The power of dialogue

I’ve wanted this for a really long time… I know…. Wizard

Dialogue from the scene where Juno and Bleeker have sex for the first time…(You don’t know this though, as you’ve never met the characters, you can’t see his face and you have no concept of their relationship).

You could be thinking that this is really cute.. or Diablo Cody is in touch with the youth slang of the day… or … who really knows… or who really cares for this matter…

The point is this that it’s a girl taking her panties off and mounting a guy on a chair to have sex. The whole point of cinema is not the images in front of you but the images and story you create in your head. Done right, this can be extremely powerful, but maybe not in this case.

The 11 words of dialogue above, and the subtext, take this scene and render it as an encounter of two people who care about each other.  Turn the sound down and watch the scene again and you realise that it’s open for interpretation.

Every word of dialogue, whether consumed consciously or subconsciously, impacts the scene you write and the context of the story you tell.

The power of dialogue

Endings.. Wall Street and Michael Clayton

Our main character, the little man, must fight the corporate power and greed who think they are above the law, and bring them to justice by doing the morally right thing, even if it costs him everything. He will confront the enemy, while secretly recording them, and get them to incriminate themselves.

Are we talking about Bud Fox confronting Gordon Gecko here or Micheal Clayton and Karen Crowder?

It’s the same ending… Michael sits in a taxi and Bud drives to the courthouse both reflecting on where the morally right choice has taken them.

This made me think about using scenes from famous films…

If you have an idea, want to turn it into a story and then finally a script, finding the story spine and completing it from start to end is the key. Structure, Acts, midpoints etc at this stage don’t mean anything and should be put to the side as they hinder more than help.

If you can’t link story part A to B to C to D to an ending that makes sense to a listener then you just have some randoms ideas with no connections.

Having trouble linking the parts and coming up with an ending? Then take pieces from scripts that have already been written. You are not going to steal them, they are just temporary placeholders, and will be removed or re-written at a later stage.

Something changes when you can take a story from start to finish in a logical manner. It doesn’t have to be perfect, be of any particular length, or even be original at this stage.

So you have a story about a woman hunting a murderer but you don’t know the ending? Borrow the ending from the Silence of the Lambs and complete your story.

The whole idea is to move you forward and hopefully spark some ideas. You can’t keep this ending, as it belongs to Ted Tally/Harris, but you have made some subtle decisions here. You’ve decided that your hero will live, and succeed, and the murderer will die. Whether you keep this or not is really up to you.

Ideas don’t just come out of a vacuum they need seeds to grow.


Endings.. Wall Street and Michael Clayton

The power of a visual over verbal character revelation

If you are going to write a script and stick to the so called ‘classic structure’ then your character will have an arc, they will change, they will have a revelation, and use this new found knowledge about themselves in Act 3.

John Truby takes an example from Mamet’s ‘The Verdict’ to illustrate the character revelation and how critical the placement of it is to your story.

Paul Newman is Frank Galvin, a washed up alcoholic lawyer, who has lowered himself to funeral chasing to make his living. He’s at the end of the line when a colleague offers him a case, a sure thing, all he has to do is complete the paperwork, then he can collect the pay check. Frank goes to the hospital to take pictures as evidence for the case, but when he stands in front of a young girl, turned into a vegetable from medical malpractice, he decides he can’t settle and must take it to court.

This scene is so powerful because it is all done with images, no dialogue, just the sound of the young girls ventilator breathing in the background. We know what is going through Frank’s mind when he looks from the Polaroid to the young girl in the bed, we don’t need to be told.

The scene also works at a deeper level as Frank is really seeing himself paralyzed in the bed. Frank has also had an injustice done to him, and just like the helpless girl, he was unable to fight the power of the church, legal or medical profession. Frank has had his life taken away from him and he is trapped in a coma of alcohol and misery. This is his chance to change things, win justice for the young girl, and in the process reclaim his life and dignity.

Truby correctly argues that this is the most powerful revelation in the script but it comes to early rendering each subsequent revelation inferior. You only have to watch the scene in the courtroom where Frank delivers another revelation through dialogue to know he’s right. It just doesn’t have the same impact.

So what’s the moral of the story here? Your character can’t have any kind of revelation early in your script through dialogue and especially not with images?

Well yes and no….

Micheal Clayton is summoned from his card game to a wealthy mansion to ‘fix’ a hit a run accident. The wealthy client thinks he is there to make it go away but Michael explains to him what his limitations are and who he really is.

This is a really well written scene. We have Michael Clayton’s character delivering exposition about himself through dialogue but it doesn’t feel ‘on the nose’. The main reason for this, besides the quality of the writing, is that it’s delivered through conflict. We retain the information given to us, but the fact that we are absorbed in the characters conflict, means we are not so conscious of it being fed to us.

It’s only when I watched the film again did this scene feel like Michael was having a revelation about himself. We get the feeling that Michael has acknowledged who he is for the first time.

So how does Gilroy give us this scene early in the film but still save the best for last?

He does the reverse of what Mamet did in the Verdict. He gives us the visually unforgettable scene with Michael in the meadow at the end of the 2nd Act. The images in this scene are so powerful and not a word of dialogue had been spoken. We know what Michael is feeling, he has been given a second chance to understand the beauty of life, and we are there with him.

There is always talk of rising conflict in script-writing and how it must build incrementally but this must also apply to your characters understanding of him/herself. a.k.a the character arc.

The power of a visual over verbal character revelation


When Gale Hawthorne in the Hunger Games said ‘What if they did? Just one year. What if everyone just stopped watching?’, ‘If no one watches, they won’t have a game. It’s as simple as that.’

Of course he’s talking about the Hunger Games but it’s the deep subtext that gives meaning and power to the words.

What he is really saying is ‘If you don’t watch this movie then they won’t make any sequels’. Very powerful stuff…

On a more serious note…

You are trying to squeeze as much as you can into every word, page, and image of your script. Subtext is so powerful because it’s not on the nose exposition, it can’t be, and it allows the audience to infer their own conclusion of what it means. This is a form of audience participation and will draw them into your story.

Billy Wilder says ‘Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever’.

One of my favourite examples of subtext is in Six Feet Under.The episode is called ‘In the Place of Anger’ and the scene is at 28:40.

Catherine Collins comes to the Fishers to bury her abusive husband who, drunk, has fallen over the side of a boat and has been badly mangled by the propeller. Nate Fischer, hiding a recent AVM diagnosis and the possibility of a brain haemorrhage at any moment, tries to console her.

As Catherine reflects on a wasted marriage, life and time, Nate utters words of consolation, but they seem hollow and lack conviction. We know that he is barely holding it together and we can see it in his face.

Catherine says ‘I just want somebody to help me understand?’ and delivered through subtext, this is what Nate wants too.

Nate quotes C.S. Lewis to her to help her understand the pain and grieving process. Again the subtext here is really Nate trying to console himself and find a way to face his own fear of dying.

The dialogue is for Catherine and the subtext of the dialogue is for Nate. This gives a seemingly normal scene more depth and opens up the inner emotion of Nate’s character to us.

Nate then says ‘It’s going to be okay’.

He says this with more confidence, he believes these words, and his facial expression has changed to hope.

We cut to Catherine whose face is like stone and she says ‘No it’s not’.

These words pierce us as they are said with such conviction we can’t doubt them.

We cut to Nate, his hope is gone, and he is destroyed.

A straightforward conversation with Catherine has revealed everything Nate feels about his potentially terminal brain tumour.

Nothing was ever directly spoken about it. It was all delivered through subtext.


Karen Crowder

If you read script-writing books about creating the opponent then you have more than likely come across terms like ‘Unity of Opposites’, ‘The Antagonist completing the Protagonist’ etc..

While these definitions are extremely important they can sometimes be hard to grasp without applying them to a concrete example.

Karen Crowder’s character is very interesting from a screenwriting point of view.

She is clearly the protagonist and it’s her desire to close the U-North deal that drives the story. If the dramatic question posed is ‘Will Karen Crowder succeed is closing the U-North deal’ then by the end of Act 2 this is answered. From her standpoint the main opposition to the deal being successful, Michael and Arthur, are now dead and she can move to close it.

For half of the script Michael and Karen share the same goal to contain the Antagonist, Arthur Eden.

This leads to an interesting question about creating your opponent character. Instead of creating two different characters whose actions serve your plot, and then spend your time trying to find a common ground between them, would it not be better to make them the same at the beginning?

Karen and Michael are both in the legal profession, both lawyers, and trying to fix the same problem. I use the word ‘fix’ here because it’s quite relevant, as Karen is trying to fix a problem using the methods Michael uses on daily basis. In another story you could see Michael and Karen working together at some capacity. Michael would not even question Karen’s methods only for the fact that she has taken ‘fixing’ to the next level, by killing Arthur, giving Michael the moral jolt that he needed.

So the main difference between them both is the question of morals when fixing a problem. How far is too far? This moral difference is gives the protagonist and antagonist characters depth and is directly linked to Michael’s character arc. If all Karen and Michael fought about was the success of the U-North deal, and Michael didn’t change, then the story would feel hollow and unsatisfying to an audience.

This script is so beautifully orchestrated. Michael, suspicious that the U-North deal is going ahead when Arthur has died, moves into the Antagonist role. Michael can now find out who murdered Arthur and expose them. This would be a perfectly acceptable ending where Karen goes to prison, the U-North deal is eventually closed, and Michael goes back to his job as a legal janitor. But Gilroy has set the stakes up all the way, the failing merger, the 80k loan from Marty, the NDA, so Michael has to sacrifice everything to change and make the morally correct choice.

Possible Premise: How far will an immoral man have to be pushed, before he will make the right moral choice, no matter what the cost?

Karen Crowder