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. Continue reading »

May 142016
 

Do you want to write better dialogue? If so, there are a number of ways to go about it. One is to read and re-read books containing dialogue-driven scenes you admire – if you’re a writer then I assume you’re already voracious reader – another is to watch and deconstruct films which contain the kind of exchanges you want to evoke in you’re writing. I advocate for doing both as deconstructing my favorite moments in fiction and film helped me write dialogue effectively.

While there’s no substitute for reading great fiction, watching movies is useful for entirely different reasons. Because movies allow you to hear the way language sounds when it’s delivered by professionals trained to use language for maximum effect. Watching and active listening allows you to dial in on the way vocabulary, syntax, diction, and tone are deployed in a scene to effectively evoke a character that’s attempting to convince, plead with, seduce, flatter, interrogate, or intimidate others.

And thanks to the internet, watching your favorite movie clips is often free. Additionally, having the clip playing on a screen on your desk allows you to watch and re-watch a scene in order to break it down into its composite elements.

Just one word of caution – be selective in the films you choose to study.

“The bad artists imitate, the great artists steal,” says Pablo Picasso. So, personally, I aim to steal from the best. After all, why take the time and effort to lift costume jewels when a bit of effort will yield real gems? Don’t get me wrong. I read and watch my fair share of garbage. But while I indulge in all kinds of gratuitous reading, TV, and movies, I don’t waste time actively studying scenes which lack challenging material.

Does this kind of exercise really work?

I can only state with certainty that it works for me. Often I’ll come away from deconstructing a scene with tricks, strategies, and ideas I’m able to deploy immediately in my own writing. Other times, I know and understand how an effect was achieved but will have little use for it in a current project. I’m okay with this because I’d prefer to have more tools at hand than less. And, just as reading great sentences will certainly improve one’s writing, I believe listening to and internalizing great dialogue can only help me in the quest to write better scenes of my own.

So how’s this done?

In my next post, I’ll demonstrate how I break a scene down and extract the reasons I think it works. In later posts, I’ll look at a number of other lessons films can teach writers and list ‘writerly’ movies that I repeatedly return to in order to hone my craft.