PulpJulesVincent1More dialogue!

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.

Loading memory…


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.

  • carsonreeves1

    Anything with [brackets] this week is to consolidate a bunch of stuff that wasn’t necessary to include.

  • hickeyyy

    I think you nailed it Carson. Today’s amateur dialog felt cliche. It didn’t hit any unusual notes. There was nothing about it that was special. It just all felt like I’ve seen it before. Goes to show even if you have a situation with clear goals that you still need to put your own twist on it or it feels bland and lifeless. The last thing you want is bland.

    The pro? It’s unique. It’s different. There is humor in the girl dropping the octopus, literally and figuratively saying that it is bullshit. Scottie clearly doesn’t want to be treated like a child but is. She wants answers.

    Moral of the story? BE UNIQUE! Send us down unfamiliar road. If we travel a way I’ve already gone 100 times, I’ll know what is coming before we even get to it. If you take me a new direction, I’m going to do some sight-seeing. I’ll be paying attention. I’ll be on the edge of my seat

  • fd

    With you on this one. The amateur scene appears to me to be a first draft that needs the fat cut off it. Reminds me (once again) of the quote from Goethe (the German poet) in a letter he wrote to his sister:
    “If I’d had more time this letter would have been shorter.”
    and from Hemingway:
    “All first drafts are shit.”
    and from some other big writer dude I can’t remember the name of:
    “Writing is rewriting.”

  • GoIrish

    I dont like the octopus part at all (and am pretty sure it was not included in the film). It feels like a forced, cliched version of an adult who cannot relate to a kid. What (rational) adult would give a squeaky toy to a ten year-old – let alone one whose mother is being taken off of life support? I think it was a wise move to omit that from the film (and if it wasnt cut, they may want to think about releasing a reedited version of the film).

    • carsonreeves1

      I disagree. I think people say the weirdest shit when it comes to death. Everyone deals with it in their own way. I’ve met people like this woman as well, so it had a ring of truth to it. — I realize I don’t remember if they included this in the film or not. I’m sure someone can confirm it for us.

      • Panos Tsapanidis

        I didn’t like the octopus part either. And it wasn’t because it didn’t feel plausible to happen in the real world.

        It was because it felt like an attempt to write a Tarantino-eque dialogue. That block of text with explanation of what the octopus does feel enforced by the writer when you read JUST this scene.

        BUT if the whole vibe of the movie is quirky (which, I imagine, it is, especially because of the squeaky sound the octopus makes when it hits the floor ), then the octopus could be a continuation of that quirkiness and an organic part of the movie’s universe.

      • GoIrish

        Dr. Herman was brought in for the express purpose of helping Scottie cope. Her expertise is (presumably) children and grief. I just can’t believe an expert would be so clueless about age-appropriate gifts and thinking this is the best way to help Scottie comprehend what is going on.

      • Logic Ninja

        When I read the thing with the octopus, I immediately became aware of the writer. What went through my mind is, “Ah. I see what you’re trying to do here.” So I can see how other screenwriters might chuck the octopus scene as being wannabe-Tarantino or wannabe-ironic. We can sense the hand of the writer and it sends up a red flag.

        But the audience is oblivious to all this. They haven’t read 500 scripts or seen 5000 movies. All they know is, “Hey, I haven’t seen this before. I have no idea where this scene is going. This just got interesting.”

        • Sebastian Cornet

          And that’s the thing most writers forget, Ninja, we’re not writing for other writers, we’re writing for large audiences.

          I for one loved the octopus scene for the same reasons as Carson did: I had no idea where it was going, but it felt fresh. Was I aware of the writer’s hand? Yes, but I don’t think a magic trick is any less impressive after I find out how it was done.

          Hell, if anything, I find it even more impressive.

          • Logic Ninja

            Absolutely! It’s pretty near impossible to write something that surprises another writer. But thankfully that’s not the job. The job is, surprise and entertain the audience.

        • Linkthis83

          Here on SS, it’s like a bunch of magicians watching other magic shows. Being the constructors of magic moments makes us too familiar. The general population though, love themselves some magic.

      • Nicholas J

        There is no octopus in the film. Actually that entire scene is barely in the film. You see a doctor talking to Scottie, but the only sound is music, so you just see her reactions and stuff and understand what she is telling her.

    • leitskev

      Yes! It did feel like that. However, I suppose that could be the point, a character who doesn’t know how to relate to a kid. I have not seen the film. But I agree it sounded very much like that. In fact, I could almost see it as dry humor.

    • Randy Williams

      I didn’t like that doctor one bit. I’ve been in hospice and hospital rooms while loved ones were dying and if someone talked like that I’d punch them.
      The girl is 10 years old and he speaks to her like she’s five and gives her a squeak toy? How about an Iphone 6, better?

      • klmn

        From what I’ve seen, doctors remain professional. He might say something about quality of life. If he doesn’t get the answer he wants, he moves on to the next patient and lets the nurses deal with the family. The nurses can always reach the doctor – or another doctor from the same group – on the telephone.

        • Poe_Serling


          Still hoping to see your scene from Corridor of Freaks go up against one of the pro scenes.

          • klmn

            Yeah, me too.

            If Carson does this again, maybe he should give us a few more parameters than just a “dialogue scene.” Like for Monday’s face-off he could specify “cop talks to suspect.” Or for today’s scene “doctor talks to family member about dying patient.”

            Not only would it give us a better target to aim for, but it would make it easier for him to select scenes. I think it should be mandatory that the scenes be part of screenplays, not written as an exercise.

            Along with this, I think Carson might want more email addresses for his various challenges. Right now, everything goes to carsonreeves3. A separate email for each challenge would add clarity.

          • klmn

            One more thing. If I knew C wanted a cop and suspect scene yesterday, I would have selected a different scene. I think I’ll bust one out and enter it into the comments section.

            Look for it in an hour or two.

          • klmn

            I’ve entered my own cop and suspect scene in the comments at yesterday’s post.

            My scene takes place just before the midpoint shift* in my script.

            *Anyone remember that term?

    • Scott Strybos

      I liked the Octopus part because of how the characters in the scene reacted to it.

      In the 1rst scene, the character gives the speech about a childhood dog and it is meant to be emotional and touch the people in the room. And I think it does. But the monologue is corny and clichéd. In real life, people would probably roll their eyes at that speech. Or expend every drop of restraint to not roll their eyes,

      In the 2nd scene, the Octopus speech isn’t supposed to land. It isn’t supposed to work. A doctor is telling a ridiculous analogy, delivering a clichéd movie speech, to placate this girl. What is great is the characters in the scene can see this, and the speech does nothing to console the girl. The girl immediately drops the stupid Octopus because who cares about octopuses when your Mom is dying–that is one of the reasons why I think the second scene is better.

      • GoIrish

        I get the intent/purpose of the doctor/octopus. I’ve seen the movie, and I thought the characters seemed genuine and believable. Yet when we get to this scene, we are supposed to believe that a doctor specializing in childhood grief has no understanding of how to relate to a child in an age-appropriate way. Why choose to go with that type of absurdity for a character at this point when you havent done so previously? If they were going to go with an extreme, i think it would have been more believable to have the regular doctor provide an overly clinical explanation.
        Since the filmmakers ultimately decided not to include the octopus, it’s possible something felt false to them as well. (Amazing how much passion an octopus can stir up.)

    • PoohBear

      I loved the octopus scene in Short Term 12, you’re missing out if you haven’t seen that movie. Don’t use octopi anymore, it has become cliche’.

  • Panos Tsapanidis

    That dog story was the kiss of death.

    • Randy Williams

      If the writer is in love with the dog story, then maybe put it BEFORE the confrontation. Block is discussing his son with a sympathetic ear. We understand his frame of mind and the “fight” in his son through the telling of the dog story. Then cut to Sam and the others without Block discussing the best course of action is euthanasia and we know there is going to be conflict ahead. Then have them all meet up.

      • Panos Tsapanidis

        Honestly, either in the beginning, middle or end of that scene, it will still look in the nose.

        If the writer wants to add this backstory so much, then he has to find a way to put somewhere far from that scene.

      • Jaco

        Or – since this is a movie about a memory diver – show the memory. Have it be something completely different than what the Admiral says happened. Maybe instead of the kid version of the soldier getting all lathered up over a hurt dog – the real version is of the soldier as a kid getting beat with extreme prejudice by his military father because he’s crying over a button missing on his favorite stuffed animal.

        Then have Sam confront the Admiral.

  • Andrew Parker

    This is a good analysis, particularly with regards to hiccups.

    The brain is wired to memorize 7 digits, hence the length of phone numbers. The same is true with dialogue. If your dialogue sentences are longer than 6-7 words, the brain starts to get fatigued. Like you’re asking it to do too much.

    Look at Aaron Sorkin — everyone thinks he is verbose. But if you read AMERICAN PRESIDENT, all his sentences are crisp and to the point. He just has a quick to the dialogue. And as an added bonus, he is the master of irony that you champion (e.g. President having trouble order flowers over the phone scene).

  • Dannyy

    In my opinion, the dialogue in the second scene works better than the first.

    Here’s why: In the first scene, the shift of emotions and opinions feels too sudden so there’s no flow. Imagine a cosine graph. In this scene, the shape of the line is too ridged. This happens, then this happens.

    In one beat Admiral Block is calm, then enraged, then we almost have a fight scene, then he’s talking about his son’s dog. The same thing applies to Sam Freeman’s opinion. At first he argues about choosing death over saving his life, but then easily accepts defeat after hearing a story about saving a dog.

    I have a question though. Why would Sam suggest letting the man go? Isn’t it his job to save the man’s life? Does he do this with every comatose soldier he comes across? He must be pretty terrible at his job then.

    On the other hand, the second scene has rhythm as we’re lead through the scene by Scottie’s naïve understanding of the situation. As she asks questions, each character tries to comfort her with answers. The calm and distant nature of the scene creates a gentle rhythm.

    However, the scene wasn’t that unique. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen scenes like that before that involves comforting a child with a toy/object.

    • Dannyy

      Here’s a suggestion to improve the first scene. Adding a little irony to it (I know much you love irony). Let’s say Sam has been “memory diving” into many soldiers so he’s used to all the emotions and procedures. It’s another day at work. This way he treats this procedure emotionlessly. The Admiral, however, isn’t satisfied with the Sam’s emotionless procedure. Now we have a small argument over treating the subject as a human being versus treating him like a vegetable. The irony is that the person trying to save a life sees the soldier as nothing more than day’s work, whilst the person who unleashes soldiers into a battle like pawns, sees his son as more than just any soldier. He’s his son.

      Just a thought.

  • leitskev

    I didn’t like today’s amateur dialogue. Sorry. One thing that really bugs me is when writers force conflict unnaturally into a scene. Maybe they do it because they’ve been told every scene has to have conflict. And it seems that very, very, very often this seems to result in someone getting slammed up against a wall. Man, that happens a lot in amateur scripts, and it almost always feels forced and…weird.

    If Sam’s job…his job!…is as a “memory driver”, why is he provoking the admiral? Why is he even in this program to save people when he is so quick to dismiss people as ready to “fade out”?

    Let me attempt a possible solution. This scene is a single hinge scene…it has one turning point. From the beginning of the scene, Sam seems to want to convince the admiral to not authorize the mission to save his son. Or at least he wants to provoke a reaction, maybe as some kind of test, I don’t know why(why would the father passing a test impact whether the son should be saved?). Anyway, Sam is against the mission for whatever reason, and the admiral’s story about his son changes Sam’s mind and the mission goes forth.

    Why not make this a double hinged scene? Sam comes in ready to do the “memory dive”. Something happens that changes his mind, makes him hesitate. Maybe something the admiral says. So he argues with the admiral. Then the second hinge comes and reverses things, gets Sam back on track.

    • leitskev

      Oh, and I didn’t care for the pro dialogue here either. I have not seen the film, maybe it works better there. I didn’t feel at all natural, but maybe that’s what happens when you read a scene in isolation, without getting a prior sense of the characters. I found it unnatural and flat, and flat is usually the enemy in film.

    • pmlove

      Characters acting unprofessionally is a killer to any story. The trouble is finding the line between ‘unprofessional’ and ‘pushing the limits’.

      In the first scene, Sam is way, way out of line with his talk. As a ‘memory diver’, presumably there is also a medical professional to deal with the let him die/keep him alive debate. It’s not his job, he’s terrible at it and it makes you dislike the character as a result.

      I recently watched the pilot of BLACKLIST (spoilers), which was terrible as a result of this sort of thing. Excluding the gaping plot holes (eg the escape), the lead character stabs the chief witness in the carotid artery with a pen and faces ABSOLUTELY NO CONSEQUENCES. It’s so frustrating.

      The consequence of the first scene here is that Sam should be severely reprimanded and/or fired. What might work better is if Sam uses a serious of innocuous but pointed comments to drive his point home. The Admiral can still react and you still have your scene but Sam has still acted within the guise of professional role.

      • leitskev

        Yes. And it’s always hard for us to evaluate a scene in isolation from the rest of the story. Maybe Sam is a very reluctant memory diver, who hates the work, but is the only one they could find with the talent for it. I just had a hard time understanding why he was provoking the admiral. It seems to me the writer was forcing conflict because he’s been told every scene needs conflict. I mean as it stands it doesn’t make a lick of sense to me. Sam thinks the son should die because he’s lived the life of a warrior and has presumably suffered enough? Then why do anything to save someone like that’s life? Why give him antibiotics? But he changes his mind because of a dog story? I’m sure all this makes more sense if we could see the whole script. Then, maybe isolating a scene can really help shine a light on essential problems. And I don’t mean this to seem too critical, we’re all here to learn.

    • JakeMLB

      It’s true that the conflict feels forced but it’s hard to say without knowing the entire story. Apparently this is the second scene of the first act though so I’m not sure if the one scene before it would be enough to establish this conflict naturally. But I had concerns similar to yours in that the way he delivers the news is very cold and stilted. It almost seems as if he’s provoking the admiral, not delivering heavy news in a compassionate manner.

  • charliesb

    I think a big problem with the first scene (besides the hiccups Carson mentioned) is that the writer didn’t effectively use “character” to guide his dialogue.

    If ‘memory diving’ is something that Sam does on the regular, why not show this in the scene. He’s done this before he’s had this same conversation with fathers like Block before. He knows he’s going to get a “when my son was so and so age” story. Use that knowledge to surprise us and Block. If he really wants Block to hit him then perhaps he does it by showing Block that his story is unoriginal. That every mom and dad that comes in here is basically the same.

    Also use this scene to tell us something about Block. He’s a father who wants to save his son. Ok great. What else? What does the way he reacts to Sam’s provocation tell us about him that we can’t already guess. Is he hopeful? Anxious? Scared? Is he convinced this is going to work? Or is there a chance it won’t? It’s not enough that he wants his son to live, what else can you tell us about him through this short exchange with Sam?

  • Cfrancis1

    This is an interesting exercise. But it’s difficult to judge scenes out of context. In the first scene, I was shocked by Sam’s advice to Block. Seemed completely unbelievable. But then he’s pushed against the wall by Block and we get this interesting action line: ” We realize Sam genuinely wants Block to beat the shit out of him.”

    Kind of intriguing. So that’s why Sam is suggesting euthanasia? Because he’s full of self-loathing? I don’t know. Haven’t read the rest of the script. Which makes the scene difficult to judge. At the same time, if that is the case, then the focus of the scene needs to be on Sam. As it is, it starts off as Sam’s scene but then becomes Block’s scene.

    Regarding the second scene, I do not remember it in the final cut of the film. I really liked The Descendants. But this scene… I didn’t care for it. Too long. And the octopus monologue comes off as forced to me. I’ll have to watch it again but I don’t think this scene is in the final cut which was probably a good choice.

  • brenkilco

    It isn’t just the rhythm of the lines in the first scene but the rhythm of the scene itself. It’s never going to be great- though again we seem to be stacking the deck by comparing a b sci fi thriller to a low key character drama- but it could be improved greatly by shortening and sharpening.

    Point one. Sam would not be antagonizing a grieving parent, let alone one that is his professional superior. If it is his job to deliver the pros and cons of this procedure and to ask next of kin to contemplate quality of life issues he would obviously have done it many times before as part of a professionally sympathetic protocol. And he would accept the relative’s decision.

    The admiral might react just strongly enough to the pro forma inquiry that it startles us. (It is absurd to think that an admiral would put his hands on a subordinate in these circumstances)Then the admiral could go into his dog story. He would do this uncomfortably, not being used to revealing emotion, and perhaps a bit sheepishly knowing how the anecdote might sound to others.

    Sam accepts the decision but as the admiral walks out he delivers the capper line. “What happened to the dog.” The admiral hunches his shoulders, says nothing, walks out.

  • Somersby

    Good comparison, Carson. And the pro scene you selected provides a great balance (tonally) to the amateur scene. Nice choice.

    However, some of your points make me ask whether understanding who you’re writing for is also important in making the sort of decisions you are suggesting.

    If I’m writing a script for, say, the Lifetime Network where they favour overly romantic, (read: cheesy) heavy-on-the-saccharine type fare, then hiccups are standard, almost necessary.

    I suspect writers often include them in their script subconsciously because our collective “ear” for dialogue has been honed as much by watching movies and television episodes as it has been by encountering similar personalities in life. I’ve never met a real-life drug dealing, gun-wielding, ruthless killer—but I’m familiar with many I’ve met on the big screen. If I’m writing a scene featuring such a thug, is it bad to colour him, even just a little, with some of the stereotypical trappings we know the audience is familiar with because they, like me, only know that kind of evil through other media?

    I’d be surprised if a lot of these real-life bad asses didn’t fashion themselves on tough guys they’ve seen in films as well. Life imitating art, that sort of thing.

    I’m NOT saying a writer shouldn’t strive to make every scene unique and engaging. But, knowing your audience, knowing who you are writing for, is also important and may influence the tone of the script you’re creating—and whether or not an occasional hiccup helps you achieve the emotional resonance you know the audience is looking for.

    Today’s amateur scene is cheesy in spots and emotionally manipulative (especially the bit about Mr. Tails.) But I’m wondering if it wouldn’t resonate more with the crowd who watch “Grey’s Anatomy” more than the pro scene because it’s the story of Mr. Tails that this audience will connect with.

    More questions than answers, I know. And probably a topic for another day. But for writers looking to work as staff writers or freelance for producers who create MOWs for Lifetime, UPTV and the like (and there’s a ton of them), it might be something to think about.

    • pmlove

      “I’d be surprised if a lot of these real-life bad asses didn’t fashion themselves on tough guys they’ve seen in films as well.”

      Watching something like ‘The Act of Killing’ (which is great for those who haven’t seen it) makes you wonder how it must feel to have made Scarface, yet have it influence the style and methods of Indonesian death squads half way around the world.

    • kenglo

      My two cents – actors are the ones who provide the ‘hiccups’….Christopher Walken NEVER says his lines as written, he puts his own spin on it. I can see where Carson is going with the ‘hiccups’, and I feel they aren’t really needed IN THE SCRIPT. If we keep it short and simple and let all the other folks (actors, directors) do their thing. Unless, of course, you’re acting for Tarantino. But that’s another story I guess.

  • mulesandmud

    Now we’re really getting somewhere.

    Fantastic comparison today. Two scenes about family members unable to let go of a loved one in a coma. It’s like both writers were given an IISC-style assignment, and ran with it in totally different ways. The scenes even both include stories about animals!

    The second scene, with only minimal plot mechanisms at work, kept me gripped with suspense. It starts off feeling (very intentionally) all over the place; the octopus story, as opposed to the Admiral’s puppy story, seems apropos of nothing. Once we realize that the whole scene has been arranged to break the bad news to little Scottie, though, suddenly every word became incredibly charged. Will this kid understand? Will she hold it together?

    Scottie’s line “Her ashes?” is brilliant. Such a simple way to articulate a kid wrapping her mind around death. I found myself holding my breath while reading – fuck, did Matt say the wrong thing? Is the kid gonna flip out now? She doesn’t flip out, and the dialogue remains very level-headed all the way through, but in the end that doesn’t limit the emotional impact of the scene at all, it just makes the writing feel more mature.

    The first scene could have used some of that focus, and restraint, especially since in theory everyone present is a professional whose job requires them to be super cool in times of stress. It’s seems far-fetched that Sam, a medical professional (in a sci-fi way), is advocating the death of a patient, but let’s assume that this contradiction is part of who he is; maybe he’s done this job long enough to hate it.

    The Admiral, on the other hand, is a bit harder to make sense of: he blows his top right away, then pivots to a warm-and-fuzzy monologue. Neither seems particularly appropriate for the character, and yet both choices are very obvious for a character in that position. And just like yesterday’s conversation with the prostitute, the scene didn’t seem to actually effect the story; it just goes where it was supposed to, and in the end Sam makes his memory dive just like he would have otherwise.

    Again, great choice of scenes today. It’s amazing to think that stories with wildly different characters, in wildly different genres can intersect so distinctly at the same dramatic moment, before continuing on their own respective paths.

    Just goes to show you that when you’re thinking about a project and looking for comparisons or references to draw from, don’t just look for superficially similar films. Cast the net wide: you may find the key to your family melodrama in the mother-daughter relationship of ALIENS, or the key to the hero of your zany romantic comedy in a low-key thriller like THE CONVERSATION. Just like with scene-building, it’s worth digging until you find the road less traveled, the unlikely source of inspiration.

  • ChadStuart

    I would say the issue with the first scene is that it sucks all the dramatic tension out of the air. It’s set up pretty well, i.e. a doctor who doesn’t think a life saving operation is worth it. That’s great. But, then that issue is resolved by the end of the scene after a teary speech about a dog. That takes a thread that was slowly being pulled tighter and just clips it in half, destroying all tension for the ensuing scenes.

    Scenes don’t exist in a vacuum, they build on each other. Imagine the next scene(s) if the issue hadn’t been resolved. They force the doctor to do this operation that he thinks is unnecessary and unethical. Then you have tension. Then the audience’s mind is racing with questions. What’s he gonna do? Is he gonna sabotage it? Is he the type of person to kill a kid to make a point?

    But, with the issue resolved and the doctor agreeing to the operation, there’s no tension in the next scene other than will the operation go well. The more questions in the audience’s mind, the more tension there is in the air. That’s what you want.

    The second scene actually does this in a more subtle way. Scottie runs into Alexandra’s arms, not her father’s. That raises some questions. How does that make Matt feel? How does that make Alexandra feel that she’s now in the role of the comforter? And those questions carry over to the next scene.

    Scenes are about answering questions and raising new questions. The more questions you raise, the stronger the desire on the part of the audience to find the answers, and the more engaged they will be.

    Lesson to learn? Never cut the thread until you absolutely have to. Pull it as tight as you can for as long as you can. That’s suspense.

  • Sebastian Cornet

    I rewatched “Hot Fuzz” last night and got hung up on the pub scene where Simon Pegg explains to Nick Frost why he became a cop. I wondered why I loved the scene so much since, at first glance, it seems like nothing more than backstory.

    Then I went “hold on a second, this is some cool character transformation.” The act of opening up about himself and talking about something other than his job (Pegg discusses the importance of right and wrong and how that affects his worldview) is the first of many turning points for him, so it’s quite an emotional moment.

    Maybe that’s another lesson right there. Dialogue can be expository and amazing as long as it shows character transformation.

    Just my two cents.

  • Logline_Villain

    In constructing dialogue for a given scene, it’s a natural tendency to default to: “How would my characters speak… based upon the multitude of other movies (and television programs) I’ve seen?”

    In one sense, it’s a blessing to have those movie-watching (AND script-reading) experiences to learn from since movie talk clearly does not mirror everyday mundane conversation. But it’s also a curse since it often leads to conversations that feel all too familiar in a “movie-speak” sense.

    If we read as many scripts as Carson, the symbolic octopus probably beats the symbolic dog every time…

    The first scene contains more “movie-speak” of the familiar/cliché variety, but that can be remedied with a few more goes at it. In the end, I’m guessing the pro scene was rewritten and polished ten times – the amateur scene probably twice.

  • Nicholas J

    Oh man, I have to completely disagree about a character telling a story being a bad thing. I love when characters tell stories, as long as they are relevant. I don’t equate them to flashbacks. Here it tells us something about the character and the father’s decision. I wish the content of the story wasn’t so first-choice though.

    I actually liked the first scene quite a bit. After reading it I kind of want to read the script from the beginning. The execution could’ve been better, but the setup is cool. It also seems very story relevant, and possibly an exploration of theme.

    I think if the writer took out the emotional outburst of the father, the scene would be a lot better. It’s borderline melodramatic as-is. (And the dialogue is pretty cliche in spots.)

    Going back to what was brought up yesterday, you have the therapist/memory diver acting like the dominant force here, being in control of the scene. He’s giving the father a lesson in euthanasia. The father then turns the scene and gives the therapist a lesson about his son’s character, and why he doesn’t want euthanasia. That’s a cool turn, but it’s shown using the emotional outburst. If it were shown a different way, like if the father’s cool-headed and confident, and we get the sense that he knows everything the therapist is going to say before he’s going to say it, we’ll think, okay, maybe this father figure knows what he’s talking about here, and we’ll understand his decision. That would be a much better way to show it IMO. That will reflect the therapist’s change in his decision as well. Right now it feels like the therapist backs down because the father is too stubborn, but I’d rather see the therapist back down because he trusts the father’s decision. Anyway, now I’m rambling.

    I’m actually not a big fan of the Descendants scene, and IMO, it’s no wonder they removed it from the film. A scene like that is very hard to knock out of the park, especially with a child actor. Lines like “It means she doesn’t have a brain anymore” coming out of a kid’s mouth when you can tell they are reading lines will be unintentionally funny or just plain awkward, and not in a good way. The line “Do eyeballs burn” could be perfect Payne though, and might be the right kind of funny/awkward.

    Taking the emotion out is a good decision though, as the weight of the scene is already there, and we don’t need people crying or shouting to tell us that. If we did, the scene would be melodramatic.

    • mulesandmud

      Yeah, telling writers to avoid characters telling stories is crazy talk. Parable is an amazing window into meaning and motivation; that’s why the Bible is a bestseller.

      Also a major reason why Game of Thrones is so special. Absolute monologue mastery.

      • Kirk Diggler

        Yes, and you’ll remember Carson preferred Walking Dead to GOT precisely because he felt there was too much ‘storytelling’ through exposition. And no show uses this device more than GOT. But there is truly no way around it since the story is so dense, but the acting and costumes and scenery are so darn good that they make it not only palatable, but delicious.

        • Nicholas J

          Right. And it’s not like all exposition is bad, but people seem to think that way. I think most all the exposition in Game of Thrones is done extremely well. At the other end, I couldn’t make it through Inception because I wasn’t a fan of how all the exposition was executed.

          • mulesandmud

            The cardinal sin of exposition in dialogue is for one character to explain something to another character who already knows it, for no other reason than to let the audience hear them say it.

            INCEPTION for the most part was guilty of a slightly lesser crime – forcing a clueless character into the plot to barely justify scene after scene of shameless, naked exposition. Nolan does this all the time. More of an exposition misdemeanor than a felony, but still, it drives me crazy too.

            The gold standard for exposition, which GOT executes so well, is to slide it into conversation in ways that are seamless and incidental, hiding in the shadows of a scene’s primary subject, so that we feel like we’re learning the world naturally, by osmosis.

          • Kirk Diggler

            Shocker. I love that movie.

          • Erica

            Love that movie too but the ending still bothers me. I feel if I invested that much time watching the story, please do end it with a mystery. I feel that’s a lazy way out and the writer couldn’t figure out how to end it. But that’s my opinion on that movie.

            Same goes for the Matrix Series. I spent all those hours watch only to find out the computer crashes and reboots, damn microsoft.

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

      The Usual Suspects, Shawshank Redemption, Vertigo, Memento, boy I could go on and on where it’s been done and done effectively. Just imagine The Usual Suspects without Verbal telling us the story about Keyser Soze.

      • Nicholas J

        Great example as I just watched The Usual Suspects last night!

        • Casper Chris

          Makes me want to watch it again.

    • JakeMLB

      I think you and others have nailed it in terms of melodrama and quick tonal/emotional shifts or outbursts.

      And as before, a lot of that is being driven by the action/description:

      Harkness, mouth agape. Block, turning fire engine red.
      Harkness is turning white as a sheet. Complete shock.
      Block, teeth bared, GRABS Sam. PUSHES him against the wall.
      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.

      Just read those 4 lines of description, void of context, and you immediately see how overly emotional and melodramatic they are. “Teeth bared?” He’s not a wolf.

      The key words that define the pro scene are restraint and progression for me.

      I can’t stress how importance it is to practice restraint with your description, particularly around emotionally charged moments. Let the dialogue drive the action, especially character reactions. The more descriptive text you include, the more you’re diluting the dialogue on the page, even from a purely mathematical perspective.

      Just look at the two examples VISUALLY and note the difference. In the first, we have many long lines of dialogue and lots of description. The second not only reads more elegant but LOOKS more elegant.

      I also want to touch on one aspect that I feel is important and that’s being overlooked.

      And that’s scene POV (check out Wordplayer for more on this):

      Who’s POV does the scene focus on and why is that character the best choice? Notice in the second scene, the first character to speak is Scottie. The first image is that of her dying mother. The first thing Scottie says is “How come Mom isn’t on any more machines? Is she getting better?”

      We’ve all heard that good scenes should be set up as stories, in 3 acts, and this scene nails that perfectly. With the very first line of description and dialogue we immediately understand who the focus of the scene is and what the goal of that scene is.

      Now let’s look at the first example. Our first bit of description shows us three men entering. Block’s son Harrison is then described as being hooked to the rig.
      Not only is the description alone a little confusing as written but notice the differences in the ordering of the visuals. Above, we see Elizabeth first and then our scene POV character (Scottie) is first to speak and her dialogue immediately describes the scene goal.

      Here it’s a bit different because the protagonist is SAM, the memory diver, so the scene likely has to be told through his perspective. But how could we reorder the visuals and smooth the character introductions in order to best suit the goal of the scene? My first thought is to follow Sam moving through the hospital, coming up to the room, and watching through the window as Block is staring down at his son, gripping his hand tightly. That’s not a perfect example, but that simple imagery does better to frame the goal of the scene. This is a battle of Sam vs. Block and Block is unwilling to let go.

      I’d also suggest removing Harkness. All he does is open his mouth and turn white.

      The scene gets it right in that Sam is the first to speak (not that that’s a requirement) and he immediately describes the goal of the scene. However, that first line, the most important line as far as this scene is concerned, comes across very cold and stilted: “I don’t want you to get your hopes up okay?” There has got to be a better way to get at that.

      • LV426

        “I’d also suggest removing Harkness. Notice how much of the melodramatic action description above describes Harkness. Why? We don’t care about this character at all. The only important characters are Sam and Block. Little missteps like that can derail a scene in no time.”

        I agree with this suggestion.

        Harkness, if he is truly important throughout the story, could be exiting as Sam is entering to speak with Admiral Block. As you suggested:

        “My first thought is to follow Sam moving through the hospital, coming up to the room, and watching through the window as Block stares down at his son, gripping his hand tightly. That’s not a perfect example but that simple imagery does better to frame the goal of the scene. This is a battle of Sam vs. Block and Block is unwilling to let go.”

        Sam watches for a sec as Harkness finishes speaking with Block (although we don’t hear their words through the glass), then Sam waits as Harkness exits the room and gives the Admiral a moment alone with his son. It adds a little weight to it instead of rushing in. It also might show that Sam is a pro, and knows to carefully ease into these kinds of serious discussions with the family members of a patient. This also gives allows more room to build up into a more intense boiling point near the end of the scene.

        Another positive is that something like this allows for a nice visual.

        — Sam watches Harkness leave in a hurry. The image of the Admiral standing over his sleeping son reflected in the thick glass.

        Visually on film that would look nice as a way to start and lead into the scene. Also, overlaying Sam peering through the glass window or wall with a sort of natural superimposed image of the Admiral and patient is nice symbolism for the notion of “memory diving” inside the intimate corners of another person’s mind.

      • Malibo Jackk

        Comment Of The Day.

        • JakeMLB

          Thanks Jack :)

    • LV426

      “I love when characters tell stories, as long as they are relevant. I don’t equate them to flashbacks.”

      One of my all time favorites of this kind of thing is in the original “Night of the Living Dead.”

      It is when Ben tells the silent Barbara about what he encountered before he made it to the farmhouse.

      ** You know a place back down the road called Beekman’s? Beekman’s Diner? Anyhow, that’s where I found that truck I have out there. There’s a radio in the truck. I jumped in to listen, when a big gasoline truck came screaming right across the road! There must’ve been ten, fifteen of those things chasing after it, grabbing and holding on. Now, I didn’t see them at first. I could just see that the truck was moving in a funny way. Those things were catching up to it. Truck went right across the road. I slammed on my breaks to keep from hitting it myself. It went right through the guard rail! I guess – guess the driver must’ve cut off the road into that gas station by Beekman’s Diner. It went right through the billboard, ripped over a gas pump, and never stopped moving! By now it was like a moving bonfire! Didn’t know if the truck was going to explode or what. I still hear the man… screaming. These things, just backing away from it! I looked back at the diner to see if – if there was anyone there who could help me. That’s when I noticed that the entire place had been encircled. There wasn’t a sign of life left, except… by now, there were no more screams. I realized that I was alone, with fifty or sixty of those things just… standing there, staring at me! I started to drive, I – I just plowed right through them! They didn’t move! They didn’t run, or… they just stood there, staring at me! I just wanted to crush them! And they scattered through the air, like bugs. **

  • bluedenham

    And it can’t stop the forward momentum of the scene, which is what happened here.

  • Tailmonsterfriend

    Writer here; read all your comments, and I have to say, you guys are the best. :) Thank you all for your feedback! You guys are the reason I keep coming back to this site (well, one of the reasons anyway), and I appreciate your thoughts. I’m glad that even though there is a strong consensus about the problems with the scene as-is (a consensus that I agree with), there was enough good stuff there to at least intrigue a few of you. I’ll keep working on this thing, keeping in mind what you all said, and maybe someday you’ll see this popping up on AF. Thank you for reading, everyone!

    • mulesandmud

      Tail, thanks for offering up your scene for discussion. Any chance you could talk about it a little bit, to give us some extra context? Some questions I had:

      -When does this happen in the script? Seems fairly early, end of act one latest.
      -What kind of sci-fi world are we in, exactly? Is there lots of surreal mindscape travel, a la THE CELL or ETERNAL SUNSHINE?
      -Does Sam have any particular reason to pull the plug on the Admiral’s son? Is it indicative of his character in a major way?
      -Are any elements introduced in this scene that pay off later, even in tiny ways? Do you ever come back to the dog story (not that you need to)?
      -Anything else we need/want to know?

      No pressure for answers, obviously, but they might add to the conversation in a cool way. Or just satisfy my own curiosity.

      Best of luck with the script.

      • Tailmonsterfriend


        – Pretty good guess, it’s the second scene in the first act.
        – We’re in a strictly cyberpunk future. Datajacks, vat-grown assassins, all-powerful megacorporations, the whole shebang.
        – Sam has never been the same since his daughter Kate committed suicide four years ago. Over the course of the story we learn more about what Sam had to go through, and why it would make him suggest to a parent to end the life of their child rather to cling on to hope. Essentially, “Firstborn” is Sam’s quest for redemption.
        – Without giving away too much: yes. The dog story, not so much; I might actually axe that one, seems like it was too sappy/obvious a choice.

        Thanks a lot!

        • Linkthis83

          -Is the prognosis actually stated in the scene prior to this one?
          -If Harkness is Sam’s boss, why is he so shocked when Sam is being so bold? If this is a common procedure at the time this story takes place, I would assume Harkness would have experienced quite a few of these ethical dilemmas of “should we or shouldn’t we.” – yet it’s the diver who is being bold here. And Harkness just kind of disappears in this scene.
          -Regarding relationships in this scene, does Harkness know about Sam’s daughter at all? And that really only matters if Harkness is part of the story as a whole. Since I only have this moment to go off of, I’m already thinking that you’d have to through some extensive testing to be a diver – background, psychological, etc.

          Plus I don’t know who knows who. Do any of these three have a history together? Does the diver not have a rank because he’s really blunt when addressing an Admiral.

          Or is this more like a Totall Recall service. Where if you have a loved one in a coma, you can hire this service to bring them back.

          And speaking of bringing them back, is there a stated GOAL of what being brought back means? Sam mentions that a lot of drugs will be needed to get him “even remotely close to stable.” What does stable mean? Where his body can support itself? Are we talking psychologically? OR both?

          And what’s the Admiral’s goal of bringing his son out of this com? Just so he’s alive? Because isn’t he alive right now, in a coma? Does this just mean getting him awake?

          And if he knows what his son wants, is that just to be alive? Or is there also technology that exists that once Harrison is awake, that he will have to go through all this stuff, the therapy and the drugs, to do what? Just be awake and alive, or is it about being able to rehab and get better.

          Do we learn what put Harrison into a coma? Is this story about Sam or about the Admiral and Harrison?

          I’m so sorry – no need to answer all this.

          THIS IS WHY I DON’T TRY TO CONTRIBUTE TO THESE TYPES OF DISCUSSIONS – There are just too many unknowns for me to feel like I could be helpful. Like I’ve mentioned before, I like to ask the story a lot of questions :)

          • Tailmonsterfriend

            You know, asking a lot of questions is A GOOD THING. It’s a test I force myself to take whenever I’m writing: “I know all the backstory here, but what would someone who knows nothing about this story think?” So, here’s what’s been set up prior to/immediately following this scene:

            – Block’s son is infected with a mind worm, a kind of memetic weapon used by a hostile artificial intelligence back in 2057 to hijack the minds of human soldiers. When we nuked the AI as a last resort, all the infected became vegetables, like puppets whose strings had been cut. Even if Sam succeeds in extracting the worm, chances that Harrison will lead a normal life are basically nil.

            – Sam works at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. Block is simply a client, there is no chain of command between him and Sam.

            – Harkness knows about Sam’s daughter. Thinking about it some more, I think you’re right that Harkness should probably react differently; he should have seen this coming. Maybe he’ll try harder to steer the conversation in a different direction. Go more strongly into damage control mode. Good catch.

            Thanks, man!

          • Linkthis83

            Wow, this really helps. Of course it makes me want to ask more questions too. Lol.

            -If Sam is a therapist and also a “memory diver”, does that mean memory divers are used to help people overcome psychological issues? Does Sam have a history of retrieving these worms? Does he have a reputation of being highly successful? Is that why the Admiral has brought his son here, because Dr. Freeman has had a high success rate (which could be something small like 3%) of retrieving the worm and the patients eventually leading mostly normal lives? I can also accept that it’s just random chance, and a story necessity, to have Sam encounter a parent that wants to keep their child alive to show Sam’s bold stance.

            -As of right now, I asked the questions I did because for me, this scene felt more about Brock than it did about Sam. Are Brock and Harrison part of the whole story, or just the opening sequence?

            -Also, this scene might be a great opportunity for Inception-style exposition. You can have Sam explain to Brock what this worm recovery entails. and to play off that, maybe what Brock wants from this moment isn’t for his son to live, but for him not to die with the enemy attached inside his body. And maybe that is what he knows his son would want – he’d rather suffer enemy free, than die with it inside him.

            And in regards to Harkness, I don’t think that he should’ve seen this coming with Sam. Since Harkness is the one in charge, I would think that this type of situation would be more common to him. A parent not wanting to let go of their child. And when Sam actually advocates for it, I could see Harkness supporting that decision. But if Sam were to go beyond just stating options and opinions, by taking an obvious stance on the matter, then I could see Harkness having some sort of professional reaction (mixed with the “ah I get it” type understanding – without actually stating it)

            I don’t know that I’m right about any of this stuff, but I wanted to see if I could help.

          • LV426

            Hey, it’s nice to see someone writing some cyberpunk. I’m working on some cyberpunk/tech-noir style stuff myself. I’m worried that if we get any big budget cyberpunk movies in the coming years, that they’ll just be remakes, reboots, or sequels of popular IP in that sub-genre. Things like more Matrix and Blade Runner 2 or a live action Akira and Ghost in the Shell. I’m looking forward to Automata starring Antonio “Desperado” Banderas and Melanie “Cherry 2000″ Griffith. Not only that, but William Gibson has a new novel out in late October.

            Anyways. I like the vibe and general idea you’re going for. The concept of the comatose soldiers stuck in a vegetative state is interesting and creepy due to the idea that they were once controlled by another entity. I’m wondering if there is some dormant backup of the evil AI that will come online and wake up all its “puppets” with a new mind worm. Unless you’re saving that stuff for the sequel.

          • Tailmonsterfriend

            >I’m wondering if there is some dormant backup of the evil AI that will come online and wake up all its “puppets” with a new mind worm.

            That would be just TERRIBLE, wouldn’t it? /evilGrin

          • LV426

            Well, it seems like it would be a good endgame for Sam’s probe into the mind of the comatose soldier.

            I mean, there has got to be STAKES!!!

  • Nicholas J

    It does connect with what is happening in the scene. It provides the reasoning behind the father’s decision as well as gives some illumination to the character who’s mind we are about to infiltrate. So the purpose of the story is good, the execution not so much.

    • Gman

      Yeah, okay, I can see that. The father’s intention is clear in telling a story. It’s just that this particular story doesn’t support that intention.

  • Midnight Luck

    OT: sorry, but

    Congratulations to PATRICK

    Awesome job Patrick! I wish you the best and that great things come for you from this.

    • Linkthis83

      I thought that name sounded familiar! And congrats to Paul Clarke and Kosta K for making the top ten.

      • Kirk Diggler

        Which logline was this? I just checked their site and can’t find it

        • Linkthis83

          Sheldon Turner: A corrupt detective with one month left to live tries to make all the wrongs right in a wobbly road to redemption, becoming the cop – and the person – they always wanted to be in the process.

          I know the contest really blew it by passing on a fantastic interpretation of this idea. Tommy Tucker hasn’t forgotten :)

          • walker


      • Kosta K

        Thanks, man. Losing sucks balls, but the experience was amazing. I’ll be sure to post a link to my entry once I give it a few more tweaks :

        • Paul Clarke

          Condolences Kosta. I feel your pain.

          I sent mine to Carson already. Mentioned you might be doing the same. Thought it would be an interesting exercise to compare scripts from the same logline. Would be amazing if we could find more of the 10.

          I didn’t realize Patrick was a regular here. Congrats to him.

          (PS – I still hate that logline)

          • Midnight Luck

            they have made all the chosen first 15 pages of the scripts available on the IISC site for download if anyone wants to read them.

          • Paul Clarke

            Damn, my sneaky 16th page was where all the good stuff happened.

            Thanks for the info, Midnight. Will have to check out the competition.

    • walker

      Congratulations to the winner, Patrick Curran. Hope it opens some doors. Also want to congratulate regular commenters Paul Clarke and Kosta K, and also Scriptshadow reader Rich Figel, on making the finals too.

    • Casper Chris

      Good to see you again Midnight. You’ve been MIA lately…

      • Midnight Luck

        thanks, but not really. been hanging on the fringe. dropping a tiny post here or there.

        • Casper Chris

          Oh, seemed like it had been a while..

  • mondog

    Enjoying and learning from the comments here. I preferred the second, pro script. Taken on face value there are a number of things that distinguished the two for me.

    The first is that in the amateur script, the dialogue is doing all of the work and has to work too hard as a consequence. It’s the first two to three lines in the pro script, but immediately we know where the road is going before anyone’s spoken.

    There’s a given in a scene like that too, whether you’ve dealt with death or dying directly or not- the show’s almost over – now what? In the amateur script, folks can be tentacled into all kinds of fabulous machinery and still have great odds of walking away. My point is that it’s left to the characters to explain everything and that’s challenging if you want to avoid on the nose dialogue.

    In terms of tone, there’s a melodramatic leap in Block’s first response. Sam’s managing expectations but we get a outsized reaction from Block. He’s angry and affronted, where hope might have played better as an emotional beat. He could say,

    BLOCK: But you can save him?

    Or it could be a command, which lets us know where the power / status lies in the scene.

    That establishes the stakes (someone might die – though it’d be better if it looked like Harrison was going to die).

    Now you can have some complex non-verbal interplay between Harkness and Sam that telegraphs the precariousness of the situation with Block and reinforces the fact (perhaps) that Harrison’s not coming back from this.

    Something that’s not clear to me is what Sam really wants – does he want to turn off the machines? If so, why do the dive at all? Or, does he want to be punished? If so, what for? Have Sam’s actions or inactions led to Harrison’s predicament? I can see both of these goals in the scene and I’m not sure which one takes precedence, consequently the dialogue is having to service two goals instead of one, which I demands more exposition.

    If Sam is somehow responsible for the current situation and there’s a risk to him doing the dive, then the stakes rise for him and the dialogue can be about avoidance rather than managing expectations.

    I didn’t mind the dog story in and of itself, but for me it arrives at an odd point in the scene. Block’s about to go nuclear and delivers a very poetic story about his son’s tenacity and grit. Knowing Block for precisely one scene, I’d imagine he’d say a better version of:

    BLOCK: He never gave up on you, don’t you dare give up on him.

    I’m purposefully hinting at backstory here and may be wide of the mark.

    What’s clear in the pro script is the goal that Matt wants his daughters to know the truth about their Mum. He’s avoiding it, leaving the hard work to the doctors, providing assurance of the facts, after they’re spoken. Even though he wants them to know, he can’t say it and that creates conflict.

    Scottie’s questions are heart-breaking, as Carson pointed out, they’re devoid of any overt emotion, leaving us to fill in the blanks. We feel our hearts go and project that onto Scottie. Every question she asks, ‘Ashes?’ is simple, naive but lands with an emotional thunderclap, because we understand the finality and that she’s about to learn it too.

  • klmn

    I doubt if a doctor would explain the situation to a child. He’d talk to the adults and leave them handle the child.

  • Kirk Diggler

    “The second scene would have worked better if they could have kept their liberal politics of euthenasia out of the scene;”

    There are plenty of conservative people that have EOL agreements. It’s not political, it’s common sense. Spare me your ‘middle America’ nonsense, you only speak for yourself.

  • gazrow

    OFF TOPIC – If anyone has the script HOME (23 on Carson’s Top 25) and can send it my way I’d really appreciate it – gazrow at hotmail dot com

    • Linkthis83

      I’m looking for PUSHING TIN – if anybody has it :)

      linkthis83 at yahoo dot com

  • walker

    Yeah that really sucks when someone feels the need to impose their politics upon a totally unrelated discussion.

  • Levres de Sang

    I enjoyed the octopus monologue as well as Carson’s excellent analysis: “It comes out of nowhere and throws this weird energy into the scene…” Something that could quite easily have resulted from the dialogue exercise (with five random things) that we were set the other week.

    • LV426

      At the same time, would it get called out in the AOW or AF comments?

      Sometimes it seems that putting something which injects a “weird energy” gets looked at as an amateur that doesn’t know how to maintain tone throughout their scenes and story sequences.

      I guess it is always one of those things you have to be extremely cautious with. Sometimes they work great, while other times these extra or odd elements might just throw everything out of sync.

      • Kirk Diggler

        “At the same time, would it get called out in the AOW or AF comments?”

        I’m guessing yes. Only because it’s impossible to please 100% of the people 100% of the time. And Payne left the scene out for a reason.

      • Levres de Sang

        Yes, I suspect it would get called out… I also think you’ve illustrated just how tricky it is being an amateur: the master can get away with so much more simply because he’s already earned his master status; whereas the amateur still needs to demonstrate an understanding of the ‘rules’ before being given the benefit of the doubt when breaking them.

    • Kirk Diggler

      Your avatar looks like Christopher Hitchen’s suaver, younger brother.

      • Poe_Serling

        At first I thought it was Johnny Depp in one of his actorly disguises.

      • Levres de Sang

        It’s cult euro horror and erotica maestro Jess Franco! He died last year with something like 200 films to his name; although I understand he thought they were all terrible. Aside from gratuitous nudity, he’s best known for exotic nightclub scenes and somewhat random zooms that are out of focus more often than not.

  • Casper Chris

    Anyone watched the Danish movie “Jagten” (The Hunt)? So many good dialogue scenes. Like watching a train wreck in slow-motion.

    • Gman

      Great film.

    • pmlove

      I’ll watch anything with Mads Mikkelsen.

  • LV426

    The first thing that jumped out at me with the first scene was that it had a “tell” where they could later “show” something. The bit about the dog story being relayed via Block. What about showing that as a scene later on? Perhaps in the next scene as a memory that Sam observes after he “dives” into Harrison’s mind.

  • GoIrish

    I get that every character found it strange. My problem is that she is an artificial character created solely for that purpose – in a movie where no other character comes off so strikingly artificial.

  • ThomasBrownen

    Sorry I’m commenting so late in the day (annoying day job being annoying), but I just want to say that I LOVE these articles. Great lessons to learn from — especially in the comments!

    • Erica

      Same here, I’m really enjoying these lessons. I’m so tired from working I can’t really formulate anything other than reading Carson’s comments and the forum comments. Or the odd blip like this comment.

  • Kirk Diggler

    No, it wasn’t. The script wasn’t written just so these writers could shove ideas down your throat.

  • fragglewriter

    I think both scenes were not good as I’m sick of analogies in movies. There just as predictable and annoying as monologues. The Descendants was one of the most overrated films I watched that I’m glad that I saw on cable. I kept watching the movie expecting it to get better, but no. The teenagers were annoying and watching Clooney was like watching the titanic sink. Painful that it didn’t end soon enough.

  • klmn

    You need more than a rubber octopus for a good dialogue scene. Now here’s how to do it.

  • Crazedwriter

    Sorry for being off topic, but Cardon are you planning to put the amateur top 10 list on the sidebar of your blog either as a list or include the list post in your more fun section on the side? It would be great to have that quick reference vs wading through posts trying to find it. Just a friendly suggestion. Carry on all!