beat Pepsi! Coke executives had their magic bullet, except for one problem:

    Consumers *hated* New Coke. The thing with sip tests or taste tests is that, in side-by-side comparisons, people generally prefer sweeter item. That’s the real bias. I can’t help but wonder if stakes are analogous to sugar here.

    The more obvious problem is that you can’t hide an iconic character behind the name “Vanessa,” especially when she’s wielding her iconic murder weapon (*spoiler*).

    Carson: Though it would make your job more difficult, I think we would get more fair-minded evaluations if you used unproduced pro scripts.

    That said, the amateur here could’ve fooled me. I’d drop the morning light creeping around the drapes bit, but maybe I betrayed myself as a know-nothing with the previous sentence.

    • leitskev

      It’s not a competition, though. Carson is using these samples as the basis for discussion that we all hope to take something from.

  • carsonreeves1

    A few of you have suggested I only compare the dialogue from the amateurs to unproduced scripts. I’ll do that if I can think of any comparable scenes in unproduced scripts. The problem is, it’s much easier to remember scenes from produced films. So I’ll do my best but can’t promise anything.

    • jaehkim

      I’m going to disagree with the unproduced script comparison.
      1) you are showing the amateur scene first so there shouldn’t be a bias.
      2) of course the pro scene will be better, but not just because it’s a famous scene, but because it’s inherently better, and it makes us think about why it’s so good, which is a good exercise in itself.

      • Bifferspice

        are you saying that every pro scene ever made is better than any scene that is yet to be made? :-S

        • Malibo Jackk

          Why would Carson pick a bad pro scene?

          • klmn

            But is he picking the best amateur scenes?

          • carsonreeves1

            I’m mainly picking scenes that can help teach a lesson. But if I find a really good dialogue scene, I’ll feature it.

          • jaehkim

            klmn, you’re missing the point. he’s picking scenes that are ‘typical’ amateur, ones that he can find corresponding pro scenes for that can teach a clear comparison.

          • Bifferspice

            do we all agree on the level of quality of every scene?

          • jaehkim

            exactly. it’s a teaching construct.

    • bluedenham

      No, please leave it as it is. This is a great, educational comparison, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the week.

      • NajlaAnn

        Me too.

  • klmn

    Now here’s my rewrite.

    Boyd grabs a bottle of the good stuff off the bar. He grabs

    two glasses and starts to pour.


    None for me. You go ahead.


    What’s wrong?


    I got a letter from my home. Most

    of my good friends, they’re dead and



    That’s bad.


    You know this night life, this mean

    old sportin’ life. Is killing me.


    What are you gonna do?

    Dominique gestures toward a piece of tree trunk, half-carved

    into the figure of a bear.


    I’m leaving the business. You didn’t

    know I was multitalented, did you?

    She reaches behind the bar and picks up a chainsaw and starts

    it. She goes to work on the bear, adding detail to the

    roughed-out head.

    She steps back to examine her work.


    Not bad.

    She scowls.


    Fuck it.

    She cuts off the bear’s head and shuts off the saw.


    I believe I’ll have that drink now.

    • brenkilco

      Sometimes a carved bear is just a carved bear, but I still think Boyd should leave after the drink.

  • Malibo Jackk

    Reminds me again of how important
    it is to study the classics.

  • klmn

    IIRC, in YOU’LL NEVER EAT LUNCH IN THIS TOWN AGAIN Julia Phillips wrote that Nora Ephron did an uncredited rewrite of Basic Instinct.

    • brenkilco

      Please tell me none of what she wrote made it into the shooting script. Otherwise color me disillusioned.

      • klmn

        I’m no authority. I can only go by what I read. There is a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff in the book, on a number of iconic movies.

        I give the book a [XX] Worth the read.

        • Poe_Serling

          All the ‘behind-the-scenes stuff’ is what makes that book a real page turner.

          The story I remember the most: The one where Phillips goes into detail about being pressured by Spielberg to secure him the solo writing credit on Close Encounters… even though writers Paul Schrader, Matthew Robbins, Hal Barwood, Jerry Belson, David Giler, John Hill, and others worked on various drafts throughout the production.

    • Andrew Parker

      I do notice some similarities between the Meg Ryan diner scene and verbal exclamations from Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct.

  • Panos Tsapanidis

    Besides what Carson said about the pros of the Basic Instinct scene, what also happened there was character-building. What Vanessa says and how she behaves, makes you think that this is a really interesting character and I’d love to find out more about her.

    I didn’t see that happening in the Amateur scene. So, maybe the writer should get to know his characters much better before writing the scene. That would result in more real characters which would result in more real conversations.

  • peisley

    I can see the points you’ve made, but it seems a bit unfair to compare them. In the first example, the cop is just dropping off the woman at her place after a charge for solicitation. It’s more about seduction and not veiled interrogation. The stakes aren’t clear yet, so I gather a murder or other violent crime has yet to happen. It’s quite good as a setup, although some of the dialogue isn’t sounding natural enough. If a violent crime has already happened and the cop’s involved somehow, then, yeah, it needs to be more about that lingering tension. A scene like this would probably undergo tweaking from the director and actors.

    The second scene is all about what’s happened before these two characters met and that she’s a suspect. Even if you didn’t know this movie, you’d be clued in from the start that he’s there with a purpose and she’s trouble. This is an interrogation scene, but the table has been turned and the detective finds himself being grilled, even if it is done in the most seductive way possible.

    In both cases, the woman is getting into the guy’s brain so I can see comparisons, but the second one is more snappy because we know he’s there on a mission with high stakes and she’s being suspiciously evasive with him. I’d still pick this scene over the other one because it’s more polished, but it doesn’t bother me that the first one is more low key and less sensational. It might’ve been more interesting to compare a scene from Eszterhas’ “Music Box” with this one.

    • carsonreeves1

      I understand the argument that the scenarios aren’t the same. But here’s my question. Would Eszterhas have written the first scene as is? In other words, would he have just plopped two characters down into a room and had then talk to each other without any mechanics behind the scene at all? I don’t think he would. I think he’d look at that scene and say: “There’s nothing going on there. I can’t squeeze any good dialogue out of this.” He’d work the story mechanics in his favor so that when Boyd and Dominique did meet, there’d be a lot more going on than just a guy being invited up to a woman’s room. My point being, in this case, the setup before the scenes determined the difference in dialogue quality.

      • peisley

        No, Eszterhas wouldn’t have written it the same, most likely better, but maybe not. He’s in the other camp where you can, at times, feel things are too deliberate and artificial. Showgirls, for example. He defended that as much as any of his other movies. The first scene you chose needs work, but I don’t mind a more subtle scene. I agree the setup before the scenes determines what comes after, but as far as I can see, the dynamics of these two are different and I wouldn’t expect the same outcome. Then again, I like a lot of French movies so there.

      • klmn

        Are you using the first draft of the Basic Instinct script or a later one?

    • brenkilco

      Or Sliver. What were the initial scenes between Stone and Baldwin like? I don’t remember and nothing could make me watch Sliver again.

      • klmn

        Or maybe choose a dialogue scene from Showgirls? (I think there were a few).

  • mondog

    I know we’re focussing on dialogue, but something that immediately jumps out for me is that there’s much more movement and action in the Pro scene, which in turn drives the dialogue.

    Vanessa makes herself a drink, then she uses a pick, which then drives Tom’s inquiry. There’s a tense pause where the action becomes a staring match as a few risky cards are played and then it escalates to the final moment of confrontation. As the questions get more dangerous and direct, so too does the action. They’re on their feet and then getting physically aggressive.

    It’s not something that you’d do in every scene, but it’s very clear to me that the stakes explored by the dialogue, are revealed by the action. You sometimes hear hero say, ‘Don’t talk about my wife that way!’ or some variant of. Here, Tom twists her arm harder but pulls her close. It’s a complex response and one that’s hard to put in a character’s mouth – he wants to hurt her, but hold her close.

    There’s a confluence of subtext and main-text that’s mirrored by the action, it starts out wide, general, then narrows in on what they really want to say and do to each, but not quite.

    Thanks for this – it’s giving me a lot to think about.

    • pmlove

      The actions also serve a purpose – the drink leads to us knowing ‘Tom’ is having trouble with alcohol. The pick obviously serves a wider purpose.

      The first scene also does this quite well, the drink setting up the theme of the superficiality of appearances – this is a nice addition to the subtext of the scene.

      • mondog

        The more I look at the pro scene, the more impressed I get. It twists and turns throughout. The action and the dialogue serve several purposes, so nothing feels obvious. His turning down the drink could be a refusal to participate and he rises in (our) estimation only to be swatted back by her comment the clues us into his problem. Which also tells us she was messing with him, seeing if he could be tempted.

        She turns the tables on him and it never feels forced, there’s breathing space, enough to keep Tom ‘respectable,’ but you’re never in any doubt as to who’s really in control from beginning to end – Vanessa. It’s a marriage of dialogue and action, even when the action is slight.

        The note about the clippings reminds me of an acting note Meisner gives in his book, ‘On Acting,’ which is that the actor plays the final emotional beat from the start of the scene (I may have that slightly wrong). Here, it’s Vanessa who finishes as she begins – with Tom on the backfoot. Only now, she knows (and we know) something she didn’t at the beginning, that he can be manipulated and precisely, how.

  • fd

    Boy, that’s a tough compare. Apples with oranges in a way. I kind of liked the first scene actually. It’s a little lower key than Esterhazy, but then we’re talking about one of the most tension-loaded films ever. I don’t know if it bothered anyone else, but the only thing that really bugged me about the first scene is hearing a prostitute use terms like “coy”, “atonement”, “indiscretions”, “burdened by expectations”. Maybe she’s an English major gone pro, but I just couldn’t figure her (or him for that matter) talking like that.

    • carsonreeves1

      good pick up with the vocabulary.

    • Randy Williams

      I liked the first scene, too. It’s a washed-out cop who I picture as tired and needing comfort so the low keyness of it fits for me. I’m usually uncomfortable with most sex scenes in movies, so I don’t want to be hit over the head with anything.

      In tweaking it, I might make it more one-sided as far as the two trying to feel each other out. As it is, it goes back and forth. The woman obviously has a thing for “just for show” with the bottle and the bed. (loved that bed twist) so I’d make her the one doing all the feeling out to “strip” him of his facade which is “just for show” and he resists but finally gives in with something, then he sits on that “show bed”, feeling he’s let his guard down with her, and then she hits him with the line about the bed being “just for show”.

    • Jarman Alexander

      I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to judge the vocabulary of a prostitute based upon one scene (although, that is all we have here so I realize it’s our only option). I’ve seen many scripts where characters have been criticized for acting a certain way in a scene or using certain words that the stereotype of that character would not use, and here’s my complaint with that.

      We know Dominique is a drug addicted Jazz singer from the scene set up. If we dissect the scene, we can learn a great deal about her by making logical jumps.

      1) She is talented at her job (according to the detective).
      – She probably takes PRIDE in her job because of this, at the very least enjoys it.

      2) Her Job does not make her enough money to cover her addiction AND means of living. (So she must solicit for prostitution).
      – Seeing as she claims to have so many pricks in her life (assuming she doesn’t love every John that picks her up), she probably does not enjoy this aspect of her career choice and may even feel bad about it, possibly judged.

      3) She has not only a bottle of alcohol that she keeps for show, but a nice bed set as well.
      – This is where it really ties together. Dominique is a person with a problem (drugs) that she can only accommodate by doing things that she does not enjoy (prostituting for pricks), but she is also a person with talent in the form of at least singing.

      If we tie all of this together with a little logic about where the writer maybe going with this character, we will see that she is a person who feels shame and discomfort about her life, and puts on heirs as a way of making up for the bad things that she does. So for Dominique, using an extensive vocabulary to sound like an educated class of person is just another heir she puts on to make herself feel better or be judged less harshly by the detective in this case (it is only their first conversation outside of the car ride).

      I would suggest for the writer to strengthen this character trait (if indeed I’m not just completely wrong) by adding a novel on a bedside table, preferably one that the detective has also read. Then he can question her about the book and they can discuss the novel in a way that adds subtext to your scene as well as authenticate Dominique’s vocabulary.

  • Patrick Sawyer

    Character goals make a big difference.

    I don’t know if Dominique has a long term goal as to why she wants to seduce or simply have sex with Boyd but that’s her goal in this scene and I imagine Boyd had a similar objective. She’s also the one who invited him in so we know she wants him to be there. Essentially both want the same thing and so there’s no conflict and this leaves them to talking about this and that before finally getting down to business. Still, I enjoyed reading it.

    In the Basic Instinct scene he’s clearly come there to question her. Getting answers is his goal while she on the other hand is doing her best to mess with him, get him off his game and draw attention away from herself to him. The incepick adds some danger into the scene. Both want the opposite things and there’s a lot of conflict which adds much to the dialogue and makes the whole scene riveting.

  • Zadora

    Good dialogue is VERY hard. No one used to complain about my dialogue, but now they do all the time. Very disconcerting! I want to get better. Not worse! I know a few writers who are excellent at it. I don’t think they’re even trying either. I think, writing good dialogue just comes naturally to some.

    • Malibo Jackk

      Whenever you have a dialogue problem
      just have someone pull out a gun.

  • leitskev

    Excellent idea for an exercise, and very constructive examples and analysis.

    The amateur sample is not bad. And the pro sample is one of the most famous in film. So great examples picked.

    One thing that stands out in the first is the lack of conflict, which relates to the character goals as Carson discusses in detail. Now I am not someone who thinks conflict has to be in literally every scene, because sometimes the purpose of a scene is a simple set up which will later pay off. So it’s hard for us to say without knowing the overall story goal here.

    Usually if the scene goal is to have the couple copulate at the end, the conflict can center on one of the characters being hesitant or unwilling at the start of the scene. Maybe one of the characters is married, or maybe he’s religious, or maybe she’s coming off a hard break up. Or maybe one of them has a different goal, such as getting information.

    Here the story objective seems to be to establish that both of these characters have a need based on their loneliness. So actually the scene might work well enough for the story purpose. For example, you get the two characters together, and then a couple of scenes later, one of the characters is killed, setting things in motion. Set up, pay off. The set up was establishing the bond, and the breaking of that bond through the killing spins the story in motion. If that’s the case, you don’t need conflict in the scene. What is most important is to establish that bond powerful and quickly. Which means you have to show how much these characters need each other, which has more or less been done effectively here.

    In fact, what can damage the scene would be to force conflict into it just for the sake of having it. If this is a set up scene as I described above, the most important thing is to accentuate the need which creates the bond, and the legitimacy of the bond. If that can be done with conflict, all the better…but one has to make sure the conflict does not water down the establishing of the bond between the characters or make it feel less authentic,

  • brenkilco

    A tentative get acquainted scene, even if it is between a cop and a hooker, really shouldn’t be compared to an interrogation scene between a potential murderer who likes to mindfuck and a cop hiding every sort of scandalous behavior imaginable. We’re really stacking the deck here. If Esterhaus ever wrote an initial meeting scene for a more conventional couple- and that would include just about everybody- let’s see that.

  • https://twitter.com/deanmaxbrooks deanb

    A simple way to put it is that the second scene has more “ingredients.”

    You’ve got a strong reversal, with the cop entering for an interrogation, only to have his own possibly criminal history dragged up, stymieing his efforts.

    You’ve got tension, with the ice pick prop. If I remember correctly, in the opening scene to Basic Instinct, isn’t the man in the bed killed by one?

    You’ve got subtext, in which Vanessa is not just trying to entrap Tom psychologically, but sexually.

    You’ve got a surprise, with the arrival of Roxy, a motorcycle rider, and Vanessa’s lover!

    You even have a bit of gallows humor. “Hazel is my friend.” “She wiped out her whole family.”

    And finally, the scene follows the maxim of “get in late, leave early.” Before things might get really interesting, Roxy arrives, allowing Vanessa an out. Now I want to find out what happens next to bring closure. The scene leaves with a teaser.

    Lots of elements going on here, which engages the reader (and viewer, of course).

    Another great scene in a crime/thriller would be the meeting between Joey and Richie in A History of Violence, which would be my suggestion for a pro entry. William Hurt got nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar on the strength of it, and it’s only ten minutes long.

  • mulesandmud

    To really make this week valuable, Carson, you need to pick scenes that parallel each other in some concrete way. Both scenes should use similar elements, or share the same subtext, or articulate a similar plot point, or at the very least happen in the same general section of a script.

    Today’s scenes both feature a cop. And two characters. And reference sex. And…contain backstory? That’s it? One is from the early part of a story, the other from deep inside an already moving plot. The genres seem different. The characters from one film have nothing to do with those from the other.

    The parallels are way too thin here; might as well pick two scenes at random from a script pile to compare. At best, this week will let us feel like we’re watching two writers deal with the same kind of writing problem, which lets us compare their style, their logic, their technical skill, etc. That only happens if the scenes have distinct relevance to one another, not just vague similarities.

    As to the question of using produced vs. unproduced film scripts: I suggest using only produced scripts. Sure, having a finished film already in our mind may stack the deck against the amateur, but these comparisons are more interesting as an exercise than as a contest (and Carson seems hellbent on stacking the deck regardless).

    Having an existing, already-filmed scene (one that we can link to) might at least add an extra layer of information that we can comment on. Reducing the conversation to ‘which one is better?’ or ‘can you spot the pro?’ seems to really limit the whole enterprise.

    • Casper Chris

      I think we just need to go with the flow and accept that these aren’t going to be perfect comparisons (for the reasons you and others have already stated). Even if the premise is somewhat flawed, I still found the article interesting. As long as there’s food for thought.

      • mulesandmud

        You’re probably right, but Carson IS the flow, and hopefully he’ll see my point.

        We don’t need to settle just yet – there’s a great premise here, and still plenty of time to make the comparisons maximally fun and valuable.

        Given just a bit more forethought, we’d have a so much more to compare. For example, let’s say Carson wanted to focus on the amateur scene as prelude to sex:

        Or maybe we could focus on a lonely character getting to know a (maybe) prostitute:

        The point is, if the scenes don’t have something interesting in common, then Carson might as well just review the scene from Basic Instinct, talk about what works there, and leave it at that.

        • Casper Chris

          The point is, if the scenes don’t have something interesting in common, then Carson might as well just review the scene from Basic Instinct, talk about what works there, and leave it at that.

          I think you can learn as much from what isn’t working as what is. Carson’s point that the first scene “never quite finds the gear it wants to cruise in. It feels like it’salways switching gears.” is a very good point and taken together, the two scenes show the difference having clear character goals/motivations can make.

          Obviously there’s a lot more going on and I agree with the overarching point you’re making. Looking forward to see what Carson comes up with tomorrow.

  • Andrew Parker

    Ezsterhas is obviously a legend (in his own mind?), but two things I didn’t like:

    – Repetition of the word “beat”. Mix it up a little, Joe!

    – Unnecessary use of the word “is”. “She is making herself a drink” instead of “She makes herself a drink. “He is twisting her arm” instead of “he twists her arm”

    WHAT I LEARNED: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Just make scenes interesting so the reader leans in to find out what happens next, spots the subtext and learns something about the characters.

    • Malibo Jackk

      Keep in mind it was written in 13 days.
      Nothing wrong with that.
      And E isn’t afraid of having his characters “stare” at each other.

      Beginning to think there’s a disconnect between what readers expect from a screenplay and what really matters.
      Screenplays are written to look pretty and meet all the reader’s expectations of what a screenplay should be.
      But why not spend less time on window dressing — and more on story dynamics.

  • Eric

    The first thing I thought was, if sex is a foregone conclusion, we don’t need a whole scene to get us there. The dialogue is getting-to-know you talk, but she’s already invited him in and directed him to the ‘good stuff’. In reality it may very well play out this way, but as a scene in a movie I don’t see it’s purpose for being.

    If the previous scene had these two characters in the car and she inviting him up, we could skip directly to a post-sex scene without feeling like we missed a thing. If the author still felt some of that getting-to-know you talk was needed, maybe construct a scene around him wanting to leave afterwards and her trying to talk him into staying. Even that small conflict would define some character traits. He’s distant and reluctant to let people close. She’s lonely and maybe a little desperate for real company.

    Then again, if you’re certain both characters want the same thing, you can still get conflict from an exterior source. A person or situation that is standing between them and their relationship.

    For instance, maybe place the scene outside the apartment and have her lose her key. Having them stuck outside would force the characters to talk in a situation where that might not be the first thing on their minds. The getting-to-know you talk could be more interesting because it’d be intermingled with these two trying to solve a practical problem (how to get into the apartment).

    Even just the conflict of uncertainty (these two not knowing that the other wants it just as much as them) could be enough. In that version, the dialogue would be of an investigatory nature as the characters try to figure out what exactly the other is thinking.

    I still think that would be a hard sell in the apartment, though. If Dominique invites him in, pours him a drink of the good stuff, sits him on a huge bed located within ten feet of a bar and Boyd is still thinking, “I wonder if she wants to have sex with me”, I’m gonna be questioning Boyd’s mental acuity.

    So, without knowing the larger context, I’d consider a location change. A girl’s bedroom is like the goal posts on a football field. And a compelling sports scene doesn’t start in the endzone.

  • sotiris5000

    I read this as Domnique trying to seduce Boyd. She was the one with the goal, the one going after something.

  • pmlove

    The first scene might work better if Boyd was trying hard to resist (rather than having sex as his goal) – Dominique is the temptation, as a washed out cop he must have some self-discipline problems, so the scene could be (potentially) about self-control.

    That way you might also get your ‘build’ – first he accepts the drink, then the seduction.

    Obviously it’s difficult not knowing any further story details.

  • Nicholas J

    Carson really has read his fair share of scripts. Great analysis.

    But this is the problem with dialogue comparisons like this. It becomes a SCENE comparison, not a DIALOGUE comparison. But chances are if you think a scene has great dialogue, that’s because it’s a great scene, not because the dialogue is especially good. So maybe at its core, a dialogue comparison really is a scene comparison. Can you really separate the two?

    The dialogue itself, the words the people say, in the amateur one isn’t half bad. It’s a little confusing at times, trying to be too clever and wordsmithy, but it’s not bad. The writer has a nice use of recalls (“That one’s for show,” use of “burden of expectations”) and a good back-and-forth (“Bring the bottle.” “Where are we going?” “To bed.”) going on between the characters. A call and answer.

    But at the same time, I feel that the dialogue trying to be too clever is a symptom of a scene with an illness, and this is where it becomes a scene comparison. This is literally just two people flirting. It shouldn’t matter that it’s a scene from the beginning of the script. There should still be something a little more happening here.

    There aren’t any reversals or mysteries or anything too unexpected. And that’s what gets people to keep reading. Reversals and the unexpected are satisfying to watch, so we turn the page, hoping for more. And mysteries intrigue us and we want to know more, so we obviously keep going. The amateur scene here does nothing to pique my interest. Like I said, it’s not a bad scene, there’s just nothing that jumps out to me that makes me want to turn the page. And I suppose that not every single scene needs something like that, but I’m assuming if the writer picked this scene to submit out of all the scenes in the script, it’s one of the better ones.

    I thought the Basic Instinct scene was a perfect one to pick. The dialogue in this scene doesn’t need to be clever. The words themselves are actually pretty boring. “Tell me about the coke Tom.” “Tell me Tom” “I didn’t.” “Yes you did.” And that’s what’s so great about it. It doesn’t need to be clever or witty or use big words, because the underlying scene is so masterfully done. The writer gets all Hemingway up in here, where he doesn’t have to wow us with words, because he’s wowed us with story.

    And in that sense I think this was a great comparison. Love this week so far. Don’t change things. Keep it rolling.

    • Casper Chris

      Yea, dialogue doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Carson ends up talking about scene construction in his article as well precisely because the two things are pretty much inseparable.

    • Eric

      If we’re going for pure dialogue comparison, one thing Carson could try is to find a scene where the conflict SHOULD be dripping off the page based on the situation, but for some reason the scene is floundering anyway. That could lead to a better lesson in how to milk conflict rather than how to create it.

      A breakup scene, for instance. Done well and we get a compelling look into the wants, needs and failings of a relationship on the rocks. Done poorly and we get two people yelling nonsense at each other. I imagine there are plenty of breakup scenes in both amateur and pro scripts alike.

    • Logic Ninja

      Great point! The key seems to be: play to your strengths. If you have the ability to string together the believable with the beautiful, like Tarantino or Sorkin, great.

      If not, that doesn’t mean you can’t write great dialogue. It just means you’ll have to work twice as hard at scene construction, subtext, motivation, dramatic tension, etc.

  • Logline_Villain

    While Eszterhas wins the head-to-head, the first scene is serviceable and with a bit of polish can sparkle as well – I did appreciate the “that one’s for show” closer.

    One difference between the scenes: On the nose ACTION.

    On the nose DIALOGUE gets all the attention, but sometimes we betray our writing by making things too obvious in the action lines. Dominique’s actions in the first scene: 1) SHARING THE GOOD STUFF (ALCOHOL); 2) BLUSHING; 3) BITING HER LIP; 4) TOASTING; and 5) STEPPING OUT OF HER RIPPED DRESS – all add up to this being too easy for BOYD. Even if the result was a foregone conclusion, the scene would benefit if Boyd had to work harder to achieve his short-term goal.

    In the second scene, Eszterhas uses/implies SUBTEXT throughout his ACTION description: TENTATIVE… EXPRESSIONLESS… MASK… oodles of (COMBATIVE) STARING.

    There is indeed an apples and oranges aspect to comparing such scenes, but adhering to the adage that conflict is the heart of drama, the What I Learned section for today is: Be vigilant in employing action lines – and not just dialogue – to create dramatic tension.

    • Kirk Diggler

      “I did appreciate the “that one’s for show” closer.”

      That’s a bingo! Me as well. A pay-off from an earlier set up.

  • Scott Strybos

    “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 reminds me of a book I recently read.

    Keith Jonhstone, an improve teacher, wrote a book on the subject of improvisation for the stage and he talks about the above in one of his chapters. He calls this a “status transaction”. Into every human interaction/conversation we carry a status, our perceived value within society. And that under the surface we are subtly (or not so subtly) battling it out with each other with what we say and do. And that there is a “see-saw” effect; if someone is going up, rising in status, the other person is being pushed down. There is always this battle for dominance. And that even the people who appear to be playing low status are actually playing high… the chapter is fascinating.

    I highly recommend the book. Even though it is about improvisational theatre, of which I have no interest, there are two chapters out of four that I think would be invaluable to writers (the other is ‘Narrative Skills’). If we can master the concept of status transactions, it will elevate our scenes to another level.

    • leitskev

      I like this, thanks.

    • lesbiancannibal


  • http://www.linkedin.com/pub/brett-martin/52/702/72 ElectricDreamer

    Tony Gilroy said it in a way that really got through to me…
    “The quality of your writing is absolutely capped at your knowledge of human behavior.”

    And that directly applies to dialogue, eventually. Bare with my reverse-engineering…

    Your character goals will dictate the HUMAN BEHAVIOR they use in the scene.
    Once you know what they want and HOW they go about getting it, then set the location.
    Pick the setting that most EXACERBATES one of the characters goals.
    A dominant cop steps into the “domain” of another predator – Catherine Trammel. Boom.
    What happens when two predators face off for the first time – they size each other up.
    It’s what predators do to each other, it’s simple basic INSTINCT. And psychology.

    1) character goals 2) character psychology and 3) setting. Dialogue’s after all that.
    For me, dialogue’s a bitch that’s always fashionably late to the screenwriting party.
    But if I’ve done my homework, characters tell me how to accomplish their goals for them.

    If they didn’t I’d just be grasping at straws and shoving perfumed prose across the page
    This is the philosophy I used for the dialogue scene I submitted for this exercise.

    • https://thebarkbitesback.wordpress.com/ Jim

      Well said. In addition to goals, one of the ways to create better dialogue is to take those goals – call them agendas – and have the characters try to hide them from one another (assuming they’re already in somewhat conflict. They don’t have to be in opposition – characters can want the same thing, but have vastly different ways to go about achieving it which creates another level of conflict entirely). That approach essentially blends 1 with 2 and setting can always provide subtext.

      • http://www.linkedin.com/pub/brett-martin/52/702/72 ElectricDreamer

        Some good movie examples of same goal w/complications…

        RED SUN. A lawful man and a thief must cooperate to achieve their goal.
        But a SAMURAI and a THIEF can’t even agree on how to enter a room.
        So, the conflict arises from the COMPLICATIONS of their BEHAVIOR.

        DEFIANT ONES. Two shackled runaway prisoners need to escape.
        But their RACE issues complicate the simple goal that unites them.
        Not to mention all the prejudices of the time and place on top of that.

        LETHAL WEAPON. Two cops on the trail of a suspect.
        One cop is UNHINGED. The other couldn’t be more NAILED DOWN in life.
        Again, these two guys can’t even agree on how to enter a room. :-)

        • Poe_Serling

          Red Sun… an often overlooked gem in Bronson’s catalog of films.

          • astranger2

            How gauche… great film, imo… a real samurai western.

          • http://www.linkedin.com/pub/brett-martin/52/702/72 ElectricDreamer

            How very Alain Delon of you!
            But he’s the Le Samourai in another film.

          • astranger2

            A little ironic… ; )

        • astranger2

          Three of my favorite films. Now that I look at the titles — they’re all buddy films…

      • lesbiancannibal

        this too

    • lesbiancannibal

      Great post

  • NajlaAnn

    Very good, useful discussion – thanks.

  • Kirk Diggler

    Basic Instinct was one of the first screenplays I ever read. I was the starting shortstop on a softball team that played in Central Park. The first baseman was a playwright. I told him I had an interest in writing. He gave me this screenplay. Although he did so derisively. He said something like ‘there is very little attempt to establish atmosphere’ and something along the lines of the writing being ‘thin’. But he also said if you could write something like this you might sell a script because Hollywood loved this sort of shit.

    As I read the B.I. scene, my first thought was, “is this a cheap knockoff of Basic Instinct”? Then I soon realized it WAS Basic Instinct. To me, it comes off as corny and cliche. It doesn’t hold up. Just my opinion. Esterhaus was not a great screenwriter. He did have certain skills. But his attempt at noir is a bag full of cheese.

    I actually like the first scene. Might say i prefer it. It’s not perfect. Some of the dialogue needs tweaking to improve the overall clarity. But it’s not bad. The stakes may not be super high but so what? Context matters. It’s easy to pluck a key scene from a popular movie and claim it’s so much better.

    Carson says: “My job, and your job as readers of Scriptshadow, is to figure out why the dialogue in the pro scenes works better.”

    Are you intentionally looking for dialogue scenes that you feel are weaker just to make this entire week a self-fulfilling prophecy? Curious.

    • https://thebarkbitesback.wordpress.com/ Jim

      It’s interesting – when I first read the passages early this morning, I skipped the dialogue entirely and read the narrative descriptions. I would have thought Basic Instinct was, by far, the more amateur of the two based on that alone. Certainly wasn’t a strong point.

      • klmn

        Skipping the dialogue is a curious way to read what is supposed to be a “Me VS Pro” dialogue face-off.

        • Casper Chris


        • https://thebarkbitesback.wordpress.com/ Jim

          I like to read between the lines!

          No, I did it intentionally because I wanted to see if there were any elements to the setting that would provide subtext, to get a flavor of what the scene might be about by what’s happening vs. what’s said, amongst a few others – probably the biggest being does the scene play better if something WEREN’T said instead (sort of like watching a movie without the volume turned on to see whether you can follow along). Sometimes silence works best.

    • Casper Chris

      Are you intentionally looking for dialogue scenes that you feel are weaker just to make this entire week a self-fulfilling prophecy? Curious.

      Carson wrote:

      I’m mainly picking scenes that can help teach a lesson. But if I find a really good dialogue scene, I’ll feature it.

      Oh and I agree that the ‘amateur example’ was not bad at all. I feel maybe the scene outstayed its welcome a bit, but it’s hard to say when judging things in a vacuum. I just feel the writer could’ve achieved the same with less.

  • JakeMLB

    I see a lot of people picking on the nature of the two scenes and calling them unfair comparisons. Let’s just agree that you’re not going to find a perfect comparison so for the purpose of this exercise that shouldn’t matter. In fact, examining the setup of the scene and its trajectory is important in and of itself.

    My thoughts on the first scene. These are just my first thoughts and meant to be constructive and not overly critical.

    Diction. People don’t talk this way. Drug-addicted jazz singers don’t say “atoning for my indiscretions”. Even if her character is a former scholar, it just doesn’t ring true of normal conversation. Similarly phrases like “One, remind me to pick a new spot. And two, it was a long time ago…” seem out of place here. “What’s a girl like me working at Club Cake?” There has to be more subtle ways at getting at this question without the use of such a cliched line, even if Boyd himself didn’t use the line, it was still said.

    Confusing action and dialogue. The bit about Boyd sniffing the bottle then smiling knowingly: I’d like to know what he’s smiling at because I don’t get it. How exactly is working at Club Cake “atoning for indiscretions”? It sounds like a nice writerly line, but what does that actually mean? How does singing/working at a night club (or is that a strip club?) atone for anything? She’s not exactly volunteering at a homeless shelter now is she? Then the line Boyd gives about “true success is knowing your limitations…”. Again, in the context of the question he was asked, “What kind of cop’s moonlight for an asshole like Q?” what does that response really mean? I see some vague attempt at Boyd trying to say they’re not so different but how does that line mean what it purports to? Dominique: “I thought it’d get easier.” She thought what would get easier? Why would she say this after they toasted? This may sound like nitpicking but when you stack so many vagueries within a single scene, it becomes difficult for the reader to keep up and they eventually lose track of not just the dialogue and character intentions but the scene itself.

    Lack of subtext. The dialogue here isn’t all that bad. It’s actually quite good. But there is a clear lack of subtext.

    Scene issues. As Carson has pointed out, what’s the goal here? And what’s the greater purpose of this scene? Would a cop really go in for a drink after driving a woman home for a solicitation charge?. That’s risky professionally and potentially to one’s personal health. I get that he’s had his eye on her for some time but why would you want your protagonist sleeping with an important character on their first meeting? It’s hard to know without knowing the context of this scene but it ultimately seems like an odd choice.

    Push and pull. As others have pointed out, there is a dynamic to the dialogue in terms of shifting the power that isn’t present in the first scene. Obviously much of that will depend on the scene construction itself and the characters’ goals but it’s quite true of normal conversation. That’s not to say it’s necessary here but it adds a little flavor and dynamic that feels like it’s missing from the above.

    That’s all I can think of for now but I have to be honest that I wasn’t sure that the first example was the amateur one until I finished the second. That’s certainly saying something!

    • Nicholas J

      JakeMLB with the home run comment of the day. Great insights here.

    • pmlove

      There is some subtext in the vein of ‘reality hiding behind appearances/just for show’ – I agree, however, that perhaps this isn’t explored enough.

    • Bifferspice

      - Drug-addicted jazz singers don’t say “atoning for my indiscretions”
      at least one, somewhere, might. without reading the rest of the screenplay, we wouldn’t know. not necessarily “wrong”, it it? i know people that would talk exactly that way. should she be waggling her head from side to side, saying “not me, girlfriend”?

      • Kirk Diggler

        Yeah good point. Jazz singers can be very sophisticated people. Anyone can be addicted to drugs. If her character is well established, then the dialogue could work just fine.

      • JakeMLB

        Sure, there might be some selection bias at play. We’re only getting a small snippet of dialogue so we’re missing prior scenes that would normally help acclimatize us to tone, diction, character etc. Even the dialogue from Basic Instinct can read a touch cheesy when read as an individual scene void of the prior sensitization. However…

        You have both a washed out cop AND a drug-addicted jazz singer who is seemingly a prostitute (arrested for solicitation and just dropped her dress because someone gave her a ride home) both speaking with the same diction with very little distinction. Maybe I’ll buy the jazz singer in a vacuum, but also the cop?

        Even if someone of her ilk does talk this way in real life, it’s very rare to see that in a screenplay, particularly in this kind of scene. Look at Basic Instinct, you have a novelist no less speaking in words that don’t sound nearly as writerly. If this were a film where that kind of speak is better accepted, something like BRICK for example, then it’d be an easier sell, but the setup and these characters don’t make me believe that this story is particularly stylized.

        Then of course there’s the problem that the words themselves don’t make sense. How does working at Club Cake atone for past indiscretions?

        I’m obviously nitpicking but that’s the point of the exercise and this is only my opinion. Ultimately for me it boils down to the fact that it doesn’t sound like real conversation. It’s as simple as that. But I’m obviously basing that on the words on the page without having the full story and context.

        • Jaco

          I agree with you Jake – the diction didn’t fit the scene – in fact it made it made the dialogue a little dry and stilted. Overall, from start to finish, it was a boring scene.

          But – that’s just judging the scene on stand alone terms. I highly doubt it – but put in the context of the script – it might play better.

    • klmn

      Also, the description of the liquor bottle being just for show and the description of the bed contrasts with Dominique being picked up for soliciting. Streetwalkers – the women arrested for soliciting – are the bottom rung of the profession. Higher end prostitutes are usually arrested en masse when there’s a sting, or occasionally as a result of a political scandal.

    • Midnight Luck

      I agree with all your points Jake.
      Very well put.

  • Guest

    These brackets are used with any written text to indicate paraphrasing. You can find them a lot in news articles.
    Probably used here because we’re only working with a small snippet of the script; it simplifies description explained beforehand.

  • Jaco

    It’s not a screenwriting device at all. It’s an editing device used by Carson where he put his own words in this scene and took out words in the script. He put [the music] in place of “the Stones” and [a computer] in place of “a word processor”.

  • Erica

    This is a great discussion. After reading the first one I found myself a little confused as some of the dialogue seem to come out of know where. I also asked myself; if this scene was cut, what would it mean. Well not knowing the whole story it would seem like nothing other than a hook up.

    The second scene while at fist seem to read a little awkward it quickly became interesting. I had to keep reading. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Basic Instinct so I didn’t immediately know it. I was going to try and rewrite the first scene to see how I would do but instead I though I would post this scene from a script and see if it compares to Basic Instinct and the Dialogue lesson.

    It takes place in an old farm house at night time. There is no power.

    CANDLES LIGHT fills the room.

    Sitting at the table JETHRO pours himself a shot of Jack Daniels. Quietly he gathers his thoughts. Sitting in silence.

    ROBERT enters the kitchen, carrying a LANTERN. His gun slung over his shoulder barrel down.


    You need anything?


    (holds up glass with JD)

    I’m good.


    (looks back at his glass)

    Everything loaded?
    First light we’re out.


    First light, (chuckling a little) good one.

    JETHRO looks up at him.



    Not too early, I like to sleep in on Saturdays.


    He didn’t mean to kill him you know.

    Pausing has he tries to convince himself more the Jethro


    Billy didn’t mean to kill him. He was struggling, the gun (beat) just went


    You didn’t seem to have any problems firing at those people
    across the street.

    JETHRO swirls his glass of JD


    Ice would make this drink.


    It was the heat of the moment. They shouldn’t have been there.

    ROBERT reaches down to the table and grabs for the bottle of
    Jack Daniels. JETHRO quickly reaches
    over and grabs ROBERT’S hand stopping him.



    JETHRO reluctantly lets go.

    ROBERT takes a swig of the Jack Daniels.


    Heat of the moment, that’s all. It’s not who I am. I ain’t
    ever killed a no one before. Not like

    JETHRO pulls the bottle close to him.


    I don’t think any of us are who we thought we were.


    I just wanted you to know that.


    You ever kill anyone?

    JETHRO finishes the last of the Jack Daniels in his glass
    then pours another. Half glass.


    You know, after things went down.


    I’ve seen plenty.
    People do crazy when they’re hungry.

    JETHRO just stares at him, ROBERT see’s it’s time to end the


    Dakota is crazy like that,
    but I think Dakota was like this before all this shit when down. He scares the hell out of me.

    BILLY enters the room carrying a flashlight. The light almost blinds JETHRO and ROBERT.

    ROBERT hands go up to his face in a defensive nature to
    block the light. BILLY can see that
    JETHRO and ROBERT are having a conversation.

    BILLY looks at ROBERT, not sure where his eyes should rest. JETHRO looks at BILLY for a moment, then back to his glass.


    I know there is more to him.
    You don’t want to be on the wrong side of Dakota.

    ROBERT and BILLY exits the room. The light returns to the burning candles.

    • Malibo Jackk

      First sentence: CANDLES LIGHT? (Not sure about this) 1.) CANDLE LIGHT… 2.) Light from burning candles…

      Last sentence: The light returns to the burning candles? 1.)The room darkens, lit only by the burning candles… 2.)The lantern light recedes, returning the room to candle light…

      • Erica

        Thank you, corrected, it was late last night. How did the dialogue play?

        • Malibo Jackk

          Am judging the dialogue in a vacuum. I’m meeting the characters for the first time. Know nothing about them. Not sure what happened before the scene — and can only guess at what they’re planning.

          It’s ok for tv. But amateurs need to stand out.

          Drama can be hindered by the use of first choices:
          1.) Jack Daniels. Referenced too many times. Too much reliance on it to make the scene. Not as effective as say — the icepick.
          2.) Light from the flashlight strikes his face. Comes off as scene filler. Seems to lack context. Belongs in a comic scene — or a room that is completely dark.
          3.) Jethro. Probably the first choice for a backwoods character.

          Full Disclosure: It’s only one opinion.
          Now go to it — and kick some ass.

          • Erica

            Thank you for the comments. It is hard to gauge from just a short segment. The funny part is I threw in the flashlight at the last moment. Really you can’t throw anything in, everything that is in the scene has to be there for a reason or people will see right through it.

            As for the JD, I think I may need to tone it down and give him some other element in the scene that makes the scene pop out. I’m also contemplating Jethro’s name. I never made the connection and I know the show, too funny.

      • Erica

        That helps thank you. The spaces are from cut an pasting from Final Draft. I will have to look at the name Jethro, you could be right.

  • Malibo Jackk

    “I don’t think the dialogue in the first scene was awful enough to full
    stand out as a STARK comparison (or difference) to the pro scene.”

    Which scene do you think an A list actor would like to play?

  • klmn

    Since the theme of today’s exercise is cop and suspect, I will enter a scene from my screenplay Corridor Of Freaks. I’m pasting it in, so click READ MORE, then click on the insert, and use your arrow keys to scroll around.

    Although this page is numbered beginning with one, it actually occurs just before the midpoint shift – the break in of Genotexx Laboratories. Tod – a student preparing for the LSAT – is confronted by FBI Agent John Browning with the results of the search of Tod’s van.


    His car parked, John Browning walks into the building.


    Tod sits at the table, studying.

    A KNOCK at the door. Tod answers the door.


    John Browning stands waiting.


    Tod Russell? Special agent John



    What’s so special about you?


    Let’s see. I’ve got a badge, I’ve

    got a gun. I’ve got a black belt in

    Taekwondo. And I’m about to kick

    your ass if you don’t show some



    I’ve got nothing to say to you.

    Tod starts to close the door. Browning blocks him.


    I think you do, Tod. Your van – it

    came back dirty. Rabbit hair.

    Tod steps back like he’s been shot.

    Agent Browning follows him into the



    You – you found a rabbit hair?


    Three rabbit hairs, Tod. Three

    different rabbits. We did DNA tests

    on those hairs.



    So what? You think you can convict

    me on that? Three fucking hairs?

    Gimme a break.


    Oh, yeah. You see these are very

    special rabbits. Their genetics

    have been tracked for generations.

    You took the rabbits, Tod, but you

    didn’t take the lab files. I’ve got

    your ass on three separate counts –

    five to ten on each.

    John Browning picks up the LSAT prep book.


    What you want to ask yourself is –

    do you want a lawyer? Or do you

    want to be a lawyer?


    What do you mean?


    I mean, this is bigger than just one

    burglary. I mean, how much do you

    know about your friends in this ecoterrorist



    I don’t get you.


    I’m talking fires. Bombings. People

    have died, Tod.


    I don’t know anything about that.


    I’m taking down the whole network,

    Tod. You help me and you walk.

    Protected witness – you can even go

    to law school. You refuse and I

    bust you right now.


    You’re asking me to betray my friends?


    Bingo, Tod. I knew you were a smart

    boy. I want you to wear a wire.

    • klmn

      Disqus screwed up the left margins and the spacing between lines. You can download the entire script at

      • Erica

        Yeah, I’ve had the same problem with cut and pasting stuff in here.

    • Poe_Serling

      Yeah, it works for me.

      My favorite exchange:


      Tod Russell? Special agent John Browning.


      What’s so special about you?


      Let’s see. I’ve got a badge, I’ve got a gun. I’ve got a black belt in Taekwondo. And I’m about to kick your ass if you don’t show some respect.

      **I liked how you took the typical FBI agent intro/lingo and gave it a funny but yet tough guy twist.

  • fragglewriter

    Definitely try to create as much organic tension in the scene as possible without forcing it. I think the writer could of set-up the two characters better as well as give the male character a goal. Even if it’s a passive goal while the female digs and pry would be good.

  • Cluttery

    Am I the only one who thinks the Boyd/Dominique scene reads EXACTLY like a scene between Kim Basinger and Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential? I mean down to the two beds, the “watching” the cop/”entertainer” and even the “just for show” lines…