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Writing Dialogue: Beats of the Dead Horse

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writing dialogue

When I dove into a theoretical approach to teaching and writing dialogue, I was pleasantly surprised that although writing dialogue seems in some ways contrary to structure, the way to improve it is often through the structure of your scenes.

Writing Dialogue

When you clarify the point of a scene, a character's intention and the exact subtext of an individual beat, you gain creative freedom. How does specificity and narrowness translate into freedom? Well, once you know the intended subtext, then ANYTHING that can capture it is fair game. "F--- You" can mean "'I love you." "Sure" can mean "no way." "Laughing in someone's face" can eliminate the need for words and imply: "I think you are a joke."

But sometimes too much freedom is a bad thing. There may be thousands of lines that capture the subtext of the intended beat. Just because a line works, doesn't mean it's good enough. You have to ask yourself more questions: Is it in the character's voice? Is it even necessary? Is it incorporating/exploiting the setting and situation? Taking the beat as far as it can go? And is the character pushed far enough?

This article started when Erik Bauer, my producing partner on Hard Scrambled, sent me this Youtube link of the last part of the opening sequence from Once Upon a Time in the West. In the scene, three men (sent by antagonist Frank) wait at a train station to, ah, meet Charles Bronson's character, Man With A Harmonica. Frank doesn't know how he knows Harmonica, who has arranged to meet with him, but he knows he is going to be trouble. So Frank sends his henchmen, including Stony (the legendary Woody Strode) and Snaky (the blind-in-one-eye, Jack Elam), to kill him.

If you haven't watched the scene, go ahead and watch it now. And I hope you don't have an important deadline and a DVD of the film on your shelf.

First of all, notice the characters get into position without any dialogue. We already saw them "take over the station" in a systematic way, so we don't need a talky explanation. Also, this makes the underling henchmen more active because they react to Snaky's gestures, which shows us how cohesive they are as a unit, i.e., how long they have worked together, how smart they are that they can respond to a look without any direction. And, no, it's not a coincidence that I am going to discuss dialogue using a scene that has very little of it. The first lesson writers should learn about writing dialogue is not to depend on it. Film is a visual medium. Look at how many of the beats in this scene rely on looks, nods, head tilts, eyes and body movement.

The train approaches, suspense builds. The three men are so on edge that when the train door opens, they "jump." But it's a false alarm. When the train starts to leave the station, Snaky assumes their prey is not there, so he gestures to his henchmen who come toward him, thereby giving up their strategic position. They then mirror Snaky and turn away from the tracks. This creates a nice opportunity for a crisp (and visual) turning point/reversal in the scene): at the moment they are least engaged is when we hear Harmonica's harmonica O.S. which causes the men to stop in their tracks.

And then in a perfectly orchestrated moment, like a curtain opening: the train exits the frame and Snaky turns. When his hat moves, Harmonica, the Bronson character playing the harmonica, is revealed on the other side of the tracks. His exiting the train from the opposite side is motivated because it provides him with a tactical advantage: the three gun men close rank. While blowing his harp, Harmonica surveys the situation. He asks about (or for) Frank and Snaky responds:

Frank sent us.

Clearly, this is not what Harmonica was expecting. So now the situation changes and the really important question for the character is am I safe? He needs to know if these men are friends or enemies, whether or not his life is in danger.

So imagine all of the on-the-nose lines of that could destroy this scene:

Are you friends or enemies?

I need to find out if you are going to kill me.

Are you going to shoot me?

Should I be worried?

Are you going to shoot me or kiss me? (kidding)

Laugh all you want at these atrocious lines, but ask yourself if you have equal disdain for EVERY on-the-nose line in a script? Well, do ya? You should.

We have to eliminate all of the on-the-nose responses, i.e., where the words are the exact subtext. So let's imagine some lines that might capture that subtext? Harmonica has spent some time surveying the scene, so let's use that somehow. Could he look at Stony and say this line?

Hey, why are you so nervous?

There is some dramatic tension in calling a character out on his nervousness as a way to assess him. Seeing and playing on characters' nerves is an essential part of this scene and in most classic shootouts. However, this is a Western, not a Woody Allen or Eric Rohmer film. In Westerns, men are laconic; they don't talk about emotions with such specificity. So the voice and appropriateness for the genre is all wrong. The word "nervous" ain't gonna cut it here, pardner.

We're really not close yet, but at least we are moving in the right direction. We are starting to think about the situation, what Harmonica sees and how to avoid words or tacks that aren't within the voice of the character or genre. What about this?

It took three of you to run his errand?

Errand? Meh. Vague. Too domestic. How about one of these?

It took three of you to pick me up?

Three of you came to pick me up?

Okay, it shows that he's smart and paying attention. Posing it as a question allows for sarcasm or a challenge. Not bad. If I were to stick with this line of thought, I might even make it less on the nose and try to put it in terms of their world:

Three of you? Didn't want to draw straws?

Quite a welcoming party. D'you all draw the short straw?

Not vomit-inducing. We're probably a tweak and a polish away from advancing through the first round of most screenplay contests. But now, let's look at the actual line:

You bring a horse for me?

Note that whatever spark of not-sucking there is in my imaginary lines, this captures the best of them. Its intention is crystal clear: "You weren't planning on my leaving here, were you?" It incorporates the iconography of Westerns and integrates the details of the setting. It is based on Harmonica's observation (pretty smart guy, huh?), but without the neuroticism in its attention to the men's emotions ("You nervous?"). It just speaks to their intention.

The line causes an immediate change in the situation. Frank's men know for SURE that Harmonica understands what's going on. This is a big deal. For the bad guys, they have gone from "maybe we have the element of surprise in a fight for our life" to "now, we're down to only our three-to-one advantage." Snaky's laughter is a combination of nervousness, bravado and malicious glee and the line that follows is implicitly a confession. But his unwavering confidence contributes to the more important goal of trying to rattle Harmonica and regain an edge:

Looks like... looks like we're shy one horse

If it's not clear that this line was meant to rattle Harmonica, it will be by the time we hear the follow-up line and see the reaction to it.

This is a critical part of the scene and I am going to put it under a microscope. From Harmonica's perspective, he now knows he is on the verge of a gunfight and his life is at stake. Snaky made a comment that was meant to f--- with him by getting under his skin. Does it succeed? Let's see what the filmmakers (writers, director, actor) show us.

Bronson's character just shakes his head. I love this for a million (okay, three or four) reasons. First, it's a visual response, i.e., WITHOUT dialogue. It's true to his character: a laconic man of few words. And from a craft standpoint, it creates suspense. We await the follow-up or clarification. Even if we don't understand the subtext of "No, you didn't rattle me (and possibly) I am not the one who is going to end up dead," we will when he delivers his next line:

You brought two too many.

If you can't revel in this line's awesomeness, then you are in the wrong Craft and Career. On a superficial level, it's so cool and clever and kick-ass but there's something important going on underneath. When writers try to emulate these characteristics (all of which seem to start with a hard-C sound), often when writing dialogue, they will write a clever line but without the underlying integrity that makes it work on a dramatic level.

For instance, a writer watches True Romance's Walken-Hopper interrogation scene and then copies the wrong part of it: in a scene where someone's getting their ass kicked, the person getting beaten will provoke the attacker to hurt him even more. What the writer is missing is that in True Romance, Hopper's character has a really strong motive to incur further injury on himself: I want to protect my son's life so therefore I have to enrage this guy so that I may die as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Harmonica's line "You brought two too many" perfectly captures the subtext of the scene. It's strong. It's surprising. And it pays off the horse references. And all without saying, "No, you three are going to die."

But without the proper attention to the character's motivation, this line doesn't work. Harmonica is outnumbered three-to-one with a bunch of guys who are confident in their ability to kill him. He knows that he needs any edge he can get. If he rattles them enough and gets under their skin, then this will affect whether he lives or dies.

Notice immediately after this line, the film cuts to Woody Strode's Stony character where -- choose one of the following --

The smile slowly fades from his face.

His lips drop to a neutral expression

His smile droops.

He loses his smile

As a director or screenwriter, if you have the line "You brought two too many," you owe the audience a reaction shot or action description of the character losing confidence. You follow through on the line's effect on the other character, which simultaneously/retroactively demonstrates its deep-seated importance and intention. Using only five words, Harmonica shakes the confidence of these hardened men so that he may have a better chance of killing them first and SURVIVING.

The clarity and importance of a scene's structure is what allows you to free up your creativity and choose ANYTHING for a line of dialogue. Look at the strong, clear and important intention in each beat:

Harmonica digs for information. ("Frank?," I think.)

Snaky shuts him down. ('Frank sent us.")

Harmonica calls them on it (tests, confirms, prods). ("You bring a horse for me?")

Snaky intimidates and tries to crush him emotionally. ("Looks like... looks like we're shy one horse.")

Harmonica deflects/ignores/confuses. (Shakes his head.)

Then armed with new information, Harmonica strikes back by scaring (and surprising?) the crap out of them. ("You brought two too many.")

Stony is rattled.

Harmonica capitalizes: kills them. (The shootout)

I don't have space here to nitpick the wording any deeper, but if you're not sure why "you brought two too many" is superior to "you brought too many horses," "you have more horses than you need," "you have two more horses than you need," and "you didn't bring a horse for me," then clear your schedule for one of my week-long classes way later in the year.


Here's a theoretical or mathematical summary for finding the right line of dialogue. Once you identify a given beat, imagine that swirling around in your brain are the thousands of lines that would satisfy the beat's intent. Now group those lines into several subsets that satisfy these criteria:

  • Capture the intent/subtext accurately (99% of the time, succinctly)

  • Are not on the nose

  • Are in the voice of the character

  • Are cool and surprising

  • Are appropriate for the genre

  • Incorporate the setting and details of the world.

The intersection of all of those subsets, i.e., the lines that are in all of the subset groups will create a very small group from which you will find the good lines of dialogue. Another way of putting it is that your final line of dialogue must pass all of these tests.

Subsets and Intersections? Jim, is this Craft & Career or the SAT? Thanks for the math tips, genius.

Obviously, you won't use this every time when writing dialogue. My hope is that you go through these steps a few times and then internalize this process so that it becomes an instinctual tool. Here's how you put it into use. When working on your dialogue or your rewrite, answer these questions.

  1. What is the purpose of the line?
  2. Can I make it stronger?
  3. What are some lines that capture the SUBTEXT?
  4. Which of these lines are in the character's voice and feel right for the genre?
  5. Which of the remaining lines use (or can be modified to use) the setting and the specific knowledge that the characters have?
  6. Can the line play off the previous line of dialogue? (train-of-thought, metaphor, (like the horses here))
  7. Then when I have the line I like, can it be shortened? And if the line's intention is made clear to the audience or character before it's even finished, how can I reconfigure or rewrite it so that the point becomes clear only on the final word?

Want to see writing dialogue in action? Check out the A-List blog where I critique a beginning writer's opening sequence and apply these dialogue principles to his last scene.

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