Podcast

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Storyteller's Rulebook: How People Really Talk

So I assume we’re all enjoying the “Operation: Varsity Blues” scandal, where the rich and famous got arrested for various illegal schemes to get their kids into universities (hiring imposters to take their kids’ SATs, faking learning disabilities to get more time on the SAT, photoshopping their heads onto athletes to get recruited, outright bribery, etc.)

The latest development is that Vice has transcribed some of the tapes, which are delightful, but they’re also really instructive for writing dialogue. In my own writing, I’ve often gotten pushback for how fragmentary my dialogue is, but I always defend it by saying that the way we really talk. Well, these strictly-faithful transitions back me up nicely. Here’s one example:

  • SPOUSE: So [my son] and I just got back from [U]SC Orientation. It went great. The only kind of glitch was, and I-- he didn’t-- [my son] didn’t tell me this at the time-- but yesterday when he went to meet with his advisor, he stayed after a little bit, and the-- apparently the advisor said something to the effect of, “Oh, so you’re a track athlete?” And [my son] said, “No.” ’Cause, so [my son] has no idea, and that’s what-- the way we want to keep it.

Another conversation:

  • B. ISACKSON: Well, I, I-- But if-- but they, they --
  • CW-1: Yes.
  • B. ISACKSON: --went the meat and potatoes of it, which a-- which a guy would love to have is, it’s so hard for these kids to get into college, and here’s-- look what-- look what’s going on behind the schemes, and then, you know, the, the embarrassment to everyone in the communities. Oh my God, it would just be-- Yeah. Ugh.

And another:

  • CAPLAN: Done. The other stuff (laughing)--
  • CW-1: That will be up to you guys, it doesn’t matter to me.
  • CAPLAN: Yeah, I, I hear ya. It’s just, to be honest, I’m not worried about the moral issue here. I’m worried about the, if she’s caught doing that, you know, she’s finished. So I, I just—
  • CW-1: It’s never happened before in twenty-some-odd years. The only way anything can happen is if she--
  • CAPLAN: Someone talks--
  • CW-1: Yeah, if she tells somebody.

People don’t finish their sentences, they lose their train of thought, they rephrase things on the fly, they interrupt each other. These are all highly-educated successful people and every single one talks this way.

So should you write this way? As I said, producers and other note-givers thought I was doing it too much. It was realistic, but maybe too much so. If your characters are too articulate, injecting some of this realism into your dialogue will make it come alive and feel refreshingly real, but maybe don’t take it as far as I did. The goal in writing is to crate a sense of the real, but once you’ve done that you can make everyone a little more articulate than they would actually be.

Edited to Add: Here was a comment of mine that I thought should be elevated to the main piece: Looking at the above transcript, you probably wouldn't want to write a sentence exactly like “and here’s-- look what-- look what’s going on behind the schemes, and then, you know, the, the embarrassment to everyone in the communities.” That's realistic in an annoying way.

But you might well want to write something like the next sentence: “Oh my God, it would just be-- Yeah. Ugh.” That's realistic in a more appealing way. Not finishing that sentence seems more meaningful than the stumbles in the previous sentence.

11 comments:

Harvey Jerkwater said...

This reminds me of fight choreography. Real physical fights are ugly, short, and often both awkward and pathetic. Few movies show them that way. Sure, some movies stylize their fights more than others - compare Five Deadly Venoms with Eastern Promises to get a sense of range - but there's virtually always some shine added to reality. How much shine depends on the movie. A good director knows that fight choreography is part of creating the overall effect of the movie and she therefore must determine what level of stylization fits. Should the hero of a kitchen sink drama about meth dealing defend herself with a crisply executed Phoenix Rises from Ashes, it'd feel wrong.*

Dialogue's the same way. Florid, lengthy sentences are absolutely fine if that's what fits the story. Mamet-ian stumblings or Pinter-esque pauses don't belong in many genres. Shakespeare is made of poetry, dadgumit. Tarantino made himself a great career largely through his particular and highly artificial form of dialogue. But if you're striving for realism, yeah, a golden skill is the ability to make dialogue close enough to reality to feel real while keeping it functional as a storytelling tool.

It's a fine tool for the toolbox, but it's not right for every job. I know you know, but the post doesn't make that clear.

*Mixing "kitchen sink drama about meth dealing" with Shaw Brothers-style kung fu could work if done with sufficient skill and insanity. God, now I want to see that. Am I undercutting my own argument? Dammit...

Liam Walsh said...

I agree with Mr Jerkwater, and I was just listening to Aaron Sorkin on Marc Marin's podcast and I think he referred to his own dialogue as "heightened", and discussed how real life rarely gives us the stuff we find satisfying in stories. But yes, Varsity Blues is providing some very rich, enjoyable schadenfreude. What's the matter with these people? Don't they know there's a perfectly respectable time tested tradition of giving a generous donation to the university in order to get your lazy dummy enrolled?

Matt Bird said...

Audiences think they want more realism more than they do, so it's good to be just incrementally more real than the last thing they saw. After the Bond franchise petered out with "Die Another Day" (an underrated movie, btw) people thought the spy genre was dead until "The Bourne Identity" came out with more realism to the fights (and to the geopolitics) and made people say, "Wow, what if it were all real?" The Bond people responded with a new Bourne-infused Bond and saved their franchise.

Jackie Chan talks about how everybody wanted to be the next Bruce Lee, but then he came along and punched somebody only to then shake his hand out in pain, and people realized that's what they'd really been craving.

I love dialogue that makes me think, "Finally, this is how people really talk!", but I wouldn't want to read an exact performance of tapes I quote in this post. In this post, I praised "The Horse Soldiers" for having John Wayne realistically peter out: http://www.secretsofstory.com/2015/05/storytellers-rulebook-let-them-lose.html I've talked before about how I find Sorkin's hyper-articulate dialogue grating. If he were here right now, I'd say, "Aaron, let people peter out from time to time!"

Patrick said...

If you ever get a chance to buy the Cowboy Bebop DVDs, get them.

The English subtitles appear to be regular translation of Japanese to English.

The the English Actors however, are using natural dialogue written by a professional script writer. Mind blowing. Cannot say more how much this will help you.

Liam Walsh said...

Interesting, Matt. I guess probably the thing to keep in mind (and the most artificial thing of all) is to make sure your dialogue is important to the story. You would be doing some serious realism if you had your characters tell pointless stories, start telling jokes they were unable to finish, say completely inane non sequiturs, etc, but the audience would never forgive you (unless you'd made it a running joke or a specific character trait or something). So once you know the character has to convey this essential information, it's up to you what degree of realism you want in their speech patterns, but I think a lot of indie/mumblecore (film student)-type writers neglect that point, which is why so many student films are just people smoking cigarettes and talking.

Liam Walsh said...

That sounds fascinating.

Matt Bird said...

Looking at the above transcript, you probably wouldn't want to write a sentence exactly like "and here’s-- look what-- look what’s going on behind the schemes, and then, you know, the, the embarrassment to everyone in the communities." That's realistic in an annoying way.

But you might well want to write something like the next sentence: "Oh my God, it would just be-- Yeah. Ugh." That's realistic in a more appealing way. Not finishing that sentence seems more meaningful than the stumbles in the previous sentence.

Rochelle Krause said...

Aaron Sorkin-style dialogue is becoming more popular and less appealing to me for this reason, it sounds phony. I loved it in The Social Network because Sorkin (and the actors) know how to make it work but when I heard it in the first scene of the pilot episode of the tv show Scandal, I turned the show off and never came back.

Steve Bird said...

A number of years ago we saw a production of Mamet's Oleanna which is a problematic play to say the least, in terms of what it has to say. But what absolutely enthralled me was the way the characters said it. The preternaturally naturalistic dialog was spellbinding, and it was just this kind of fragmentation that drew me in.

Steve Bird said...

Of course, ironically (or perhaps the opposite of ironically?) when I did a web search to figure out which Mamet play it was I remembered seeing, I ran across current headlines that Mamet has publicly come to Huffman's defense in the current scandal. Well, I guess it would have been just as in character for him to call her a manipulative bitch over her role. Either way, why the fuck does anyone want his opinion on the subject?

Brian McLachlan said...

I try not to aim for a realism, for for a real story. You might tell your friend about a crazy day you had, but you'll leave out the non important stuff, like going to the bathroom, or responding to emails. We're predisposed to want (and to tell) our stories not containing all the truth, but a shortened, relevant version, and I think that's how we expect dialogue too (along a sliding scale depending on genre, form and length). Also, why we don't have characters go to the bathroom unless they're escaping, melting down in private, etc.