Monday, March 18, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #172: Commas Are Death

I’m really enjoying “The Americans” on FX, and the dialogue is mostly excellent, but one problematic line stuck out in the pilot: The Russian deep cover spies are debating a crisis, and the husband reminds the wife:  “Don’t forget, we’ve been at this a long time.”

Don’t do that!  Just cut out the “don’t forget”!  While you’re at it, cut out “As you know” and “As I’m sure you know” and “As we discussed before”. These words are like nails on a chalkboard to audiences.  If you’ve got a good reason for one of your characters to deliver a fact the other person would already know, then that’s fine: just have them do it.

Don’t panic and think, “Wait, the other person would already know that, I’d better make it clear in the dialogue that they aren’t hearing this for the first time.”  People tell each other things they already know all the time, but they don’t remind the other person that they already know it.

In this case, the husband had a good reason for reminding his wife they’ve been at this a long time—he was steeling up her courage for a tough job by reminding her that they knew what they were doing.  But he had no good reason for saying “Don’t forget” first.

The fact is that almost all dialogue with commas in it sounds weasel-y.  Characters shouldn’t preface things, they should just say them.  Here’s a trick that always works: When characters answer questions, cut out every “Yes” and “No.”  Compare these exchanges:
  • “Are you going to the fair?” “No, I’m going to the bar” vs. “Are you going to the fair?”  “I’m going to the bar”
  • “Do you love me?”  “No, but I need you.” vs. “Do you love me?”  “I need you.”
  • “Did you hear the news?” “Yes, I’m so sorry” vs. “Did you hear the news?” “I’m so sorry”
  • “Are you visiting Iowa?” “Yes, we need the rural vote” vs. “Are you visiting Iowa?” “We need the rural vote.”
Just lop off anything before a comma.  I’ve gotten pretty good at this, but I still overuse “Well, I…,” and “Look, I…,”  These are “change gears” words that allow characters to deflect or transition the conversation in the direction they want it to go, but you don’t need them.  Just let the character shift on the fly, even if it results in a little grinding of the gears.

For each of these, you may be thinking, “But then things might not be clear!”  Good!  Life isn’t clear.  Your goal should be to write dialogue with maximum personality and the minimum necessary amount of clarity.  The audience doesn’t want you to hold their hand.  They’d rather you play hard to get and give them the thrill of the chase.


Harvey Jerkwater said...

Holy crap this is gold.

Please accept this long-distance internet high five.


j.s. said...

Once you lop off the qualifiers at the beginning of these lines you begin to see how weak and nakedly expository some of them are even without that first word/phrase and the comma. I'd say that you shouldn't just fix these lines by trimming them down, but by rewriting them with the characters' in clearer focus. This ties in nicely with other rules you've mentioned before, about how it's not the characters' job to explain the story in dialogue and how nobody speaks or does anything extra that s/he doesn't have to in order to get what s/he wants.

My expectations for this show are high because I know that one of the co-creators was a former CIA officer in the NCS and I've read his very good literary novel about those experiences: AN ORDINARY SPY. I'm hoping it won't let me down when I finally have the time and imaginative space to commit to it.

Theresa Milstein said...

I've actually had critique partners say, "Wouldn't she know this? Shouldn't you add..." What you say makes more sense.

Alyssa said...

Thank you for this! So valid.