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Thursday, May 17, 2012

DIALOGUE 1.0


Since I've cornered the market in the bubble-bursting department, I might as well sharpen my ice-pick and address the very important/not at all important issue of writing dialogue.

In my previous rants, I've committed the heresy of putting forward the humble proposition that you must have talent to write a good screenplay (operative words there, "talent" and "good.") 

An example of this is the writing of dialogue.

Having an ear for dialogue is analagous to having natural rhythm. Either you can dance, or you can't dance.  You can't "learn" how to write good dialogue any more than you can "learn" to tap your toe in beat with a song. It's either comes naturally, or it doesn't come at all.

Sure, even if you're a spaz on the dance floor, it's possible to sit down, one eye on a metronome, and, after hours of patient practice, learn to tap your foot along with one song. But you're screwed the moment the next tune comes up.

It's like the drunk who steps up to the bar. "Iwannashnwad," he says. The bartender refuses, "Listen up, pal, if you're too blotto to order the cocktail, you're too blotto to drink it.

The drunk staggers outside, stands in an alley for an hour and practices. "I wannashodgenwad. I wanna shcodgenwad. I wanna scotchenwadder..."  

He goes back into the bar, orders his drink. A regular Laurence Olivier: "I want a scotch and water."

The bartender gives him a look, says, "You want that straight-up or on the rocks?"

The drunk thinks about it. 

"Iwannashnwad," he says.  

I guess that what I'm getting at is you can "learn" to craft one good line. Unfortunately a piece of dramatic writing usually has a shitload of good lines, all coming from different characters, with different backgrounds and different ways of speaking.  

If you can't "hear" what they're saying naturally—automatically—and you have to intellectually ponder each and every line, you're not just at a disadvantage.  

You're totally screwed.

If you do have an ear for dialogue, congratulations. But that's just an admission ticket to hone your talent. Knowing how "real people talk" is handy, but it doesn't have a whole lot to do with written dialogue. Just listen to those two “real people” in the next booth at Denny's. 

NO! Not them, numbnuts! The other booth. Listen...

                REAL PERSON #1
    So I go down to the Sears an'...
             (takes a big bite of
             French toast)... 
    mish guy, ya know—

                REAL PERSON #2
    Which guy?

                REAL PERSON #1
    The guy, you know. That one with the 
    eye.

                REAL PERSON #2
    Oh yeah. I know that guy. Ricky somethin, 
    right? He's a dick.

                REAL PERSON #1
    Fuggin-A. So I'm standing there, waiting, 
    and, like, there's this music, you know, 
    like playing. You know that song...
             (
sings)
    Dee-deet-du-dee-dee-dee—

                REAL PERSON #2
    They always play that in there! I was 
    there, shit, I dunno, I was there and 
    they were playin that then, too. I swear 
    to God. It's like, what do they got? One 
    tape? Jeez...

Had enough?

Sure, it sounds "real." That's the way real people talk. The only problem is that real people don't say anything!

Then there's the other end of the spectrum: Characters who say exactly what they are thinking or feeling at any given time. Just turn on the television. It's like a pox.

                JOHN
    You're empty inside, Debra. You're 
    incapable of love.

                DEBRA
    That's not true, John.  I do love you. 
    I do! But you're too blind to see it. 
    It's not easy to open up to a man after 
    you've been repeatedly sodomized by a 
    satanic cult of outlaw bikers!
             (sobs)
    But I'm trying, John.  You must know that!

                JOHN
    I do, Debra. I do! But a man has needs.
         Can't you see this is tearing me apart?!

OH MY GOD!!! Stop! My head's about to implode!

People are simply a.) not that self-aware and b.) even if they were, they don't just blurt out their deepest feelings, darkest secrets and greatest fears. Except, of course, in hack screenplays. 

(Oh, and by the way?  The only place where John calls Debra “Debra” and Debra calls John “John” in every other line is on bad television.  In real life, we rarely use a friend’s name while speaking to him in a conversation.)

A close corollary to this brand of bullshit is "THE BUTTON."



The Button is a BIG LINE that one character says at the close of a scene that is so powerful— so absolutely right—that it leaves the other character(s) speechless.

                DEBRA
    Tearing you apart. You, John. That's
    what this relationship is all about,
    isn't it? That's what it's always been 
    about! YOU!!!

John stares at her, the bitter truth of her words sinking in. She coolly regards him, then turns and exits.

When was the last time an argument ever ended that way for you?

As for me, I've dropped some absolute atom-bombs on my wife in the course of arguments, yet none of them have ever rendered her speechless. Why? Because she has her own thermonuclear arsenal. Everyone does. The truth is, in real life, John would look at Debra and say:

                JOHN
    Really? You really think so? Well, 
    you wanna know what I think? I think 
    you liked being sodomized by those 
    outlaw bikers!

It's called Mutual Assured Destruction.

If you really want to see how people behave in a toxic relationship, check out WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? Burton and Taylor are like a binary star system, each locked in orbit, feeding on each other in this beautiful, ghastly, absolutely brilliant death-dance. You can't take your eyes off it.

Of course, we can't all be Edward Albee. But we don't have to be hacks, either. And believe me, using "THE BUTTON" is a hallmark of hack-writing.  In real life, human beings simply do not relate to each other this way. 

Ever.

And they shouldn't in your scripts, either. So next time you write a nice, pat little scene that deftly steps down to a pithy little button, do yourself a favor and write the next line. Because, as in the JOHN and DEBRA example above, that's where things will begin to come alive and get interesting.

Characters are a bit like dogs. You can snap the leash and make them heel or cut them loose and watch them run down rabbits. The former may be nice and safe and satisfying to the person walking the dog, but the latter is far more entertaining for the rest of us.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

HOW TO BE A SCREENWRITER IN THREE EASY STEPS


Anybody can learn to write a script, and there are a number of books and sites and seminars that will teach you how. What the the books and the sites and the seminars don't tell you is that you'll probably never be much good at it, no matter how slavishly you follow their rules.

You'll notice I said "anybody can learn to write a script."  This is analogous to saying "anybody can sing." Unfortunately, simply because one has the ability to execute a task, it doesn't necessarily follow that one will excel at said task. 

Sure, if you really practice, work long and hard at any given undertaking, you may become fairly competent.  That said, blowing them away at Applebees on Karaoki Night doesn't make you some kind of Sinatra.

Any artistic endeavor requires craft and talent. The more you have of one, the less you need of the other.  It's sort of like state college entrance requirements.  If your SATs are great, your GPA can kinda suck (and vice versa) and you can still get in. 

However, if you want to go to Harvard or Yale, more people are competing for fewer spots, which means both your GPA and your SATs have to be pretty damn good.  Real damn good.  Plus, having a relative who's a big wheel in the Alumni Society doesn't hurt either.

(Hey, this is turning out to be a better analogy for the movie business than I thought!)

So if you want to make it as a screenwriter, the sad fact is: 
  • You must have talent.

There, I said it.  The ugly truth.  And it gets uglier: 
  • Talent, no matter what anybody tells you, cannot be learned.

When I say "learned," I mean it in the normal sense, as in out of a book or in a classroom.  I can't teach you how to be a great writer.  

Nobody can.


But I can tell you how to be a good screenwriter—or at least better than you are now—in three easy steps.

Step One:

Stop writing screenplays.

Step Two:
·        Start reading poetry;
·        Read more poetry;
·        Write poetry;
·        Lots of poetry;
·        Stop talking;
·        Listen;
·        Read;
·        Masturbate like a doomed lab-monkey;
·        Write more poetry;
·        Shoplift food;
·        Work at a series of meaningless jobs;
·        Get betrayed by someone you cherish;
·        Be afraid;
·        Watch THE SEVEN SAMURAI without reading the subtitles;
·        Pray for forgiveness.  Mean it;
·        Read your poetry out loud to an unappreciative audience;
·        Get stoned;
·        Contemplate suicide;
·        Help someone for no reason;
·        Hitch-hike;
·        Get angry;
·        Read Bukowski, Fante, Vonnegut and Ellison;
·        Drink coffee all night;
·        Be true;
·        Fall in love (at least twice);
·        Observe;
·        Get fired for hitting your supervisor;
·        Doubt yourself;
·        Flip back and forth from A&E Biography and The History Channel until you're sure Tammy Wynette built the pyramids;
·        Drop acid;
·        Throw an ashtray through the television set;
·        Have kids;
·        Quit a job without giving notice.   At lunchtime;
·        Fail;
·        Listen to music.  Very loud;
·        Toss and turn;
·        Understand nobility and treachery, practice both, favor the former;
·        Make passionate love to someone you don't even like;
·        Tilt windmills;
·        Get evicted;
·        Suffer pointlessly;
·        Pay attention;
·        Be foolish;
·        Go to jail (at least once);
·        Survive all the above, but imperfectly.

Incidentally, the entire laundry-list of tasks I've listed above can be boiled down to one word: LIVE! Live as greedily and aggressively as you can. Make every heartbeat count for something. Surrender yourself to as wide a range of human experience and emotions as you can without ending up in jail or a rubber-room.  

Why?  

Because no matter what they tell you in film-school, nobody wants to see a movie about a movie written by somebody who's only seen movies.

Once you have lived a decade or so past your teens, you may move on to...

Step Three: 
·        Write a screenplay;
·        Write another screenplay;
·        Rewrite the first one;
·        Write a third screenplay;
·        Rewrite the second one;
·        Burn the first one;
·        Repeat the above instructions indefinitely.

Because here's the deal: Writers write. They don't talk about writing. They don't strike poses in front of open laptops at Starbucks. They don't whine about being blocked. They don't piddle around in workshops. They don't argue about the comparative virtues of Final Draft 5 versus Final Draft 8.

Writers. Fucking. Write.

So go for it. If you're lucky and you have talent, you just might make it. But even if you don't, know this: Trying is its own reward. The very fact that you are willing to chase a dream makes you better than 99.9% of the humans on planet Earth.  

Even if you're not very good at it.