Sep 202016
 

Writing Better Dialogue – Part 1
What’s Left Unsaid

When I’m looking to freshen up dialogue, there are certain movies I return to. One of them is Sexy Beast. While It’s a good film overall, the dialogue makes this flick sizzle. Sexy Beast’s most memorable scenes occur between a sociopathic gangster named, Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) and a retired safe cracker, Gal Dove (Ray Winstone). I’ll be examining one of these scenes, but before we get into it, the screenplay itself merits a few words.

The original screenplay, by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, sparkles under scrutiny. In fact, Ben Kingsley’s stated that the cast delivered every exclamation and expletive as it appears in the script without improvisation. Having compared the film to the script, I found Kingsley’s claims to be slightly exaggerated – but only slightly. Changes were made but are so minor they hardly count.

So what’s this movie about?

A Synopsis of the Plot:

After nine years in prison, ex-safecracker Gal Dove leaves London and retires in rural Spain with his wife Deedee. Gal and Deedee are deeply in love and enjoying life in their remote villa when Gal’s past life as a criminal catches up with him. A ruthless gangster named Don Logan arrives determined to convince Gal to take part in a big job. Although he’s terrified of Don and the people he represents, Gal doesn’t want to risk returning to jail, losing Deedee, or being sucked back into the game. So Gal stubbornly, but politely, refuses to take the job. This leads to a ferocious battle of wills between Don and Gal. Ultimately, Gal’s forced to take the job in order to protect Deedee, but his participation doesn’t happen quite the way Don has it worked out.

Scene One: Confrontation at the Villa

Some Context – A few days prior, Gal learns that Don Logan is flying over to discuss a job.  Merely hearing Logan’s name is enough to visibly rattle Gal.  Jackie and Aitch, two friends who also have criminal ties in London, pick Don up at the airport and drive him to Gal and Deedee’s villa. After a tense and awkward attempt at small talk, Aitch takes Jackie and Deedee out to dinner leaving Don and Gal alone to discuss business. Continue reading »

May 142016
 

Do you want to write better dialogue? If so, there are a number of ways to go about it. One is to read and re-read books containing dialogue-driven scenes you admire – if you’re a writer then I assume you’re already voracious reader – another is to watch and deconstruct films which contain the kind of exchanges you want to evoke in you’re writing. I advocate for doing both as deconstructing my favorite moments in fiction and film helped me write dialogue effectively.

While there’s no substitute for reading great fiction, watching movies is useful for entirely different reasons. Because movies allow you to hear the way language sounds when it’s delivered by professionals trained to use language for maximum effect. Watching and active listening allows you to dial in on the way vocabulary, syntax, diction, and tone are deployed in a scene to effectively evoke a character that’s attempting to convince, plead with, seduce, flatter, interrogate, or intimidate others.

And thanks to the internet, watching your favorite movie clips is often free. Additionally, having the clip playing on a screen on your desk allows you to watch and re-watch a scene in order to break it down into its composite elements.

Just one word of caution – be selective in the films you choose to study.

“The bad artists imitate, the great artists steal,” says Pablo Picasso. So, personally, I aim to steal from the best. After all, why take the time and effort to lift costume jewels when a bit of effort will yield real gems? Don’t get me wrong. I read and watch my fair share of garbage. But while I indulge in all kinds of gratuitous reading, TV, and movies, I don’t waste time actively studying scenes which lack challenging material.

Does this kind of exercise really work?

I can only state with certainty that it works for me. Often I’ll come away from deconstructing a scene with tricks, strategies, and ideas I’m able to deploy immediately in my own writing. Other times, I know and understand how an effect was achieved but will have little use for it in a current project. I’m okay with this because I’d prefer to have more tools at hand than less. And, just as reading great sentences will certainly improve one’s writing, I believe listening to and internalizing great dialogue can only help me in the quest to write better scenes of my own.

So how’s this done?

In my next post, I’ll demonstrate how I break a scene down and extract the reasons I think it works. In later posts, I’ll look at a number of other lessons films can teach writers and list ‘writerly’ movies that I repeatedly return to in order to hone my craft.

Feb 222015
 

Is feedback on writing similar to comments made by judges on the show “Chopped?” I’d say they’re strikingly similar, and writers can learn a lot about themselves by watching contestants react to criticism.

I thrive off feedback, good, bad, indifferent – I want to know what a reader thinks. Every decision I make when writing a story has an intended effect on the reader’s experience. Structure, syntax, dialogue patterns, the list goes on, and all of these elements are calculated choices. The fastest way to learning if I succeeded is to hear directly from a reader as to what their reaction was to the story, and then decide to whether I’m going to make adjustments in revision or not.

So when it comes to fiction, reader feedback is something I value quite highly with the best readers going over my work like they’re a stranger and telling me where they found themselves drifting or confused. In other words, where would they have put the book down. Why? Because if you waste the time of a random stranger who picks up your work, they’ll toss it aside and move on to someone else’s. The best chance you’ve got to capture and keep an audience is to figure out any flaws or missteps before they read it. Good readers provide you with a kind of pre-audience that’s kind enough to provide comments before you send the work out.

Look, we’re all very busy. And with free time in such short supply, I’ve come to treasure those who make the time to read my drafts, then follow up with feedback that’s both honest and specific about what’s working for them, what isn’t, and why.

In short, my best readers give me positive, negative, and ‘neutral’ positions in plain language without preamble. These relationships have taken years to cultivate, and the reason I receive feedback of this quality is because my readers know that I won’t mistake criticism of my writing as criticism of me.

If you think getting an informed, honest opinion is easy – you’re wrong. Many readers use silence as disapproval or simply smile and say everything was grand. But I can understand why some folks are reluctant to be honest – much less frank – given how writers can be complete babies about receiving feedback.

When I was attending workshops, I resented immature writers and their shitty, toxic attitudes because they undermined my chances of getting the straight dope. Those days are long gone, but the petulance of those who aim to be writers still irks me, and I wonder this: if people felt free to ‘think out loud’ about criticism, and then asked to reflect on their reactions, could you then have a constructive conversation on the topic?

I think so, and I’ve thought of a device for getting writers to speak their minds, and then discuss a common default mode to be defensive when critiqued. – The device is the TV show, “Chopped.”

This exercise would work well in a fiction-writing workshop. It’s easy enough to pull up an episode of “Chopped” on the Food Network website, and watch it during class. Because listening to viewer’s discussing their perception of the judges is an object lesson in how we, as a culture, come by our defensiveness and provide a way for professionals to consider their own reactions.

A nutshell explanation for anyone unfamiliar with the show: “Chopped” is a reality TV show featuring four chefs competing for a ten-thousand dollar prize. There are three rounds, appetizer, entrée, and dessert. Each competitor has to create each course by combining three to four key ingredients, none of which may be excluded from the dish. Now, here’s the catch, the contestants have no idea what the ingredients will be until they open their ‘mystery baskets.’ After twenty or thirty minutes, the buzzer sounds, and contestants must immediately step away from their stations.

Upon completion of the round, each chef presents their dish to a panel of three well-known chefs or restaurateur judges. After hearing the judge’s comments and answering questions, the contestants wait out of earshot as the judges deliberate. The contestants then return to hear which dish has been ‘chopped.’

The feedback given by judges often comes in the standard ‘sandwich’ format. And while the judges are preforming to add to the manufactured drama, their reasons for liking or disliking a dish are concrete and – if listened to – will help contestants reach the next round. Among other things, judges look at presentation, complexity of flavor, and the successful incorporation/synthesis of all ingredients into the prepared dish.

The opinions of a judge are just as subjective as anyone else. What a judge possesses is the ability to articulate opinions that are well-informed from training and experience.

The show is done with all the usual drama of reality TV, with overly-dramatic music and close-in camera shots of contestant’s faces as they listen to the judges critique their efforts. The positive comments either acknowledged with a nod or, ‘thank you’ while – as you might imagine – negative comments or recommendations are met with a wide variety of reactions.

Chefs often look hurt, shocked angered, or confused. There’s eye rolling, smirks, and often a forced grin which threatens to become bared teeth. –And, of course, the viewer sees approximately ten close-ups out of what’s likely to be hundreds the produces have to choose from when editing.

I would just add that the more professional chefs who compete are composed, polite, and therefore get less camera time until the final rounds. – They tend to win the contest more often as well.

Yes, I am aware this is Reality TV and I understand ‘the game’ of it. I have a larger point to make here.

Essentially, when the judges comment, you’re hearing what a diner might say if you could eavesdrop on their table. Only most diners wouldn’t be nearly as specific nor be able to articulate why/how something was ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Also, paying diners can and will say personal things if they are angry. (Just like a paying audience would say things about you or your book.)

So returning to my hypothetical classroom:

I’m a fan of “Chopped.” It’s kind of like the minor league version of “Iron Chef” with most the contestants going down in flames within one or two rounds. So I wouldn’t be feigning interest when picking the likely winner in the beginning, and then figuring out who will blow the round within the first few minutes. Of course, the producers tend to select one person they know the audience will despise, and someone else with a hardship story. And they throw in all kinds of curve balls to chefs who are usually quite specialized. (Ever notice that during the dessert round, there’s ALWAYS at least one contestant reaching for the mascarpone cheese? It’s like the duct tape of dessert making or something.) For me, half the fun of watching the show is watching it with people who are tuned into the narrative moves the producers make in casting and editing, then riff off them.

Once the dishes have been presented for judgement, the real sniping begins. I’d encourage students to criticize the ‘meanness’ of the judges by being outspoken and preforming just a bit myself. I’d get them to ‘buy into’ the narrative they were just so carefully deconstructing. It’s likely to work because many of us fall into the trap of not seeing other people’s reactions as a mirror of our own.

Shit I’ve heard people say while watching ‘Chopped”: ‘ You can just tell she hates female contestants’ – ‘That guy is always critical of spicing. He probably finds curry bland.’ – ‘Can you believe she didn’t have one single positive thing to say?’—‘I wonder how well he’d do if given spam and octopus to work with?’

Discussing these reactions and comments with writers directly after watching the shows would be effective as everyone’s gripes, mine included, would be ‘top of mind.’

Now, of course, some of observations may be true, and being human, I can’t say something similar hasn’t crossed my mind or come out of my mouth. That said, I think those of us who write are best served by working to stay open and receive feedback with the best face possible. If you’ve offered your work up to be scrutinized, then listen – I mean really listen – to what a reader has to say, and then process their perceptions like a professional. In other words, suck it up, take notes, be polite, then figure out if the reader’s opinion is worth acting on later.

If you genuinely wish to hear feedback to improve your work, the most valuable comments you can hope for are both honest and well-informed. Such comments should be acknowledged with grace or the best professional mask one can muster. Why? Because a listener’s negative reaction can shut the person talking down in a heartbeat. –And this warrants repeating: unless, someone makes a personal attack, they are not criticizing you as an artist but whatever they’ve been kind enough to read.

I regularly encourage those who read for me to scrutinize each piece like a complete stranger. Because a stranger will not cut me slack. They opened the book, there’s my story, and judgement begins on the first sentence they happen to read. If I fail with nine out of ten readers, then I’m wasting my time. But if I manage to delight, interest, and entertain them – chances are they’ll recommend my work to a friend.

Then and only then, will I have one less stranger and one more reader.

Feb 242013
 

A short piece on my alma mater’s blog where I argue that writers should trust themselves enough to create really messy drafts as they’re sure to find promising moments days later:

Here’s an excerpt:

The ability to allow sloppy prose to fill the page, ignore MS word’s blood-red squiggles and green-grammar nagging is certainly an act of faith. When I first tried this method, I had strong doubts that I’d understand my early drafts, much less find anything of value in them to make the effort worthwhile. This was not the case. Instead, I found myself able to decode haphazard gibberish days, weeks, even months later. Discovering meaning in messy drafts led me to create them with abandon. Now, I write them with a feeling that’s suspiciously close-kin to confidence; where I once feared drowning in a sea of noise, I now find, on the worst of days, the lack of comprehension only reaches my waist.

Against the repeated warnings of my attorney, I’m going to argue that fiction writers not only listen to but trust the voices in their heads. Of course, for some of us this may not be the best guidance – but let’s imagine Joe Stalin adjusting the garnish of a picture-perfect omelet in the foreground (ignore the charnel house just behind him) and talk some serious shop. After all, writers who aren’t ruthless in the pursuit of crafting better fiction cannot hope to produce work that’s even remotely interesting. And, frankly – if writing a story doesn’t strain your emotions, if it doesn’t make you feel somewhat vulnerable, you’re probably not doing it right.

You can read the entire post here.

Mar 192012
 

The blogosphere is plagued with posts where the writer makes intermittent apologizes for neglecting their duties to perform like the trained monkey they signed up to be. If you have a readership, you are expected to dance. I feel little need to dance because, stealing a line from Kenny Goldsmith out of context: ‘I assume no readership.’

Really, I maintain this blog for a few very specific and selfish reasons:

1. I’m working to become a better writer.
2. I’m working to improve my grammar.
3. I’m working to have more options when I write a sentence.
4. I’m working to produce more ‘good’ writing in the first draft.

If I said that I was too busy to maintain this blog, I would be lying to myself. I was ‘busy’ doing other things. One of those things was wasting precious time. Recently, I quit Facebook because I was creeped out by their business model. Well, that and I was sick of the obsessive verbal twitching and inane outbursts that social networking both enables and encourages. Yes, my current job takes up a lot of my time, but that is a lame excuse to not be productive. In short, I need to get my ass back in gear, though I’m not really sure I capable of it.

I digress. The blog is a cool space to work because it allows me to work on the four points above with low-stakes writing. My grammar, though far from perfect, has improved, and I am getting better at generating posts in less time. But Sherman Alexie makes a good point about the dangers of blogging, when he says something like: ‘every word on a blog is a word that’s not in a novel.’ This kind of truism is annoyingly accurate. That said, here is a short defense of literary dithering.

I find that I can keep myself on-task when I have an imaginary audience. When there is a novel sitting around that I must make time to read, it is a lot more likely to happen if I imagine someone waiting on my thoughts. This same imaginary audience helps to keep my posts fairly focused and is often very noisy about stupid, sentence-level errors.

Anyway, I am going to try to get back to working on this thing. My new self-imposed rules are to try to reduce the overall post length, generate content faster, and find things of note to talk about outside of fiction.

I really have no idea if I will be successful. Frankly, I’m not that worried about it.

Mar 122012
 

The folks over at my alma mater’s literary blog were kind enough to allow me to share some thoughts about Lolita, one of my favorite novels, and the MacGuffin, one of my favorite plot devices.

Here is an excerpt:

What the hell is Lolita about anyway? Putting this question to ten different readers would yield a variety of responses depending on the sophistication of the reader. But let’s pretend they are all ‘good readers’ as defined by Vladamir Nabakov himself; let’s arm them with, among other things, an imagination, a memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense. Given this object and these aspects, our good readers will most assuredly tell us that Lolita is about a number of things that have less to do with pedophilia and more to do with themes far too complex to be reduced to an isolated independent clause with any accuracy.

Yet an obsession with pedophilia is clearly the motive force that propels Nabakov’s protagonist throughout this novel. Surveying the field of famous literary goals, Humbert Humbert’s quest to obtain a nymphet, a sexually aware prepubescent girl, is more than just a little creepy; it’s memorably loathsome. Nevertheless, what is both loathsome and cruel is part and parcel of a beautiful, brilliant, and sometimes tender novel: this paradox turns the knife. Humbert is witty; Humbert is self deprecating – he’s also relentless, condescending, sadistic, and awful. Humbert is all of these things and more, but most importantly for the story’s success – he is driven. That he is driven to pursue nymphets is incidental to the relentlessness of his pursuit. The light of Humbert’s life and fire of his loins could just as easily have been Helen of Sparta, Tadzio the Polish boy, or Rex the Collie . – In short, Lolita is the MacGuffin.

You can read the entire post here.

Feb 192009
 

So, I know that I have not been keeping up with this here blog. Mostly that is because I am in the middle of writing a book, but I can’t say that excuse holds much water with me. After all, I will often recharge my mental batteries by surfing the net or mindlessly browsing Facebook. I could have been using that time to read something else or reflect on what I have been reading. Recently, I have resolved to opt out of the ADD techno culture that is causing the human race to rapidly devolve into giant butts with opposable thumbs; instead, opting into the use of my privileged situation and technology to think, create, and participate.

While I am up on my little soap box, allow me to take myself down a peg. In a recent seminar, one of my mentors started to mock a literary review that attacked a book we were reading. Mid rant, he pointed to a comment by the reviewer, identifying it as a ‘big ass cliché.’ I must confess this observation was a humiliating epiphany for me. When writing fiction, I go out of my way to avoid hackneyed phrases, vary my syntax, and generally pay attention to language*. But when writing analytically, I tend to stay so focused on getting my point across, without sounding like a complete moron, that I will often use a line from my standard toolbox of lines – this toolbox is well populated with clichés – to get my point across and call it a day. This cannot continue. Either one writes as best they can whenever they are writing or they do not.

Of course, all of that is well and good, but I have a self imposed quota that, as of late, has not been met. I am going to try to write about at least one book every two weeks. I cannot expect myself to produce brilliant, penetrating posts every time. But, I can set out to try to pay more attention to what I am saying and how it sounds no matter what the mode of writing might be. As my coursework winds down, I do not see much occasion for me to be writing academic essays in the future. Scholarly, critical work holds very little appeal to me. However, many of my favorite writers have produced some marvelous essays that cause academics to wince, wiggle, and opine; the reason that I find that work, essays produced by artists for artists, so interesting is that it often breaks the unspoken stuffy rules of academic discourse. In short – you can show your ass. I very much like the idea of writing about things on my terms, for my edification, clarification, amusement and/or pleasure. I just want to write them well.

Hopefully, the more I write the closer I will come to achieving my goals. After all, those of us not graced with genius must resign ourselves to working that much harder to articulate our ideas.

*Yes, I am aware that I tend to nearly always use three items in a list. Baby steps people.