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.

                                  JO                     Colonel, the practice of code Reds                      is still condoned by officers on                      this base, isn't it?                                  JESSEP                     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.                                  JO                     I need an answer to my question,                      sir.                                  JESSEP                     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.

                                 KAFFEE                     Let's go. Colonel, I'll just need a                      copy of Santiago's transfer order.                                  JESSEP                     What's that?                                  KAFFEE                     Santiago's transfer order. You guys                      have paper work on that kind of thing,                      I just need it for the file.                                  JESSEP                     For the file.                                  KAFFEE                     Yeah.                                  JESSEP                          (pause)                     Of course you can have a copy of the                      transfer order. For the file. I'm                      here to help anyway I can.                                  KAFFEE                     Thank you.                                  JESSEP                     You believe that, don't you? Danny?                      That I'm here to help anyway I can?                                  KAFFEE                     Of course.                                  JESSEP                     The corporal'll run you by Ordinance                      on your way out to the airstrip. You                      can have all the transfer orders you                      want.                                  KAFFEE                          (to JO and SAM)                     Let's go.            The LAWYERS start to leave.                                  JESSEP                     But you have to ask me nicely.            KAFFEE stops. Turns around. Sam and JO stop and turn.                                  KAFFEE                     I beg your pardon?                                 JESSEP                     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.                                  KAFFEE                     Colonel Jessep... if it's not too                      much trouble, I'd like a copy of the                      transfer order. Sir.            JESSEP smiles.                                  JESSEP                     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
                                  COMMODUS                     ... I shall hold them to my bosom                       and embrace them tightly --                                   GRACCHUS                     Have you ever embraced someone dying                     of plague, sire?            Commodus stops. Looks at him. A lethal moment.                                  COMMODUS                     No. But if you interrupt me one                      more time I assure you that you                     shall.       

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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