Tag Archives: Pulp Fiction

A dialogue on dialogue

From the new Bravo series, "Graham on Graham."
From the new Bravo series, “Graham on Graham.”

Graham (G1):  Good morning Graham, how are you?

Graham (G2):  Meh, pretty tired.  The cat decided to wake us up at three in the morning again.

G1:  That sucks.  Frickin’ felines.

G2:  Yeah.

G1:  So I saw on Twitter last night you said you thought you might write a post about dialogue today.

G2:  You must have been up late.

G1:  I was.

G2:  Couldn’t sleep either?

G1:  What “either”?  You and I are the same person.

G2:  True enough.

G1:  I’m just choosing not to be snippy and cranky about it this morning.

G2:  “Snippy” and “cranky”?  What are you, channeling our grandmother now?

G1:  Do you think we could get on with this, Mr. Snarkypants?

G2:  Fine.  Where do you want to start?

G1:  Well, it occurred to me that there is a lot of contradictory advice about dialogue floating around out there.

G2:  I’ve noticed that too.  Some people think too much dialogue is a bad thing.

G1:  I don’t get that.  I mean, obviously a novel is not a play and you need to create a balance of description and dialogue, but come on.  I think that’s an excuse invented by people who can’t write dialogue well.

G2:  And you accused me of being snarky.

G1:  Well, if I didn’t think I was a good writer of dialogue, I would pare it back as much as I could.  But do you remember when we were watching There Will Be Blood, how pretentious it seemed that there was no dialogue at all in the first half hour?  Characters were going out of their way to not talk.  It was forced and artificial.  Real people are insatiable chatterboxes.

G2:  Our son would certainly agree with you there.

G1:  He’s kind of the singular example.

G2:  Yeah.  But you wouldn’t write a character like him, would you?

G1:  No.  Because a lot of what he says is just random stuff that pops into his head – half-remembered lines from TV shows, updates on the video game he’s playing, stuff he did at school that day.  It doesn’t have a lot of coherence to it, or readability if you were to type it out word for word.

G2:  Naturally.  He’s twelve, and he’s a real person, not a character in a novel.  We’re not expecting erudition and fully formed sentences with multiple clauses.

G1:  No, no one would believe that, even in a novel.  Unless you were portraying him as the most preternatural, linguistically-gifted twelve-year-old in the history of the human race.

G2:  We love him very much, but no, that’s not who he is.

G1:  Nope.  So there’s a balance between the accurate portrayal of a twelve-year-old’s mentality and the need to establish a readable character, one who serves the narrative.  People just don’t talk how writers need to write them.  We yammer on about everything but what’s actually on our mind – we tell silly jokes, we blather about the weather.  In a story you have to get to the point.

G2:  That’s what you mean about serving the narrative.

G1:  Yeah.  Every conversation needs to push some aspect of the story, if only the slightest of nudges.  The relationships between the characters need to develop, or the characters have to get closer to their goal.  If your guys are going to stop for a five minute exegesis on hamburgers, there had better be some payoff to it.

G2:  Hamburgers… you’re thinking Pulp Fiction again.

G1:  You know me so well.  That’s a really good example.  That whole conversation between Jules and Vincent has nothing to do with the plot, but it helps establish their relationship, and shows us that these guys are interesting, endearing people we’re going to dig spending time with.  Even though they are on their way to commit a series of murders.  Would we have liked them if they’d devoted the conversation to the methodology of how they were going to kill the guys once they got to the apartment, or worse, said nothing at all?

G2:  That would have been the insufferable arthouse version.

G1:  So, I come back to this idea of balance.  You can go too far the other way, where characters become plot explainers.  I’ve seen this in fantasy a lot, where two people who have no real reason to talk to each other do an information dump about where they are in their quest, what happened over the last couple of days, and what has to happen next.  There’s no nuance to the conversation – the characters just agree with each other for pages on end as they lay out the story so far.  It’s the “As you know, Bob” problem.  Or Basil Exposition, depending on your preferences.  If the sole purpose of your dialogue is to tell your audience things they could learn another way, You’re Doing It Wrong.

G2:  My eyelids sag at the mere thought.  Of course, you and I are basically just agreeing with each other here.  What did you mean by nuance?

G1:  Characters should never talk about what they’re actually talking about.  Concepts and pellets of information should be implied, not blatant.

G2:  Oh, so we would talk about mochacinos in the guise of discussing dialogue?

G1:  I like to approach conversations from oblique angles.  Like yeah, maybe I would compose a scene of two writers (or two halves of the same mind, as it were) discussing dialogue and set it in line at a Starbucks while they wait for their lattés.

G2:  Yeah, because you’d never find a writer at a Starbucks.  Real original.

G1:  You get my point, though?

G2:  Not really.  Please explain it to me with statistics and visual aids.

G1:  You cribbed that line.  You really need to get more sleep.

G2:  I really need a lot of things and sleep gets in the way of them.

G1:  Suit yourself.  Picture it this way.  When you’re building dialogue, you have a couple of elements to consider.  You have the setting.  You have the goal – the piece of information that you need to convey.  Maybe it’s a simple fact, maybe it’s a clue to the mystery, maybe it’s the next step in a relationship.  That’s where you’re heading, but you don’t start with it.  You start in the wilderness and build towards it.  Imagine a scene of a couple eating in a restaurant.  The husband has to tell the wife that he’s lost his job, but he doesn’t know how to break the news.  His first line, then, is not going to be “I don’t know how to tell you this, but I lost my job.”  Is it?

G2:  I guess it could be, but that seems a waste of a lot of potential dramatic tension.

G1:  Exactly.  Instead, you might start with them talking about the food they’re eating, other restaurants they’ve been in, you know, casual, everyday, innocent stuff.  They might recall fond memories of when they were first dating.  The husband will realize that losing his job means they won’t be able to have nights like this anymore.  That will start to creep into what he’s saying to his wife.  She’ll notice something’s wrong and she’ll ask him about it.  He’ll deny it.  She’ll ask again.  He’ll deny it again, until he breaks down and confesses – or maybe doesn’t at all.  You see how 95% of the conversation won’t be about the main piece of information that comes at the very end, right?  Instead, you find your way in from the edges.  Organically.  The characters will lead you there on their own.

G2:  Like the scene in our novel where the two leads talk about their respective parents.  It begins with the heroine humming a stupid old folk song, and the guy noting that he recognizes it.

G1:  Or the scene later on where a conversation about the role of women in the world begins with a chat about sandwiches.

G2:  Pick the oddest thing and work your way back from it.

G1:  You are learning, young padawan.  The other thing to keep in mind too is that unless you’re writing a 1920’s silent movie, characters don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves.  Nor do most people.  Subtlety and understatement are the way to go.  A solemn declaration of undying love shouldn’t sound like it was scripted for daytime TV.  In fact, avoid solemn declarations of undying love altogether.

G2:  Something just occurred to me.  We’re unpublished – where do we get off flinging rules around like so much confetti?

G1:  There are no rules, only our interpretation of our own truth.  There is every possibility that this exercise has been one in utter nonsense.  We can only pass along what works for us in the hope that someone else might find it useful.  And this is a rich topic that could go on for thousands upon thousands of words, but eventually, folks will want to tell us to shut up.

G2:  Are there some resources we could point people towards?

G1:  I think you just have to read a lot of books, watch a lot of movies written by great writers, listen to a lot of different kinds of people talking and process it all in the mind’s blender.  And then try and fail a few times on your own before you figure it out.

G2:  You were going to mention Aaron Sorkin, weren’t you.

G1:  We both know he’s a big influence on us, it goes without saying.  Look at him, look at people like David Mamet, Richard Curtis, and David Seidler, who wrote The King’s Speech, to name but a very few.  Listen to their rhythms, listen to how someone like Mamet deconstructs patterns of speech to convey character.  Glengarry Glen Ross is a terrific example of this.  The scene between Moss and Aaronow “talking about” versus “speaking about” is fantastic.

G2:  You haven’t mentioned any actual novelists.

G1:  Well, funny you should bring that up, because we’re reading a book right now, Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, which has an interesting approach to dialogue.  It’s a western, set in 1851 California, but everyone speaks in very elegant, grammatically precise phrases that are probably not an accurate reflection of how people in 1851 California really spoke.  Not the artistic choice I was expecting, but refreshing after plodding through Ian Fleming’s clumsy attempts at American slang which felt as artificial as nobody talking in the first act of There Will Be Blood did.

G2:  Way to bring it full circle, dude.

G1:  I know what you like.  Anyway, how to portray dialect, how to vary word choices to denote different speakers, the value of repetition, talking it out to make sure it sounds right – like I said, a rich palette and worth discussing further at a later time.

G2:  If you can persuade me to do this again.  I feel like I didn’t get to say very much.  You were doing all the talking.

G1:  You’re tired.  The cat, remember?  Just looking out for you.

G2:  Oh, yeah.  Thanks.  Cheers, mate.

G1:  You too.

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Do authors dream of electric typewriters?

A dime a dozen.
A dime a dozen.

Where do you get your ideas?  That’s a question that everyone who fancies him or herself a writer is asked by someone at some point, with either a look of wonder or disgust on the questioner’s face (hopefully, it’ll always be the former).  The Muse can be an elusive mistress; Lynda, my writing teacher, once advised that waiting around for her was an exercise in futility as she was more likely to dance just out of reach, laughing at you, and that you had to force her to the table by sitting down and starting without her.  In that respect, schedules and deadlines certainly help a great deal, as we all know that the easiest thing to do in the world is not write.

Finding a subject for a blog post is not terribly difficult, even if the writing of said post is.  There’s always lots going on in the world that we can comment on.  I’m of the “more flies with honey” and “current or future employers might read this” mentality, so I’ll usually stop myself from venting about whatever is pissing me off lately and try to either write something positive or find an optimistic take on a particularly frustrating news item.  (On a side note, my wife and I are watching the political drama House of Cards these past few nights and I’m finding it difficult to glom onto completely, for the singular reason that it is an utterly cynical program wallowing happily in the most selfish aspects of government service, and I’m much more drawn to the hopeful take offered by The West Wing.  But Kevin Spacey is still awesome.)  The blog, essentially, is a snapshot of how you’re feeling on any given day.  A novel, by contrast, is a long term exercise in exploring an idea to its every possible limit.  But which ideas are more deserving of the in depth treatment as opposed to the casual chat?  How do you know which is which?

The summer after my mother died, I chained myself to my computer and started writing screenplays.  That was what I was into at the time; for more on what led to this check out this previous post.  Like many, my first ventures into serious writing were fan fiction, and in my case, Star Trek fan fiction.  Although, I never managed to finish any of it – there’s an old hard drive rusting in a landfill somewhere full of the first chapters of stories about the crew of the Enterprise doing… well, not very much, actually.  I couldn’t plot worth a damn at the time; I always figured I’d get to that part later on.  What was more of a passion in the teenage years was drawing comic books, even though my artistic skill was minimal.  And those were always James Bond stories, because they were easier to plot out.  Bad guy doing bad thing, Bond must stop him, there’s a girl, a car chase, a gadget or two.  For a high school creative project I wrote and drew a 007-Star Trek:  The Next Generation crossover, where Bond is beamed aboard the Enterprise-D to help solve a Romulan conspiracy that involves his old adversaries SPECTRE, and along the way he manages to fall in love with Dr. Beverly Crusher (although in a downbeat ending, they have to go their separate ways).  My English teacher loved it, her only criticism that it was a shame that I wasn’t using my own original characters.  My rationale (read: excuse) was that using established characters freed you from having to introduce and develop your own, and enabled you to get right into the story instead.  I didn’t understand at the time that the key to solving my inability to plot was to instead let the story flow out of the characters themselves.

But back to that summer.  By that point I was using original characters, even if the dialogue they were speaking was almost entirely borrowed.  That was about the time Pulp Fiction had come out and, as a film student at UWO, you could not take two steps into your classroom without hearing someone invoke the mighty Tarantino.  I’d like to think that I wasn’t as obviously pretentious as some of the goatee-stroking, beret-wearing pomposities I sat in lectures with, but my work was just as derivative.  My first full screenplay was about a group of kids in film school, with exhaustive, profanity-laden monologues about the hidden sexual themes in Star Wars (which, if you’ve seen Clerks, sort of puts the lie to the idea that these were in any way original characters.)  I was still convinced that someday, someone would make this movie and I’d be accepting my Best Original (heh) Screenplay Oscar for it (then again, I was 20, recently orphaned and extremely naïve).  Once that one was done, I started another, and then another.  But they weren’t anything of note or even interest.  I began to realize that they had no lasting value – because they weren’t about anything; there was no there there.  And they certainly weren’t in my own voice.

The final screenplay was about a group of four 20-somethings who lived in the same apartment building (cough… Friends… cough).  I know, it sounds dreadful, but I really enjoyed spending time with these particular people.  As bad as some of those other screenplays were, they were an opportunity to hone my skill; to develop dialogue and subtext, to cut the profanity, to shed the influence of His Holiness Pope Quentin.  When I typed FADE TO CREDITS, I realized I hadn’t been able to develop the characters in the way I’d wanted – the screenplay was about 170 pages (most genuine ones top out at 120, maximum) and I hadn’t said everything I needed to with these people.  I decided to abandon it at first draft and instead turn it into a novel.  And for the next two years I labored on this thing on and off.  A great deal of my days were spent thinking about the lives of these people:  Bryson Reid, aspiring writer and perpetual smartass, Krista Piper, alcoholic figure skater, Scott Shipley, advertising executive on the rise, and Lauren Devaney, Irish barista homesick for her native land.  Part of Bryson’s story involved him meeting an entrancing and successful fantasy author named Serena Lane.  And interspersed between the chapters about Bryson, Krista, Scott and Lauren were meant to be “excerpts” of Serena’s bestselling novel.  The whole enterprise was designed to lead to a “shocking” metaphysical twist (not in the earlier screenplay version) whereby Serena was the same person depicted in the fantasy portions, who had somehow managed to cross into the real world (and it was the Irish barista, Lauren, who had authored the book in the first place, only to have it stolen by a manipulative publisher who was herself the villainess from the fantasy story and had also escaped from page into reality.  “Serena Lane” would turn out to be the name of the street on which Lauren grew up in Dublin.)  Anyway, it got up to 350,000 words with no end in sight.  As I was writing it, I found I was enjoying the fantasy portions significantly more than the real world stuff.  Bryson, in particular, although ostensibly the hero, was fundamentally unlikable and there were times I just wanted to smack him upside the virtual head.  But I still felt the need to finish it.

Then one summer, I signed up for a local adult education course called “Crafting a Novel.”  Naturally I knew how to write a novel, this was just a chance to meet some people (i.e. attractive, single women) with a similar passion.  The first night of that class was a smack to the head much larger than the one I had wanted to give my fictional hero – I knew nothing.  And I was crestfallen when Lynda told us that even if we had a book we had been working on for years, we were to set it aside and start a new one.  To borrow a phrase from William Goldman, this was the ensuing sound inside my head:

AAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH

Surely she wasn’t serious?  My epic of Proustian magnificence deserved nothing less than endless streams of voluminous praise followed by a seven-figure publishing deal and movie rights!  How could anyone dare me to set it aside?

In retrospect, thank frickin’ Buddha, but we’ll get to that.

After picking my jaw up from the floor that night, I decided to think about things a little more rationally.  I’d slowly developed this fantasy world and enjoyed playing around in it.  Couldn’t I set another story in the same place?  And since prequels were all the rage, why not one that took place fifty years prior – something that might serve as a setup to the brilliance that was to follow?  That took care of the setting, but I still needed characters and a worthwhile story to tell.

A few days later, I’m in a video game store perusing the PlayStation titles, and I wander over to the PC rack.  There’s a game there, probably a precursor to World of Warcraft or something similar, and on it is a bunch of sketches of the characters.  One of them strikes me.  It’s a beautiful woman holding a mystical staff.  It’s nothing terribly original; do a Google Images search for “sorceress” and you’ll see thousands of variations on the theme – some gorgeous, half-dressed knockout hurling lightning from manicured fingers.  But something about it strikes me.  And I ask myself, what must it be like to be her?  Truthfully, the magical babe is a pretty boring staple of fantasy stories, either as a love interest, a physically unattainable spirit guide, or a cackling villainess bent on total domination of both the world and the hero’s crotch.  In anything I’d ever read or seen up until that point, she was always treated merely as an other to be conquered or otherwise overcome.  (Remember the witch in the first Conan the Barbarian movie?  Beautiful and exotic, as befits magical babes, but doesn’t get a name and is in the story for all of four minutes, three of which are spent rolling around on the floor with our favorite muscled Cimmerian.)  But if what would go through your head if you actually were a creature like that – would you go around thinking to yourself, “I am so willowy and ethereal and mysterious”?  Or would your head be occupied by the same mundane thoughts the rest of us have – what to wear tomorrow, whether you left the iron on, did you feed the cat?  After appearing and disappearing at will and turning men into pigs for a few hundred years, would you eventually grow bored with your powers?  What could the immortal sorceress who has everything possibly want?  Anything at all?  Or would she be subject to the same emotional needs and longings as the rest of us mere human beings?

And there was the seed of my new story.

Coming up in future posts – more on creating characters, developing the plot, struggling with description, crafting dialogue, the necessary pain of killing your darlings and how Aaron Sorkin helped me find my voice without even knowing I exist.