Thoughts About Dialogue

I recently had the pleasure of seeing the movie Atlas Shrugged: Part 1, an independent film that is trying to bring to the live action screen Ayn Rand’s iconic novel of the same name. I thought the movie was very good although I thought the screenplay could have used a little tweaking to bring a bit more life into the scenes. This triggered some thinking about dialogue and some of the lessons I learned by reading books on writing screenplays. Among the more useful ones for me was the classic guide to screenwriting Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by New York University film professor Robert McKee. (I think this book is so good every fiction writer should have it on their bookshelves or in their ereader.)

The scene in Atlas Shrugged (the movie) that got me thinking about dialogue was where a union boss was confronting the heroine, Dagny Taggart, about whether his workers will be “allowed” to work a new rail line–the John Galt Line–built with experimental steel. I don’t have the screenplay in front of me, but the selected scene can be viewed here. The problem with the scene is that it starts off with the climax: The union boss walks in and tells Dagney Taggart that his workers would not be allowed to work the John Galt Line. Dagny’s reaction is so obvious it robs the entire scene of drama.

Story, as McKee compellingly notes, are built on conflict and build to a climactic point. Scenes, whether in a book or movie, have a similar structure. They are a story within a story, that if scripted well build toward a climax that propels the larger story in the book or movie.

In the scene from Atlas Shrugged, the scene would have been more dramatic and effective if the dialogue had built conflict and tension in the scene toward a climax at the end of the scene. I think something like the following would have worked better:

UNION BOSS: Ms. Taggart, our workers have met and we’ve decided the John Galt Line is too untested to be safe.

DAGNY: I understand your concerns, but do you know that Rearden Steel is the strongest metal on the market? It’s safer than any of the conventional rails we use on our other lines.

UB: That’s not what we’ve heard from the State Science Institute.

DAGNY: The State Science Institute is a political organization. Their members are competitors to Reardon Steel and won’t benefit from competition. Besides, they haven’t tested the steel.

UB (annoyed): All the same, my members don’t feel it’s safe and they aren’t comfortable working on the line.

DAGNY: Let me talk to them. I’m sure I can show them the value of the steel and the importance of the John Galt Line to our business success.

UB (more annoyed): No, Ms. Taggart, let me be very clear: Our Union will not permit our workers to work this line on that steel.

DAGNY (angry): Don’t tell me how to run my business and who I hire to work for me. Are you really telling me you are not going to let your workers earn an honest wage, a higher wage on this line? That you are going to keep them from working for me even if they want to?

UB: Umm, no, Ms. Taggart, I don’t think that’s what I…

DAGNY: Well, what did you mean? I’m staking the reputation of my business on this line. I need the best workers I can get and I’ll pay them well.

UB: Well, we’re just concerned that….

DAGNY: I underdstand your concerns. All I’m asking you to do is let them have the choice. I’ve never forced anyone to work for me, and I won’t do that now. Can you just let them have the choice?

UB. Yes

Structured in this way, the scene builds to a climax where the Union Boss relents to Dagny’s quite reasonable request that the workers be allowed the freedom to choose if they will work for her despite the perceived danger. While the choice element is central to the dialogue in the original scene, the power of the scene is diluted by the Union Boss confronting Dagny with a very powerful statement at the begining. The scene in the movie, in essence, has two climactic points, one in the beginning and one (more intellectual) at the end, creating an uneven pace.

Author: SR Staley
SR Staley has one more than 11 literary awards for his fiction and nonfiction writing. He is on the full-time faculty of the College and Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University as well as a film critic and research fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California. His award-winning Pirate of Panther Bay series ( has won awards in historical fiction, mainstream & literary fiction, young adult fiction, and reached the finals in women's fiction. His most recent book is "The Beatles and Economics: Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and the Making of a Cultural Revolution" due out in April 2020 (Routledge).