Monday, August 14, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or setting?

As we discussed before, “write what you know” really means “write the emotions you know.” But if you’re not writing about a world you already understand, then you’ve got a lot of work to do before you start writing. 

If you’re not going to write about a brilliant but unappreciated writer (and please don’t), then you’re going to be writing about people who do things you don’t do. You’ll need to learn as much as you can about these people—how to talk like them, think like them, party like them, and curse like them.

It’s one thing to learn what a world is like, whether it’s spies, cops, ballet dancers, or stock brokers, but it’s another thing entirely to learn and reproduce the jargon. Read the pilots for House, CSI, and The West Wing, and the number one thing that stands out is how much jargon they contain, to the extent that the average reader can’t understand a huge amount of the dialogue. Wouldn’t that alienate the audience? Nope, it turns out audiences love jargon. It makes them feel like the characters (and the writers) know what they’re talking about.

So how do you learn all this stuff? My first step is always to read some memoirs by people in the specific profession, but be forewarned that the language in memoirs gets cleaned up. It’s great to find a reality show or documentary about these sorts of people and transcribe how they talk in the heat of the moment, when they’ve forgotten the cameras are on.

Another aspect of jargon is the need to understand the subcultures within the world you’re writing about and the internecine conflicts between them. Every world has subcultures that feud with other subcultures. If you’re researching this world, you’ll need to really dig to uncover such things, because these squabbles are, for the most part, not in the memoirs, or they simply get glossed over. If they are mentioned at all, it’s usually in passing, as the author will say something like, “I don’t want to get sucked into the old X versus X debate, so …”

That’s the part to seize on and say, “Aha! That’s the big divide nobody’s talking about! I need to learn more about that!” Once you have the terms, you can simply Google them and discover uncensored message boards where they’re actively debating this stuff amongst themselves, saying the things that they’d never say in their books, because they falsely perceive these boards to be private discussions with nobody listening in.

This is true of every profession or hobby I’ve ever researched. For stock brokers it was “the sell side versus the buy side.” For rock climbers, it was “sport versus trad.” For skaters it was “vertical versus street.” For spies it was “analysis versus operations.” For Afghanistan officers, it was “carnivores versus COINdinistas.” Just dive in and don’t come up for air until you’ve got a handle on it. Don’t write a war story unless you know what sergeants tend to presume about captains, and vice versa.

In The Departed, the feds, the city cops, and the “Staties” all spew delightful fountains of contemptuous profanity at each other. I still have no idea what a “Statie” is (I can only infer that Massachusetts has some sort of statewide police force), but I don’t have to. We don’t understand exactly what’s going on, but we can tell these people, like all people, have internecine conflicts that drive them crazy. And, paradoxically, because we’ve never heard this jargon before, it makes this world feel more real.

You can also go one step beyond jargon and learn the tradecraft of the profession. Mastering tradecraft dialogue is actually one of the most valuable and underrated skills a writer can have.

For writers-for-hire, this is the skill that gets you consistent adaptation/rewrite/ghostwriting work: If you’re the writer who knows how to write about a particular world, then you get the first crack at all the projects set in that world. Aaron Sorkin can write politics in entertaining ways, so he’s the go-to guy for a movie about a congressman, like Charlie Wilson’s War.

This is one of the big reasons why networks love to hire show runners who learned their trade firsthand rather than spending their time getting writing degrees. L.A. Law creator David E. Kelley was a lawyer. The creator of the spy show The Americans is an ex-CIA officer. TV producers sometimes seem to assume that anyone can learn to write but that learning the tradecraft takes a lifetime.

Obviously, that’s not true. Any writer can learn this stuff, but it does take a lot of work. Not only should you learn the details of your world inside and out (read the memoirs, watch the reality shows, hang out with the actual people), but you should also figure out how to package that tradecraft for an audience in an appealing way.

Screenwriter Ted Griffin was presumably never a con man, but he mastered the lingo and wrote a fantastic screenplay for the remake of Ocean’s Eleven (and then became the go-to con/heist guy, so he was hired to adapt the novel Matchstick Men and rewrite Tower Heist). The secret of Ocean’s Eleven is that it deftly moves back and forth amongst the following three different types of tradecraft writing:

Colorful but incomprehensible con man jargon that’s never explained: “You’ll need a Boesky, a Jim Brown, a Miss Daisy, two Jethros, a Leon Spinx, not to mention the biggest Ella Fitzgerald ever.” Is this jargon real? Who cares? It sounds convincing, and that’s all that matters. We’re happy to be baffled, pressing our noses against the glass as we peek into the bizarre world.

Nitty-gritty details about this world that do get explained, such as the specific roles of each of the con men: “the bank,” “the grease man,” etc. These details open the doors and let us into this world, so we feel like we’re really learning the inside dope.

Inside tips about this world that are also applicable to the life of the viewer: This is the best kind of all. Audiences go crazy for it:
  • Don’t look up, they’ll know you’re lying. Don’t look down, they’ll know you have something to hide. Don’t use three words when one will do. Don’t shift your eyes. Look always at your mark, but don’t stare. Be specific but not memorable. Be funny but don't make him laugh. He’s gotta like you, and then forget you the moment you’ve left his sight. 
Hearing this sort of tradecraft makes us feel like we can solve our own problems using the clandestine secrets we’re learning.

Whether you’re writing about cops, lawyers, spies, pirates, reporters, butchers, bakers, or candlestick makers, you should learn how to write all three types of tradecraft: pleasantly incomprehensible stuff, stuff that’s fun to explain, and stuff that makes the audience feel smarter. Again, you want to read memoirs of those with similar worlds to your hero and look for neat little tricks that belong in each of these three categories.

The 40 Year Old Virgin



YES, lots of navigation and regulation talk.

An Education

YES.  Crime is always “a bit of business.” Tradecraft: The “stats” scam, for instance.

The Babadook

YES. for nursing, child psychology. 

Blazing Saddles

YES. He’s a real sheriff: he puts up wanted posters, dries out drunks in his cells, etc.  The rail-laying is also believable.

Blue Velvet

NO. Not really.  You hear snippets of lumber talk on the radio, but for the most part the talk is decontextualized and intentionally generic.  This is Anytown, USA. Almost everybody is an amateur, and the dialogue is oddly stylized.

The Bourne Identity

YES. Very much so.  All very vague and non-committal: “You’re asking me a direct question?” “Let’s assume that’s true”


NO. Not really


Yes and no.  Jargon: Not really, no one involved in the movie had ever been anywhere near Casablanca, so the argot isn’t particularly authentic.  Tradecraft: Yes, for each profession: “Round up the usual suspects.”


YES, very much so.  Towne seems to have made himself an expert on detective work. 

Donnie Brasco

YES, yes, a million times yes. The “Fuggetaboutit” monologue is famous. The difference between friend of mine / friend of ours, etc.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Jargon of the setting: very much so.  Tradecraft: not so much, but that’s fine. 

The Farewell

YES. The two cultures are contrasted in their language.

The Fighter

YES. Tons of Lowell-ese. Boxing tradecraft:  “Stepping-stone” “Head-body-head” etc.


NO. Not really.  It’s a fairly generic setting and the princess-ing is fairly generic as well. 

The Fugitive

YES. Very much so, to an amazing degree.  The marshals and doctors on set were constantly feeding them lines.

Get Out

NO. Not really.  A little bit for the TSA.

Groundhog Day

YES. Yes, of weathermen.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Believably re-creates the feeling of basic training.

In a Lonely Place

YES. in many ways. For example: Dix’s monologue about how the breakfast scene is the ideal love scene, not suspecting that she no longer loves him, shows how the false omniscience of the screenwriter has blinded him to reality.

Iron Man

YES. Both the military setting and the tech company setting. A good portrayal of how research and development of new technology actually works, and how corporate takeovers happen.

Lady Bird

NO. Coming of age movies don’t really have much jargon. 

Raising Arizona

YES. “We released ourselves on our own recognizance.”  Committing crimes with an unloaded gun because the sentences are so much shorter, banks putting in paint packets, etc.


YES. Max talks like an expert in every field.  When he finds out that Blume was in Vietnam, he insantly asks “Were you in the shit?”


YES. “We negotiate, we demonstrate, we resist.”

The Shining

YES. a long description of the duties of caretakers.


YES. of the vineyards. 

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Jargon of the FBI, the prison, the transsexual center, etc. This is a masterclass in FBI techniques.

Star Wars

YES. Lots of good made-up jargon. Good smuggling tradecraft. Believable structure of the rebellion (hiding behind the cover of a phony diplomatic mission, etc.)

Sunset Boulevard

YES. very much so.  

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