Dialogue Double Duty

Dialogue -what your characters say – should do two things. First, it should reveal things about your character – who they are, what they believe. Second, dialogue should help move the story forward.

I was re-watching the movie Serenity the other day and was quickly reminded what an amazing writer Joss Whedon is. For those of you who haven’t seen Serenity or the TV series Firefly, I’ll give you a snapshot of the premise: it’s a western set in space with a compelling story and strong, unique characters. (It’s so much more than this, but I’ll let you discover it for yourselves! and don’t worry if you haven’t seen the TV series, the movie was made to be as entertaining for the first time viewer as well as the hard core fan) What really amazed me was how he introduced the main characters – so much information in a short period of time and mostly revealed through dialogue!  Let’s take a look:

The movie starts by setting up the universe the story takes place in, intros the bad guy and his story – then we’re introduced to Serenity – the name of the hero’s spaceship – as it enters a planet’s atmosphere. As the ship descends toward the planet, a piece of the ship comes flying off and screams past the cockpit where we meet the captain for the first time. And this is where we see how dialogue is working two jobs – one to reveal/intro character and second to move the story forward – and all the while not being on the nose!

**This is taken from the script found online –  I don’t own any of these characters or titles or anything… just using this as an example! Also – since the script was written by the director, it’s okay for him to put in camera movement – not something I would normally do as a spec writer**

As it hits atmo, the propulsion engines take over and she starts to rock a bit, noise filling our ears. Camera comes around the front, at the windows and into the bridge, to see the Captain, MALCOLM ‘MAL’ REYNOLDS, standing and watching. At that moment, a small piece of the nose breaks off and goes flying past the window.
[Note: the following sequence will take us through the ship in one extended STEADICAM shot.]
The bridge is small: two pilot seats on either side, and a tangle of wires and machinery all about. Mal wears the knee-length brown coat and boots of an old Independent. Gun at his hip. He’s not unlike the ship — he’s seen a bit of the world and it left him, emotionally at least, weathered. Right now, though, he’s mostly startled.
MAL – “What was that?”

He’s addressing the pilot, WASH. Flight gear and a hawaiian shirt, toy dinosaurs populating his station — no old soldier, but just as startled.

WASH – “Whoa! Did you see that –”

The ship bucks —

MAL – “Was that the primary buffer panel?”
WASH – “It did seem to resemble –”

MAL – “Did the Primary Buffer Panel just falloff my gorramn ship for noapparent reason?”
Another buck —
WASH – “Looks like.”
MAL – “I thought Kaylee checked our entry couplings! I have a very clear memory of it –”
WASH – “Yeah well if she doesn’t give us some extra flow from the engine room to offset the burnthrough this landing is gonna get pretty
MAL – “Define “Interesting”.
WASH – (calm suggestion:) “Oh god, oh god, we’re all gonna die?”

*Okay so we can see that Mal is a strong, in control guy and Wash is clearly the comedian, even though everyone has some funny lines. We also see these two are comfortable with each other, the dialogue isn’t stiff like they’d just met.*

MAL – (hits the com)”This is the Captain. There’s a little problem with our entry sequence; we may experience slight turbulence and then explode. (to Wash, exiting) Can you shave the vector —
WASH – “I’m doing it! It’s not enough. (hits com) Kaylee!”
MAL – “Just get us on the ground!”
WASH – “That part’ll happen, pretty definitely.”

*So again, we see Mal trying to control a situation he really has no control over and Wash dealing with it through humor. Mal also tries to defuse a potentially fatal situation with humor saying “we may experience some slight turbulence and then explode”*

The camera leads Mal down. On either side of the hall are ladders leading down to crew’s personal quarters. The hulking mercenary JAYNE is coming up out of his bunk as Mal passes. He carries a number of rifles and grenades.
JAYNE – “We’re gonna explode? I don’t wanna explode.”

*Great character – a hulking mercenary with an armful of guns and his name is Jayne! Also, he pays off Mal’s “explode” line quite well – tough guy almost whining that he don’t wanna explode!*

MAL – “Jayne, how many weapons you plan on bringing? You only got the two arms…”
JAYNE – “I just get excitable as to choice, like to have my options open.”

*That line tells us allot about Jayne – he loves guns and the need to use them so much he gets excited just trying to pick a weapon to match the situation and since he can’t, he’ll just bring them all! – Mal then gives him an order without giving him an order*

MAL – “I don’t plan on any shooting taking place during this job.”
JAYNE – “Well, what you plan and what takes place ain’t ever exactly been similar.”

*Here Jayne’s dialogue does a few things – there’s a history between them – Jayne isn’t about to back down and he reveals Mal’s plans don’t always go as planned.*

MAL – “No grenades.” (Jayne groans) No grenades.”

First Mate ZOE enters from the lower level. Her mode of dress and military deference mark her as a war buddy of Mal’s.

ZOE – “Are we crashing again?”
MAL – “Talk to your husband. Is the mule prepped?”
ZOE – “Good to go, sir. Just loading her up. (to Jayne) Are those grenades?”
JAYNE –  “Cap’n doesn’t want ’em.”

ZOE – “We’re robbing the place. We’re not occupying it”

*Here again allot of information is revealed through the dialogue – Zoe’s first line tells us this isn’t the first time they’ve been in this situation. Mal’s response reveals Zoe is married to Wash, the pilot. He then asks if the mule (hovercraft) is prepped – this shows us that the controlling Mal trusts her enough to prep for the job their about to do. Her responding with “Good to go, sir.” shows us how much respect she has for him. We know they fought together in the war and survived. She’s a strong, loyal character. So strong and loyal, she gives Jayne an order without directly giving him one -“We’re robbing the place, not occupying it.” = “you’re not bringing grenades.” totally backing up her captain once again.

The scene continues to introduce 3 more characters but this is a good example of how Joss’ dialogue is working double duty. I should also mention that the entire intro scene here is just slightly over 2 pages!!

So – how is the dialogue in your script?  Is it revealing character (their own character or another character) and is it moving the story forward?

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