Dialogue Crash Course

July 10, 2017

Here are cinematic examples of everything I know about dialogue, basic to advanced. Listen…

Basic:

Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The intersection of your normal world and your story world. Immerse yourself in your character’s point of view… and just tell the truth:

 

Gilmore Girls. Adversarial dialogue. Watch for the set-up… and the payoff:

Intermediate:

Firefly. There’s jargon… and then there’s language. Do you have the guts to try this?

The Avengers. Adversarial, metaphorical, agrammatical, great use of beats:

Bonus Avengers, for the art of the POV monologue, and the importance of character names for each other:

Advanced:

Heist. Now that you get Joss Whedon, you are ready for David Mamet. Once you have the skills to make your dialogue sound totally natural, you can dare to make it sound unnatural:

Brick. Dialogue so good, they printed it in the trailer. If you can write this, there’s nothing more anyone can teach you:

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Writerly Tricks (Not) Found in The Avengers Movie

May 25, 2012

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.
Joss Whedon
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?

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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.

Loki
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.

The Hulk
Loki gets his evil monologues interrupted. A lot. Most memorably by “the big guy.”

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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.

Serenity


Character Complexity (and Slaying Vampires)

July 28, 2009

We all agree that complex characters are good. Where we writers screw up is the damn challenge of creating them.

Say you’re beginning to think about a character. How do you add complexity? Or have you botched it already? Is complexity at a character’s core, where the creative process of the writer begins?

Here’s what complexity isn’t.

It’s not a list of traits. “Here’s my character = job + hobbies + height/weight/eyes/hair + family + place of birth + romantic relationships + …”

Details don’t make a character complex. Neither does the presence of a single all-powerful motive or all-consuming characteristic. “Ruthlessness” maybe, or “lust for power.”

No – that character would be 100% predictable and 100% dull.

Here’s a picture of character complexity for you:

Yin Yang symbol

That’s the yin-yang symbol. Yin and yang are opposite forces, like light and shade, or male and female, coming together. I’m not going to get more into the religious meaning than that – but I am going to borrow this thing to remind me about character.

A complex character is a balance of opposite characteristics or identities. My all-time favorite example is (don’t laugh)… Buffy Summers, the Vampire Slayer.

Joss Whedon
Joss Whedon dreamed up the character – a school girl (that’s one characteristic) who slays vampires (that’s the other). Now stop and think about it.

That’s the character. Nothing else. But that idea drove a movie, then seven seasons of a television show, followed by an eighth “season” in comic book form… and writers aren’t finished with her yet.

Buffy will sweat over her history homework… then drop her pencil and battle a nest of vampires. She’ll save the world from a soul-eating demon, then she’ll worry about senior prom. These reversals always come as a surprise – the audience never gets used to them.

It sounds ridiculous… and it is. Buffy’s yin-yang drives, essentially, all the humor of the TV show (and if you haven’t seen it… it’s funny).

Buffy, The Long Way Home

But a character’s yin-yang complexity isn’t just for laughs and witty reversals. Fans of Buffy know how tortured she is – you see, she wants to be a school girl, she yearns for a normal life, she hates the crypts and the undead gore… but she also knows she’s chosen to be an epic warrior, blessed with strength and speed and the power to save people’s lives.

Spider-Man 2
It’s the same inner conflict Peter Parker struggles with in Spider-Man 2 – hero vs. normal guy.

After humor and surprising reversals, this intense agony of inner conflict is the other gift of a yin-yang nature.

These sorts of characters are fascinating to us.

Darth Vader is a black-suited, faceless villain (worth hating, but not thinking about) until he reveals that he’s Luke’s father… and gains complexity (heartless villain vs. compassionate father). And that inner conflict needs a whole third movie (Return of the Jedi) to play itself out.

And Luke (farm boy vs. Jedi)? And Harry Potter (orphan vs. wizard)?

Shakespeare, Chicago
Let’s stop screwing around: Shakespeare’s character MacBeth’s yin-yang is pure ambition vs. guilt – that drives the whole Scottish play.

This last example comes from Robert McKee in Story. “MacBeth is a brilliantly realized character,” McKee says, “because of the contradiction between his ambition on one hand and his guilt on the other. From this profound inner contradiction springs his passion, his complexity, his poetry.”

McKee’s word for the complexity of a character is “dimension,” as in “three-dimensional character.” He says it right out: “Dimension means contradiction.”

I’m going to cite one more example from McKee to wrap up this post.

Mckee_Story

“Consider Hamlet, the most complex character ever written… He seems spiritual until he’s blasphemous. To Ophelia he’s first loving and tender, then callous, even sadistic. He’s courageous, then cowardly. At times he’s cool and cautious, then impulsive and rash, as he stabs someone behind a curtain without knowing who’s there. Hamlet is ruthless and compassionate, proud and self-pitying, witty and sad, weary and dynamic, lucid and confused, sane and mad. His is an innocent worldliness, a worldly innocence, a living contradiction of almost any human qualities we could imagine.”

(Does this remind anyone of Holden Caulfield?)