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BEHIND THE LINES WITH DR: When Good Dialogue Goes Bad, Part 2

Just because a writer can write good dialogue doesn’t mean that, in the crux of the moment, s/he can summon whatever talent or craft I have in reserve and muster some pithy quip or putdown...

Doug Richardson's first produced feature was the sequel to Die Hard, Die Harder.Visit Doug's site for more Hollywood war stories and information on his popular novels. Follow Doug on Twitter @byDougRich.

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Read Part 1

The handcuffs were snug, though not quite cutting into my wrists. And the backseat of the Redondo Beach PD cruiser smelled like funk. As I sat waiting for whatever was to happen next, I had a moment to reflect on how the hell I got there.

The double-date to a South Bay blues bar had gone sideways when a cop in plainclothes—identified as Redondo PD’s Sgt. Rick Von Syke—decided to bust us for being in possession of a partially-smoked joint of marijuana. Though I hadn’t partaken in the illegal weed, I’d gotten my jollies off with a few amusing verbal jabs at the arresting asshole’s expense. I was eventually asked to step outside where I was handcuffed and ordered into the backseat of a police unit.

good dialogue

“What am I being arrested for?” I semi-calmly asked the youngish officer assigned to drive me to the station house.

“I have no idea, sir,” said the cop. “Just following my instructions.”

“I was cited for pot,” I argued. “I signed the ticket.”

“My guess is that the charge is ‘Intoxicated in Public,’” replied the cop.

“I barely drank half a Corona,” I said. “I smoked zero of the pot. Where’s my sobriety test?”

“Sir?” apologized the cop. “I’m just doing as I’m told.”

“Do I appear intoxicated to you?”

“No sir. Not at all.”

“Then why am I in handcuffs in the back of your car?”

“Let me get you to the station. When the Warrant Officer meets you, I’m sure he’ll see there’s been some kind of mistake.”

“Who’s the warrant officer?”

“Officer in Charge for the night. He’ll set things right.”

I easily read that the cop behind the wheel was embarrassed by his chore. The officers called to back up the Sgt. Von Syke’s collar of four urban professionals were clearly annoyed at their assignment and, from the laughs I received at Von Syke’s expense, they didn’t care much for the sergeant’s badge-heavy style.

Once at the station house, I could hardly wait to meet the magical Warrant Officer who’d be able to ascertain both my sobriety and unmitigated wrongness of my detainment. Instead, I was locked into a holding cell and left alone for forty minutes until Sgt. Rick Von Syke arrived. I silently watched him putter around at his desk, all the while plotting my lawsuit for unlawful arrest.

“These your keys?” asked Sgt. Von Syke, holding up and jangling a set for my perusal. He singled out a handcuff key attached to the metal ring. “Where’d you get this?”

“Same place I got the handcuffs that go with ‘em,” I answered.

“And why you got handcuffs?” he asked.

None of his business, I reasoned. The bastard didn’t deserve an explanation. But if water boarded, I might’ve given up the truth: that I was a recreational skier and knew enough not to trust the security racks at ski resorts. I utilized a pair of handcuffs to lock up my precious boards.

“Where’s the Warrant Officer?” I asked.

“Went home sick,” said the sergeant with a smirk. “I’m the ranking officer for the night. Which means what I say goes.”

“So you gonna charge me with something?” I asked. “And don’t I get a phone call?”

“If I were arresting you, yeah,” said the sergeant. “But I’m not. I’m detaining you for being drunk in public.”

“But I’m not drunk.”

“That’s a matter of opinion.”

“I had half a beer,” I argued. “Give me a breath-a-lyzer.”

“Don’t have to,” he gloated, before giving me a lesson in the law. “If the charge were Drunk and Disorderly? Then you get a sobriety test. Get arrested and booked. Phone call, bail, all that good shit. But I’m busting you for Drunk in Public. That gives me the discretion for locking you up for twelve hours as a matter of public safety.”

I didn’t know at the time, but there were indeed two separate statutes. Drunk and Disorderly was the walking-slash-talking version of drunk driving. Once arrested, the burden would on the authorities to prove in court that I was indeed in an illegal state of inebriation. Intoxicated in Public is the lesser known law that allows cops to sweep the streets for drunks, drop them in cell until they dry out, and release them twelve hours later without leaving so much as a breadcrumb record of incarceration. Cops have wide discretion in applying the statute. If I’d been wrongfully detained, it would be on me to later prove in civil court that Sgt. Rick Von Syke had unlawfully jailed my snarky ass.

“So you and your smart mouth are mine until sunrise,” grinned the sergeant. “I sincerely hope your friends are having fun without you.”

My brain spun for a stinging comeback line. But none came to mind. And if something had, I doubt it would’ve left my lips. I was on the wrong side of the equation. Locked up for Lord knows how long. Vulnerable. I was regretting the laughs I’d sought at Von Syke’s expense.

Sometime before midnight, I was moved into a larger cell consisting only of bars and a concrete floor which pitched into a drain at the center. I would eventually share the space with whatever human flotsam the street cops collected from the gutters. Drunks mostly. Habitual inebriates and drug addicts in various states of chemical delusion. It was an unsupervised little mob. Afraid and alone, I curled up in a corner, held my nose, and waited out the night.

Sometime after sunrise, a jailer called my name and let me out of the cell. My wallet, keys, and money clip were returned to me and I was released out of a one-way rear door. Upon finding a payphone, I called a cab and paid for a ride back to the Valley. I was home in time to shower, change, and steel myself for an all-day bachelor-thon in honor of my cousin’s upcoming wedding. We paint-balled and partied deep into the Sunday a.m. And though exhausted and lacking sleep, my mind continued to grind on the retribution I would exact on that SOB who’d ruined my Friday night and locked me up.

As days turned to weeks, my thoughts of suing from wrongful detainment faded when calculating the amount of energy and time the legal action would probably consume. So next, I turned my acumen to devising a practical joke that might terminally embarrass the asshole cop with his colleagues and supervisors.

Once again. Too complicated. Too risky. And so dumb it was best left to sour in my imagination.

A couple of years later I was plotting a co-scripting venture with my former agent, Rick Jaffa. It was an epic World War II action adventure story, involving a Kelly’s Hero’s-styled crew of military misfits on a mercenary mission to liberate looted Nazi treasure.

And we needed a German bad guy.

“Von Syke,” I suggested to my co-hort. “Colonel Rick Von Syke.”

We sold that script for a million bucks.

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