Sunday, June 29, 2014

Irony in Dialogue, Part 1: Intentional Irony

There are many types of ironic dialogue, some are intentional and others are unintentional.

Sarcastic dialogue uses intentionally disingenuous phrasing to highlight the hypocrisy of a situation. We’ve all known lots of sarcastic people, so this type of dialogue is certainly true-to-life and it can therefore be a strong element of a character’s voice, but it’s important to remember that this sort of intentional irony is not going to create the same amount of meaning as unintentional irony.

The audience prefers to see what the characters can’t see: We want to be one small step removed from the story, seeing some things they miss. By contrast, we want the characters themselves to be in it, not outside of it. Well-written sarcastic characters think they can see the irony of their situation, but we see that they don’t really get it. George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life is a wonderfully sarcastic character, but he is unaware of the larger ironies of his life until Clarence the angel points them out.

Then there are times when characters engage in Blatant Talk About Irony. This should almost always be avoided. Irony should be the air your characters breathe, but they should not be aware of it, just as we are not conscious of each breath. Whenever characters talk about how ironic something is, the audience groans.

Here’s a particularly atrocious example of the above: Bette Davis followed up her big comeback, All About Eve, with a very similar role, but this time the results were disastrous: In The Star, she played a washed-up ex-starlet who tried to settle for a down-to-earth longshoreman played by Sterling Hayden. Eventually, the grubbiness of her new life causes her to snap, and she smashes a store display to steal of a bottle of super-expensive perfume on display. This results in one of the worst scenes ever written…
  • The Scene: When Hayden comes home, Davis confesses her impetuous crime and hands the unused perfume bottle over to him. He sternly lectures her, but when she breaks down crying he has no choice but to comfort her. He finally opens the bottle himself and says that she might as well try some on, but they’re surprised to discover that they can’t smell anything: the display bottle was just a prop. This causes Hayden to wisely opine: “You thought it was the world’s most expensive perfume, but it was just colored water. [Dramatic Pause…] That’s just like your life.”
No, no it isn’t. When irony is openly discussed, it withers on the vine. If your audience hears it, they won’t feel it. Next, we’ll move on to our first type of unintentionally ironic dialogue…

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Big Idea, Addendum: The Ironic Conclusion

Yesterday we looked at the need for an Ironic Concept. When identifying your ironic concept, it’s tempting to look to the ending and show how the story is ultimately ironic in the end, but you can’t wait that long to tap into the power of irony. The ironic concept should be evident by the halfway point, and then the finale needs to be ironic in a fresh way. Let’s data-mine our checklists:
  • Casablanca: He shows his love by sending her away.
  • Sunset Boulevard: He gets that pool he always wanted
  • In a Lonely Place: He didn’t do it, but loses her anyway.
  • Alien: She blows up the ship only to discover that he’s on the escape pod.
  • The Shining: The son must kill his father to save his family.
  • Blue Velvet: He defeats evil by absorbing it.
  • Silence of the Lambs: One killer is stopped but the worse one gets away in the process.
  • Groundhog Day: He finally figures out how to get out of there: by wanting to stay.
  • Donnie Brasco: He finally gets to go home but feels like he’s more lost than ever.
  • The Bourne Identity: He discovers that he was home the whole time: with Marie. (In his commentary, Liman says that he saw the movie as having a Wizard of Oz structure)
  • Sideways: Miles finds that the way to get the girl is the have the courage to do nothing, waiting for her to re-approach instead of drunk dialing her.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: The village is once again overrun with dragons, but in a good way.
  • Iron Man: His partner turns out to be the villain.
  • An Education: She realizes that was she feared was exactly what she needed.
  • Bridesmaids: Her archenemy helps her get her guy.
There are, of course, many more ironies in between as well. In the next three posts, we’ll look at the pros and cons of Ironic Dialogue...

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Big Idea, Addendum: More Thoughts on the Ironic Concept

As I organized the book, one thing that become clear was how often I came back to the subject of irony. “Oh, by the way, this element has to be ironic. And that one. And this other one.” I soon realized that I had to figure out how many separate ironies I was dealing with and how they interacted. Let’s spend the next several posts doing that.

I first addressed the need to have an ironic concept here and then followed it up here but both concern themselves more with things that aren’t ironic, rather than things that are. One problem I have with ironies, and with all advice that’s practically universal, is that it’s hard to pick out specific examples, and they wouldn’t be very useful anyway, because exemplary cases aren’t the point: I’m talking about how this should be everywhere, but without being the center of attention.

In many such cases where I wanted to prove that something was true across all types of movies, I’ve found myself, more and more, data-mining the 15 checklists. So let’s see how each of the movies we’ve looked at has an Ironic Concept:
  • Casablanca: The least patriotic American has to save the Allied cause.
  • Sunset Boulevard: The nation’s most glamorous people are psychotic lowlifes.
  • In a Lonely Place: A writer adapting a crime book finds himself living it.
  • Alien: They go to answer a distress signal sent by a creature that wants to kill them.
  • The Shining: A recovering alcoholic rededicates himself to his family, then finds that himself compelled to kill them.
  • Blue Velvet: An idealistic amateur detective discovers he’s just as creepy as those he investigates.
  • Silence of the Lambs: The only way to catch one serial killer is to work with another.
  • Groundhog Day: A man who just wants to get his least favorite day over has to live it again and again.
  • Donnie Brasco: An undercover FBI agent finds his pitiful targets more sympathetic than his bosses.
  • The Bourne Identity: A spy with a conscience becomes the latest target of his own agency.
  • Sideways: A man celebrates his upcoming wedding by looking for love.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: A dragon killer in training succeeds by befriending a dragon.
  • Iron Man: Arms dealer is targeted by his own clients, declares war on arms dealing.
  • An Education: A bored girl rejects the idea of getting “an education”, but learns another meaning of that phrase in the process.
  • Bridesmaids: A group of friends planning a happy day go to war against each other.
So, yeah, all of them. But this is not to be confused with an Ironic Finale, which we’ll look at next time…

Monday, June 23, 2014

New Schedule

So here’s the deal: I’ve got a lot of posts ready to go, and my natural inclination is to burn through them quickly and then burn out again for a while, but then I realized that, no, that’s crazy, I should stick to three posts a week so I can actually sustain regular content and still get real writing done, so that's what I’m a-gonna do. So the second of this week’s three posts drops tomorrow. Just a heads up.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The New Checklist is Up!

Go check it out!

I realize that I may just seem neurotic at this point, but I do have a method to my madness. As I’ve run more Checklist Roadtests, and as I turned my checklist into a book (which my agent is reading now!) I realized that more changes needed to be made:
  1. Lots of questions that weren’t providing interesting answers are gone. Your suggestions were very helpful (even the ones I ultimately didn’t take.) Other questions are brand-new. Some of those that have nothing to link to will turn blue over the course of the next two weeks as I put up new posts that address those concepts.
  2. The sub-divisions: I’ve run these by you guys before, and I like how they’ve turned out. Some have been rephrased since I first proposed them.
  3. The number of questions was floating around 143 for a while, and then it hit me that I should really aim for 140 questions exactly, because 7 skills (common number of skills) x 20 questions (common number of questions) = 140 questions. Of course, some have more than 20 questions, and some have less, but the overall math now seems simple and memorable… and the whole idea of “20 questions” is that 20 is the ideal number of questions to figure something out. I like that I finally have an overall number that makes sense, and I’ll try to hold it there from now on.
  4. Checkboxes rather than an actual checklist: Based on some of your comments and emails, I’m trying to make it less intimidating. In the book, I went through and rewrote all the “how to” sections to make it clear that, rather than laying down step-by-step instructions, I was listing 20 or so recommendations for each skill. “How to” carries the wrong implication: When you have IKEA instructions, and you skip step 3, then there’s no point in going on to step 7, because it’s already ruined. Instead, if I put it in checkbox form, then that’s entirely different: When you fill out “How many of these great books have you read?” everybody understands that nobody will check all of them. You’re just proud to say that you checked as many as possible, and you’re happy to get 75% or so.
  5. I haven’t programmed the list to actually tabulate your score as you work your way down the checkboxes, but I may try. In the meantime, I’ve got actual checkboxes that you can check or uncheck if that helps you with counting. And to be generous, I’ve pre-checked them all, so you just have to uncheck those that are giving you trouble. 
Enjoy! I’ll now spend the next week or two filling in new posts to back up some of these questions...

Monday, June 16, 2014

I Shall Return

This is usually when I take off for the summer, but since I've been promising you guys some specific stuff for a while, I will return with regular content starting next Sunday (the 22nd), at least for a while.