MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

BUMPER STICKER DIALOGUE


I was browsing Cafe Press (where the website store is) and noticed dozens of T shirts for sale that sport lines of dialogue from hit films. We'll ignore the copyright issues for a moment and focus on how amazing this is. A screenwriter types a line of dialogue, an actor speaks that line on screen, then someone swipes it and puts it on a T shirt... and hundreds of people actually buy that shirt and wear that line of dialogue. They wear it!

Hide The Rum!
My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!
I believe you have my stapler
I want my two dollars!
Now I have a machine gun. Ho-ho-ho!
Franks and beans!
I am serious... and don't call me Shirley!
This is my boomstick!
Porch monkey for life (I'm taking it back)
How much for one rib?
Excuse me, I speak jive.
I'll be back.
Tomorrow is another day.
You're so money, baby!
If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.

And 7,130 others! Think about that for a minute. Then think about all of the great lines from movies - you, know, the ones you remember years after seeing the film. The lines that bring back memories of the film when you hear them (or see them on a T shirt).

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Years ago, I was talking with Pat Duncan (COURAGE UNDER FIRE) about what he called Bumper Sticker Dialogue - those lines like "Go ahead, make my day" that end up on bumper stickers and T shirts. Pat did a rewrite on my favorite Chuck Norris movie, and one of his lines ended up on a bumper sticker! You don't get any extra pay for that, but knowing that something you wrote was good enough to stick on the back of someone's new Mercedes is kind of heady. All of us want to write something that stands the test of time, but most of us think about the entire script... how about writing that great line of dialogue that everyone will be quoting for years to come?

No one really wants realistic dialogue in their film, what they wants is dialogue that *appears* to be realistic, but really serves a story and character purpose. Movie dialogue should be all of those great lines we come up with the day after the argument. Every line should be a "I wish I'd thought of that!" line. Of course, some lines will work and others will be "just okay", but you have to try to make them ALL gems, or you'll end up with some "just okay" lines and the rest not very good at all! Push yourself to do the best every step of the way! Really try to come up with those great lines that people will be quoting for years to come.

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One of my favorite movies is Richard Brooks' THE PROFESSIONALS, a western about a team of four of the best guns in the west who travel south of the border to rescue the kidnaped wife of wealthy railroad baron. You could take every line from that movie and put it on a T shirt! Every line seems realistic - it's exactly what the character would say in the situation, but is so carefully crafted that it hits the bullseye. Here are some random examples:

"Your hair was darker then."
"My heart was lighter then."

"I have the highest respect for him... as a soldier."

"Certain women have a way of changing boys into men... and men back into boys."

"What's the proposition?"
"Well, you won't lose your pants... your life, maybe."

"Well I'll be damned!"
"Most of us are."

"These horses will have to do."
"I can make a horse run, but I can't make it do."

Those and many more are in the first 13 minutes of THE PROFESSIONALS (including the title sequence). It's a great film, you should check it out. Dialogue like this may seem intimidating, but nobody actually comes up with stuff off the top of their heads (okay, maybe a few geniuses can, but not me). There are three ways to end up with dialogue like this:

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1) Keep notecards in your pocket and whenever you come up with some great line of dialogue or bit, jot it down. Eventually you have a few pages of great lines, and you put them in your script... as if you came up with them off the top of your head. You may end up with ten years of great lines in one script.

2) Rewriting. Work the lines over and over again until you come up with some thing much better than that line that came off the top of your head. Most people don't spend enough time rewriting their dialogue - really playing with it until they come up with something great.

3) Note that THE PROFESSIONALS great dialogue *is* dialogue - it is two people talking. Most of those great lines are "punchlines" in response to the other character's "set up". You always want the "set ups" to be invisible - part of normal conversation. But having a set up makes the witty response easier - it is only half of the dialogue exchange, and the set up does some of the heavy lifting. So when you are coming up with lines or rewriting later, don't think *one* line has to be this amazing witty line, you have the set up line from the other guy that does much of the work... taking the pressure off that great response line.

I always have notecards *and* rewrite my dialogue. When you watch classic films from the 1930s and 1940s, you'll notice how fast paced and clever the lines are. BRINGING UP BABY is another great example of zippy, witty dialogue. Writers from the "Golden Age" wrote great dialogue, because they wrote it the old fashioned way: Line by Line. Every WORD received individual attention. So go through your script line by line and try to find the most clever, witty, way to say each line.

ACTOR PROOFING YOUR DIALOGUE

Timing is everything in comedy... and one thing we can't really write. That is brought in through performance.

Things we do control are situation and the actual words within the material.The *writing*. So that's where I concentrate. I don't write comedy... I write movies that often end up starring non-actors who are pro athletes. So I can not depend on the acting (delivery) of any line. I have to create an "actor proof" script. A script where *I* do the acting through my writing. That means I have to create a strong emotional situation that Wilson the volleyball could win an Oscar for. Then find lines of dialogue that have double meanings or are packed with emotion - again, something that will work if the actor reads it off a cue card in a monotone. I make sure *the writing* is great, so if they do cast a bland actor *the writing* still works. Basically, my script can carry the actor if need be. Instead of writing a script that *requires* a great actor, I make sure I write a great screenplay.

And that is not easy, but I think some of those things translate to comedy writing. The material has to be funny just sitting there on the page, not dependent on an actor to add that zing that makes it funny. That zing is the bonus.

Bonus - here are some interesting bits of dialogue from the same movie. Can you guess which one?

"A pocket fulla firecrackers - looking for a match!"

"Way up high, Sam, where it's always balmy. Where no one snaps his fingers and says, "Hey, Shrimp, rack the balls!" Or, "Hey, mouse, mouse, go out and buy me a pack of butts." I don't want tips from the kitty. I'm in the big game with the big players... In brief, from now on, the best of everything is good enough for me."

"The next time you want information, don't scratch for it like a dog, ask for it like a man!"

"Who could love a man who makes you jump through burning hoops like a trained poodle?"

"You're dead, son. Get yourself buried."

"It's a dirty job, but I pay clean money for it."

"What am I, a bowl of fruit? A tangerine that peels in a minute?"

"You've got more twists than a barrel of pretzels!"

"I don't relish shooting a mosquito with an elephant gun, so why don't you just shuffle along?"

"Maybe I left my sense of humor in my other suit."

"I'd hate to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie full of arsenic."

"Don't remove the gangplank, you may wanna get back onboard."

"Don't do anything I wouldn't do! That gives you a lot of leeway..."

"Crow like a hen. You have just laid an egg."

"Tell me sir, when he dies, do you think he'll go to the dog and cat heaven?"

"Start thinking with your head instead of your hips."

"This syrup you're giving out with... you pour over waffles, not over me."

Different characters in the same movie released the year I was born. Nobody talks like that. It's a movie, not reality. Movie dialogue has always been clever, witty, interesting - that's why we quote it, instead of quoting what the clerk at Safeway said about paper or plastic.

In fact, even in "realistic" movies, nobody talks like the characters talk. Realistic dialogue isn't real - it's crafted to sound real, but more clever, witty, and concise.

You want the best possible dialogue in your screenplay - dialogue that shows us the character, and is memorable enough that the reader will be talking about it for years to come... after they've made the movie. Someday, you may be complaining that your dialogue is on everybody's T shirt or bumper sticker... and you didn't make a cent.

"If I want your opinion, I'll beat it out of you." - written by Pat Duncan.

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