Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Let’s Have Us A Little Dialogue

Dialogue is the lifeblood of fiction. It’s how your characters move beyond the page and become living, breathing people. In any sort of literature, it’s going to be the key to making them memorable. In screenplays, it’s going to be what makes them quotable.

Conversely, bad dialogue is the fastest way to make sure characters are dead to your readers. When someone speaks in flat, clumsy, expositional dialogue, it makes them unbelievable. And when a reader can’t believe in your characters, it means they can’t believe in your story.

There are a lot of mistakes I see coming up again and again in stories. Here are seven of the most common ones...

Contractions- One thing that always makes dialogue drag and sound forced is when every word is spelled out in full. A lot of people start out writing this way because they’re trying to follow all the rules of spelling and punctuation so they don’t get branded a rookie, and ironically... While this is a good practice for your prose, most people use contractions in every day speech, even judges, professors, and rich businessmen. Without them, dialogue sounds stilted, wooden, and off-kilter. If there’s a reason for someone to speak that way (ESL, robots, aliens, or what have you), then by all means do it. If your characters are regular, English-speaking mortals, though...

“I am willing to bet you will not act while a child is in danger.”

“I’m willing to bet you won’t act while a child’s in danger.”

“What is the number for the place that does not charge late fees?”

“What’s the number for the place that doesn’t charge late fees?

Notice that using contractions also drops your word count and page count.

On The Nose-- Professional readers and writers talk about dialogue that’s “on the nose.” It’s when someone says precisely what they mean or what they’re doing without any subtlety or characterization whatsoever. It’s the difference between “Why are you constantly mean and disrespectful to me, Rob?” and “What the hell’s your problem, anyway?” Nine times out of ten, if someone’s talking to themselves out loud, it’s on the nose. Almost half the time it’s just exposition (see below). A good way to think of it is old radio-show dialogue, when people had to depend on only dialogue with no visuals at all.

“Come on, Jenkins! There’s only six more steps to the top of this staircase. You can make it.”

“You know I can never forgive you for the way you treated me back when we were in high school and I was in love with you.”

“I can’t eat the rest of this food. I’ll ask the waiter to pack it up so I can take it home with me for later.”

Follow the example of the late, lamented Keen Eddie, where at least once an episode Mark Valley and Sienna Miller would bellow or snap “I hate you!” “I hate you, too!” back and forth at each other in their shared London flat. While those words were pretty on the nose the first time they were yelled, across the show’s short life they came to mean the exact opposite-- with no explanation needed.

Exposition—It was just last week I said exposition gets a bad rap. Expositional dialogue is what gives it that bad rap. Remember being a kid in school and being bored by textbooks or filmstrips below your level? That’s the boredom exposition gives your readers.

"You know, Doug, you've been my step-brother for seventeen years now, and I'm still stunned how bad you are at geography. You need to bone up on it, especially now that you've finally gotten your dream job of being a professional airline pilot."

Use the Ignorant Stranger method as a guideline and figure out how much of your dialogue is crossing that line. If any character ever gives an explanation of something that the other characters in the room already should know (or your reader should know), cut that line. If it’s filled with necessary facts, find a better way to get them across.

Transcription- One thing years of interviews have taught me is that, with very few exceptions, people trip over themselves a lot verbally. We have false starts, we repeat phrases, we trail off, we make odd noises while we try to think of words. Anyone who’s ever read a strict word-for-word transcription of a conversation will find it’s awkward, hard to follow, and a lot gets lost without the exact inflection of certain words.

One of the worst things you can do is try to write dialogue in such an ultra-realistic manner. It will drive editors nuts and waste your word count on dozens of unnecessary lines.

“What I... I think you’ll find that what I wanted...what I meant to say, is that there are some wanna-be... some aspiring writers who follow directions- some aspiring writers who follow guidelines better than others, and they’re the ones who eventually, that is—I mean, if you can’t follow the rules you can’t expect to succeed, right?”

This sort of rambling can work great in spoken dialogue, but when it’s written on the page it’s lethal. Even if you’re trying to re-create Hugh Grant’s confusing confession in Four Weddings and a Funeral, keep it simple for now so you don’t scare off producers and investors..

Similarity- People are individuals, and we all have our own unique way of speaking. People from California don’t talk like people from Maine (I’ve lived almost two decades in each state, I know), people from Oxford don’t talk like people from ITT Tech, and armor-plated, heavily-armed mutants from Skaro don’t talk like Earthlings. In your writing, your characters need to be individuals as well, with their own tics and habits that make them distinct from the people around them. If you can’t tell who’s speaking without knowing the complete context or seeing the dialogue headers, you need to get back to work.

Accents- This is a common mistake by beginning writers. Accents, dialects, and odd speech tics that are written out drive readers and editors nuts. Now, there are a handful of professional writers who can do truly amazing accents in their dialogue, yes, but keep those facts in mind— Only a handful. Professionals. If you’re reading this, odds are you’re still on a lower rung of that ladder trying to impress an editor or producer.

“’ullo, dere, Guv’nah. Spara few shillin’s fur a fella Vetrin uf th’ Waa’?”

“Eh, mah frien’, why you go causin’ mah peeple such beeg problems?”

“If thiz iz yourrr wish, then my warrrriorz will drrraw back.”

Yeah, that last one’s an alien accent I came up with years back for a race that had tongues and beaks like birds. I lost five pages when I got rid of all those triple-Rs.

Show an accent by picking out one or two key words at most and making those the only words you show it with. If he or she’s Jamaican, stick with “mah” instead of “my.” For the Cockney fellow, keep the dropped H when he speaks. Past that, just write straight dialogue. Just the bare minimum reminders that the characters have an accent. Like most character traits, your reader will fill in the rest.

Monologues—This one’s tough, because a good monologue can be a major point in any story or film. By the same token, though, a bad one can bring your story to a screeching halt.

The first clue at if it’s a bad monologue is to look at some of the dialogue rules above. Is it necessary? Does it read naturally? Is it flowing? Does it fit the moment? Someone who launches into a formal monologue while being pounded by artillery shells and enemy sniper fire is probably going to sound a bit forced. If you’re breaking one of these guidelines and doing it with a 750 word monologue, your manuscript is going to end up in the ever-growing left hand pile.

Second clue if it’s bad is to count how many monologues there’ve already been. Yes, that may sound laughable, but you’d be amazed at some of the things I’ve seen. One recent script I read for a screenwriting contest had half-page dialogue blocks on almost every page. If you’re on page forty-five and this is your fifth full-page monologue... odds are something needs to be reworked.

One last tip. A lot of people suggest reading your dialogue out loud to find where it trips. That’s not bad, but if you really want to find out how it reads, ask someone else to read it out loud—preferably someone who hasn’t seen it before or heard you talk about it. If you’re reading it yourself, you know how it’s supposed to sound, where the breaks should be, and what gets the emphasis. Let a friend or family member who doesn’t know it read it out loud and see what they do with it.

And then get back to your writing.

What are you still online for? Get back to writing!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Ignorant Stranger

Exposition gets a bad rap.

People like to shriek that exposition kills a story, brings things to a grinding halt, and you’ll never make a sale if you use a lot of exposition. It’s an easy target, which is why lots of gurus warn against it and so many people latch onto it as an ironclad rule to be obeyed until the end of time. They can’t figure out how to do it, therefore no one should do it.

Of course, exposition isn’t a problem in and of itself, only when it’s part of bad writing. Honestly, you need to have exposition at some point or your story’s probably going to leave a lot of unanswered questions (and not in the good way). If you want proof, just look at a handful of the mildly successful movies or novels that use tons of exposition.

Star Wars – Ignoring the fact every movie in this series begins with a two minute text scroll, let’s look at the classic first film. Obi Wan spends a good four or five minutes explaining to Luke what the Force is and how it works. Darth Vader has to explain his relationship with Obi-Wan. The rebels have to explain the plans to the Death Star and how they’ll exploit its weakness.

Shogun—James Clavell’s best selling novel involves constant explanation as Captain Blackthorne, called Anji-san (Sir Pilot) by his captors, is forced to learn the Japanese language and culture in order to survive. He has to learn from scratch and drags the audience along with him.

Raiders of the Lost Ark – Right in the beginning of the film, Indiana Jones and Marcus Brody have to tell the two visiting federal agents about the legend of the Ark, its mythic powers, and where it may be hidden, a lecture that comes complete with pictures and chalkboard diagrams. Note that the two Feds don’t need to explain who the Nazis are and why they’re bad—everyone knows this.

The DaVinci Code – In Dan Brown’s bestselling novel, which pauses to explain historical details every ten or fifteen pages or so, Langdon and Sophie pause for two whole chapters in Leigh Teabing’s library while he relates a dozen or so different hypotheses about the blood line of Jesus, his relationship with Mary Magdalene, and how the Catholic Church has corrupted the Bible over the centuries to serve their own needs.

The Matrix—This movie has a staggering amount of exposition considering it’s known as a dynamic action film. It begins with characters discussing Neo (in voice-over no less), moves through Trinity and Morpheus each describing the mystery of the Matrix, and then Morpheus explaining the truth of it once Neo wakes up in the real world. The crew is explaining things constantly as Neo’s training begins. Cypher gets a little speech, so does Agent Smith... the exposition just goes on and on and on in this film.

Now, Damon Knight makes an interesting point in his book Creating Short Fiction (go buy it—most of his lessons are universal for fiction writing). A fact you don’t know that’s presented to you is information. It holds your attention for the sheer reason it’s something new. A fact you already know that’s presented to you is noise. It’s something you want to ignore and block out so you can get past it and back to the good stuff. This is why a lot of exposition fails—it’s information the audience either already knows or would be able to figure out on their own with minimal effort.

I’ll add one other tenet to that little point. Relevance. Information the reader needs for this story is vital. Information that has nothing to do with the story is wasting time and space. The catch here is the audience won’t know if something’s relevant or not until the final scene or the last page (although sometimes it’s painfully obvious). Notice in the above-mentioned scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the good Doctor Jones doesn’t progress into a lecture on Masada, the fortress-city where almost a thousand Jews were besieged by the Romans in 70 AD before committing mass suicide rather than be captured. The first time we all sat down, we wouldn’t’ve know any better and I have no doubt screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan could give us a completely gripping lecture on Masada. But then we’d reach the end of the film and say “What the hell was all that stuff about a fortress in there for?” Masada has nothing to do with the story of Raiders, which is why no one talks about it.

All those stories mentioned up above manage to pull off their reams of dialogue because they all do it essentially the same way. People in the know are giving information to people not in the know who need it. Years ago while writing one of my very first DVD reviews (for the miniseries adaptation of Shogun, actually) I came up with a term for this which I call the ignorant stranger. It’s when a character who is a source of information gets to do an infodump on a less-educated character. The name comes from John Blackthorne, the main character of Shogun, a man who is ignorant of Japan’s culture and language for the simple reason that it’s all completely new to him—an ignorant stranger. This is a surefire, never-fail, completely acceptable way to have exposition in your writing.

So, keeping that in mind, here’s the only two things you must remember so you can pull off the ignorant stranger in your writing.

First, the ignorant stranger can’t actually be stupid—there’s a big difference between ignorance and stupidity. It’s this particular situation that has put him, her, or them at a disadvantage. Your stranger has to be on the same level as your readers or viewers. We, the audience, are learning alongside them, so we don’t want to wait while the stranger’s educated on where hamburgers come from, what firemen do for a living, where Oklahoma is on a map, and who his friends and family members are.

Second, the Source explaining things has to be smarter than the stranger, and thus, smarter than your audience. If what’s being explained is something we can figure out on our own, or something that we’ll never need to know (within the scope of this story), then the Source is wasting their time, the ignorant stranger’s, and ours by explaining it. Remember, you want information, not noise. Yeah, maybe for whatever reason the Source doesn’t know much about U.S. currency, cooking on a grill, or this thing called love, but on the topic they’re explaining this character needs to be an authority. They don’t need a degree of some kind, the audience just needs to be clear the Source’s knowledge and understanding dwarf the ignorant stranger’s.

That’s it. Follow those two simple rules and you’ll be amazed how well exposition can work in your novels, screenplays, and short stories.

Speaking of which... aren’t you supposed to be writing?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Where You Sit on the Shelf

In Hollywood there’s a term called “high-concept.” At its purest, high concept is a film idea that can be boiled down to one sentence or less, and that one sentence will instantly let you know what the film’s about and make you want to see it. Some famous high-concept pitches you’ll probably recognize quickly would include “Aliens blow up the White House” or “Big lizard, Big Apple” (although I hope you didn’t sit though that last one). Steve Alten got quite far with “Jurassic shark” (I never thought the book was that great, but I love that line).

One part of a high concept story is that it’s easy to tell what genre it belongs in. There’s a reason this appeals to executive types. Knowing the genre makes a story—be it a novel or a film—easier to market. If your title cleverly (or not so cleverly) reflects this, all the better. To paraphrase Kevin Smith, no one’s going to walk into Zack and Miri Make A Porno thinking it’s a meditation on the Holocaust. By the same token, if you try to define Batman Begins as a romantic comedy (or market it as one), you’re going to find it misses the mark and fails on pretty much every level.

Story the first...

An acquaintance of mine recently asked me for some feedback on a screenplay she’d written. Her formatting was fine, the dialogue was pretty solid, and she’d come up with a pretty decent core idea. The problem was, I couldn’t figure out what genre the script was. Twenty pages in I couldn’t tell if I was reading a comedy that needed another draft or an action flick that needed three or four. I still couldn’t tell at the fifty page mark. Even when I finished, I was lost as to what kind of story it was. And part of the problem with that was it made the script very hard to interpret. Was this scene going for comedy or high drama? Action or absurdity? Since I couldn’t tell what goals the script was trying to achieve, I couldn’t tell if it reached them or not.

If you were looking for your book at Borders or Barnes & Noble, where would it be? What about the DVD release of your screenplay? Here’s another tidbit of advice from very quotable agent Esmond Harmsworth. It’s not like anything else is very hard to sell.” While everybody wants to be the publisher/ producer behind a groundbreaking new bestseller/ blockbuster, no one actually wants to be the person who takes the risk of something new and untested. It’s always going to be much safer to go with something proven such as an apocalyptic horror novel in the vein of The Stand, a television show that’s like an updated X-Files, or a film that’s like Die Hard but in a building.

(no joke—that last one was an actual Hollywood pitch. Bonus tip—actually know the stories you’re comparing your work to and not just what people say about them on message boards)

Story the second...

In other posts I’ve mentioned my first attempt at a novel, The Suffering Map. With queries and conferences, I’ve had the chance to pitch it to several agents. And one problem I had from the start was... what genre is it? It had lots of horror ideas and beats, without question, but it wasn’t a straight horror novel. By the same token, there were many fantasy elements, but it really wasn’t a fantasy. A fair amount of gore, but not to splatterpunk extremes. It was set in the real world, but I dreaded calling it urban fantasy. You could even argue a sci-fi label because there was a large time travel element, except there was absolutely nothing scientific about it...

So how the heck would I pitch it without making it seem like some horrible everything-but-the-kitchen-sink amalgamation or... well, not like anything else?

In the end... I made up a sub-genre.

Yep, that’s right. I beat the Kobayashi Maru by changing the rules. After much wrangling and about 200 drafts of a query letter, I made up a classification that fit my story and explained its place in the book store.

End result? Requests from three major agencies.

This doesn’t mean a writer who crosses several genres is doomed to difficult sales, mind you. It just means you need to know what you’re crossing. An action-horror screenplay would interest many producers, but they’ll be annoyed if they open it and don’t find any horror elements. Or worse, an abundance of romantic comedy situations. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not what they picked up the script to find. Likewise, if you send your sci-fi western short story to a mystery digest magazine, it’s not really their fault when you get rejected.

If you’re writing a genre, study it. Read four or five different books by different authors. Watch five or six different films by different writers and directors. How does your material stack up with theirs? Do you have the same beats? The same themes? Similar types of characters? Do they get the reactions you want your writing to get? When your work gets listed as one of the top five –insert genre here—books or films, can you name the other four works on that list alongside yours?

If not... get back to your desk.

And no matter what, get back to writing. You’ve wasted enough time on the internet for now.