Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Crafting Your Best Story - Tip #18 - Super (8) Dialogue

Great dialogue reveals great character. How each of your characters’ speak reveal who they are and hopefully they’re interesting! And unique to the other characters around them.
Movies are an excellent media for show casing good dialogue.
The movie Super 8 has superb dialogue, especially between the kids. It’s realistic and revealing. Here is a scene at the beginning of the movie at a wake. A short conversation between two adults looking out of the window at a young teen boy on a swing in the snow tells us it’s the boy’s mother who died.  His friends are gathered around the food table.
Kid #1  What do you think was in the coffin?
Kid#2  Geeze, shut up.
Kid#1 I’m just saying because of how she died. You guys weren’t wondering that?
Kid #2 No, I’m eating macaroni salad.
Kid # 3 I was wondering about that too. I heard it crushed her completely.
Kid #2 Steel beam? Those things weigh a ton. Literally.
Kid#4 I don’t know how you guys can eat.
Kid #3 Try a turkey roll and you’ll discover how
(a man with a dog enters the scene asking  for Joe, the boys stare)
Kid#3 I bet Joe’s not going to want to do my movie anymore.
Kid #1 Why?
Kid#3 Why do you think why, the story. It’s about the living dead.
Kid #2 His mother’s not a zombie.
Kid #3 But she’s dead sh*t head.
Kid #1 Those turkey rolls are pretty good.
Kid #3 Told you.
 This is just a scene of a group of boys talking, but what they say and how they say it tells us so much about what kind of kids they are and what has brought them to this point. You already want to spend the next couple hours hanging out with them.

True Grit, True Brilliance in Dialogue
Another great movie with terrific dialogue is True Grit a movie based on the novel by Charles Portis.
Here are two scenes that happen early on. Mattie's character alone is enough to keep you reading, uh-hum, watching even though she hasn't even started on her quest yet.
In this scene Mattie looking for Marshal Rooster Cockburn. (How great is that name?) She knocks on outhouse door. We never even see Cockburn's face.
R:  (Low, rough, smoker's voice).The place is occupied.
M: I know it is occupied, like I said I have business with you.
R: I have prior business.
M: You’ve been at it for quite some time.
R: (angry) There’s no clock on my business! (bangs on the door). The hell with you. How did you stalk me here?
M: The Sheriff told me to look in the saloon. In the saloon they referred me here. We must talk.
R: Women ain’t allowed in the saloon.
M: Wasn’t there as a customer. I’m fourteen years old.
R: (silence) Well, the place is occupied. Will be for some time.
You have to love Mattie's tenacity. It's obvious that these two characters are extreme opposites, full of conflict. We want to see more scenes with them together. 
This is a scene not too long afterwards. Mattie negotiates with the clerk her father bought ponies from. I didn't catch his name, but he's an older, white haired business man who's round in the belly. This conversation moves very quickly: the clerk starts off with a patronizing tone, soon to realize he's met his match in a young girl. 
M: I’m Mattie Ross. Daughter of Frank Ross
C:  Oh. Tragic thing. May I say your father impressed me with his manly qualities, he was a close trader but he acted the gentlemen.
M: I propose to sell the ponies back to you, that my father bought.
C: Now that  here is out of the question, will  see to it that they’re shipped to you at my earliest convenience.
M: We don’t want the ponies, we don’t need them
C: That hardly concerns me, your father bought them and paid for them and that there is the end of it . I have the bill of sale.
M: And I want three hundred dollars for the saddle horse that was stolen from your stables.
C: You have to take that up with the man who stole the horse.
M: Tom Chaney stole the horse while it was in your care. You are responsible.
C:I admire your sand, but I believe you will find that I’m not liable for such claims.
M:You were the custodian. If you were a bank that was robbed, you couldn’t simply just tell the depositors to go hang.
C: I do not entertain hypotheticals. The world as it is is vexing enough. Secondly, your evaluation of the horse is high by about two hundred dollars. How old are you?
M: If anything my price is low.  Judy is a fine mare, I’ve seen her jump a fence with a heavy rider. I’m fourteen.
C:That’s all very interesting. The ponies are yours, take them. Your father's horse was stolen by a  murderous  criminal. I had provided reasonable protection for the creature as per our implicit agreement. My watchmen had his teeth knocked out and can take only soup.
M: I’ll take it to law.
C: You have no case.
M: Lawyer Dacket (from?) might think otherwise, as might a jury. Petitioned by a widow and three small children.
C: I will pay two hundred dollars to your father’s estate when I have in my hand a letter from your lawyer absolving me of all liability from the beginning of the world to date.
M: I will take two hundred dollars for Judy, plus one hundred dollars for the ponies and twenty-five dollars for the grey horse that Tom Chaney left. He was easily worth forty. That’s three hundred and twenty-five...
C: the ponies have no part in this, I will not buy them.
M: And the price for Judy is three hundred and twenty-five dollars.
C: Ha, I would not pay three hundred and twenty-five dollars for a winged Pegasus. And as for the grey horse, it does not belong to you.
M: The grey horse was lent to Tom Chaney by my father. Chaney only had the use of him.
C: I will pay two hundred and twenty-five dollars and keep the grey horse. I won’t take the ponies.
M: (she stands) I can’t accept that. If there is no settlement after I leave this office it will go to law.
C: All right, this is my last offer. Two hundred fifty dollars I get the release previously discussed, and I keep your father’s saddle. The grey horse is not yours to sell.
M:  The saddle is not for sale. I will keep it. Lawyer D will prove my ownership of the grey horse and he will come after you with a writ of  (? didn't catch the word)
C: A what?
M: A writ of rec....
C: (exasperated) Oh, alright, now listen very carefully as I will not bargain further. I will take the ponies back and the grey horse, which is mine, and settle, (pause) for three hundred dollars. And you can take that or leave it and I do not much care which way it is.
M: Well, lawyer Dacket would not wish me to settle for anything under three hundred twenty-five dollars, but I will settle for three twenty, if I get the twenty in advance, and  here’s what I have to say about that saddle.

End of scene. 
Isn't that fabulous? You just want to stand and cheer for the girl. Did you notice how much we learned about her character, just in the way she spoke with a man who could very well have intimidated her? These strong scenes make her situation, a 14 year old girl traveling with one sometimes two US Marshals to find her father's killer and bring him to justice is suddenly believable. 
Dialogue has to sound natural, and be believable. Less is often more. Do you have a favorite movie or book that has dialogue that inspires you?

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