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Monday, December 17, 2007

Can Dialogue be TOO Good?

I was listening to a review of JUNO on NPR and one of the commentators said something interesting. She said that the dialogue in JUNO was so hip and witty that it felt inorganic, like a writer’s conceit of a character – not a real character. The commentator went on to give the movie a great review but her comment on overly-witty, self-conscious dialogue was first and foremost. Having just seen JUNO, I would have to agree, sort of. But the movie is so crazy-fabulous that Ellen Page’s impossibly amazing performance as a sixteen-year old with the vocabulary and thought-processes of a thirty year old wins a viewer over as the conceit of this movie. But I digress.

My daughter used to watch The Gilmore Girls. And that show drove me nuts for the same reason. Amy Sherman-Palladino is a gifted woman, there’s no doubt about that, and the show definitely took a turn for the worse when she moved on from the show – but during her tenure, I often cringed at the dialogue. Not because it was bad – it was so good – uber good, creepy good, resentfulness-inducing good – because nobody can be that witty all the damn time!

In The Gilmore Girls, every character was super witty and smart – all the bloody time. And worse – ultimately every character had the same voice – presumably, Palladino’s. So there was a grating sameness to the dialogue in the show and worse, a gratingly high level of witty! sharp! clever! Dialogue. In every. Damn. Scene. At least JUNO was limited to one story. Not thirty episodes a year for seven damn years. I may have those numbers wrong – but I don’t care! Self-conscious dialogue in which the character is clearly the writer’s alter-ego is grating.

When you watch a movie or a television show and literally every cast member is cooler and smarter than you – if they never stumble over their words, if they don’t say the wrong thing or the less-than-brilliant thing – it can distance a viewer from the material.

An extreme example of idiosyncratic dialogue strongly reflective of the writer’s voice is of course David Mamet’s dialogue. His trademark is herky-jerky, hiccupy dialogue. And when you watch a Mamet movie you just settle in for that experience because that’s the way it is and that’s what you signed up for and there you go. But that’s David Mamet. And surely – Palladino was quite successful so in a sense, my argument becomes just a personal rant. Or does it? Can dialogue be too good? Inorganically good?

If you are writing stylized dialogue as an affection of your story, as literally part of the delivery system, I give my stamp of approval – that’s very clever. But if you really want the story to be front and center, remember to watch out for dialogue that is too self-conscious.

Listen to how actual people talk, the next time you’re out. The silences in-between the words can mean more than the words themselves. Or sometimes the words can weigh a ton. This, overheard from a Wave-inatrix neighbor just the other day: Let’s have brunch at that place, remember that place? Yeah. And it’s in the ‘hood so it will be funny!

The Wave-inatrix was agape. What did it mean? These are nice neighbors. Gak.

Bad dialogue speaks for itself. (Ha). It is monochromatic, bland, on-the-nose and stilted. All the characters sound the same – like the writer, more or less. Characters sound either totally homogeneous or like stereotypes. There is no nuance or subtext to what they say.

Good dialogue is snappy, real-sounding, organic and specific to each character.

Great dialogue is all of the above and reveals everything you’ll ever need to know about that character; their world view, prejudices, social class and belief system. It will be idiosyncratic but imperfect. They won’t always say the right thing. And sometimes characters are silent.

In 3:10 to YUMA which was hands down one of my two favorite movies of 2007 (the other being JUNO so go figure) Christian Bale whispers one of the most memorable pieces of dialogue I have ever heard in my life. And he’s upset and he’s scared and what he says is so utterly courageous and heartbreaking at the same time that the scene moved me to tears.

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millar prescott said...

Yes! I agree 100% with your assessment of GG's dialogue. Despite all that witty and snappy banter, it still couldn't make me stop watching the absolutely delicious Lauren Graham.

Laura Reyna said...

Overly-clever, "written"- sounding dialigue is a pet peeve of mine. It's very distracting. I feel the writer is more concerned about showing off than about presenting something truthful.

But I also think this kind of showy dialogue impresses the crap out of a lot of people (example: JUNO). And It can cover up some story weaknesses. So if you have a way with snappy dialogue, I suggest you use it for all it's worth. :-)

Christian M. Howell said...

Interesting. Billy Mernit had almost the same exact things to say about Juno. I haven't seen it yet, but the few trailers and snippets do reveal her "overly-enthusiastic" dialog.

You should definitely read billy's post. I agree that it did seem kind of "on-purpose." I hae been told my dialog is good but in my favorite script my protag is the corniest person. Her jokes fall flat.
I did it on purpose to make her seem "nerdier."

Dialog is almost the most fun part of specs or assignments as "dialog is showing" when the actor has the right motivation.

But then I'm not a fan of the "racquet-ball" method of character reveals or interactions (you know, have two characters play racquet-ball while arguing).

But I digress. I may go to see Juno. I did notice that the dialog is a little grating in that "no one's that cool kind of way," but it was comedic in its delivery. Being a smoker, the last place you want to be is in a movie theater.

Anyway, here's to another great year. Hopefully this one will end with an agent pour moi.

kingseyeland said...

Every time I watch something Aaron Sorkin wrote, I feel exactly the same way. Sorta goes like this:

You feel exactly the same way?

I feel exactly the same way?

The same way?

The same way?

That's astounding.

What's astounding.

That you feel exactly the same way.

Did you know that narwhals rub their long teeth together to clean the barnacles off?

That's astounding.

I feel the same way.

I thought you'd say that.

LaFemmeAnkita said...

Hello. I'm not a writer, but put my two-cents on the subject on my blog and linked to your post. Just wanted to let you know. Enjoyed reading your thoughts.