Sep 202016
 

Writing Better Dialogue – Part 1
Beats, Omissions, and Rhythmic Language

When I’m looking to freshen up my dialogue, there are certain movies I return to. One of them’s Sexy Beast. While It’s a good film overall, dialogue is what makes this flick sizzle. Some of 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). It’s two of these scenes I’ll be examining. But first, 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 spent a long time comparing the movie to the original script, I found Kingsley’s claims to be slightly exaggerated – but only slightly. Changes were made but are so minor they hardly count.

So before we start digging into a scene, 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 is flying over to discuss a job.  Merely hearing Don 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 chit chat  in the sitting room, Aitch takes Jackie and Deedee out to dinner leaving Don and Gal alone to discuss business. Continue reading »

Aug 272009
 

I read Miranda July’s collection of short stories entitled No One Belongs Here More Than You with a growing sense of excitement at having discovered a writer who presents things in a startlingly unexpected and fresh manner. This collection is a series of stories that are both touching and strange, related in a stripped down style, and an almost ethereal voice. To be honest, I think the term “almost ethereal” is the probably exactly the wrong one to describe her voice. OK it verges on a copout – but it shall stand for lack of a better one. July is very good at finding the weirdest angles to look at ordinary things. In this work, the majority of the stories seem to come from different female identities that share some twisted quirks. Perhaps the book might have been more effective had it been unified by one reoccurring character, but that is not the case. In fact, one of the stories is told from the PoV of a middle-aged man. But, all of the female narrators relate the story from the first person, and most of them seem to be quite lonely and sad for similar reasons. However, this lack of unity to a reoccurring theme was only a minor distraction. Instead, what really got my attention was the way which July’s stories took rather strange turns and how she made them work.

Of course, it is important (to me anyway) that fiction go in weird and unexpected directions. After all, in the span of their life almost everyone has or will break up with someone, be lonely, feel alienated, etc. The trick to great fiction is its ability to look at these mundane occurrences in a different way. In July’s case, she succeeds with this tactic by allowing the reader to inhabit the PoV of a narrator who is completely fearless in her honesty yet often paralyzed by the thought of taking action within the story. Commonly, the state of limbo that July’s characters relate provides some of the strongest moments of tension. This strategy is neither earth shattering or original. What is original is July’s ability to weave in details of a character’s odd habits or socially taboo urges, while carrying on without taking the time to comment as if it were completely natural – which of course it is.

One of the most difficult things a writer can do is to find honest responses that will resonate viscerally with the reader. If July is anything, she is brutally honest regarding some of her character’s most basic urges, and the fact that she refuses to dwell upon the very thing that makes the reader take pause makes odd moments all the more effective. For example, one protagonist shares a patio with her neighbors. She keeps a calendar as to when she or her neighbors use it, going so far as to mark down the times she uses it and times she sees it being used in an attempt to use her perceived share of the space. This is something anyone might do, yet few people would admit to it or even admit to fantasizing about doing it. The reoccurring female protagonist with different names is constantly coveting other people’s lives and living a bizarre alternate reality that the other characters seem to be blissfully unaware of.

Other times, July sets up scenarios that seem impossible at first blush, and then imbues them with so much concrete detail that one starts to believe they could occur. For example, one character teaches her octogenarian neighbors to swim on her kitchen floor. Yes, the idea is ridiculous, but soon you are chuckling, and then out of nowhere it all makes you terribly sad. She will make you sad too, and if you say you are not sad then you are lying or have not lived enough to know you should be sad. The sadness is not sentimental, or romantic. It is a kind of cultural sadness that seems to be in the air in the 21st century. The kind you laugh off all the time, only to have it come back to haunt you at odd moments. To be honest, I am not sure I want to read anymore of July’s work. The book that now resides on my shelf will remain a constant source of interest and inspiration for quite a while. I fear if I move on to some other work, she will let me down. Frankly, I am content right here.

Jul 182009
 

Once, in a graduate seminar, I made a comment about authors who had a political agenda but told the story first while avoiding being preachy or didactic. When pressed for the name of such an author I responded with Margaret Atwood. The professor laughed at me, rolled his eyes, and moved to another point of discussion. I have always defended Atwood as someone with a stated agenda that writes complex work until I read The Year of the Flood. The novel beat me about the head with environmental issues from the first page to the last. No, while this is a very good story that I devoured in the course of a day, it shamelessly pushes a rather one note agenda that I found tedious.

Well then, why the hell is this such a compelling story? This book is well built and built for speed, and the story itself is action packed. However, as a writer the two things that I really noticed were Atwood’s ability to maintain tension when the reader effectively knows the outcome of the novel and her switching both the point of view as well as the tense between the novel’s two main characters.

Maintaining the tension with The Flood was a neat trick because the story’s time line runs parallel to Oryx and Crake. Presuming the reader has read the author’s prior book, the standard tactic of withholding information can only work so long. At the beginning of the novel, the reader knows two of God’s Gardeners are alive, each one in a different sort of trouble: Ren is stuck inside of a quarantine area of a sex club while Toby is holed up in a day spa. Each character has their own survival concerns, neither knows the other is alive or the whereabouts of the rest of the cult. So, by flashing backwards and forwards through time, the reader grows to care about the dangerous limbo states while simultaneously wondering what happened to all the secondary characters. Atwood is brilliant in the way she feeds the reader just enough information to maintain suspense while holding out on answers until near the conclusion. The shifts in time were also handled quite well; by the time one reaches the last section of the novel, they are well informed of why these two characters are in their present states and what is at stake for them to survive and find the rest of the community.

The choices Atwood made in terms of point of view worked quite well. The novel is told from two different female characters perspectives: Toby, perseverant and tough, is presented in third person limited, present tense while Brenda, passive and immature, relates her story through first person, past tense. Presenting Toby in the present tense works well because she is a no-nonsense, live-in-the-present, character. Therefore the narrative coming from Toby in this way seems organic and her perspective on things is reliable. In contrast, Ren’s story works from that particular PoV because she is rather self involved and comes across as weak when placed next to Toby. In fact, Ren is a pretty tough cookie, and to be fair almost any character will look weak next to Toby.

The point of view shifts were not jarring. They occur closer and closer together as the novel reaches its climax. The shifts themselves form a kind of structure where the novel’s sections often start with a fragment of ‘present’ post apocalyptic tension, Brenda is running out of food and Toby is being terrorized by the Pigoons, and then look backward in time to give you the story of God’s Gardener’s and the corporate wasteland they survive in.

While I enjoyed The Flood, I would call it a post apocalyptic page turner. Like, I get it. I understand the worldview: human beings suck, we are destroying the planet, and we live in a patriarchy where every woman is mere seconds from being raped/and or oppressed in some way shape or form. Atwood sees a future so bleak that the reader is cheering on a mega plague. There is not much else to say about this narrative besides it’s a war cry for the environment and rails against the evils of corporate capitalism. The world evoked is a kind of high technology dark ages where the last best of hope of humans is that they eradicate themselves before they destroy the planet. Margaret Atwood has amazing talent with the written word. Aside from the awful hymns (I thought they were written poorly with intent until I saw one could purchase a CD of them) the book is well written throughout. Also, there are shifts in language that occur that are really quite remarkable. Atwood has an enviable understanding of when to linger on a description, when to move on, and what kind of sentence will accomplish each task best.

Good book. Preachy as hell but good.

Nov 022008
 

I have been reading Flannery O’Connor, which seldom fails to please me as a reader. As a writer, I’m usually slack jawed at the amount of control she maintains throughout her work. For example, I consider both “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People” to be nearly flawless short stories. They remain prime examples of the wide range of thoughts and emotions a writer can produce in a reader within a limited textual space.

One of the ways O’Connor accomplishes this is by maintaining a constant undercurrent of tension throughout each piece. Take the dynamics of the family in “Good Man,” where the reader is presented with a strange yet familiar narrative of a road trip with grandma in tow. The family is of course awful, which makes their familiarity all that much more uncomfortable. If the reader is not somewhat sickened and intrigued by seemingly mundane journey to Florida, they will not be ready for the final encounter with The Misfit. The final encounter would seem contrived if you read it as the ending to most stories. Instead, the reader grits their teeth as each member of that annoying tribe is led away. When I read “Good Man” as a writer, it is the “mundane tension” that I marvel at, the masterful way O’Connor manages to get me from the living room to the wrong road without losing my attention.

This same tension is present and used to effect in “Good Country People.” The reader, once again, is presented with a straightforward setting, which is inhabited what could be written as rather boring characters. However, there is something strange and compelling about the relationship between the three women, and it keeps the reader’s appetite wet until the bible salesman arrives. The resulting tryst with Hulga, and her betrayal is effective because of the tension which builds up to her abandonment. As a reader, I find myself relieved that she is abandoned. If you know this writer’s work, you probably feel relieved for Hulga as well. She comes away faring much better than most of O’Connor’s characters who are usually killed off on the last page or die muttering to themselves in some kind of destitute state. The fellow she is with could have done much worse than run off with her leg and her dignity. OK, that’s arguable, but that’s exactly why the story works. Joy/Hulga, the superior know-it-all, is left blind and temporarily helpless in a hay loft. What’s worse, she’s been left there to meditate upon sure knowledge that she’s been blind all along. The reader has no idea what Hulga will do with the rest of her life or how she will deal with the questions of Mrs. Freeman and Mrs. Hopewell.

When I finish an O’Connor story, I often feel relief to have a second chance at life. Often, she holds the reader gently for the first 2/3rds of the story before beginning to apply pressure that grows excruciating near the end. The dénouement seldom grants the reader anything more than a few moments to gather their bearings in regards to their own reaction to the dark irony that has just occurred on the page before the story ends. In other words, I often feel the end of her narratives have an abruptness to them but it is not awkward or unwarranted.