Join me in raising a stein to Joss Whedon, who’s been at this for a long time. I’ve been following his work since Season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer… 13 years ago.
He rewrote the Avengers screenplay originally created by Zak Penn. I can’t think of a trickier story to tell than an origin story with a large ensemble of characters, who are already well known. What a minefield of clichés to avoid! But good old Joss; he did it.
What can we find in his script? Below, I’ll give you some things to watch for with your writer’s eye when you see it (or see it again).
Spoilers below… but come on, if I tell you that the good guys win, will that keep you from seeing it?
First, I’m going to pick on Joss a little, just to get it out of the way. Because we have to talk about the villain.
The villain establishes the stakes of the story, and is a good gauge of a story’s intensity. The more powerful and compelling the villain, the more compelling the story.
The villain in The Avengers – Loki, god of mischief and Thor’s brother – isn’t very threatening. We never really believe that the Avengers will fail to kick his patootie. Because of that, the villain is the weakest point of this story.
Now, I think that was a tactical decision on Joss’s part. He’s got a lot of story he needs to tell, and it’s of a particular type: the first Avengers movie couldn’t be about the villain. It’s about the heroes. So Loki does a set of necessary jobs for the plot, and nothing more.
First, Loki provides motivation for the other characters to overcome their differences – the arc of the movie.
Second, Loki provides Joss with an ingredient he needs to do one of the things he’s great at: writing scenes with plenty of reversals and confrontational dialogue. Reversals occur when power shifts in a scene, and a character gains or loses the upper hand. Repeated reversals are called zigzagging – a set of successes and failures, sometimes in rapid succession. Loki is powerful, but not too powerful, so each Avenger gets to have nicely balanced, exciting scenes with him.
Loki gets his evil monologues interrupted. A lot. Most memorably by “the big guy.”
Joss’s real strength as a screenwriter is the ability to walk in the shoes of his characters, and then write dialogue that is grimly or hilariously honest. Because each Avenger is so different, Joss’s ability to capture a point of view shines through. These perspectives come out in conflict, and there’s as much adversarial dialogue between the Avengers as real confrontation between the Avengers and Loki.
There are too many characters, and not enough screen time, for the complex inner conflicts Joss is also great at portraying. Contradictory inner motives are easier to reveal in a movie with fewer characters, a season of television (22 dramatic hours), or a novel (4-8 dramatic hours, or longer if you’re a slow reader like me).
As we speak, The Avengers is racing toward the billion-dollar mark. It’s great to see a guy kicked around for so long finally get his due. You’ve heard what his fans say: you can’t stop the signal.
But I’ve been thinking about the books that have taught me about writing — or at least, helped me to write — that are not “how-to-write” books.
Can a book on pottery teach you something about writing?
How about a book on improvisational theater?
If you think I’m going to mention Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat again, you’re right. Screenwriters know things about narrative structure that we novelists need to learn. McKee’s book is a screenwriting book, too.
But there are a few more that have inspired me and taught me good stuff, and since you won’t find them in the WRITING section, I’ll share them here.
Steven Johnson wrote a book about the increasing complexity found in television shows and video games, called Everything Bad is Good for You. He ties this increasing complexity to the Flynn Effect, which is the increase in average I.Q. scores over the past few decades.
Whatever. But his study of the relationship networks of television characters put a nice light bulb over my head. He also writes about television dialogue. Modern TV viewers, he says, are perfectly comfortable when the dialogue makes no sense at all.
“The dialogue on shows like The West Wing and ER… rushes by, the words accelerating in sync with the high-speed tracking shots that glide through the corridors and operating rooms… The truly remarkable thing about the dialogue is not purely a matter of speed; it’s the willingness to immerse the audience in information that most viewers won’t understand….
“You don’t need to know what it means when the surgeons start shouting about OPCAB and saphenous veins as they perform a bypass on ER; the arcana is there to create the illusion that you are watching real doctors.”
I’ve adopted arcana as my term for dialogue that is over the reader’s head, and there to help the reader suspend disbelief. You can find this sort of dialogue in any police procedural or spy thriller. (A different type is in hard SF or elaborate high fantasy, where the author gets to make the arcana up. Fun, but not easy!)
Johnson quotes a snip from an ER script (Crichton again, baby) to make his point. Play along with me here, and count up the words you don’t know:
KERRY: Sixteen-year-old, unconcious, history of villiari treesure.
CARTER: Glucyna coma?
KERRY: Looks like it.
MR. MAKOMI: She was doing fine until six months ago.
CARTER: What medication is she on?
MR. MAKOMI: Emphrasylim, tobramysim, vitamins A, D, and K.
LUCY: The skin’s jaundiced.
KERRY: Same with sclera, does her breath smell sweet?
CARTER: Peder permadicis?
LUCY: What’s that?
Another book I’ve blogged about is Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s about success, and it’s a short brain-hop from there to “writing success.” The kicker in that book was the ten-thousand-hour rule, which might seem like a long time to you, but sounds just right to me. That’s the time you dedicate to careful study of a subject in order to become a master at it.
I always keep The Gift of Fear in the back of my mind, should I ever need to invent a character who is a stalker or an assassin. Its author, Gavin de Becker, is a security expert who studies the predictability of violent behavior, and his book is about real stalkers and assassins.
Likewise, Sam Gosling’s Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You is handy for describing the home or office of your character, since Gosling is a Ph.D. psychologist who digs through other people’s things for a living, looking for reliable trends.
And actually, I’ve read that book. If you thought I was kidding about improvisational theater, you’re wrong. (I was kidding about pottery.)
Johnstone teaches acting. He was trying to get his students to master ad-libbing realistic dialogue, and finally told them, “Try to get your status just a little above or below your partner’s.” The result:
“The actors seemed to know exactly what I meant and the work was transformed. The scenes became ‘authentic,’ and actors seemed marvelously observant. Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really ‘motiveless.’ It was hysterically funny, but at the same time very alarming.”
Status is Johnstone’s word for the secret behind the motive of every character in a scene. Each seeks to raise, or lower, or maintain his or her status via dialogue, in an effort to maintain self-perception and expected social order. Realistic characters do this, because you and I and all humans do it.
If you, as a writer, screw with this, you can get amazing results, because all audiences are passionately interested in the relative status of characters. It’s wired into us, Johnstone says.
He goes very deep into revealing human nature through acting — some of his stage experiments will melt your brain — and the rest of the book is about the psychology of imagination, among other things. Improv actors make stuff up on the fly, and need to be deeply in touch with their creative powers. That sort of thing is good for writers too, so the book is more useful than you’d think.
Last is a doozy: The 4-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss. This is the book that taught me how to slay the time-management dragon, after years (and years!) of deep seething rage at not having enough time to write.
It’s too much to explain here, so I’ll tease you with the relevant chapter titles — then I’ll tell you which part helped me the most.
Chapter 5: The End of Time Management: Illusions and Italians
Chapter 6: The Low-Information Diet: Cultivating Selective Ignorance
Chapter 7: Interrupting Interruption and the Art of Refusal
The real dynamite for me was in Chapter 5. I’ve tried to explain it to friends, and they haven’t believed me. Here goes.
Ever heard of Pareto’s Principle? (Vilfredo Pareto is the Italian mentioned in Chapter 5’s title.)
It’s also called the 80/20 Rule, and it says that 80% of your success actually comes from 20% of your tasks. The discipline doesn’t matter (like the 10,000-Hour Rule) — all that matters is you face the hard reality that most of your tasks are not moving you toward your goal very quickly. And the 80/20 is arbitrary… it could be 95/5, or 99/1.
It works backwards, too. 80% of your stress comes from 20% of your stressors.
Once you face this reality (and you’re clear on what your goals actually are), you’re ready to put your schedule under the microscope. This is Step One. Find tasks that aren’t working, and ruthlessly strike them. Stop doing them. Do less!
I tell you, I loved that part. Notice that this requires no creativity at all.
Later, you can phase in new tasks. But for now, don’t bother. If you do it right, you should be able to drop about 80% of your tasks (!) and lose only 20% of your success (which is still a grade of B- in my book).
The second phase of Ferriss’s plan is an application of Parkinson’s Law. That is, “a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion.” If you have a week for a project, it will take a week… even if you could have done an equal job in an intense three hours, and get results that are, in the end, just as good.
This is a natural part of human psychology. It’s not your fault. But you can put it to your advantage by forcing yourself to do week-long projects in three hours. This is Step Two.
Step One and Step Two can be combined into a self-perpetuating feedback loop, in which you
strike tasks in order to move deadlines up (that’s Step One) and
move deadlines up in order to strike tasks (that’s Step Two).
Fine, don’t believe me. See if I care.
Here’s a fancy-pants video from Ferriss on Chapters 5, 6, and 7.
Here is an easy way to spice up dialogue between characters in your fiction, whether screenplays or novels.
Make it adversarial.
That’s a precise word. Donald Maass, in The Fire in Fiction, went for pages trying to communicate the idea (sorry, Donald) that Sol Stein nailed in a single word in Stein on Writing.
It doesn’t mean “confrontational” in the sense of conflict. That sort of dialogue — say, between hero and villain — comes naturally to writers. Hero vs. Villain dialogue is always fun to write (and usually, to read) because it’s exciting when people don’t get along.
But what can kill your story is the dialogue between your good guys while your villain is off-stage.
Say, a young woman and her sisters in a wagon train on the Oregon trail, watching ominous storm clouds. Or a loving husband and wife, discussing a shooting reported in the local paper. Or a mother and daughter on the morning of the first day of school.
First thought: Cut the scene. But maybe you need it for exposition or foreshadowing or character development or to set up a plot point.
Okay then. Make the scene more interesting with adversarial dialogue. Don’t let them console each other too often. They don’t need to be cruel, and they don’t need to be at each others’ throats. But give your characters some biting wit, some dialogue with an edge.
Here’s a video where I talk about adversarial dialogue, and describe a couple of examples — such as a clip from Gilmore Girls, written by Amy Sherman-Palladino.
(This is from Write on the Sound 2009. If you can’t understand what I’m saying, leave a comment below.)
Interestingly, the fiction genre that seems to have adversarial dialogue mastered is comedy. Often, comedy doesn’t have much conflict to fuel the reader’s curiosity. Maybe to compensate, comedy is loaded with adversarial dialogue.
Not that it matters. This is a genre-proof trick.
Here is the segment from the screenplay of Adam’s Rib (by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin) I mention in the video. It’s about a married couple of lawyers who, eventually, end up arguing opposite sides of a court case:
AMANDA: Look! All I’m trying to say is that there are lots of things that a man can do and in society’s eyes, it’s all hunky-dory. A woman does the same thing – the same, mind you, and she’s an outcast.
AMANDA: No. Now I’m not blaming you personally, Adam, because this is so.
ADAM: Well, that’s awfully large of you.
AMANDA: No, no, it’s not your fault. All I’m saying is, why let this deplorable system seep into our courts of law, where women are supposed to be equal?
ADAM: Mostly, I think, females get advantages!
AMANDA: We don’t want advantages! And we don’t want prejudices!
ADAM: Oh, don’t get excited, honey, and don’t –
AMANDA: I’m not excited –
ADAM: Oh, you’re giving me the Bryn Mawr right too.
AMANDA: Well what did she try to do? She tried to keep her home intact.
ADAM: Yeah, by knocking off her husband.
AMANDA: She didn’t knock him off. He’s alive. She didn’t kill him.
ADAM: She tried. She missed.
AMANDA: Well, all right. Now supposing –
ADAM: What do you want to do? Give her another shot at him?
AMANDA: No, I don’t… it’s the kind of thing burns my goat!
ADAM: Your what?
AMANDA: My goat! My goat!
Here’s a challenge I posed to my audience at the 2009 Write on the Sound conference:
Choose the “best,” if you dare, from these five exchanges of dialogue. Which would you write?
“Come on now, Baby,” she said. “You don’t need that knife. What are you going to do with that?”
“I just can’t stand it anymore!” he said. “I’ve had it!”
“Come on now,” she cajoled. “You don’t need that knife. What are you going to do with that?”
“I just can’t stand it anymore!” he ejaculated. “I’ve had it!”
She approached him cautiously. “Come on now, Baby,” she cooed. “You don’t need that knife. What are you going to do with that?”
He swung the knife in a wild arc. “I just can’t stand it anymore!” he exclaimed. “I’ve had it!”
“Come on now, Baby. You don’t need that knife. What are you going to do with that?”
“I just can’t stand it anymore! I’ve had it!”
She approached him cautiously. “Come on now, Baby. You don’t need that knife. What are you going to do with that?”
He swung the knife in a wild arc. “I just can’t stand it anymore! I’ve had it!”
(Adapted from Stanbrough, Writing Realistic Dialogue and Flash Fiction)
The talk was a lot of fun. About 50 showed up. I tried to catch it on video, using my laptop and the webcam from my work. The result wasn’t perfect… but it wasn’t bad enough to delete, so here’s the seven minutes when we discussed the five dialogue exchanges above.
You don’t need to clear off your desk, and you don’t need a #2 pencil. There are eight grammatical blunders in this clip of dialogue. Can you find all of them?
Fred rubbed his temples and tried to think. “There’s got to be a way out of this,” he thought.
“Give it up, Fred”, said Jerome. “The DA’s got tons of evidence.” Fred pounded the table. “It’s a set up. I’m being framed!”
‘Sure, sure.’ Jerome shook his head. “If I had a nickel for every time I heard that. But the witness pointed to you, you weasel. She pointed to you and said “That’s the man, Your Honor.” The whole courtroom heard. Heck, the whole county heard!!”
“What kind of defense lawyer are you?,” Fred cried, “You’re supposed to be on my side!”
This is an excerpt from the handout I’m designing for my upcoming talk on dialogue at the Write on the Sound conference October 3. I’ll post the answers here once I give my talk.
If you’ve spotted some errors, leave a comment.
[October 4, 2009]
I gave the talk yesterday afternoon, and as promised, here are the answers:
Wait for it…
Wait for it…
Fred rubbed his temples and tried to think. There’s got to be a way out of this, he thought.
“Give it up, Fred,” said Jerome. “The DA’s got tons of evidence.”
Fred pounded the table. “It’s a set up. I’m being framed!”
“Sure, sure.” Jerome shook his head. “If I had a nickel for every time I heard that. But the witness pointed to you, you weasel. She pointed to you and said ‘That’s the man, Your Honor.' The whole courtroom heard. Heck, the whole county heard!”
“What kind of defense lawyer are you?” Fred cried. “You’re supposed to be on my side!”
1. Don’t put thoughts in quotes.
2. Dialogue punctuation goes inside quotes.
3. New speaker, new paragraph.
4. Dialogue gets double-quotes, not single.
5. Repeated dialogue from a third person gets single quotes, not double.
6. Use exclamation points (and question marks) once only. (Right?!?!)
7. Don’t follow terminal punctuation (like a question mark) with a comma.
8. Tags are offset by commas when they appear in the middle of a sentence. If the following dialogue is a complete sentence (“You’re supposed to be on my side!”), end the tag with a period.