Every single fight I’ve gotten into has ended with these words:
“I should’ve said this.”
Said, of course, to myself. That perfect phrase. That perfect clincher. Loaded with just the right amount of information, the exact amount of irony, pain, and triumph. Both equal parts informative, damaging, and yet exposing myself just enough to make everyone feel sorry for me, love me, and of course, root for me.
However, in the real world, that never happens. We never actually say the right thing. Usually, we end up saying things that we often want to take back. But as screenwriters, we don’t have the option to try out certain phrases with audiences. We can’t have any take backs. It’s not the way it works. When it’s put down on paper, it’s live. And that’s why good dialogue is so damn important.
Good dialogue is the ultimate treasure. Audiences, try as they might, just can’t quote back action sequences at parties, but once someone mentions the “Le Big Mac”, or tells you they “might go to Bed, Bath, and Beyond, but not sure they’ll have enough time”, you get it immediately. You’re officially part of their party.
Believable, informative conversation in film is one of the hardest techniques of screenwriting. It’s not just talking. It’s crafted. It’s precise. Most of all, it’s art.
There are so many great dialogues in film that it’s impossible to really tear them all apart, so I’m limiting it in this Script Tips… In Action to three conversations, all in a setting that is completely built around dialogue: The dinner table.
The Social Network:
In my previous In Action article, I mentioned that most of us try to Sorkin our way through dialogue: snappy, quick dialogue, maybe with someone walking down a hall. But try as they might, it takes a lot more than desire to craft the brilliance of the opening bar scene of The Social Network.
MARK: Did you know there are more people with
genius IQ’s living in China than there are people
of any kind living in the United States?
ERICA: That can’t possibly be true.
MARK: It is.
ERICA: What would account for that?
First, there’s this. Who actually asks those kinds of questions? And even more, who actually uses the word “account” when drinking? I’ll tell you who. Smart people. We’re four sentences in, and the setting is placed. When we dissect what’s on the page, good dialogue presents a ton of information with master economy. Continued:
MARK: Well, first, an awful lot of people live
in China. But here’s my question: How do you distinguish yourself in a population of people who all got 1600
on their SAT’s?
And within six sentences, Sorkin has also given us Mark’s theme: Within a world of super smart people, how do you get noticed? Continued:
ERICA: I didn’t know they take SAT’s in China.
MARK: They don’t. I wasn’t talking about China
anymore, I was talking about me.
ERICA: You got 1600?
MARK: Yes. I could sing in an a capella group,
but I can’t sing.
ERICA: Does that mean you actually got nothing
MARK: I can row crew or invent a 25 dollar PC.
Or you can get into a final club.
Or I can get into a final club.
Now, less than a minute into the film, and we know exactly what this is going to be about. This is about an intense, smart, quirky guy trying to get into a club, because he wants to be noticed.
Dialogue is Sorkin’s forte, so he’s not going to write an intense powerful visual dance a la Black Swan. But that doesn’t mean this opening is any less intense. This conversation is his own sexy salsa. He sets the theme, the world, the place, and the character’s main goal, all on the first page. And he even got in room for a few jokes.
But for me, this is only half of what’s impressive about this dinner scene. The first minute of the film is the setting. The second minute, however, Sorkin dissolves this relationship, sets up the inciting incident, and gives the protagonist his main drive. Continued:
ERICA: You know, from a woman’s perspective,
sometimes not singing in an a capella group is a good thing?
MARK: This is serious.
ERICA: On the other hand I do like guys who row crew.
MARK: Well I can’t do that.
ERICA: I was kid–
MARK: Yes, it means I got nothing wrong on the
Beat. A sidenote: Mark’s character literally answers a question that was asked much earlier. Why? One, it adds dimension to the character: He’s quick. He’s on his feet. He also thinks much faster than everyone else, including his own girlfriend:
ERICA: Should we get something to eat?
MARK: Would you like to talk about something else?
ERICA: No, it’s just since the beginning of the
conversation about finals club I think I may have missed a birthday.
If this were real life, chances are, these two would probably end the discussion here. But this isn’t real life. It’s film, and these two are not real people, they’re characters. And characters have goals. Hers: find something in common. His: find out how to be popular. With that in mind:
ERICA: Okay, well, which is the easier to get into?
MARK is visibly hit by that…
MARK: Why would you ask me that?
ERICA: I’m just asking.
She could just be asking, or, they could have been dating so long that she knew asking him to take the easy route would cut him. We don’t really know. What we do know by now though is that Mark wants popularity. Real popularity. And finding the easy way into a club means that he gets put in the “whatever’s easiest” crowd, and anybody who’s been to college knows that’s NOT the way to be popular.
At this point, we’re 1:54 into shooting time, and there’s very little that we don’t know to carry us through the next 100 minutes. That’s the strength of dialogue, and the beauty of really good dialogue. And speaking of:
Alan Ball brings the dinner table conversation to life with a fantastic call and response technique in American Beauty.
Not twenty pages in, we see the typical American dream: dinner with the family. Of course, this isn’t a dinner we’d ever want to be a part of. The tension is so thick you squirm in your seat just watching, nervously laughing. It’s a majestic turmoil of hate and love and good and evil, but all subtext. It’s like watching Bond get beaten to a pulp. But it’s all in dialogue. No action. Just words.
JANE: Mom, do we always have to listen to this elevator music?
CAROLYN: No. No, we don't. As soon as you've prepared a nutritious yet savory meal that I'm about to eat, you can listen to whatever you like.
(Subtext: Jane: Turn this crap off. Carolyn: Shove it.)
LESTER: So Janie, how was school?
JANE: It was okay.
LESTER: Just okay?
JANE: No, Dad. It was spec-tac-ular.
(Subtext: Lester: Pretend we’re the great American family. Jane: Shove it.)
LESTER: Well, you want to know how things went at my job today? They've hired this efficiency expert, this really friendly guy named Brad, how perfect is that? And he's basically there to make it seem like they're justified in firing somebody, because they couldn't just come right out and say that, could they? No, no, that would be too… honest. And so they've asked us– (off her look) –you couldn't possibly care any less, could you?
Lester pours his heart out. He is dying for a connection. He really wants someone to love him. Companionship. But the great moment here isn’t what he wants – it’s his callout to his daughter. His realization that nobody cares. In fact, we get a glimpse of Lester breaking through the happy façade, and see that Ball gives Lester just a little bit of balls. Jane’s response? She calls him a terrible father.
JANE: Well, what do you expect? You can't all of a sudden be my best friend, just because you had a bad day. I mean, hello. You've barely even spoken to me for months.
In real life, this would require a comeback. No daughter talks to her father like that. We’d say something, anything, even if it’s the wrong thing, just to get in the last word. But this isn’t real life. It’s a movie. And Lester’s character lets anyone talk to him any way they want. So when his daughter tears him apart, he responds:
LESTER: I'm going to get some ice cream.
Lester is a loser. There’s no way to deny this. But the fun is watching the character work his way across the arc, so in response to this scene, Ball gives Lester one more dinner, and the chance to redeem himself:
JANE: Sorry I'm late.
CAROLYN: No, no, that's quite all right, dear. Your father and I were just discussing his day at work. (to Lester) Why don't you tell our daughter about it, honey?
(Subtext: Jane: Here we go again. Carolyn: Shove it. Let’s take away Dad’s manhood again.)
LESTER: Janie, today I quit my job. And then I told my boss to fuck himself, and then I blackmailed him for almost sixty thousand dollars. Pass the asparagus.
First mention of asparagus.
CAROLYN: Your father seems to think this kind of behavior is something to be proud of.
LESTER: And your mother seems to prefer I go through life like a fucking prisoner while she keeps my dick in a mason jar under the sink.
From this one line, we know Lester has turned a corner. The old Lester, the one who wanted ice cream, wouldn’t talk like this.
CAROLYN: How dare you speak to me that way in front of her? And I marvel that you can be so contemptuous of me, on the same day that you lose your job!
LESTER: Lose it? I didn't lose it. It's not like, "Oops, where'd my job go?" I quit. Someone pass me the asparagus.
Second mention of the asparagus.
CAROLYN: Oh! Oh! And I want to thank you for putting me under the added pressure of being the sole breadwinner now-
LESTER: I already have a job.
Now two things are happening. Lester has confidence. And Ball is foreshadowing. Because it’s important to know that Lester has a public facing job, and that Carolyn just isn’t listening to that fact.
CAROLYN: No, no, don't give a second thought as to who's going to pay the mortgage. We'll just leave it all up to Carolyn. You mean, you're going to take care of everything now, Carolyn? Yes. I don't mind. I really don't. You mean, everything? You don't mind having the sole responsibility, your husband feels he can just quit his job–
LESTER: Will someone pass me the fucking asparagus?
Third mention of the asparagus.
The rule of threes. We all know that three is the magic number, but no one actually purposefully uses it in real life. Here, it’s been calculated. This line most definitely isn’t Lester going to get ice cream. He’s not running away here. He’s stepping up to the plate for what may be the very first time. And the dialogue has been heightened in a way that it can only be satisfied with a climactic punch.
JANE: Okay, I'm not going to be a part of this–
LESTER: Sit down. (Beat.) I'm sick and tired of being treated like I don't exist. You two do whatever you want to do whenever you want to do it and I don't complain. All I want is the same courtesy—
That’s a good start.
CAROLYN: Oh, you don't complain? Oh, excuse me. Excuse me. I must be psychotic then, if you don't complain. What is this?! Am I locked away in a padded cell somewhere, hallucinating? That's the only explanation I can think of–
Lester hurls the plate of asparagus against the wall with such force it SHATTERS, frightening Carolyn and Jane.
LESTER: Don't interrupt me, honey.
And that’s the satisfying conclusion. Lester is in control of the room, and he knows it. Where the two of them beat him down to nothing in the first dinner scene, now he’s redeemed himself. Still, it needs a little something. Just to twist the knife a little deeper:
LESTER: Oh, and another thing. From now on, we're going to alternate our dinner music. Because frankly, and I don't think I'm alone here, I'm really tired of this Lawrence Welk shit.
Two scenes. Two dialogues. Written perfectly.
I’d guess that Ball himself has never been in this situation. While Lester focuses in on a plate of asparagus, Ball probably lets himself lose control in those fights. He probably answers back. He probably doesn’t use the same calm collective that Lester does here. I sure don’t. Which brings me to our final dinner scene:
The following conversation was transcribed at my dinner table not two nights ago.
Me: Thanks for doing everything, honey.
My Wife: You’re welcome. You need water?
(Subtext: Me: Thanks for cooking. Her: You’re welcome. Do I need anything else?)
Me: No, I got some.
My Wife: (To the Dog) Maya, over here. (She snaps her fingers and points to the carpet.)
Me: Honey, just…let… her-
My Wife: Come here, Maya.
Me: She’s fine.
My Wife: That’s a good girl.
Me: She’s fine. She’s not doing anything.
My Wife: She’s a good girl. (Puts the dinner plate down.)
Notice what happens here. My Wife turns her attention away from me because she wants the dog to do something. I tell her to leave it alone, because the dog’s just laying there. She doesn’t. In a non-eventful slice of real life, the dog does actually go to her.
Me: This looks good.
My Wife: It should be. I used butter and some-um- chicken broth- and let it steam.
Me: I need a knife. You need one?
My Wife: Me?
Me: ‘Kay. (I take a bite.) It’s good.
We actually end the dinner in silence, because we turn on the TV.
If you look at our conversation, you’ll notice – well, that you don’t really notice anything. She talked to the dog. I liked her cooking. No snappy comebacks, no pieces of information to describe our deepest goals. Hell, there’s no one here to root for. This exchange:
Me: I need a knife. You need one?
My Wife: Me?
It doesn’t even make any sense. Does she need a knife or not need a knife? What does “Kay” mean? Am I calling her the wrong name? What’s going on?
The truth? Nothing. It’s dinner. On a Wednesday.
Unlike an audience sitting in a theater who has 90 minutes to grasp an entire world, I’ve been with my wife for nine years. I know her character well enough to answer with a non-answer. She knows me well enough to not even answer whether or not she needs a knife. If this were a film, maybe it’d mean we had some sort of communication breakdown. Maybe the knife would be like that asparagus – simply a catalyst to drive our goals.
But unlike film, our dialogue is not art. It’s just talk. And real talk in real life is boring. You say things that don’t make sense. You lose focus. You digress. You go off on tangents. You repeat yourself. You have looks and feelings to interpret – stuff that only the other people in the room can understand or do. And somehow, sometimes, you find a way to regroup and make your point – or not.
There are volumes more in real life than you could ever put in film, and 99% of it is stuff we’d never want to see anyway. A movie is just somebody’s life with all the boring stuff cut out of it, and dialogue is no different. So with only 90 to 120 pages to deliver everything the reader needs to know, your characters have no time to engage in the tediousness of real talk conversation. It’s not like the real world, where you can get a take back and a conversation can just be a conversation. In your screenplay, you have no choice but to watch what you say.