Sep 202016

Writing Better Dialogue – Part 1
What’s Left Unsaid

When I’m looking to freshen up dialogue, there are certain movies I return to. One of them is Sexy Beast. While It’s a good film overall, the dialogue makes this flick sizzle. Sexy Beast’s most memorable scenes occur between a sociopathic gangster named, Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) and a retired safe cracker, Gal Dove (Ray Winstone). I’ll be examining one of these scenes, but before we get into it, the screenplay itself merits a few words.

The original screenplay, by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, sparkles under scrutiny. In fact, Ben Kingsley’s stated that the cast delivered every exclamation and expletive as it appears in the script without improvisation. Having compared the film to the script, I found Kingsley’s claims to be slightly exaggerated – but only slightly. Changes were made but are so minor they hardly count.

So what’s this movie about?

A Synopsis of the Plot:

After nine years in prison, ex-safecracker Gal Dove leaves London and retires in rural Spain with his wife Deedee. Gal and Deedee are deeply in love and enjoying life in their remote villa when Gal’s past life as a criminal catches up with him. A ruthless gangster named Don Logan arrives determined to convince Gal to take part in a big job. Although he’s terrified of Don and the people he represents, Gal doesn’t want to risk returning to jail, losing Deedee, or being sucked back into the game. So Gal stubbornly, but politely, refuses to take the job. This leads to a ferocious battle of wills between Don and Gal. Ultimately, Gal’s forced to take the job in order to protect Deedee, but his participation doesn’t happen quite the way Don has it worked out.

Scene One: Confrontation at the Villa

Some Context – A few days prior, Gal learns that Don Logan is flying over to discuss a job.  Merely hearing Logan’s name is enough to visibly rattle Gal.  Jackie and Aitch, two friends who also have criminal ties in London, pick Don up at the airport and drive him to Gal and Deedee’s villa. After a tense and awkward attempt at small talk, Aitch takes Jackie and Deedee out to dinner leaving Don and Gal alone to discuss business.


[Exterior of Gal Dove’s villa. Day. The sun’s painfully bright as Don and Gal walk onto the patio, beers in hand. Don takes it all in.]

Don: Yeah, this is all right, innit…Not bad….(points at pool) What’s that?
Gal: …’S a swimmin’ pool…
Don: ‘S a bath, innit?
Gal: We ‘ad an accident…
Don: Accident?
Gal: Yeah, this boulder come rollin’ down the hill… just missed me….Smashed some tiles. Look…
Don: (Looks down)

[We see the bottom of a large empty pool. The majority of the pool’s bottom and sides are blindingly white in the Spanish sun except for two massive, tile hearts which dominate the shot. One heart’s red, the other’s pink. They overlap. Just where the hearts meet a giant hole and rubble disfigures them.]

Don: You happy here?
Gal: Yeah. Very.
(Don walks over to sit at a patio table, sets the beer down directly in front of him, and straightens the chair. Gal joins him.)
Don: What did Jackie say?
Gal: (pause) Just that somethin’ was ‘appenin’.
Don: Which it is. And?
Gal: That you were planning something.
Don: And you said?
Gal: Well I didn’t say much, just listened.
Don: She put a question to you.
Gaol: Yeah.
Don: Which was?
Gal: That you thought of me.
Don: To which you said?
Gal: Well, she probably told you.
Don: Told me nothin’.
Gal: Look, Don…
Don: Look, Don?
Gal: It’s like this.
Don: Like what?
Gal: I’m…retired.
Don: (A snort of contempt) Are ya?
Gal: ‘Fraid so….I haven’t… not got lots of money. I got enough. I’d do anythin’ not to offend you, but I can’t take part. I’m not really up to it.
Don: Not up to it?
Gal: No, I’m not.
Don: I see.
Gal: I’d be useless.
Don: Useless.
Gal: I would be.
Don: In what way?
Gal: In every fuckin’ way!
Don: Why’re you swearin’? I’m not swearin’…
(A tense moment of silence)
Don: Listen Gal, I’m gonna tell you a little story. (Turns his chair sideways and begins)
Don: I know a bloke who knows a bloke who knows a bloke.

[Flashback to Don home in London watching TV. The phone rings. Don picks up and says] Hello?

Don: Now, you know this bloke.
Gal: Do I?
Don: This is a bloke you know.

[An extended series of flashbacks continue explaining how Don Logan hears of the job and how it came about. Essentially, a well-heeled gangster named Teddy Bass attends a party/orgy where he’s meets and is insulted by a snobbish banking executive. Motivated partly by revenge, Teddy Bass gets the idea of breaking into a high-security vault containing safety deposit boxes. Because the firm which runs the vault caters to ultra wealthy customers, the gangster figures on a good score while getting even.]

Don: We’re looking at Saturday, but you’re needed in London this Friday.
Gal: It’s a bit sudden, innit?
Don: Sudden? No, it’s very far from sudden. Teddy’s been working on this for five months. Stan almost that. I’ve been in on it for two. It’s not sudden. Preparation. Preparation. Preparation.  (slight pause) But as far as the actual job’s concerned, It’s a piece of piss. A monkey could do it! ‘S why I thought of you! (Smiling)
Gal: Cheers, Don.
Don: You’re at the Grosvenor, yer name’s Rowntree – like Smarties – like Shaft. If they give you a pull, you’re just over to see some friends. Social visit. Family. That sort of thing. Someone’ll call you…pick you up. Probably Mike.
(Gal is nodding non-committally)
Don:  What’s that supposed to mean?
Gal: (absently) What?
Don: That stupid noddin’ you’re doin’?.
(Tense pause as they stare at one another.)
Don: Is this a fuck-off, Gal?
Gal: (pause) No, course not.
Don: Are you sayin’ no?
Gal: No.
Don: Is that what you’re sayin’?
Gal: Not exactly.
Don: What are you saying?
Gal: I’m just sayin’…Thanks an’ all that, thanks for thinkin’ of me, but I’m just gonna’ have to turn this opportunity down.
Don: (Fast and angry) No, you’re just gonna’ ave to turn this opportunity yes!
Gal: I’m not exactly match fit.
Don: You seem all right to me.
Gal: No, not really, Don.
Don: You look fine.
Gal: I’m not, I’m-
Don: Do the job.
Gal: What?
Don: Do the job.
Gal: No, Don.
Don: Yes.
Gal: No.
Don: Yes.
Gal: No.
Don: Yes.
Gal: I can’t.
Don: Can.
Gal: I can’t…
Don: Fat cunt.
Gal: Don’t do this, Don
Don: Do what? What am I doin’?!
Gal: This.
Don: This? This what?
Gal: Come on, Don.
Don: There’s a boy lookin’ at us.

[Gal looks around to see Enrique, a boy of thirteen or fourteen. He’s standing beside the house looking concerned.]

Gal: (Stands up, feigning normality) Go ‘ome, son. Go on. I don’t need you today. Go on, go ‘ome.

[Enrique doesn’t move. He eyeballs Don who pointedly looks away.]

Gal: Go ‘ome!

[Enrique, reluctantly, leaves.]

Don: (Turns back to stare at Gal) Who was that?
Gal: A Spanish kid who ‘elps me ’round the house. ‘S nice kid.
(Gal breathes deep. Collects himself.)
Gal: D’ya wanna go into town, Don? ‘Ave a drink? Show you round the place?
Don: If you like. I’m not fussed.

[Gal collects his cigarettes and heads toward the house. Don rushes after him talking quickly as Gal retreats inside.]

Don: You’re on for two percent – two and a ‘alf – maybe even three – depends on the usual bumflufferies. But it’s not about the money with you and me is it, Gal? It’s the charge. It’s the bolt. It’s the buzz. It’s the sheer fuckoffness of it all! Am I right!?


What’s Stated Vs. What’s Left Unsaid

What can we learn about effective dialogue from studying this scene? Lets begin by thinking about what is and isn’t being said because over written dialogue is a common problem. Fledgling writers often mistake melodrama for drama and have characters making passionate threats or begging for mercy long before they’ve “earned it.”  This is a common tendency for a culture awash in poorly written television shows. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of great TV out there, but you have to actively look for it and recognize when a a show’s characters are merely regurgitating soap-opera dialogue in different costumes.

Disregarding stylistic outliers, the best dialogue delivers the information an audience needs while omitting what’s obvious. Learning to walk the fine line between giving up or withholding too much information is certainly worth the effort.

So where are the gaps in the dialogue above, and what can we learn from them? Take a look at the opening lines of this scene one more time:

Don: What did Jackie say?
Gal: (pause) Just that somethin’ was ‘appenin’.
Don: Which it is. And?
Gal: That you were planning something.
Don: And you said?
Gal: Well I didn’t say much, just listened.
Don: She put a question to you.
Gaol: Yeah.
Don: Which was?
Gal: That you thought of me.
Don: To which you said?
Gal:Well, she probably told you.
Don: Told me nothin’.
Gal: Look, Don…
Don: Look, Don?
Gal: It’s like this.
Don: Like what?
Gal: I’m…retired.
Don: (A snort of contempt) Are ya?

What do we learn about Don in this brief exchange? For starters, we learn Don Logan’s a sadist, a bully, and dangerous. This might seem painfully obvious, but lets think about why it’s obvious – what is said – what is not said – and why we learn these things with an economy of language.

  • Don never explicitly threatens Gal. It’s quite obvious he’s dangerous, so he doesn’t have to spell anything out. In fact, it’s the omission of threats that help to keep him terrifying. If Don stated what he’s capable of, those statements would undermine all the bottled up ferocity and tension running through this scene.
  • Seeing and hearing how much Gal fears Don leaves it to the viewer’s imagination as to what he’s capable of. It’s an old theater trick to have death or torture occur off stage. One of the reasons behind this move is the audience fills in the gaps of what happened by imagining their own worst fears. Similarly, the omission of threats forces the audience to speculate what Don might do if Gal insults him.
  • On the other hand, we learn a lot by what Don does say and how he says it. For example, we quickly discover he’s a sadist and a bully when he asks Gal a series of questions which serve no other purpose than to see his victim squirm. The more Gal avoids committing to an answer, the more questions Don asks.
  • Don clearly enjoys torturing Gal as a ‘side benefit’ to his bullying technique. Don Logan gets what he wants because people fear him, and he revels in this fact. So when Gal doesn’t fold and immediately agree to do the job, Don begins to use a number of childish yet effective tactics to maintain control of the exchange while keeping Gal off balance at the same time. For example, Don repeats Gal’s statements as questions, openly mocks or states the complete opposite to direct answers he doesn’t like, and turns the merest hint of a compliment into an insult.

But what do we learn about Gal? At first glance, it might not seem like we learn much more than he is afraid, but closer inspection yields two key points.

  • Gal is neither resigned nor panicked. He’s determined not to do the job and is playing the game in his own way. Yes, Don is in a position of power, but he isn’t fully in control. Gal’s reluctance dictates the halting tempo of the conversation. His hyper-terse answers deny Don’s ability to coerce him to say anything more than is absolutely necessary.  At one point, Gal avoids responding directly by saying, “she probably told you.” In short, these answers, or lack of them, show Gal is only willing to give Don as much information as the other man works for.
  • Gal understands having information is dangerous. Possession of information as a liability or advantage is a prominent theme in this film, and Gal’s reluctance to talk about the ‘something’ that’s happening is early evidence of it.

If you keep these points in mind, and read the scene through again, the pattern of emotional beats – and some of the strategies used to evoke them – become quite clear.

I’ll probably write up a post that maps out the beats at some point. For now, I’ll just say, there’s a time and place for a character to state something explicitly, but many times it’s more effective to leave things unsaid. Furthermore, you can communicate volumes of information using small exchanges, which provide the advantage of being organic while pulling double duty of both characterization and plot development.

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