Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Common First Draft Notes, Part 3: Dialogue Notes

Okay, to conclude this series the notes I most often give to first drafts, let’s look at some dialogue notes: 
  1. Too much how it is, not enough how it feels, When we write a first draft, our primary concern is laying out the plot and making it make sense.  We tend to have characters explain their situation carefully, so that the reader understands the story.  But resist this urge: The characters don’t know they’re in a story and they don’t know that anyone is listening.  Furthermore, since they’re in a crisis, they’re going to be emotional and not very analytical.  From a character perspective, this is great for you, because you want them to display a lot of personality, but from a plot perspective, it’s more problematic, since they’re not going to explain their actions very well.  This is why the best plots visualize the problem, freeing the characters up to talk about other things.
  2. Plotting on the page: In first drafts, characters spend too much time discussing what they can and can’t do before they act.  Even worse, they discuss what they did and didn’t do after they act.  This is death.  Figuring out the plot is your job, not theirs.  Let the audience see their motivation and their obstacles before they act, without a lot of discussion, and never let them Monday-morning-quarterback their decisions. 
  3. More personality: All too often in a first draft, a character’s reactions aren’t unique enough… They say what anyone would say, or they ask something in the way that anyone would ask it.
  4. Nobody would say that.  Here’s an example from The Hurt Locker of dialogue that drives me crazy. The guys are going though Jeremy Renner’s stuff and asking about it.  He explains, “This box is full of stuff that almost killed me.”  Then Anthony Mackie takes out a wedding ring and blankly asks, “And what about this one?” Renner smiles ruefully: “It's my wedding ring.”  Mackie looks confused until Renner says “Like I said, stuff that almost killed me.”  The problem, of course, is that people don’t give each other big, fat set-ups like these. We’re always trying to guess what the other person’s going to say.  If one of your characters has something clever to say, let them jump right in and say it, don’t force another character to set them up for the line. 
  5. Characters are listening too much, not interrupting each other enough: Unless someone is explicitly making a speech, they shouldn’t get in more than four lines of dialogue before they’re interrupted.  Speaking of which, I’ll talk more about this tomorrow…


j.s. said...

More good stuff today, Matt. Though I do have questions about some of the specific points.

I'm not sure that "Nobody would say that" is always or ever a useful criticism unless what you mean is more like "Your character in this specific world wouldn't say that." Otherwise, there goes JUNO or any David Mamet piece -- which is especially weird as his writing could almost described as hyperrealistic poetry -- and many other styles of dialogue writing.

I also have to disagree about your HURT LOCKER example. I don't think it's that bad or that out of line for the Hawkesian world of that film. Maybe just cut that final line by Renner ("Like I said..."). Or rewrite the exchange slightly "Never seen shrapnel like this."/"My wedding ring. It got me right through the heart."

What about dialogue in procedurals? Isn't it by necessity bound to be more plotty?

What about the rare films that successfully conceive of their exposition almost as action itself (TINKER TAILOR, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and to an extent, INCEPTION)? David Bordwell has done some pretty interesting work on the counter intuitive choice to tell instead of showing in this blog entry and others:


Finally, I'd caution that interrupting too can become a cliche if you're not careful about how you do it.

j.s. said...

Forgot to say that two dialogue notes I've often given out are: 1) Do one whole pass for certain main character(s) who speak very idiosyncratically to ensure that they are always speaking in their unique voice and 2) Do one special pass for the world-appropriateness of your dialogue (If it's set completely or partly in foreign countries, for foreign words and speech rhythms; If it's a period piece for old-timeyness).

Matt Bird said...

You're right, of course, I should say that "this character wouldn't say that", which would certainly be the case with the "Hurt Locker" guys, who are always in a pissing contest. I'm reminded of a book of silly network notes that came out twenty years ago. It's title came from a note that a "My Favorite Martian" writer got from a network executive: "A Martian Wouldn't Say That"