Writing Dialogue: Mastering Conflict, Actions and Subtext | Joshua Dickinson | Skillshare

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Writing Dialogue: Mastering Conflict, Actions and Subtext

teacher avatar Joshua Dickinson, Writer, Director, Actor

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      What is Dialogue?


    • 3.



    • 4.

      Conflict Example 1: Casablanca


    • 5.

      Conflict Example 2: Steve Jobs


    • 6.

      Conflict: Class Project


    • 7.



    • 8.

      Actions Example: LA LA Land


    • 9.

      Actions Example: An Education


    • 10.

      Actions: Class Project


    • 11.



    • 12.

      Subtext Example 1: Skyfall


    • 13.

      Subtext Example 2: Atonement


    • 14.

      Subtext: Class Project


    • 15.

      Final Thoughts


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About This Class

This class looks behind the words and focuses on the essential dramatic theories that create compelling scenes and complex characterisation.

Three class projects provide the scenarios and rules to write dialogue scenes which focus on:

  1. Conflict – Engaging your audience in the struggle between goals and obstacles.
  2. Actions – Revealing character by knowing what dialogue is actually doing.
  3. Subtext – Creating complex characters by hiding what they really mean.

Writing Dialogue explains each concept before diving into examples from: Casablanca, Steve Jobs, LA LA Land, An Education, Skyfall and Atonement. All the scenes are available in the class resources.

‘Writing is rewriting’ and constructive feedback is incredibly important to writers. I know from experience! Share your class projects and I will be delighted to give feedback and discuss ideas.

Check out my other course ‘Write Your Screenplay: The Craft of Story, Structure and Script’ for a detailed look at the process of writing a screenplay.

Meet Your Teacher

Teacher Profile Image

Joshua Dickinson

Writer, Director, Actor


Hello! I'm Joshua and I'm a screenwriter, actor and director. I love working in film and really enjoy demystifying the film industry when teaching.

As a writer/director my short films include action-thriller Spiral, comedy-thriller Alibi and horror-thriller Housekeeping. My acting work includes US and UK television (Ransom, Holby City) and independent films (Redcon-1, The Mirror, Dry River).

I trained at East 15 Acting School and am a screen acting coach at the Royal Central School for Speech and Drama and teach filmmaking at Young Film Academy in the UK.

You can check out a collection of my work at my website:



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Level: Intermediate

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1. Introduction: A strong dialogue scene really makes a script come alive. If you're writing for film, television or video games, you need to be able to write visually with clear descriptive action. But descriptions on the page can look very different in each person's imagination, whereas with dialogue, you really get to hear the character's voice, their rhythm, their speech patterns. Script developers go through piles of scripts looking for stories with compelling characters and when they read a dialogue scene, they get to hear that character's voice. It's where they come alive. A lot of work needs to go into structure and plotting, but dialogue is the shiny thing on top the people remember. This course looks at the three key concepts that makes dialogue compelling and creates complex characters. Conflict, action and subtext. We'll be doing a deep dive into script examples from Casablanca, Steve Jobs, La La land, An Education, Skyfall and Atonement. After we look at the examples, I will set your writing prompt for you to write your own scene based on that concept. Which means if you follow the whole course, you'll write three dialogue scenes which you can share in the class projects for feedback. This is not an English literature class. We won't be discussing grammar or the finer points of simile, astronyms and apostrophe, it's about the mechanics to draw them. The motivations and behavior of characters. It's much more about what lies beneath the words the characters say. I'm Joshua Dickenson. I'm a screenwriter, film maker, and actor. I've written and directed several short films and I have a feature film script in the option, I really love teaching. I enjoy clarifying and using exercises and feedback as a learning mechanism. I also think that any artistic endeavor has it's equivalent of playing canto scales, those basic skills which you need to practice regularly in order to master. So this course will hopefully refresh things you already know along the way, as well as deepen your understanding and practice. Plus, every great film or TV show no matter how epic, eventually comes down to a scene with just two people in a room talking. If you're ready to start it, let's get talking about dialogue. 2. What is Dialogue?: What is dialogue? It seems like a good place to start. In this class, we are going to remind ourselves what dialogue is, and why we use it. Dialogue is the talking, it's what is said, the speech, the words, the language exchanged. Dialogue is any words spoken out loud. When writing a screenplay, there are two ways of telling the story, through action or through dialogue. Telling the story through action involves all of the physical movements of a character; all the places they go, the physical interactions with objects and other characters, their body language, and facial expressions. Telling a story through dialogue involves everything the characters say, from powerful oratorical speeches to [inaudible] one-liners. When writing for screen, there is usually a focus on writing action instead of dialogue, and that makes total sense. Screenwriting requires a shift in the way that we tell stories. As humans, we are used to telling each other stories, not showing them. If I tell you what I got up to last weekend, I usually launch into an expositional monologue, I don't act it out, and listing the help of passers-by and dragging you to the places I went. On occasion I will, but I'm saying normally. I find that when people start writing for screen, they do what comes naturally and they tell the story through dialogue. Characters give detailed explanation of things that happen to them, rather than us seeing those things happen. It's easy for us to imagine two characters in a room talking to each other, because it's what we're used to, but film and TV are visual mediums, so we need to shift our storytelling skills and make use of the ability to show the story play out in action. This means that if you compare a theater play with a screenplay, you'll immediately notice how much less dialog there is, and how much more action there is. We can rely on nonverbal communication, because a camera can get closer to a small gesture in the way that the back row of an auditorium never could. This means when writing dialogue for screen, you have to be aware that the audience is getting a huge amount of information visually. It means that the dialogue in a screenplay has to be extremely carefully crafted. Having fewer words means each one has more impact. It is because it is so exact that screen dialogue becomes quick, witty, and clever. Audience won't wait for long extended sentences for points to be made when we can clearly see how a character is reacting physically. Every line is as lean as possible, every word is considered, every phrase is carefully ordered, superfluous words should be cutaway. It's this craft that leads to brilliant dialogue exchanges where characters always have the perfect comeback. Unlike real life where you think of the perfect come back two days later, these characters only ever speak their third, fourth, or fifth draft. Scenes like these make film and TV history, audience remember and quote their lines. Brilliant dialogue often has a cultural impact, a well-written phrase can contain an idea that people carry around with them, sometimes even philosophies they live by. Dialogue comes in many forms; as monologues, where one person is speaking, duologues, where two people are speaking, trialogues, where three people are speaking, and I'm sure that goes up the scale with quadrologues and quintalogues if you're being terribly pedantic. Dialogue can be spoken by one character to another, to themselves, to a crowd, to the audience, by breaking the fourth wall. They can speak to someone physically present in the room, they can speak on the phone through video calls, or shout out loud to unresponsive nature. But why do characters talk? For the exact same reason that we do, to communicate, to express ourselves, we speak in order to get what we want. The word dialogue comes from the ancient Greek dia, meaning through and logue, meaning speech. Dialogue is about pursuing goals through speech, to get our coffee the way we like it, to get a date with someone, to get a new client. Writers, directors, and actors use different words for it, but whether you think of it as goals, objectives, or intentions, there's always a reason, a motivation to speak. Behind every line a character says is something that they want. Because we're telling stories, those goals, whether expressed in a monologue, dualogue, or dodecahedronlogue, don't quote on that one, those goals must be obstructed and characters must be forced into conflict. Which leads me very smoothly into our first of the three concepts for writing dialogue, conflict. 3. Conflict: In this class, we are going to discuss conflict in dialogue scenes, look at some examples from Casablanca and Steve Jobs, then I'm going to set you a first-class project. Conflict is what makes a story compelling. A protagonist, the main character, wants something and many obstacles stand in their way. Will they achieve that goal and overcome the obstacles? How will they do it? How will they be changed by the journey? These are the questions we want and expect the answers to. If you're interested in a more in-depth look at story construction, you can check out my other course, write your screenplay. But for this class, we're going to focus on how conflict is generated in dialogue by goals and obstacles. Someone wants something, an obstacle stands in their way, this is the basis of conflict. Conflict is opposition. It's the clash of goal meeting an obstacle, something that blocks the character's intention. Humans find conflict fascinating. Psychologically, it makes us alert, triggers our evolutionary instincts to play dead, to fight or flight, or to pick a social group. We need to know how to respond, so we stay alert to conflict to see how it will be resolved. We're gripped by the real-life conflict in our families, between friends, at work, in politics, reality TV producers deliberately create conflict between contestants to make their shows more popular. Conflict keeps us engaged in a story. Without it, stories tend to drift and become a bit dull, and dialogue is no exception. When a character speaks, it's because they want something, and so whoever they are speaking to should not make it easy for them to get it. Even if it's a monologue, they should be in conflict with someone else or with themselves. Think about which of these responses would generate a more interesting scene. Can I take the weekend off? Sure, enjoy yourself. Or if you don't come in, you're fired. Pass the salt. Here you go. Or we can't afford salt. Let hostages go. No problem. Or not until I have a million in cash and a jet ski out of here. Conflict not only makes dialogue more engaging, but it gives you somewhere to go with the scene. Conflict turns every exchange of dialogue into a struggle, a negotiation. We get to see characters trying to get what they want and what they will say in order to get it. Watching how they behave under pressure when they are struggling to get what they want reveals their true character. We'll take a look at that in more detail in the next part of the course. So in every exchange of dialogue, we need conflict and the scene should end when the conflict is resolved, either by the goal being achieved or when it's clear that it won't be. In real life, writers are usually lovely people, collaborative and cooperative, and willing to work productively. But on the page, they need to create combative characters. For our first example, we're going to look at a scene from Casablanca, a classic film, and a must-read screenplay for any aspiring screenwriter. Key points to remember: conflict engages the audience. Conflict is created by goals and obstacles. All dialogue scenes should have a conflict and be resolved one way or another by the end. 4. Conflict Example 1: Casablanca: For those who are unfamiliar with the film Casablanca, it is set in Casablanca, Morocco in 1942 during the Second World War. The story is about Rick, a cynical nightclub owner who won't stick his neck out for nobody. Then Ilsa, an ex-lover he had known in Paris before the Nazis invaded, comes back into his life needing is help. By the end of the film, he has made his decision to rejoin the resistance. Spoiler alert should have been our first. We're going to look at a scene that concerns the documents that Ilsa needs. Rick comes into possession of two stolen letters of transit, documents that will allow the owners to escape the Nazis and reach America. These letters would be very valuable on Casablanca's black market. In this scene, the protagonist, Rick, is visiting the Blue Parrot, a rival club run by fellow club owner and black market dealer, Ferrari. They mentioned a man named Ugarte, who gave the letters of transit to Rick for safekeeping but was killed shortly after. What's the conflict? What's the goal and what's the obstacle? Ferrari wants to obtain the letters of transit and sell them on the black market. Rick doesn't want to sell them. He is the obstacle blocking Ferrari's goal. Let's take look at the scene, highlighting the dialogue in green, where the goal is being pursued, and red where it is being obstructed. Just a warning because we are going to be having to read these scenes together. For this one, I am going to be doing my American accent. Good luck with that. Hello, Ferrari. Good morning, Rick. I see the bus is in. I'll take my shipment with me. No hurry. I shall have it sent over. Rick wants to take the shipments, Ferrari says he'll have someone else bring them over. Have a drink with me. I never drink in the morning. Ferrari wants him to stay for a drink to discuss the letter of transit. Rick declines the offer. We have conflict. Every time you send my shipment over, it's a little short. Carrying charges, my friend. Carrying charges. Rick wants to take the shipments himself. Ferrari, cheat on him on the contents. Otherwise, Ferrari gives an excuse for it. Here, sit down. There's something I want to talk over with you anyhow. Rick sits down. Ferrari gets Rick to sit down. Conflict resolved. We can move on to Ferrari's true intention, getting hold of the letters of transit. The Bourbon. The news about Ugarte upset me very much. You're a fat hypocrite. You don't feel any sorry for Ugarte than I do. Ferrari wants the letters of transit from Rick to sell them on the black market. Because they are stolen, possession of them is illegal, so rather than asking outright, he begins for subjects by commenting on Ugarte's death, the man who gave the letters to Rick. Rick rejects the notion he is sad about it, letting Ferrari know he's seeing right through him. Of course not, what upsets me is the fact that Ugarte is dead and no one knows where those letters of transit are. Ferrari conceives the point, then pivots to opening a conversation about the location of the letters of transit, basing known as the they are when he suspects that Rick has them. Practically no-one. Rick doesn't come clean that he has them but hints someone might, avoiding committing to anything, forcing Ferrari to spell it out. If I could lay my hands on those letters, I can make a fortune. So could I, and I'm a poor businessman. Ferrari keeps pursuing his goal, suggesting there is money to be made from them. Rick agrees, but still won't say he has them. I have a proposition for whoever has those letters. I will handle the entire transaction, get rid of the letters, take all their risk for a small percentage, and the carrying charges. Ferrari gets more direct, outlining his offer to whoever has those letters and saying he will only take a more percentage. Rick ignores the offer and mocks him for his usual dodgy dealings. Naturally, there will be a few incidental expenses. That is the proposition I have for whoever has those letters. I'll tell him when he comes in. Ferrari conceive the point, reaffirms his offer. The conflict has forced him to be as direct as possible without saying he suspects. Again, Rick refuses to say he has them. Rick, I'll put my cards on the table. I think you know where those letters are. Ferrari has run out a supple tactics and spells it out. Rick sidesteps again. Well, you're in good company. Renault and Strasser probably thinks so too. I came in here to give them a chance to ransack my place. Rick, don't be a fool. Take me into your confidence. You need a partner. Having tried this softly approach, Ferrari try something else, a warning suggesting Rick can't handle this alone. Excuse me. I'll be getting back. End of scene. Throughout the scene, Ferrari tries different ways to achieve his goal, to get Rick to give him the letters of transit. He starts indirectly before asking directly, then moving to being vaguely threatening. It doesn't work. It is the conflict that drives the dialogue. Ferrari pursues his goal, Rick obstructs him and Ferrari tries to find ways around him. It goes on until Ferrari is played out. Once it is resolved, the scene ends. I've put that scene and the whole of the Casablanca screenplay in the class resources, should you want to look at the scene again and make notes. The entire script is there just in case you want to see one of the most classic examples of character development in a screenplay. My goal for this section was to help you understand the conflict in the scene and hopefully, that was resolved. Let's move on to example 2 from Steve Jobs. 5. Conflict Example 2: Steve Jobs: In this scene from Steve Jobs, the goal is achieved. The screenplay was written by Aaron Sorkin who writes just brilliant dialogue. In this scene, Steve Jobs is about to present the brand new Apple Mac computer to a live audience. His goal is to get the computer to say hello in the presentation. Let's read. I need more time. You can't have it. Andy needs more time. Steve says he can't have it. Could that conflict be any clearer? Twenty minutes. It's 8:58. Steve's line implies they are due to start at 9:00, so two minutes away. We can start late. Hear me, we're a computer company, we can't start late. Reputation, branding, it's everything to Apple. Then I have another idea. What? He ends that conflict and suggests a different solution. Now Steve wants to know what it is. It's deceptive and borderline unethical. I'm listening. Andy would hold base on ethical concerns. Steve doesn't mind that. It'll run on the 512. You tested it? Yeah. Andy offers the new plan. Steve wants confirmation it will work, and he confirms it will so conflict resolved. Wait, you're going to demo a 128 computer on a 512? But, Joanna, the CEO, challenges this plan which will deceive the audience, conflict resumes. Nobody's going to know. You think that's borderline unethical? Steve excuses it on the basis that no one will find out. Joanna doesn't think that's a good excuse. Name my other choices, please. Please, you have to tell me why it's so important for it to say hello. Andy says he has no other option. This is more about Steve and the technical difficulty. Joanna knows this, asks Steve why even has to be done? Steve gets a monologue. By now, it's earned and it is condensed. A lot of ideas in a short space of time. Hollywood, they made computers scary things. You see how this reminds you of a friendly face? That the disk slot is a goofy grin? It's warm and it's playful and inviting and it needs to say hello. It needs to say hello because it can. He lays out his reasoning. He needs to change the world's perception of computers from being scary to being friendly. We're not committing fraud. The 512 is going to ship in under a year. Will you absolve me of your Eastern European disapproval? Steve argues it is only a small deception and a white lie, and on this basis asks for her permission. The computer in 2001 said hello all the time and it still scared the shit out of me. Joanna is still hesitant, unconvinced that saying hello is going to change perception, but it's not an outright rejection. Absolve me. A short, sharp final request. Just for this and just for now. Joanna concedes, conflict's over. It's a great scene for conflict, because within the overall conflict, Steve wanting the Mac to say hello, each character pursues goals and obstructs the others to get what they want. In the Casablanca scene, Ferrari was always the driving force. In Steve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin puts different characters in the driving seat at different times, which creates a real dynamism in the scene. I recommend all of Sorkin's work. One of my favorite exchanges is in Moneyball when Brad Pitt's character Billy Beane is trying to persuade an injured baseball player to join his team, but it's a play in a completely new position. Billy Beane's colleague, Ron Washington, should be on his side but he's absolutely no help. It's not that hard, Scott. Tell them Wash. It's incredibly hard. Conflict can be very funny as well as dramatic. 6. Conflict: Class Project: Okay, over to you. Less talking more writing. You've seen how it's done with some examples. I'm going to give you three conflicts to choose from. Then you're going to go and write a two-page dialogue scene. One character is pursuing a goal, and the other is obstructing them until they resolve the conflict. Don't overthink it. Just pick the one that appeals to you the most. You can decide in advance how the conflict will resolve at the end, or just see what happens. I would suggest giving yourself a time limit of maybe 10 minutes, and see what you create under pressure. It doesn't have to be perfect. It's an exercise. Don't forget to share it in the class projects. I would love to see them, and I always offer feedback where possible. A security guard wants to search a mother's buggy, in the belief she has stolen something. A delivery driver knocks on a retired police officer's door and wants to hide in her house for five minutes. A teenager wants to borrow their parents' car for the weekend. 7. Actions: In this class, we are going to talk about actions, look at some examples from La La Land and an education, and then I'm going to set to you our second class project. Drama, another word we get from the ancient Greeks. It comes from the word drao, which is the verb to do, to act. Not in the sense of being an actor, but in the sense of doing something, of taking action. We can write all sorts of action into a script. A character can bow, jump, punch, slam their foot on the accelerator, and of course, they can speak. Speaking is an action. Behind every line of dialogue is an action. Speaking is an incredibly versatile thing to do. We can use it to charm, to flatter, to distract, to plead, to mislead, or reject. All of those are different actions. They're verbs, doing words. Back to basics, I know. There are different tactics that we use to get what we want. Actions aren't about what the goal is, but about how we get it. Every goal obstacle conflict is a negotiation, and in negotiations, we try different tactics to get what we want. We might start out trying to persuade. If that doesn't work, we educate. If that doesn't work, we might scold. We usually exhaust peaceful tactics before becoming more direct and to making it clear what we want. If we're serious enough, we then move into warnings and threats. Knowing the action helps us write better dialogue because conflicts can get repetitive if we don't change our actions. Like a child asking that why on repeat, it gets annoying if two characters are locked in a conflict and they try the same action over and over. For example, can I borrow the car? No. Please? You can't borrow it. Please can I use the car? Absolutely not. The lines are different, but the actions are the same. If we think of what the action is behind each of those lines, we end up with ask, deny, ask, deny, ask, deny. It gets boring very quickly. We want more variation. Ideally, you want each line to have a different action behind it, to show the character trying a new action, a new tactic to get what they want. Let's try and liven up this very short scene by just changing the actions behind the lines. Ask, deny, offer, reject, threaten, warn. Ask, can I borrow the car? Deny, no. Offer, I'll fill up the tank on my way back. Reject, I don't need your money. Threaten, let me borrow it or I'll puncture all the tires. Warn, leave so much as a fingerprint on my car and see what happens. Already it's a way more interesting scene. The conflict escalates as each character has to change actions to deal with what's coming up. When I'm writing or rewriting and struggling with a line, it is really helpful to think what is the action here? The process is called actioning and it helps inspire new ideas. The reason why actions really matter is this, action reveals character. It doesn't matter what people say about themselves, is what they do that counts. If we want to write and brilliant, clearly defined characters, we have to know that their actions are showing who they are. If you can define the actions a character will use to get what they want, you'll have a good idea of how they'll behave in your scenes, and it's that that defines the character. Do they make jokes at their own expense? Do they charm others with compliments? Do they distract with irrelevant information? Do they keep people focused and on topic? It's these things that reveal a character. This is, of course, a reflection of real life. We all have our standard tactics of getting what we want. Would you be keen to admit what yours are? Let's look at our first example from one of my favorite rainy Sunday afternoon films. A double bill of singing in the rain with this film will be sure to cure the blues. It's Damien Chazelle's La La Land. 8. Actions Example: LA LA Land: For those who haven't seen La La Land, the context of the scene is this. Seb is an aspiring jazz pianist, who is earning some money by playing piano for a restaurant. The Boss, that's his name in the script, wants him to play from a set Christmas list. But Seb gets bored playing Deck the Halls and improvises some jazz, so the Boss calls him over to find him. Seb wants to keep the job. So what does he do? How do different actions make this seem more interesting, and reveal who his character is? Let's find out. Look, we're going back into the American accent again but promise there is some British realms coming, so I'll do more in the next then. "I hear what you're saying, but I don't think you're saying what you mean." Seb attempts to divert the Boss from firing him by creating an opportunity for a different resolution. "Yeah, I don't think you hear what I'm saying. You're fired." The Boss intercepts this preventing Seb from pursuing this tactic and dismisses him. "I think that's what you're saying, but it's not what you mean. What you mean is," Seb enlightens the Boss. Then directs him towards his preferred outcome. "You're fired." The Boss interrupts before he finishes, dismissing him again. "Play the set list." Seb pushes through it to propose a solution, offering to deal with what the Boss had wanted in the first place. "No, I'm saying it's too late." The Boss corrects his definition of what he meant. "It's a warning." Seb tries to temper his punishment. Instead of being fired, he'll take a warning. "What planet are you from?" The Boss ridicules him. "Don't fire me." Seb stops trying to be clever and simply pleads. "You done. I'm sorry, Seth." The Boss rejects his plea, then tries to move on from the argument by calming him with, "I'm sorry, Seth. It's Christmas." Seb appeals, "It's Christmas. The worst time to be fired both emotionally and financially." "Yeah, I see the declarations. Good luck in the new year." The Boss detaches himself by ignoring Seb's meaning, and just agreeing with what he's saying, "Yeah, I see the declarations," before finally discarding him with a seasonal well wishing, and it all happen so quickly. 9. Actions Example: An Education: An Education is about Jenny, a very bright school girl who gets caught up in a relationship with an older combat. In this scene, early on in the movie, she has a discussion with her controlling father, who is very strict with regard to her education. First, let's clarify the conflict. Jenny wants to spend Sunday afternoon playing her cello. Her father, Jack, is about to forbid it. He wants her to study. Thankfully, this is an English script so I can return to my natural accent. "I've got an English essay to do by tomorrow morning." Jenny informs her father about the essay, so she has a favorable reason to excuse yourself from the table. I had to think about this one. I went with grip because he's taking control, then he issues an order. "So the only sound I want to hear coming through the ceiling is the sound of sweat dripping onto textbooks." "Cello?" Jenny questions him lightly, a single meek word. "No cello." Jack denies her repeating her word with only one word added. No. "I thought we agreed that cello was my interest or hobby?" Jenny reasons with him referencing their previous agreements about her cello playing. "It already is your interest or hobby." Jack absorbs her argument. "So, when they ask at the Oxford interview, what is your interest or hobby? You can say, 'the cello,' and you won't be lying." He educates Jenny about how to phrase her relationship with the cello in her Oxford interview. "You don't have to practice a hobby." He teaches her a hobby is a hobby. He instructs her. "Can I stop going into the youth orchestra, then?" Jenny ups the antic and lists his argument for her own purposes. "No." Jack blocks, then redirects his argument. "No, the orchestra's a good thing, that shows you're a joiner-inner." "Ah. Yes. But I've already joined in. So now I can stop." Jenny turns his own logic against him. Now she's educating him. "No." Jack refuses the argument. "No. Well, that just shows the opposite, don't you see?" He counteracts her argument, albeit poorly. "No, that shows you're a rebel. They don't want that at Oxford." He warns her then threatens that Oxford wouldn't be impressed. "No. They don't want people who can think for themselves." Jenny seems to agree, but she's really placating him, then satirizes him. But he doesn't notice. "Course they don't." Jack doesn't realize and confirms what she says, thinking he's won the argument. The actioning in the scene reveals that while Jack starts out thinking he's the one educating his daughter, we learned that she's already clever enough to be the one educating him, and when he doesn't notice because he's not smart enough too, she's clever enough to mock him without him even realizing. Jenny starts out with peaceful actions. She informs, questions, reasons. Then when that doesn't work, her intellect kicks in and she enlists his argument and educates him before deciding it isn't worth it. She placates him and satirizes him. It tells us that she's clever and will enjoy running intellectual rings around her opponent to get what she wants. We've learned that she would rather play cello than study. In the story, she resents her education initially, wants the more exciting life. But eventually she learns to value the education that she feels she's being forced to have. Jack's actions are useful in setting up this aspect of the story. Because living with him is like living with a headmaster. His actions are to grip, order, deny, absorb, educate, teach, guide. However, when she starts tying him in knots, he results to less intellectual actions. Block, redirect, refuse, counteract, warn, confirm. These actions reveal he is not the educated man he would like to be. When analyzing an example like this or any example, you can never know for sure what the writer originally intended. But as an exercise to see what's happening behind the text, behind the words, it's incredibly useful, and a great way to improve your scenes. Don't feel bound to making your action words realistic. But some of the best dialogue can come from less literal actions. What does it mean to explode, to sync, to inflate? Try some random non-human actions, you never know when it might inspire, and inspiring interesting lines and character actions is what the next exercise is all about. 10. Actions: Class Project: For our second class project, we are going to write a scene based on a list of actions. First you're going to set a two-minute timer and write down as many actions as you possibly can. You can start with some of the actions we've already mentioned. If you can't think of any, search for a list of verbs and pick some out. After those two minutes up, pick out your 10 favorites and write them down in order. Now give yourself 10 minutes to write a dialogue scene in which two students on a road trip have broken down at 2:00 AM in the middle of a forest. One wants to retrace their steps and walk back three miles to a house that had a light on, the other wants to take a risk and keep going forwards on foot. For each line, you must write it in accordance with the action you've written down. So plead would become, please I'm begging you, let's go back. Insult can become, with your sense of direction, I'll take my chances. Take this as an opportunity to build on the work we've done on conflict. In this scene, both characters have a goal and are each other's obstacle. Don't forget to share your dialogue scene in the class projects. It would be great to see the list of actions and the final script. Happy writing. 11. Subtext: I think we should discuss a disturbing phenomenon that started in my lifetime. When we say something literally happened, it means that something actually happened in real life. Literally is literally useful when describing a situation that was so bizarre you need people to understand that you're not making it up, but language evolves and now, we use it literally all the time to describe figurative situations. I literally ate my body weight in ice cream. I literally wet myself. I literally just died. It's odd how frequently we use the word literally. It actually highlights how often we aren't speaking literally. The point I'm getting at is that if you wrote down the words we say, they rarely match what we really mean. The real meaning behind the words we use is called subtext. What does it really mean? What's the subtext when someone says that's a brave choice? Do they mean you've made a bold, courageous decision or a potentially stupid, disastrous, and embarrassing one? It's on my list. Do they mean they're going to watch the show you've just recommended to them or that they want you to think that they have good taste but they're probably not going to be investing time in it? We took the dog to the farm. I've been to every farm within a 10 mile radius and I still can't find Coco. It's not just outlandish metaphors and figures of speech where this happens, it happens with everyday speech too. When someone says that's so interesting, do they really mean that or do they mean I'm bored, let's move on now? If you're arguing and someone says I honestly don't care, could they really mean I'm absolutely furious? When someone says I hate you, they often mean I love you, and vice versa. We often say one thing and mean the exact opposite. Why? Because, as we've said many times, speaking is a tool to get what we want, and being totally honest about our thoughts and feelings is not always the best way to get what we want. We try to be smarter than that. We observe social rules. We try to be polite and in dear ourselves, not embarrass or offend other people. When it comes to dialogue, we talk about text and subtext. Text is the dialogue, what is said, the subtext is what it really means. Good dialogue avoids speaking the subtext and covers it with text. When characters say exactly what they mean, it can sound melodramatic. It's not realistic. It's only in rare moments of extreme pressure that characters articulate what they really mean. The examples we're going to look at involve two different levels of subtext. One, where the meaning is hovering just below the surface, and one where it is so submerged that the text bears almost, no relationship to what is going on. We'll be looking at two British films, you're welcome, Skyfall and Atonement. 12. Subtext Example 1: Skyfall: Our first example of subtext is going to come from everyone's favorite British spy, James Bond, and I promise this wasn't just an excuse for me to play Bond. Skyfall is a brilliant Bond film. It has all the action you expect and also explores themes that an alpha male Bond would find challenging. In this scene, he's waiting to meet the new Q at the National Portrait Gallery in London. At the start of the scene, he doesn't yet know what Q looks like. One of the themes in Skyfall is whether the double oh style of espionage, one man being sent into the field with a license to kill has become irrelevant in the modern technological world. In this scene, we get to see that theme explored through conflict when representatives of the old and new world come face to face for the first time. Q knows it's Bond when he approaches with his first lines. While what he says sounds like he's engaging Bond in a discussion about art criticism, that's not his real meaning. He's making a comparison between Bond and the old ship in the painting, The Fighting Temeraire. A bit of history about painting helps. The Fighting Temeraire is a wind power sailing warship, which fought in the Battle of Trafalgar, but now it is being tugged away by a much smaller steam-powered boat to be dismantled and sold for scrap. Q sees himself as the small, technologically advanced boat preparing Bond for retirement. You could replace the words he says, the text, with the meaning, the subtext, like this. It always makes me feel a little melancholy. I pity you. A grand old warship being ignominiously hauled away for scrap. You were so important once, but you're not anymore. The inevitability of time, don't you think? It was always going to end like this for you. What do you see? Do you understand that? Q is a smart guy. He's educated enough to know about the painting and he's cruelly taunting bond. James's texts hides what he would really like to say. A bloody big ship. I've still got it. Excuse me. I don't like you much am off. It's amazing how often politeness is a code for insult. Double oh seven, hey, idiot. I'm your new quartermaster. You weren't even smart enough to realize that I'm the person you were waiting for. You must be joking. James doesn't really think he's making a joke. He means you look completely unqualified for the job. Why? Because I'm not wearing a lab coat. Old stereotypes no longer apply. Because you still have spots. You're too young. My complexion is hardly relevant. My youth has no impact on my ability. Your competence is. You haven't got enough experience. Age is no guarantee of efficiency. Just because you're experienced, doesn't mean you're efficient. Youth is no guarantee of innovation. Just because you're young, doesn't mean you have any new ideas. I'll hazard I can do more damage on my laptop, sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of earl gray than you can do in a year in the field. I understand technology which will make me far more effective than you are without all your silly adventures. Oh, so why do you need me? You still need me. Every now and then a trigger has to be pulled. Any idiot with a finger could do your job. Or not pulled. I have to make a quick, high-pressured calculated judgments. It's hard to know which in your pajamas. You couldn't handle it. Q, you're right actually. Double oh seven, so are you. Subtext isn't necessarily meant to be a hidden, unbreakable code. It's likely you've understood that this was what was happening in the scene because we're so used to interpreting what people say. But the dialogue, the text is so much better than if it had just been left as the lines of subtext. It allows characters to have these witty exchanges about what they really mean without Q walking in with an attitude that ends his career. I love the next example because it is on another level. Next up, we have Atonement. 13. Subtext Example 2: Atonement: Atonement tells the story of the love affair between Robbie and Cecilia, which is torn apart when Robbie is accused and convicted of a crime he didn't commit. This scene takes place before all that, however, when Cecilia and Robbie are enjoying the summer at her wealthy family's home in the English countryside. Robbie is of a lower class than Cecilia. His mother is Cecilia's housekeeper, but he's had a university education which was paid for by Cecilia's father. Go ahead and read the scene in the class resources and have a think about what the subtext might be, then come back and we'll go through it together. On the surface, this scene is a casual conversation about the weather, what books they're reading, who might be visiting, and what Robbie's career plans are. But watching the scene played out, you sense the frustration and the deep emotional meaning beneath it all. Culturally, this is a different time. It's an idealized and extreme version of the British stiff upper lip. Robbie and Cecilia have unspoken feelings for each other, but her father would not accept Robbie as her husband as he is not of the right class. The conflict in this scene is really about solving that problem. Cecilia wants Robbie to take a job so they can be together soon. But Robbie wants to finish studying to be a doctor, which may take some time. Would you give me one of your Bolshevik roll-ups? Oh God, I can't really do the accent. That was terrible. This is a great first line. The meaning here is, we need to talk about your career. I know. If you think that's quite elite, stick with me. A roll-up is a cigarette. I'm a non-smoker, so I miss out on this non-suspicious way of getting someone aside for a conversation. A Bolshevik is a Marxist revolutionary who championed the worker, the lower-class. Being British, she just had to make it about class. Why is a roll-up a Bolshevik? Because you have to put it together manually yourself. Unlike her usual brand of cigarettes, probably, which come pre-rolled, the upper class. It sounds like I'm making a mountain out of a molehill, figuratively speaking. But by writing the much more interesting Bolshevik roll-up instead of the generic cigarette, the conflict at the heart of the scene is opened up. She asked for a cigarette, meaning she wants to talk, but refers to it as a Bolshevik roll-up, reminding him of the class issue in their relationship. Was the character doing it deliberately? Maybe, maybe not. But we all say things that unintentionally reveal what we're thinking. So whether Cecilia is aware or not, the writer certainly is. Beautiful day. The time is right for us to get married. I know, another leap, but stick with me. I suppose so. I don't think so. Too hot for me. The time isn't right for me. How are you enjoying your book? Can you wait for a while? Not at all. I'm tired of waiting. It gets better. Be patient and it will work out. I'd rather read Fielding any day. I'd prefer a different plan. Much more passionate. I want us to give in to our passions. On the surface of this section, they're talking about the weather and the books they're reading. But knowing what they both really want, this conversation about the weather and their books is a cover for their feelings about where their relationship is going. When she says passionate, she realizes she's almost said what she actually means, and so she changes the subject. The English were, and still can be a little repressed. Leon's coming down today, did you know? The rest of my society won't wait for you to join us. I'd heard a rumor. That does concern me. He's bringing a friend with him. There are other men I could marry. This Paul Marshall. I'm meeting one today. The chocolate millionaire. He's rich, unlike you. Are the flowers for him? I'm confident you won't be attracted to him. Why shouldn't they be? I could be attracted to him. Leon says he's very charming. At least he's already acceptable to my social rank. In this section, Cecilia has been trying to make him jealous. She's talking generally about what would be happening that afternoon, but her meaning is clear, that Robbie needs to get his skates on and ask her out or someone else will swoop in. Though Robbie is pretty confident and he doesn't take the bait. So Cecilia, after trying to skirt the issue, is forced into addressing the problem she has recently discovered that's motivated this entire conversation. The old man telephoned last night. I know something you've been hiding from me. He says you're planning to be a doctor. Are you really planning on being a doctor? I'm thinking about it, yes. It means I am definitely planning on being a doctor. Another six years of student life? My father won't let me marry you while you're a student, so you're asking me to wait around six more years before we can be together. How else do you become a doctor? That is correct. You could get a fellowship now, couldn't you? We could get married now if you took a different job. With your first. I'm sick of your studying. But I don't want to teach. I'm not going to take a job I won't enjoy. There is the result of the conflict. She's not going to get what she wants. But Robbie then worries that she's misunderstood his motivation. I said I'd pay your father back. I'm not just leading you on so I can have your money. Cecilia worries he's misunderstood her. That's not what I meant at all. I know you're not. Poor, troubled English upper classes. If that all seems like I've read too much into it, go and watch the scene. Just watch it. So which version of the scene is better, text or subtext? Definitely, the text that made it into the film. Audience enjoys doing a bit of work to figure out the relationships, to work out what's really going on. There's a satisfaction in understanding something that you are not directly told in reading between the lines. When characters speak their subtext, you're giving the audience four. Instead, give them two plus two. Let them have this satisfaction of putting it together themselves. If the dialogue had been just a subtext said out loud, it wouldn't be believable. It'll be melodramatic. People at that time just didn't talk like that, and we still don't. It's rarely a successful tactic to just demand what you want. Finding other ways to effectively influence people like making them think that they came up with the idea, that's the challenge we're all used to. That's an excellent idea. We should do one final exercise based on the subtext. This final exercise is designed to help you spot obvious subtext in your work and cover it up in interesting ways. 14. Subtext: Class Project: I've pre-written some lines of subtext that would fit into all of the three following scenes. You're going to choose one and then rewrite the subtext, transforming it into conflict and action-filled text that fits into the scene that you've chosen. A brother and sister had a house party while their parents were away. Since they returned, they have realized some jewelry is missing. In this scene, their unsuspecting parents have left them to do the washing up while they sit just outside the window. Two teachers found a car crashed into a ditch, the driver was unconscious. While waiting for the ambulance, they found a bag of cash in the car and stole it. In this scene, they meet again in the busy school canteen. Two lab assistants for an archaeologist put the wrong chemical on a culturally significant artifact and destroyed it. Someone else has been fired for it. One of them starts this conversation outside their boss's office. The subtext. I want to talk to you. I don't want to talk to you. I know you've been avoiding me. I want you to go away. We have to admit what we did. You can get yourself into trouble if you want, but I'm not going to. If you don't come with me when I confess, you'll be in more trouble. This conversation is over. If you leave now, I will make life difficult for you. Stop drawing attention to us. I will talk later. If you don't, there will be consequences. I have understood you clearly. Now, go away. You'll find those lines of subtext in the class resources. As always, please share your work. I love to discuss and give feedback on whatever you come up with. 15. Final Thoughts: Thank you for watching this class on dialogue where we covered conflict action and subtext. I really enjoyed looking over people's work, so you do post it in the class projects and I will take a look when I can. Writing to screen is a skill that needs honing and I'm always improving myself. But having these concepts in your back pocket is a great way of moving forward on your rewrites and various drafts. You can check out my other classes if you have a further interest in screenwriting. As always, if you have any questions, ask away and I'll do my best to answer as quickly and clearly as possible.