A Good Dialogue (Part 2)

Diction is the main component of dialogue, the building blocks if you will. But what are you building?

Lego Fail

(Seriously. What is that?) In part two of my post on dialogue, I’m going to cover some of dialogue’s broader structural challenges.

Originality

Your characters should all sound unique. In part, this is to separate them from the panoply of movie characters who ever have and ever will exist. But it’s also to give your own characters depth and clarity. I can’t tell you the number of scenes I’ve had to re-read because the characters all sound the same, and I couldn’t follow the dialogue. (Wait. Who said what, now?)

It’s not difficult to identify a line of dialogue from Yoda or R2-D2, but the majority of your characters will likely be human. They may even have similar socio-economic backgrounds and come from the same regions. So how do you make them sound different?

Even close friends don’t have the same parents. They don’t have the same siblings. They may have different tastes in food, music, or movies. They may be different ethnicities. All of these differences will affect their diction, which will in turn define them and shape their character. In Stranger Things, Finn, as the main character “everyman,” has the least noteworthy diction. Dustin has a lisp and is more likely to offer some comic relief, Lucas is notably more cautious than his friends, and El’s vocabulary is decidedly limited. The friends have similar backgrounds, ages and interests, but they are different characters with different diction. No matter how similar your characters are, they should always sound at least a little bit different.

Diction is the primary tool that will define your character’s voice. An easy exercise is to pick some common phrase (a reprimand, thank you, greeting, etc.) and figure out how each of your character’s would say it differently. (“Hello.” “Hi.” “Howdy.” “‘Sup.” “Good morning.” “Shut up. Where’s the coffee?”)

Realism

This one’s a little harder. Hamlet does not sound like anyone you’d meet on the street today, but hopefully he sounds like someone from sixteenth century England (or what someone from sixteenth century England thought someone from thirteenth century Denmark sounded like). You get some leeway for writing dialogue for characters from different times or places, but remember my admonition about accents. Don’t overdo it!

Assuming you’re writing a contemporary script or at least want contemporary audiences to understand it, you’ll want to capture contemporary diction. You can wander around with a tape recorder like Carol Solomon from In a World…, but you’ll find that “real” dialogue often doesn’t sound that good.

Another option is to pick a person, whether that’s a fictional character or an actual human that you know, and base your character’s diction on them. Would your mother actually say that? Would Michael Corleone? It’s a reasonable tool, but it, too, involves a lot of research and a strong understanding of your subject’s use of language.

The best thing you can do is read your dialogue out loud. Better yet, have some friends read it. Even better, have some actors read it. Does it flow? Does it make sense? Is it engaging? Does it sound authentic to the characters? If not, you’ve got some more work to do. And you may want to consider adding…

Motivation

Bad dialogue is often described as “wooden.” It lacks emotion (which may be the actor’s fault), but it also lacks motivation (which is completely the writer’s fault). Lines like “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine,” are boring! They don’t progress the plot. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder calls these lines “hi how are you I’m fine” lines. It really emphasizes the total waste of space and time that they are.

In this penultimate example of bad dialogue from The Room, Johnny buys some flowers (first 17 seconds).

That’s it. He doesn’t grow as a character. He doesn’t overcome any adversity. He doesn’t discover that his mild-mannered local florist is actually a sociopath. Despite the fact that the flower shop owner claims “You’re my favorite customer,” she doesn’t recognize him when he comes in. It doesn’t even feel like they’re speaking to each other. Now, perhaps in some brilliant way we mere mortals can’t fully understand, Tommy Wisseau is commenting on the superficiality and meaninglessness of relationships in a service economy where our existential aloneness is defined by endless “friendly” conversation. More likely, it’s just a terribly written scene.

The great Pulitzer Prize winning and Tony nominated writer David Mamet said, “People only speak to get something.” What does Johnny want from the florist? What does the florist want from Johnny? Sadly the answer seems to just be flowers. If Johnny fails to get flowers here, he can probably just go somewhere else. And the florist doesn’t seem to be hurting for business. Her bizarre dialogue attempts to impart some meaning into the scene, but ends up just confusing things. “You’re my favorite customer.” Who says that? Is she in love with him? Is she a serial killer? Is there some subplot I missed? The dialogue (in fact the scene as a whole) really isn’t necessary to the plot of the movie. The scene could have started at the end of the transaction (Johnny has just purchased flowers) or better yet, just showed Johnny arriving at the next location with flowers. The audience would assume he has purchased them. The dialogue doesn’t achieve anything.

Reaction

A dialogue involves two (or more) people. It’s important that characters react (verbally) to each other. When Darth Vader says, “I am your father,” how does Luke react? “That’s great, but can you give me a hand?” (Ha!) No! He says, “No. No, that’s not true. It’s impossible.” He’s in denial. It’s an organic, realistic reaction to learning that the man who just tried to kill you and may be committing war crimes across the galaxy is also your father. It is stage one on the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief. It feels real because it’s based in reality.

Monologues don’t make good dialogue. When are the other characters supposed to respond to someone who won’t shut their gob? Will they be writing strongly worded letters of complaint after the screening? When one character says something that merits a response, it’s important that your characters respond to each other (visually, if not verbally) to keep the characters and audience engaged.

Exposition

While you want to avoid all of that pesky pontification, at some point, you’ve got to explain why Luke is shooting proton torpedoes down an exhaust chute or how John Hammond managed to clone dinosaurs. But how do you do that without boring your audience to tears?

First, minimize it! If it takes ten pages to explain the backstory, your plot is too complex! Even if you’ve created some mind-blowing fantasy world, you’re going to have to ground it in our reality. After all, you want humans (not hobbits) to watch it. Keep the critical fantasy elements and make everything else as realistic as possible. Then you have less explaining to do. (This is one of the reasons I think Game of Thrones is so successful. While Westeros is fake, the medieval detail feels wonderfully authentic. And true fans will know many of the plots and characters are based on actual history.)

Second, find a way to explain things organically. There’s the classic briefing room scene.

Jarhead Briefing

Then there’s the neophyte character: the intern, new recruit, or padawan. This guy always needs things explained to them! But it’s a natural part of the story. Whether your story takes place in a scifi universe or just a technical field like undersea exploration, the neophyte character serves as a go-between for the audience. They get to ask all of the stupid questions the audience cannot.

If all else fails, put the Pope in the pool. I explain that in more detail here. Remember, film is a visual medium. If you absolutely can’t get away from a page of exposition, give us something interesting to look at: floor charts, a power point, a time lapse of corn growing. Set your scene someplace visually interesting. Ever wonder why detectives are always interviewing people in strip clubs? It’s not for the buffet.

Subtext

You may have heard of dialogue being “on the nose.” This happens when characters say exactly what they’re thinking. In reality, people rarely say what they’re thinking. They measure their words carefully to cater to their audience and evoke a particular response. People also exhibit a lot of denial and avoidance. If they didn’t, we would have no need for self-help books and alcoholics anonymous.

To give a more concrete example, spouses in failing marriages dn’t argue about the fact that their marriages are failing. They argue about finances, the children, and taking the trash out because their marriage is failing. The nagging wife doesn’t say, “Trash night’s Tuesday, right?” because she can’t remember when the trash goes out. She says it to mean, “You forgot to take the trash out again. I caught you asleep at the wheel. You are a failure, and I could totally marry someone better.” That’s not what she says, but that’s what she means. Well written and acted dialogue will have the motivation behind the line. That’s subtext.

In this scene from Game of Thrones, Littlefinger sweetens up his nephew, the Lord of the Vale, with a gift.

Then he proceeds to threaten Lord Royce. But he never actually threatens Lord Royce. Nor does Lord Royce threaten him back, merely saying that a hypothetical man may “cross swords” with another hypothetical man. Yet everyone in the scene knows what’s really happening. The soldiers all reach for their swords and the Lord of the Vale suggests his favorite form of execution: the “moon door.” Littlefinger could have said, “You betrayed me, Lord Royce. Lord of the Vale, should we execute him?” But he doesn’t. That wouldn’t have any subtext, and it wouldn’t make a very good scene.

The movie Hot Rod hilariously flips subtext on it’s head, making Rod Kimble abundantly aware of his inner feelings, shortcomings and completely ridiculous goals. “One day I’ll punch you right in the face, and then you’ll respect me.” Great comedy, terrible subtext.

Craft

Ultimately, crafting great dialogue is an artistic endeavor. It involves a lot of listening, careful word choice, research, and revision. But it’s not a mystery. These last two posts are intended to give you the tools necessary to break down and analyze dialogue. Now if you hear something that is “wooden” or “on the nose,” you know what that means, and, more importantly, you can craft it into something beautiful.

IMG_5069

A Roundabout Review of “Medici: Masters of Florence”

New screenwriters will often ask if they have to follow “the rules.” The short answer is, “Yes.” Why? Keep reading.

There are some great scripts that break “the rules.” But there are many, many, many terrible scripts that break “the rules,” and it’s easier to understand why the rules exist by watching some of these terrible movies (and TV shows). Medici: Masters of Florence, currently available on Netflix, is one of them. Here are some of my thoughts organized with the same headings used for industry standard coverage.

medici-master-of-florence

STRUCTURE

You’ve probably heard of the three-act structure. I alluded to it in my previous post about Extraordinary Worlds. The purpose of the first act (AKA “The Beginning”) is to establish the characters and their needs. It builds empathy between the characters and the audience and gives the audience an idea of where this script is headed.

Medici starts by killing off Dustin Hoffman. We don’t know who he is. We don’t know why we should like him. Maybe it’s a good thing he’s being killed off. We immediately jump to Richard Madden (apparently Hoffman’s son) who is trying to decide how to respond to his political rivals. Again, it’s a little unclear who Madden is or why we should like him.

Hoffman’s death is cut together with scenes of Hoffman’s own funeral making the opening sequence even more confusing. Once we establish that A) Hoffman was the Medici patriarch, B) he is dead, C) Madden is his son, and D) Madden must now fill his ample shoes, Medici immediately jumps to a flashback.

In general, flashbacks are poor storytelling. Scripts are written in present tense because they happen now, and now is important. Flashbacks tell the audience that whatever happened then is more important than what is happening now. Well if then is more important than now, why not have your script take place then?

Although Madden’s hair is different and Hoffman is inexplicably alive, there’s no real way to distinguish now from then, continuing Medici’s theme of baffling confusion. This confusion is the bigger sin than merely using a flashback. The flashback not only fails to contribute to Madden’s contemporary story (his appointment to the signoria), but makes the show difficult to follow. And just when you thought the show was about to buckle down and do some proper storytelling, it dives into a montage.

Montages, like flashbacks, are generally poor storytelling. They can be used for a variety of reasons, but are most frequently used to compress time. In sports movies, you can’t show your heroes playing all 162 regular season games, but you can show a montage. When your warrior is training for the final battle, you don’t bore your audience with thirty minutes of calisthenics and meditation, you use a montage. In the pilot episode of Medici when Madden falls hopelessly in love with a laundress and drives a rift between him and his father, you should probably play that out for a few episodes. Well, they used a montage, and it was laughable. How can we possibly care about the love of his life when she’s only on screen for three minutes?!

Similarly (back to now), a surgeon who performed an illegal autopsy on Hoffman blackmails Madden. Madden informs his consigliere to pay the surgeon 100 Florins. When the consigliere pays the money, the surgeon demands 1000 Florins. Seems like a pretty important scene, right? We never get to see it! Madden’s consigliere just tells him about it in painful exposition a few scenes later. Why wouldn’t you use that scene?!

To sum up structure, there’s no real first act, the story is difficult to follow, the pacing is wildly off, and important scenes are not included in the script. Moving on…

CHARACTER

Hoffman and Madden may develop into interesting, likeable characters, but they certainly don’t start out that way. Madden is dour and brooding. Hoffman is, well, dead. In the flashback he kind of seems like a jerk. Maybe they’ll redeem themselves, but I’m not sure if I’ll watch long enough to see that. (Not all protagonists need to be likable, but they do need a redeeming quality. This is where Blake Snyder got the name for his fantastic screenwriting book Save the Cat.)

Madden’s lover (and most of the tertiary characters) are paper-thin. She’s posing for a group of artists only partially clothed. Despite all of the other eligible young men in the room, she and Madden are instantly smitten with each other. This leads to the aforementioned three-minute sex montage. (Now that I think about it, maybe it was just three minutes of sex. Again, the story was hard to follow.) In any case, it’s not the kind of deep reflection on the human condition that leads to memorable characters. Oh, by the way, she’s scared out of Madden’s life a few minutes later by his dad’s henchmen. (Another scene that is only talked about, not shown.)

There’s a brother, a not particularly intimidating antagonist, the consigliere, a cameo by the artist Donatello, and a handful of other forgettable characters who take themselves too seriously. The only entertaining person is Steven Waddington who plays a cheeky cardinal who bribes his way to the papacy.

DIALOGUE

But wait, it gets worse! If you’ve ever studied Uta Hagen (It’s bonus credit, but I do recommend reading Respect for Acting), you know that actors need motivation. When they lack motivation, your scene runs a very high risk of exposition. After all, if your characters have no motivation, they have nothing to do, and will just end up talking.

In Medici, there’s the awful scene where Hoffman’s rival sort of threatens Madden, but mostly explains that the signoria is rigged. Then there’s the scene where Madden’s wife explains that she’s been a loyal wife who wants to be part of his business decisions. But the one that really takes the cake is the scene between Hoffman and Madden about Hoffman’s legacy.

In it, Hoffman waxes philosophic about his legacy, complains about Madden’s desire to be an artist (another terrible example where “showing” would have been more powerful than “telling”), and explains his scheme for gaining power. Why have this elaborate, dull conversation full of exposition? Because it’s the middle ages and they have nothing better to do when travelling from place to place?

Now they could have been trying to convince someone to join their cause. Hoffman could have been scolding his son wasting resources on art. Or they could have been doing something visually interesting while having a boring conversation (another great tip from Blake Snyder that he calls “Pope in the pool”). Instead, it’s five mind-numbing minutes of exposition. C’mon, people.

The other thing that really kills the scene (while this isn’t in the writer’s purview), is Hoffman’s accent. Everyone else in the series sounds like they’re doing Shakespeare. Hoffman sounds like they pulled him out of a dock in the Bronx. The tough guy persona could work well, but the juxtaposition is distracting.

UGH…

On top of all of this, there was a painful and distracting soundtrack. It was almost as though they realized the show was horrible and were trying to draw your attention away from it.

With the difficultly of following the story, lack of empathy for the characters, and laughable dialogue, it was really hard to care. I ended up reading about the Medici on Wikipedia—which I found much more interesting—and frankly don’t know how the episode ended. More importantly, I don’t care.

This may not be a glowing review, but I do recommend you watch the pilot episode of Medici: Masters of Florence. It’s much easier to understand “the rules” when you see what happens if you break them.