The "Truth" about the 5 Movie Dialogue Functions (Part 4)

Flat and unintentional movie dialogue is one of the Top 7 Deadly Flaws of a Bad Screenplay.

And it has the power to get your screenplay tossed, instead of read.

How do you write an effective dialogue, a dialogue that REALLY contributes to your story?

Make sure it fulfills these 5 dialogue functions.

Colonel Jessep

Movie dialogue function #4: Creating conflict between characters

We asked the Colonel Jessep from the screenplay "A Few Good Men", written by Aaron Sorkin, to lead us through the 5 movie dialogue functions.

Why? because he's an extraordinary character who uses one or more of these functions every time he speaks.
And he has no issue letting us know the "truth" about what they are and how to use them.

Colonel, you covered so far for us the basics of dialogue and three of the 5 movie dialogue functions:

  1. Moving the action forward and
  2. Revealing character
  3. Communicating information

Can you tell us your views on the fourth of these 5 movie dialogue functions: conflict?

Col. Jessep:
With pleasure.

"Conflict is what every story is really about."

It's about someone who wants something and someone else gets in his way of getting it.

And the bigger the want and the opposition are, the bigger the conflict is.

Nobody would have come to see me in "A Few Good Men", if I had agreed with everybody on everything.

  • You see, there would have been no conflict with private Santiago if I had transferred him.

  • No conflict with Captain Markinson if I hadn't given the Code Red and handled Santiago.

  • No conflict with Lieutenant Kaffee if he had agreed to leave me in peace.

  • No conflict with the Cubans if they had agreed to stay away from our borders. And so on.

But we ALL disagreed. BAM! Conflict. One, two, three, plenty of conflicts.

And the movie dialogue - in the said or unsaid (subtext) - allows to express that conflict and build tension in the story.

Colonel, can you give us some examples to illustrate this movie dialogue function?

Col. Jessep:
I'll give you three, son.

Example #1:
the commander Galloway comes to Guantanamo to see mee and asks me about the Code Red.

                    Colonel, the practice of code Reds 
                    is still condoned by officers on 
                    this base, isn't it?

                    You see my problem is, of course, 
                    that I'm a Colonel. I'll just have 
                    to keep taking cold showers 'til 
                    they elect some gal President.

                    I need an answer to my question, 

                    Take caution in your tone, Commander.  
                    I'm a fair guy, but this fuckin' 
                    heat's making me absolutely crazy. 
                    You want to know about code reds?  
                    On the record I tell you that I 
                    discourage the practice in accordance 
                    with the NIS directive. Off the record 
                    I tell you that it's an invaluable 
                    part of close infantry training, and 
                    if it happens to go on without my 
                    knowledge, so be it. I run my base 
                    how I run my base. You want to 
                    investigate me, roll the dice and 
                    take your chances. I eat breakfast 
                    80 yards away from 4000 Cubans who 
                    are trained to kill me. So don't for 
                    one second think you're gonna come 
                    down here, flash a badge, and make 
                    me nervous.
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Example #2:
It follows above scene. Lt Kaffee who's there with commander Galloway asks me about the transfer order of Private Santiago.

                    Let's go. Colonel, I'll just need a 
                    copy of Santiago's transfer order.

                    What's that?

                    Santiago's transfer order. You guys 
                    have paper work on that kind of thing, 
                    I just need it for the file.

                    For the file.


                    Of course you can have a copy of the 
                    transfer order. For the file. I'm 
                    here to help anyway I can.

                    Thank you.

                    You believe that, don't you? Danny? 
                    That I'm here to help anyway I can?

                    Of course.

                    The corporal'll run you by Ordinance 
                    on your way out to the airstrip. You 
                    can have all the transfer orders you 

                         (to JO and SAM)
                    Let's go.

          The LAWYERS start to leave.

                    But you have to ask me nicely.

          KAFFEE stops. Turns around. Sam and JO stop and turn.

                    I beg your pardon?

                    You have to ask me nicely. You see, 
                    Danny, I can deal with the bullets 
                    and the bombs and the blood. I can 
                    deal with the heat and the stress 
                    and the fear. I don't want money and 
                    I don't want medals. What I want is 
                    for you to stand there in that faggoty 
                    white uniform, and with your Harvard 
                    mouth, extend me some fuckin' 
                    courtesy. You gotta ask me nicely.

          KAFFEE and JESSEP are frozen. Everyone'staring at Kaffee; 
          The OFFICERS at their tables... KENDRICK... SAM... 
          MARKINSON... JO... KAFFEE makes his decision.

                    Colonel Jessep... if it's not too 
                    much trouble, I'd like a copy of the 
                    transfer order. Sir.

          JESSEP smiles.

                    No problem.

Example #3:
It regards a colleague of mine, the Emperor Commodus. He passed away in very tragic circumstances. He was in a script written by David Franzoni and John Logan, Gladiator. In this scene he talks to Gracchus, a representative of the Senate.

Gladiator - Conflict between Gracchus and Commodus
                    ... I shall hold them to my bosom  
                    and embrace them tightly -- 

                    Have you ever embraced someone dying
                    of plague, sire?

          Commodus stops. Looks at him. A lethal moment.

                    No. But if you interrupt me one 
                    more time I assure you that you

A family member of mine, Aaron Sorkin , said in an interview:

Any time you get two people in a room who disagree about anything, the time of day, there is a scene to be written. That's what I look for.

Conflict is at the heart of the story. Always.

Conflict is also the best way to:

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The 5 movie dialogue functions - The climax

Find out about the last dialogue function #5: Calling forth emotions and the end of our interview


Pictures and screenplay extracts:

"A Few Good Men" - Jack Nicholson (Colonel Jessep), Tom Cruise (Lt Kaffee); Aaron Sorkin (screenplay), Rob Reiner (director), Robert Richardson (director of photography), Columbia Pictures and Castle Rock Entertainment

They're not gonna give up their home*:

Go from 5 movie dialogue functions (part 4) to Home page

* Avatar, screenplay written by James Cameron

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