All this week, I’ll be putting one of YOUR dialogue scenes up against a pro’s. My job, and your job as readers of Scriptshadow, is to figure out why the dialogue in the pro scenes works better. The ultimate goal, this week, is to learn as much about dialogue as we can. It’s such a tricky skill to master and hopefully these exercises can help demystify it. Here’s yesterday’s “You vs. Pro” if you haven’t read it yet.
In this opening scene, which takes place 50 years in the future, SAM FREEMAN, a “memory diver,” is preparing to go inside the brain of a comatose soldier to try and save him. The soldier’s father, ADMIRAL BLOCK, and Sam’s boss at the hospital, TRENT HARKNESS, head into the operating theater with him.
SAM, admiral BLOCK, and HARKNESS enter the operating theater. Block’s son HARRISON is already hooked up to the Rig.
SAM: Listen, Admiral… I think, given your son’s prognosis, speaking as his therapist… I don’t want you to get your hopes up, ok.
BLOCK: What the hell are you saying? He’s my son!
HARKNESS: No no no, what Dr. Freeman is saying, sir, with this kind of procedure-
SAM: What I’m saying is that maybe it’s time to let go. Do the decent thing, let your kid fade out. Lord knows he could use some peace.
Harkness, mouth agape. Block, turning fire engine red.
BLOCK: You may want to think carefully about the next words that are going to come out of your mouth.
SAM: Or maybe you want to think about what you’re signing your son up for. The years of therapy. The pharmacy’s worth of drugs to get him even remotely close to stable. The drain he’ll be on his family, financially and emotionally. He’ll know. Oh, he’ll know. And he’ll hate every minute of it.
Harkness is turning white as a sheet. Complete shock.
SAM (CONT’D): That’s what you want for him, I won’t stop you. But maybe you should think on whether death isn’t kinder than your selfish need to prolong a life that’s already over.
Block, teeth bared, GRABS Sam. PUSHES him against the wall.
Harkness snaps out of it. Frantically calls for some orderlies to pry Block off Sam.
SAM: Go ahead, get it out. Let loose. Come on. Do it.
Block, muscles taut with fury. We realize Sam genuinely wants Block to beat the shit out of him. And after a couple of tense seconds, Block sees it, too.
BLOCK: You’d like that, wouldn’t you?
He releases his grip. The ORDERLIES burst in, ready to regulate. Block holds up his hands; the orderlies hang back.
BLOCK (CONT’D): You don’t know my son. You don’t know shit. (to the orderlies)
It’s okay, I’m good.
HARKNESS: I’m terribly sorry, Admiral. I assure you, Dr. Freeman will-
But Block’s not paying attention to Harkness. He stands next to his son, strapped into the Rig.
BLOCK: When he was seven, Harrison brought home a stray dog. Mr. Tails. Ugly mutt. Kid loved that damn thing.
Block runs a hand through his comatose son’s hair.
BLOCK (CONT’D): One day, they’re out playing, dog gets hit by a car. I see the animal’s in pain, dying. Try to explain to Harrison what’s the humane thing to do.
Block fixes Sam with a hard stare.
BLOCK (CONT’D): Wouldn’t let me near the dog. Kept kicking me. Punching. Kid’s seven, and he’s putting up one hell of a fight. Knew he’d get his ass whooped, too. Didn’t care. Just needed me to take his damn dog to the vet. Wouldn’t back down.
There’s a stillness in the room, punctuated only by the sound of biomonitors beeping in the background.
BLOCK (CONT’D): I know my son. I know what he’d want me to do. If there’s even the smallest chance…
A silent understanding passes between the two men. Finally, Sam nods.
SAM: I’m sorry for what I said. It wasn’t my place.
BLOCK: You said what you thought you had to. No harm in that. But next time you suggest euthanasia to a parent, I recommend you keep your trap shut.
Sam clicks his cyberdeck into the Rig. Removes the dust plug from the datajack in his skull.
Harkness is staring daggers at Sam. This isn’t over. As he lies down and reaches for the data cable:
SAM: So what happened to Mr. Tails?
Block’s eyes cloud over.
BLOCK: You got work to do, doc.
SAM: Yeah. I suppose I do.
Sam jacks in. His eyes close.
RIG OPERATING SYSTEM (V.O.) Begin playback: March 18, 2057.
FADE TO WHITE.
In this next scene, a father, Matt, is preparing his daughters, 17 year old Alexandra and 10 year old Scottie (yes, Scottie is a girl), to have their last moment with their mother, who’s been in a coma and has just now been taken off life support. Matt is particularly concerned about Scottie, who’s been slow to grasp the magnitude of her mom’s situation.
[Elizabeth] now lies with no machines at all. Around her BALLOONS droop, FLOWERS wilt, get-well CARDS lie in a pile. Elizabeth too is wilting and drooping. Her skin is pasty, and her cheeks are hollow.
SCOTTIE: How come Mom isn’t on any more machines? Is she getting better?
The adults exchange glances. Dr. Herman approaches Scottie.
DR. HERMAN: You must be Scottie. (off her nod –) Scottie, I have a present for you.
Dr. Herman hands her a little squeaky RUBBER OCTOPUS she pulls from her pocket.
DR. HERMAN (CONT’D): That’s right. It’s an octopus. Such a funny creature with its eight legs. But did you know octopi are actually extremely intelligent, like dogs and cats? They have unique personalities, and just like us they have a lot of defense mechanisms. I’m sure you know about the ink sac. She uses ink to confuse her predators. She can camouflage herself. She can emit poison, and some can mimic more dangerous creatures, like the eel. I keep her to remind me of our defense mechanisms — our ink, our camouflage, our poison, all the things we use to keep away hurt. The reason Dr. Johnston invited me here today is to meet you, Scottie. I’ve heard a lot about you.
SCOTTIE: Like what?
DR. HERMAN: I’ve heard that you’re a wonderful and unique and spirited girl.
Dr. Herman shoots a look at Matt before continuing.
DR. HERMAN (CONT’D): And I’ve heard your mom’s not doing too well and that she’s going to die very soon.
All watch Scottie react to this news.
SCOTTIE: Dad, is that true?
MATT: Yes, Scottie. It’s true.
DR. HERMAN: You’re going to have to be a very brave girl right now, and you’re surrounded by people who love you. I came to meet you and tell you that if you ever want to talk about what you’re feeling, I would like to talk to you too. I can help you face what’s going on without all the silly defense mechanisms that work for an octopus but not for us.
DR. JOHNSTON: Okay. Thank you, Dr. Herman.
Dr. Herman looks at everyone with great sincerity before leaving. Scottie is left holding the octopus. She drops it, and it squeaks a little.
ALEXANDRA: What the fuck was that?
DR. JOHNSTON: Yes, well, they say she’s very good one-on-one.
SCOTTIE: So Mom’s going to die for sure?
DR. JOHNSTON: Yes. We worked really hard with her, but three other doctors and I agree she’s in what we call an irreversible coma. Do you know what that means?
SCOTTIE: It means she doesn’t have a brain anymore.
DR. JOHNSTON: Not exactly, but… yes, that’s the general idea. So we’re doing exactly what she wanted us to do if that ever happened. That’s why she’s not attached to the machines anymore.
ALEXANDRA: It’s for the best, Scottie. Look at her. She’s not happy like this.
DR. JOHNSTON: The purpose of medicine is to heal, and we can’t do that now.
MATT: Do you understand?
SCOTTIE: Yes. What will we do with her body?
Dr. Johnston looks to Matt for this one.
MATT: First Mom’s going to give some of her organs to other sick people, so she can
help save their lives. That’s a really neat thing she’s doing. Then we’re going to… we’re going to scatter her ashes in the ocean. You know how Mom always loved the ocean.
SCOTTIE: Her ashes?
Scottie looks at her mother, picturing her as ashes.
SCOTTIE (CONT’D): When will she die?
DR. JOHNSTON: Any day now, I’m afraid. But you still have some time.
DR. JOHNSTON (CONT’D): Well. Let me know if you have any more questions.
MATT: Thanks, Sam.
The doctor leaves, and the room is quiet. Scottie is in a sort of trance.
ALEXANDRA: Come here, Scottie.
Scottie goes to her sister, who takes her in her arms.
SCOTTIE: Do eyeballs burn?
SID: Hey, Scottie. Don’t think about stuff like that.
Okay, let’s take a look at our first scene, which is from an amateur script called “Firstborn.” At the outset, the scene appears to have a lot going for it. We have clear goals (Block wants to save his son. Sam’s trying to convince Block it’s a bad idea). We have conflict (stemming directly from this difference in opinion).
We approach the scene from a slightly unique angle. You’d expect a doctor to fight for a patient’s life. In this case, Sam’s fighting to end the patient’s life. So the scene has a slightly different flavor to it. And yet, something feels off about it. The dialogue isn’t popping the way it should. Why?
Well, the first thing I noticed was that a lot of lines had what I call “hiccups,” additions or pieces of text that screw up the rhythm of the line. Take this line for example: “You may want to think carefully about the next words that are going to come out of your mouth.” The hiccup here is “that are going to.” “That are going to” shouldn’t be in this sentence. It should just be, “You may want to think carefully about the next words out of your mouth.” Reads better, right?
Or check out this line: “No harm in that. But next time you suggest euthanasia to a parent, I recommend you keep your trap shut.” This sentence doesn’t even make sense. “The next time you suggest euthanasia, keep your trap shut.” How can he keep his trap shut about euthanasia if he already suggested it? What’s meant to be said here is that the next time Sam thinks about suggesting euthanasia, he should keep his trap shut. It’s a small oversight, but a hiccup that gives the reader pause. Once these hiccups start piling up, the read becomes difficult and frustrating.
Next, there were a series of cliché/cheesy lines. Stuff like, “He’ll know. Oh, he’ll know.” The second “Oh, he’ll know,” is overly dramatic and unnecessary. Later, when Block realizes Sam wants him to beat him up (for reasons that aren’t clear to me), Block replies, “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” How many times have we heard this line in movies and TV before? Hundreds? Thousands? Once something becomes overused, it feels lazy and cheesy.
But, of course, the worst line of all is, “When he was seven, Harrison brought home a stray dog. Mr. Tails.” Adding the dog’s name is a hiccup here. Stopping after “dog” would’ve been preferable. But the real problem is that by going back in time to tell a story, you take us out of the immediate conflict of the scene. This is why I advise to stay away from flashbacks or mono-backs (monologues focusing on backstory) if possible. It’s not that they can’t work. It’s that they rarely work.
To better understand why this dialogue doesn’t work, let’s examine why the dialogue in the second scene does work. For those who don’t recognize the scene, it’s from the film, “The Descendants,” which starred George Clooney. The script, written by Alexander Payne, Jim Rash, and Nate Faxon, won an Academy Award.
So what’s so good about this scene? Well, I’m guessing none of you picked up on this while reading it, but notice how this is the most heartbreaking scene in the script, the finally-letting-go scene, and it contains zero emotion. What I mean by that is, there’s no yelling here, no crying, no fighting. It’s a very calm matter-of-fact scene. With that in mind, ask yourself which scene is more emotionally moving to the reader, the first or the second? The second, right?
You’re going to hear it again and again on this site. Irony plays such a huge part in making the elements of a screenplay work. This is a scene about death with no emotion. That’s exactly why it works. Because it’s unexpected. It’s not the way you traditionally see the scene going down.
Speaking of untraditional, let’s take a closer look at the octopus. I think the octopus dialogue is genius, and I’ll tell you why. Imagine your version of a dying hospital scene. What’s the last thing you’d expect to be in that scene? An octopus. And that’s exactly why this works, because it’s so unexpected. It comes out of nowhere and throws this weird energy into the scene that tells the audience, “You do not know where this is going.” And when we don’t know where something is going, we pay closer attention. Because we want to see where it goes.
Contrast this with the first scene. We all knew exactly where that scene was going. There was nothing unexpected about it, which was a big reason why you probably grew bored reading it. This was a problem yesterday as well. I was never in doubt about where that amateur scene was going. And the more expected something is, the more boring it tends to be.
The octopus becomes this weird failed attempt to placate Scottie. And when it fails, the rest of the room is left to pick up the pieces, leading to yet more unexpectedness. Who’s going to clean this up? What are they going to say to clean it up? These are the questions that drive the scene, that make us want to keep reading.
Yesterday, there were those of you who saw the amateur scene as better than the pros. Do you feel the same way today? If so, why? Share your thoughts. But try to articulate WHY you think the dialogue works (or doesn’t). “The second one is better” doesn’t help anyone. It’s only once you understand why something is or isn’t working that you’re able to apply that knowledge to your own screenwriting.
What I learned 1: The octopus – In well-worn scenes that we’ve seen a thousand times before, inject your own “octopus” into the scene to make it feel different.
What I learned 2: Hiccups – Hiccups are any additional words in your dialogue that aren’t necessary. But it can also be incorrect use of words, tenses, subjects, phrases. Hiccups are just as bad as spelling errors. On their own, they’re not a big deal. But once they pile up, they can spell doom for your script.