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 as we can about dialogue. It’s a tricky skill to master so hopefully these exercises can help demystify it.
This first scene needs little setup. It’s the first scene in the script, takes place in a restaurant, and has three characters, Johnny, Tony, and Paul.
JOHNNY, TONY, and PAUL are sitting around a table. Johnny’s suit jacket is slung over the back of his chair. They are all enjoying a small meal. Each man wears a red tie to signify their allegiance to their gang.
JOHNNY: You’re a fuckin’ moron aren’t you?
TONY: That’s a little harsh don’t ya think?
JOHNNY: No I think it’s the right word. There’s nothing wrong with robbery. Stealing is a gift handed down to us by our forefathers.
Tony answers sarcastically.
TONY: Is that fucking so?
JOHNNY: Yes, Tony, it’s fucking so. And if you don’t shut your lips for a second I’m gonna sew ‘em up.
PAUL: Hey, hey, Johnny, calm down.
JOHNNY: Hey Paulie relax. Don’t make this fucking personal. Anyway, do you know how much we paid for Manhattan Island?
Tony doesn’t answer.
JOHNNY (CONT’D): Five bucks. We spent five bucks on this ashtray and now it’s one of the biggest commerce centers of the entire world.
TONY: So what, at least they got something. I never left a five spot in a safe I just robbed.
Johnny rubs his eyes.
JOHNNY: Tony, Tony, you fucking idiot.
Johnny turns to the window behind him.
JOHNNY (CONT’D): Tony, you see your fucking Jaguar out there.
A Jaguar rests in the parking lot.
JOHNNY (CONT’D): Now imagine not knowing what the potential of a car was then being offered a buck for it. You don’t know any better so you take the offer, then I turn around and make a fortune, I’ve just stolen your fortune.
TONY: Yeah but if I didn’t know–
JOHNNY: It doesn’t matter. In the constitution it says that I am guaranteed life, liberty, pursuit of happiness. And how is happiness achieved in this materialistic world.
John rubs Paul’s head.
JOHNNY: That’s right Paul, and if I have to steal to get the money that makes me happy then I’m gonna steal my mother fucking ass off.
TONY: All I was sayin’ is the plan better be tight.
JOHNNY: And just how long have you been doing this?
PAUL: Oh shit Tony, not again.
Tony looks at Paul like he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
TONY: No, no I was just sayin’.
JOHNNY: You were just sayin’ what? What was it that you just so happened to say?
TONY: I just wanted to make sure that everything was accounted for. That all things were taken into consideration.
JOHNNY: So you’re the fucking Don now?
TONY: That’s not what I’m sayin’.
JOHNNY: Alright was there another ceremony? Are you a made man now?
JOHNNY: But I am so everything I say goes. If you have a problem with that I can get you a nice pair of cement boots and you can take it up with a flounder.
Johnny pulls a folded piece of paper out of his jacket and opens it.
JOHNNY (CONT’D): Alright, so…
TONY: Alright, but Johnny…
PAUL: Tony just shut up.
TONY: What I was just sayin’…
PAUL It don’t matter.
The next scene takes place in a ratty cocktail lounge. 50 year old Billy Batts, wearing a cheap out-of-date suit, used to be a big shot gangster. He’s since spent a long time in prison and just got out. A sharply dressed HOOD approaches Billy with his girlfriend. This is the first scene in the script (it would later be moved).
HOOD: Billy. You look beautiful. Welcome home.
BATTS: (laughing and turning to the bartender): What are you having. Give’em what they’re drinking.
We see four other men, including HENRY HILL and JAMES CONWAY, standing near Billy Batts at the bar, raise their glasses in salute. TOMMY DEVITO and another beehive blonde enter. Billy Batts looks up and sees Tommy.
BATTS: Hey, look at him. Tommy. You grew up.
TOMMY (preening a little): Billy, how are you?
BATTS (smiling broadly at Tommy and the girl): Son of a bitch. Get over here.
Tommy walks over and Billy, too aggressively, grabs Tommy around the neck. Tommy doesn’t like it.
TOMMY (forcing a laugh): Hey, Billy. Watch the suit.
BATTS (squeezing Tommy’s cheek, a little too hard): Listen to him. ‘Watch the suit,’ he says. A little pisser I’ve known all my life. Hey, Tommy, don’t get too big.
TOMMY: Don’t go busting my balls. Okay?
BATTS: (laughing, to the crowd at the bar) Busting his balls? (to Tommy) If I was busting your balls, I’d send you home for your shine box.
Tommy’s smile turns to a glare as he realizes Billy is making fun of him. The men at the bar are roaring with laughter. His girl is looking glumly at her shoes.
BATTS (to the hoods at the bar): You remember Tommy’s shines? The kid was great. He made mirrors.
TOMMY (almost a threat): No more shines, Billy.
BATTS: Come ooonnn. Tommeeee. We’re only kidding. You can’t take a joke? Come ooonn.
We see that Tommy is still angry but begins to relax with Billy’s apparent apology, but as soon as Billy sees that Tommy is beginning to relax, he contemptuously turns his back on Tommy.
BATTS (facing the bar): Now get the hell home and get your shine box.
Henry quickly steps in front of Tommy who is about to explode. Batts is facing the bar and does not see just how furious Tommy has become.
HENRY (gently wrestling Tommy away from the bar): Come on, relax. He’s drunk. He’s been locked up for six years.
TOMMY: I don’t give a shit. The guy’s got no right.
HENRY: Tommy. He doesn’t mean anything. Forget about it.
TOMMY (trying to wrestle past Henry): He’s insulting me. Rat bastard. He’s never been any fuckin’ good.
HENRY: Tommy. Come on. Relax.
TOMMY (to Henry): Keep him here. I’m going for a bag.
Today’s comparison is kind of tricky. One could make the argument that the dialogue in the first scene, from our amateur writer, is better than the second, which is a scene from Goodfellas. It’s more colorful. More varied. The characters play off each other well. You don’t find any fun lines like, “If you have a problem with that I can get you a nice pair of cement boots and you can take it up with a flounder” in the Goodfellas scene.
And this is where discussing dialogue can be confusing. Because there are two big problems with the amateur entry that keep it from being as good as the professional one. The first is that the ultimate goal of the scene (and the characters) is weak. Johnny is trying to convince Tony and Paul to rob something with him.
We’re occasionally strapped with scenes that have weak goals in our scripts, but it’s our job as writers to identify that problem and come up with a solution, some way to counteract this weakness and still make the scene interesting. In this case, the writer made a crucial mistake. He set the scene at a table. People sitting around tables talking is really hard to make interesting. So you’ve strapped an already weak situation on top of an unintereseting one.
Writers are aware when they do this either consciously or subconsciously, but instead of doing the hard work and rethinking the scene, they try to write flashy fun dialogue in the hopes of masking the problem. If you’ve ever rewritten the dialogue a hundred times in a scene and it’s still not working, this is usually the problem. It’s not that the dialogue isn’t working. It’s that the underpinnings of the scene aren’t working.
The second problem is that there’s no conflict in the scene. Well, there’s a little conflict. Johnny’s giving the others a hard time. But true conflict requires consequences. If Paul and Tony act up, the worst you suspect Johnny will do is curse them out. Which means that you have a dialogue scene with no conflict. And no conflict means no tension, and no tension means no drama.
Let’s switch over to the second scene now. Notice how the dialogue is serving a purpose. The two main characters have goals. Each one is posturing, trying to be seen as the bigger man in the room. The stakes are high because this is very important to both of them, especially Tommy, who’s upset that Billy doesn’t realize he’s a big shot now.
Because our two characters have clear goals with high stakes attache, and that those goals contrast one another, you have conflict/tension between them. Compare the tension in the second scene to that in the first. It’s WAY higher, right? That’s because the writer put the elements in place ahead of time to ensure he’d get the most amount of conflict in the scene. And conflict is one of the huge keys to good dialogue.
This is one of the big things I’m realizing this week. The pros are laying the foundation for the scene first – how they’re going to make it build and pay off – then they lay the dialogue on top of that. The amateurs are just laying the dialogue down right away. It’s like putting a rug on a dusty dry-wall floor. The rug itself may be pretty (like all the fun banter in the first scene) but it doesn’t look right inside an unfinished room.
Now some of you may say this is another apples to oranges comparison. One scene has characters who are going to kill someone and the other just people talking. So clearly the more intense scene is going to win out on the drama-meter.
This is something else I’m trying to convey this week. The Goodfellas writer never would’ve written the first scene. He knows that three people sitting down at a table with no internal or external conflict is a recipe for boredom.
Think about it. Before the Goodfellas scene was written, the writer was faced with a choice of how to introduce these characters. He very well could’ve put Henry Hill, Tommy, and James at a table and let them chat. Maybe show how impatient Tommy was with the waiter to convey his anger issues. But he knew that no matter how well he wrote that scene, it didn’t have anywhere to go.
So instead, he creates an outside source of conflict, Billy Batts, pitts one of our guys against him, and now we have ourselves a scene. We’ve got conflict, we’ve got tension. We’ve got a scenes that BUILDS. That’s a scenario you can draw a lot of good dialogue from.
Knowing all this, how would I improve the first scene? Well, outside of writing a completely different scene, I’d look for a source of conflict, either inside the group or outside the group. That’s one of the easiest ways to boost dialogue.
Maybe there’s a table of super-rowdy drunk college kids next to them. Johnny can’t seem to get through his sentences without another outburst of laughter drowning him out. With each outburst, he gets more and more pissed off. Maybe at one point, a kid gets up from the table and stumbles into Johnny. Doesn’t even apologize, just walks off. Notice how we now have a scene that’s BUILDING, that has suspense, like the Goodfellas scene, as we know Johnny is going to deal with these kids at some point, and it’s going to be good. That’s one example. Now you try. What source of conflict would you use?
What I learned: Create an audience for your characters to add a different dynamic to the conversation. One of the reasons the Goodfellas scene plays so well is because it isn’t just a scene between Batts and Tommy. If that was it, Tommy might have let it go. It’s that Batts has brought in an audience. His insults aren’t intimate. He’s performing them in front of others so that they sting Tommy even harder. Writers often get wrapped up in just the two characters featured in a scene, not realizing that bringing in one of the dozens or hundreds of characters around them could give the scene a fresh new energy.