On Writing Bar Scenes
Some thoughts on random intimate conversations
Somehow, in many things I wrote so far, even in essays, there is a scene of two people talking in a bar or pub, a restaurant or a cafe. They sit in front of each other, drink and talk about things that have nothing to do with the main topic. You can find some elements of it in some pieces I've already published here and I assure you there are more in the unpublished ones you haven’t seen or won’t see. So, I am asking myself, why? Why am I doing it again and again? Is this me repeating myself or is this something else?
Perhaps the most obvious answer is I just love reading or watching this kind of scene hence tend to write them myself, unconsciously.
My favourite film, Seven Psychopaths (which I am going to write about in detail later) has a hilarious dialogue between two main characters – Marty and Billy. Marty is a screenwriter. He is working on a script called “Seven Psychopaths” and in the film, among many other things we follow him in his writing struggles. Billy wants to help Marty and in one of the many talkative scenes they discuss the script, in particular its second half:
"I don't want it to be violent," Marty says, "I want it to be life-affirming."
"Life-affirming? Schmife-affirming! It's about seven fucking psychopaths! Hey!"
"No, you know what I think the movie should be? The first half should be a perfect setup for an out-and-out revenge flick."
"Violence. Guns. All the usual bullshit. And then... I don't know, man, it's...The lead characters should just walk away. They should just drive off into the desert and pitch a tent somewhere and just talk for the rest of the frigging movie. No shoot-outs, no payoffs. Just human beings talking."
"What, are we making French movies now? That sounds like the stupidest ending. No shoot-outs? That sounds like the stupidest ending to a movie I've ever fucking... No shoot-outs?"
The film plays with this idea literally implementing it but that's for the next time. What I want to highlight today is "Just human beings talking". This type of scene or even whole films, like The Sunset Limited or Carnage, is what is often enough for me to claim a film good.
Quentin Tarantino has plenty of what I call “bar scenes” in his films. Starting from the first scene in Reservoir Dogs ... and legendary chat between Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace in Pulp fiction with this incredibly tense and subtextual verbal fight in Inglorious Bastards...
to the whole Hateful Eight, set almost entirely in haberdashery lodge amidst a blizzard. And, of course, many more other great scenes and films. I just picked a few. I assume the fact me being a fan of his work influences my writing, and bar talks crawl into my work naturally.
In Reservoir Dogs, Inglorious Bastards and Hateful Eight there are many participants in the dialogue but Pulp fiction's scene is different and, despite I like all of them, more important to me. Two people talking to each other in a bar in a relaxed atmosphere. There is some tension, yes, but it is caused by intimacy and energy we can feel and it is different from what we see in the other scenes. Take the glorious first scene from Inglorious Bastards, for example. We know why Hans Landa is there because of the context and because of the Jewish family hiding under the wooden floor. It makes us wait for a resolution, we feel that they are in danger hence during the dialogue, we feel tension, suspense. We look at every line not as just a reply but as a chess move, as a part of a verbal battle. The same effect is in the scene in the bar I shared above where Archie Hicox shows "three" with his fingers in a wrong way and nazi officers spot it. Although both dialogues involve talking about random things, we still see clearly how they influence and develop the plot there.
But Pulp Fiction is different. Vincent and Mia do not want to kill each other. They just chat. The truest and the most natural form of a scene you can write. This is what makes it appealing to me. I'm not a fan of big companies consisting of people who don't know each other well and I think that the quality of a conversation diminishes if you keep adding people to it.
In any of mentioned scenes, it seems like people talk like we do in real life but I would say it's an illusion masterfully weaved around you by the writer. That conversation could happen, of course, it feels this way. But most of the real-life dialogues aren't always as engaging, witty and fun to listen to (I am not talking about participating in them). Well-written onpage and onscreen conversations are different. They may appear as something usual but they hide the intricacies of the craft behind them. Writing scenes like this is hard and I can’t do it properly at the moment. You have to have a clear vision of a character, you have to know them in person like they are your friends, or you have to be in their head to make them talk like humans and not like story-imposed robots.
Some people can consider such random chats pointless and "not serving a purpose in the story", "not moving the plot forward" or even "boring". But fuck'em. They see a story as a mechanism with gears where every piece of it must do something obvious such as developing the story, developing characters through overcoming a struggle in that scene, getting what they want or not getting it, or whatever else you might find in storytelling guidelines. I read them, many of them. These pieces of advice are often useful but they do not help to create memorable charismatic characters, they do not help to portray real people. For me, the real story often happens between the lines, in subtext, in chemistry between characters which we feel only when we see them behave real and face sometimes the most difficult challenge – a conversation.
Every line uncovers who the characters are not because it is designed so but because it shows it. We see how they act in normal everyday dialogue, in a relaxed atmosphere of a bar where they can tell everything they feel they can tell, often just to fill the time and avoid an awkward silence. But what do they say in such situations? How? How do they respond? What is important to them? Maybe an expensive milkshake? In any of the bar scenes, characters may tell stories, jokes, anecdotes, eat, smoke, gesticulate or just mock each other but whatever they do, it doesn't feel forced. It feels natural. It is natural. We're shown with real human beings and not mechanical story devices. Watching characters in a scene, we read signs unconsciously like we do in real life and see who they truly are, and what's important – who they truly are with other people.
That is perhaps what makes bar scenes different for me from the inside-the-head narration, any types of POV or character's behaviour in actions scenes. We see a magical connection there. It's just human beings talking.
"For me, the real story often happens between the lines, in subtext, in chemistry between characters which we feel only when we see them behave real and face sometimes the most difficult challenge – a conversation." Very astute and very true observation. The subtext is easier to see and hear in a movie (gestures, expressions, tone of voice etc) than read, but either way, it is what makes characters and stories more memorable.
I love dialogue! It’s a chance to reveal more about the character, the environment, plant clues or foreshadow… there’s a lot of profound things you can reveal in those humble bar scenes.