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.
Our first script is a black comedy. The scene takes place in a restaurant between 30-something Ellie and 40-something Patrick. To piss off her brother, Henry, Ellie is going on a date with Patrick. But Ellie doesn’t know a few things. She doesn’t know Henry owes Patrick a lot of money. And she doesn’t know that Patrick is a actually a psychopath. Patrick is also in the dark about the fact that Ellie is Henry’s sister.
Ellie sits with Patrick. They look at menus. Patrick’s phone rings. It’s Henry calling.
PATRICK (turning off phone): This fucking guy. Sorry. You ever just wanna beat someone to death for no good reason?
ELLIE: All the time.
Waitress comes to the table –
WAITRESS: Are you ready to order?
PATRICK (pointing to menus): Does it look like we’re ready to order? Cause our menu’s are open. Look, I’m even pointing to them being open right now.
Waitress blinks and walks away.
PATRICK (CONT’D): People are so rude, you know? They don’t even observe before they speak. Terrible.
ELLIE: It’s the body you gotta worry about… The dead body that would result from the random beating of someone for no good reason.
PATRICK: Oh yeah, but that’s an easy problem to fix and frankly its a very easy problem to fix.
ELLIE: Are you a dead body expert?
PATRICK: I am the dead body expert. Definitely.
ELLIE: “Definitely”, huh? So then, how do you bury a dead body?
PATRICK: Well, it’s not hard really. Shovel, dirt to shovel dirt, garbage bags. Location is more the problem. You gotta have a good locale. It’s like opening a hotel. Same rules, except it’s dead bodies.
ELLIE: So maybe a nice beach-front property? Palm trees.
PATRICK: Well that’s the opposite of what you gotta do. You gotta go for the shit parts. The shit parts of the shit parts. Upstate. Upstate’s really shitty. Just trees there… nobody likes trees.
ELLIE: I hate trees.
PATRICK: Too many leaves.
ELLIE: Yep. Exactly right.
PATRICK (looking at surroundings): Dead bodies, dead bodies, dead bodies…
ELLIE: So what do you really do?
PATRICK: … I work at a strip club.
ELLIE: You own the strip club?
PATRICK: No, I clean shit. I’m a janitor. If I owned it, I wouldn’t be working there. What do you do?
ELLIE: I’m a debt collector.
PATRICK: A debt collector? Why would you do that? You like making people hate you?
ELLIE: It’s a job.
PATRICK: It is a job. It is definitely a job. A terrible job, honestly, getting yourself yelled at all day for a good reason.
ELLIE: And what’s the good reason?
PATRICK: Well, you know, these people are in debt and they don’t need you telling them it.
ELLIE: It’s a job.
PATRICK I know it’s a job. I said it’s a job. I’m just saying it’s a really bad terrible one.
ELLIE: You clean shit for a living.
PATRICK: And puke and piss and I hate it. I got a terrible job.
ELLIE (about to get up, leave): So you have no right criticizing my shit job when you literally have a shit job.
PATRICK: Well then I’m sorry, I really am. But frankly, what I’m saying is I’m tired of a shit life. Literally. I got dreams. Exploration. Don’t you?
That last line resonates with Ellie. She closes her menu. Patrick snaps at the waitress, points to the closed menus, signaling that they’re ready to order.
The second scene is from Silver Linings Playbook. In it, Pat and Tiffany, both mentally troubled, have their first “date” together, although Pat sees Tiffany more as a potential friend. After getting out of the nuthouse, Pat’s sole objective has been to get back together with his wife, Nikki. The scene takes place in a diner where the waitress is pissed that Pat and Tiffany have only ordered a single bowl of cereal and tea.
THE RAISIN BRAN IS DELIVERED BY THE ANNOYED OLDER WAITRESS, who also puts tea in front of Tiffany. Pat opens the little box of cereal and pours it into the bowl.
PAT PEOPLES: Do you want to share this?
TIFFANY: Are you sure?
Pat pushes the bowl of raisin bran to the center of the table. They sit eating their raisin bran in silence.
PAT PEOPLES: How’s your thing going?
TIFFANY: What thing?
PAT PEOPLES: I don’t know, your dancing thing.
She looks at him blankly. Tiffany shrugs and nods.
TIFFANY: It’s fine. How’s your restraining order?
PAT PEOPLES: I’m not sure I’d call the restraining order ‘my thing’, but getting back with Nikki is, and I’ve been doing pretty well except for a minor incident at the doctor’s office–
TIFFANY: And the so-called accident with the weights.
PAT PEOPLES (a little bugged): Yeah. I wish I could explain it all in a letter because it was minor and I can explain it.
TIFFANY: I could get a letter to her, I see her sometimes with my sister.
PAT PEOPLES: Really? Would you do that? Where does she live now?
Tiffany opens her mouth to say, then stops.
TIFFANY: I’d be breaking the law.
PAT PEOPLES: I get it, it’s cool. Is it in this part of town?
TIFFANY: I have enough problems as it is.
PAT PEOPLES: No problem, I get it. So you go to her place?
TIFFANY: With my sister. She’s friends with Veronica.
PAT PEOPLES: Does Ronnie go?
TIFFANY: No, he feels weird about it and he’s super scared of anything to do with the law. Or you.
PAT PEOPLES: It would be so awesome if you could give her a letter from me.
TIFFANY: I’d have to hide it from my sister. She’s not into breaking the law, which the letter would definitely be doing.
PAT PEOPLES: But you’d do it?
TIFFANY: I have to be careful. I’m on thin ice with my family, you should hear how I lost my job.
PAT PEOPLES (CONT’D): How did you lose your job?
TIFFANY: By having sex with everybody at the office.
PAT PEOPLES: EVERYbody?
TIFFANY: I was very depressed after Tommy died. It was a lot of people.
She looks him in the eye, and then down, embarrassed.
PAT PEOPLES: We don’t have to talk about it.
TIFFANY (nods, looking down): Thanks.
PAT PEOPLES: How many people was it?
PAT PEOPLES: Wow.
TIFFANY: I know.
PAT PEOPLES: Did you get any diseases?
TIFFANY: No, thank God. [She knocks on the table].
PAT PEOPLES (knocks wood also): What was it like?
TIFFANY: I thought we weren’t gonna talk about this.
PAT PEOPLES: We don’t have to.
TIFFANY: Do you really wanna know?
PAT PEOPLES: Absolutely.
TIFFANY: The good part felt very good, very free, very fun, very alive, and the bad part felt hot at first then lonely, then even more depressed, but I couldn’t stop and it turned into a pattern.
PAT PEOPLES: And you stopped.
TIFFANY: Yeah, I got fired, they put me on some meds, made me go to therapy. I moved home. Things are more steady now. But still lonely.
Pat nods sympathetic, doesn’t want to go there, looks away, changes gears.
PAT PEOPLES: Let’s go back to the letter. What if you secretly gave it to Nikki when your sister was in the bathroom?
TIFFANY: That works.
PAT STANDS ABRUPTLY.
PAT PEOPLES: This is great, I have to go home to write the letter.
TIFFANY: Can I at least finish my tea?
PAT PEOPLES: WAIT. Did Veronica tell Nikki about the dinner we had? Why did your sister invite me? Was it a test?
TIFFANY: I kinda got that feeling, yeah.
PAT PEOPLES: I did a great job. Didn’t I?
TIFFANY: She said you were cool, basically.
PAT PEOPLES: What does ‘basically’ mean, that I’m some percent not cool?
TIFFANY: She said you were, cool but also, you know –
PAT PEOPLES: No, I don’t know.
TIFFANY: How you are. Relax, it’s OK.
PAT PEOPLES: What does that mean, ‘how I am?’
TIFFANY Sort of like me.
PAT PEOPLES: SORT OF LIKE YOU?! I hope to God your sister didn’t say that!
TIFFANY (stung and hurt): Why?!
PAT PEOPLES: Because we’re different people, Tiffany. We can’t be lumped together, Nikki won’t like that.
She looks at him, STUNNED AND HURT.
TIFFANY: You think I’m crazier than you are?!
Pat tilts his head and stares at her, like ‘Come on, it’s obvious.’ TIFFANY’S JAW DROPS, HER FACE TURNS RED, SHE IS FURIOUS. SHE THROWS HER NAPKIN DOWN.
TIFFANY (CONT’D): YOU COCKY, JUDGEMENTAL SON OF A BITCH! [Patrons look] Forget I offered to help, it must be a CRAZY idea because I’m SO MUCH CRAZIER THAN YOU ARE, HA, HAA, HA, HAAA, I’M A CRAZY SLUT WITH A DEAD HUSBAND!
People stare as Tiffany gets up, grabs her purse, and heads for the door as Pat SCRAMBLES to his feet in a panic.
PAT PEOPLES: WAIT! I’m sorry, Tiffany –
HE STARTS AFTER HER, BUT THE WAITRESS STEPS INTO HIS PATH.
OLDER WAITRESS: Slow down, Raisin Bran, we got the check. All $3.79 of it.
SHE TEARS THE CHECK FROM HER PAD AND HANDS IT TO HIM AS HE WATCHES TIFFANY WALK OUT THE DOOR.
PAT PEOPLES: (searches his pockets) Dammit, where is it? I have the money, I swear.
THE WAITRESS WATCHES, DOUBTING HIM. HE PULLS OUT THE TWO TWENTIES.
PAT PEOPLES (CONT’D): Ta-daa! Keep the change.
OLDER WAITRESS Really?! You’re the best tipper I ever met!
PAT PEOPLES (rushing out): Tell that to Nikki.
OLDER WAITRESS: Who the hell is Nikki?
If the posts this week were a competition, today’s entries would’ve finished the closest. Whenever you’re writing a “get to know you” scene, the trick is to do them a little differently. They’re SUCH common scenes that if you don’t find a fresh spin on them, they can die a long boring death on the page.
Which is no problem for these two scenes. Both give us an offbeat intro. Patrick yells at the waitress for asking them if they’re ready to order. And Pat makes the kooky choice of sharing his small bowl of raisin bran with Tiffany. Unexpected choices at the outset of scenes tell me we’re going to get unexpected choices throughout the scene. So in both cases, I was in.
But I think I liked Silver Linings’ a little better. It was easier to read, and a lot of that had to do with its crisp short dialogue lines. Crisp and short leads to a quick rhythm, and I noticed that the chunkier lines in the first scene gave the scene a herkier-jerkier feel.
Plus, I encountered a few of those dreaded “hiccups” in the first scene. Early on, Ellie says, “It’s the body you gotta worry about… The dead body that would result from the random beating of someone for no good reason.” This line had me rubbing my eyes. I’d forgotten we were talking about dead bodies. I don’t know why because when I looked up above, I saw that the first line indeed mentioned dead bodies, but for some reason it didn’t stick, leaving me confused about what Ellie was talking about.
The line itself is also a classic “trip-up” line. “The dead body that would result from the random beating of someone for no good reason.” It’s hard to tell where the word-groupings start and stop in this sentence, making it unclear what exactly’s being said until you sound it out. It’s the writer’s job to identify these hard to read lines and figure out a way to simplify them.
This is followed by “Oh yeah, but that’s an easy problem to fix and frankly it’s a very easy problem to fix.” This is another trip-up line. I think the writer’s trying to be funny here, having the character repeat himself. But I’m not positive. Part of me thinks it’s a mistake. So again, I’m getting “tripped up.” And that’s twice in two lines.
But from there, the dialogue improves. And I generally like how both characters speak, especially Patrick. He doesn’t talk like someone whose every line has been carefully primped and preened for its big moment in the sun. He kind of stumbles over his words, speaks in fragments. “Well that’s the opposite of what you gotta do. You gotta go for the shit parts. The shit parts of the shit parts. Upstate. Upstate’s really shitty. Just trees there… nobody likes trees.” That sounds imperfect and therefore real to me, which is one of the reasons the scene works.
As for as the Silver Linings scene, like all good dialogue, there’s something going on underneath the surface (Tiffany likes Pat and is trying to get him). There’s also conflict, but it’s not as obvious as what we’re used to. Tiffany wants Pat, but Pat isn’t interested in Tiffany. He still loves his ex-wife.
If you look closer, you realize that this conflict drives the scene. We like Tiffany. We want her to get what she wants (Pat). So we stick around to see if she succeeds. In many ways, this becomes a mini-script. Once we know Tiffany’s goal, we can add obstacles to that goal, and those obstacles become the drama that keeps the scene interesting.
For instance, everything’s going well for Tiffany at first. Pat shares a bowl of cereal with her. Score! But then he finds out she can get a note to his wife (obstacle!) and success is in doubt. But Tiffany wisely realizes she can use this this note to her advantage, as a way to spend more time with Pat. But then Pat calls her crazy and she goes ballistic.
I think that’s another reason this dialogue works so well. The scene isn’t a straight line. It has highs and it has lows. Drama IS highs and lows so chances are, if you have these extremes in your scene, we’re going to keep reading.
But the real reason this scene works has nothing to do with the scene itself. It has to do with a decision that was made long before the scene was ever written. The scene works because these two characters are wackadoodles. They’re both “dialogue-friendly” characters. And when you write dialogue-friendly characters into your script, you’re guaranteed to have more instances of good dialogue, especially if they’re the leads in your film. That was the genius of Silver Linings Playbook. It gave us two mentally offbeat characters who naturally say a lot of weird and entertaining shit.
I’m interested to see how you guys call this one. Silver Linings is good but the amateur entry isn’t chopped liver. Weigh in in the comments section!
What I learned: In a “get to know you” scene, one (or both) of your characters will inevitably talk about their past. These stories HAVE TO BE INTERESTING. If you give us some boring shit about how they used to be a first grade teacher but decided to quit and go back to school, you’re better off not mentioning their past at all. Give us something interesting or zip it. Tiffany’s backstory is that she banged 11 guys at work and got fired for it. That’s the kind of story that makes the reader sit up and go, “Whoa.” It’s the kind of backstory that’s WORTH bringing up.