BEHIND THE LINES WITH DR: When Good Dialogue Goes Bad, Part 1

Doug Richardson’s first produced feature was the sequel to Die Hard, Die Harder. Visit Doug’s site for more Hollywood war stories and information on his popular novels. Follow Doug on Twitter @byDougRich.

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When Good Dialogue Goes Bad Part 1One of the benefits of being a writer is having or developing an innate ability to turn a phrase when the moment comes. Oh, and we all know that moment. The sticky circumstance all folks find themselves in, usually one of unexpected conflict, only to discover that they haven’t the words to serve them. It’s that real life scene where, were we a Tom Cruise, George Clooney, or Angelina Jolie character, some witty writer would’ve penned us the zippy line to shut up the competition and button us out of situation.

Bang, zoom. Smash cut to the next scene.

Now, just because I can write that kind of good dialogue doesn’t necessarily mean that, in the crux of the moment, I can summon whatever talent or craft I have in reserve and muster some pithy quip or putdown. Not at. All I am is a writer. I can backspace, delete, cut and paste the words until they will drip like warm honey off the lousiest actor’s tongue. Or just like in this blog, I’m rereading and revising as I go, rearranging my thoughts so they read like I’m way more cogent and articulate than I actually am.

Yet there are those moments when my faculties are fulsome and firing on all cylinders. Those lucky moments in life when words and thoughts come together in a symphony of “Man, am I good.”

This is one of those. Yet with a result that was anything but welcome.

It was a double date, and yes folks, I had a social life before The War Department. Bill B, a writer pal, had a girlfriend who knew a cool blues band who’d be playing one Friday night down at a club in Redondo Beach. I grabbed Suzy, a game department store fashion stylist who lived next door, and the four of us hit the club, quickly setting ourselves up at a picnic table in the outdoor patio area adjacent to the stage. The band rocked the rest of their first set and, during their break, joined us for beers. No sooner had they sat down than a joint was produced, blazed, and passed around in a clockwise direction.

Never much of a weed fan, I merely passed the smoke to the left and attended my half-drunk bottle of Corona. Fifteen or so minutes passed and the band soon returned to plug-in for their second set. As we settled back into our little foursome, we were suddenly interrupted by a good-looking man wearing street clothes. Oh, and he was flashing his Redondo PD badge.

“I’m arresting you,” announced Sgt. Von Syke. “For possession of marijuana.”

“Seriously?” said Bill. “It’s one joint.”

“And it’s not even ours,” added Bill’s comely date.

“You’re in possession,” repeated Sgt. Von Syke. “I need you to remain seated until my backup officers arrive.”

At that point, I was more concerned for my date, Suzy. She’d unconsciously stiffened in abject fright.

“What’s wrong?” I whispered.

“I have a corporate job,” she shuddered. “I can’t have this on my record.”

“It’s less than an ounce,” I calmed her. “It’s only a ticket.” I reminded her that if anybody should know the penalty for getting busted with weed it should’ve been her, being that she was one of the biggest pot smokers I’d ever known.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” announced Suzy.

“Me too,” said Bill’s date.

“No,” snapped Sgt. Von Syke. “No getting up from the table.”

“That’s right,” I jokingly agreed. “Because we look so very dangerous.” My remark was met with a sideways glare from the cop, clearly letting me know that injecting levity into the situation would not be welcomed. But I didn’t care. It was just a joint. I hadn’t smoked it. We would, at worst, be ticketed and then our Friday night would resume with relatively law-abiding peace.

Then the guy with the pizza showed up.

When we’d arrived at the club, we quickly discovered there was no food service. The owner suggested we could order from a nearby pizza delivery joint. Good enough. We dialed and ordered.

So there we were, in the middle of our big arrest, and the pizza delivery guy appears like a sitcom site gag, carrying an extra large pie in a hot box.

“Who ordered the pizza?” asked the pizza delivery guy.

“We did.” I raised my hand. Instantly, I recognized that Sgt. Von Syke wasn’t entirely certain how to handle the situation, so I helped him out. “The pizza guy’s not under arrest. So okay if I pay him?”

Von Syke agreed. I quickly paid and tipped out the driver. And since the pizza was only going to be hot for a little while longer, I suggested we all dig in while we waited for the backup cops to arrive.

“We need napkins,” announced Bill’s date, beginning to rise from her seat.

“No getting up from the table!” barked Sgt. Von Syke. It so disturbed some patrons sitting at the other picnic tables that a woman opposite us volunteered to wrangle us criminals some napkins.

We began to eat, both Bill and I tearing into the pizza. Meanwhile, my date was so frightened she could barely swallow. And her vibe was beginning to rub off on Bill’s girl. I could see he sensed that his Friday night was slipping through his sauce-stained fingers.

“So officer,” began Bill, not addressing the sergeant but performing a bit of dialogue from the comedic jury trial that was clearly running through his head. “How do you know that the suspects were actually smoking a marijuana cigarette and not a clove cigarette?”

“Your honor, I was going to test the contraband,” I mockingly joined, hoping to add a smile to my date’s stoic face, “But then the pizza arrived, thus proving my suspicions.”

Bill and his date exploded with subversive laughter. And, in fact, my date Suzy even cracked a slight smile. With the joke, the prospect of rescuing our Friday night had returned in full. Our little table appeared so buoyed that Bill picked up the pizza box and offered our arresting officer a slice.

“C’mon,” teased Bill to the cop. “Who doesn’t like pizza?”

At last, Von Syke’s backup arrived. Two radio units. Four uniformed crime fighters. Sgt. Von Syke took the most senior of the officers over to a corner and explained the nature of the drug bust. From my perch, I could see that the uniform cop wanted to smack the sergeant up the side of his head.

“Are you crazy?” I overheard the cop say to Von Syke, his voice rising over the music. “For one fuckin’ joint?”

Von Syke, clearly the ranking cop on scene, grit his teeth and replied with something I couldn’t hear. Yet the body language of the uniformed cop spoke volumes. He and the others were subordinates and subject to a command structure that placed Sgt. Von Syke firmly atop the PD pyramid.

We, the four offenders, were thusly divided so the ticket scribbling could officially commence. As was my luck, Sgt. Von Syke chose me personally for a write up. While walking me to a dimly lit nook, I could hear one of the uniformed officers apologizing to my date. I was later informed that the cop’s mea culpa was something along the lines of we don’t arrest people in Redondo for one stupid joint.

While Von Syke filled out my ticket, I could see that Suzy was clearly in a panic, circling some kind of imaginary career drain. Her night was clearly ruined as was my own. I got mad. I was jonesing for one last verbal jibe at the arresting cop’s vapid expense.

This is when Sgt. Von Syke asked me to sign the ticket.

“By signing this,” said Sgt. Von Syke, “You agree to appear on court on the above referenced date.”

“Okay,” I said, taking pen in hand. “But just one question. Do I have to actually appear in court? Or is there a toll-free number I can dial that allows me the option of going to Marijuana School?”

Everyone within earshot laughed at that one. Including all the other cops. Everybody, of course, but Sgt. Von Syke. Though he gamely painted a thin smile onto his lips before rising and offering me his hand.

“Mr. Richardson?” he asked kindly for the first time that night. “Can you do me a favor and please step outside?”

Okay. So I may be a smart ass. But when it comes to officers of the law, I’m also compliant. Which is why I made my way out through the side patio door, imagining I’d be returning to my friends in a matter of minutes.

The second I stepped into the parking lot, I was summarily folded over the hood of a PD cruiser, frisked for weapons and further contraband, handcuffed and shoved into the backseat.

NEXT WEEK, THE CONCLUSION OF WHEN GOOD DIALOGUE GOES BAD.

How to Write Sparkling Dialogue:
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