Blogs by L J Hippler
8/18/2008 7:36:55 PM
When the subtleties aren’t so subtle
I’ve been watching some television. Okay, I’ve been watching a lot of television. But it’s not wasted time if you’re taking note of the magic that writers of good television can do with dialog. (Just as a benchmark, keep in mind that Family Feud and reruns of Matlock do not constitute good television.)
To be good, dialog has to be authentic. I think sometimes as writers, we let our narrative voices bleed over into what our characters are saying. It may be grammatically correct and accurate. But it may also be said in words that your character would never use unless he was reading from a script. In season 4 of The Wire, for example, Omar Little is nabbed by the cops. “I’m locked up!” he shouts into a cell phone. Maybe “I’ve been arrested,” would have been more accurate. “They’re taking me to jail,” might have been more descriptive. But “I’m locked up!” is what Omar from West Baltimore would really say. And that makes all the difference.
To be authentic, language has to match the setting, the characters and the situation. No one likes gratuitous profanity. If it doesn’t belong there the reader knows it. She knows too that the author has used it as a crutch. But, suppose you have a scene where two drug dealers are arguing on the corner. You have one of them saying:“Dagnabit! Where’s my goshdarned cocaine?” If one of your dealers is Ned Flanders this works. Otherwise, not so much.
We need to remember that humor can be a fantastic tool for making your characters human. Real people don’t talk like answering machines. Most people go through the day making jokes and silly cracks, some of which are funny and some of which are just stupid. They make mistakes in their speaking. Sometimes they make malaprops, using words that only sound similar to the words they want. The writers of the Sopranos episodes are masters at showing us those.
When Tony Soprano speaks to his psychiatrist about the death of his best friend he says: “I was prostate with grief.”
Carmine Lupertazzi defends Tony’s need for counseling. “There’s no stigmata connected with going to a shrink,” he intones.
His son, Little Carmine, also gives us some weighty wisdom. “You’re at the precipice of an enormous crossroads.” At the premier of Clever, Christopher’s movie, he says: “You’re very observant. The dichotomy between the sacred and the propane.”
For a malaprop to work, the character has to say it with complete sincerity. But they are a great way to lighten the mood without having to write in humor. And as a bonus, they give us a tiny glimpse into the character’s psyche.
Sometimes material for good, funny dialog can be found in real life. Neighborhood or regional phrases that we take for granted can be golden when you’re writing. I remember helping a man named Tom move a very heavy sofa-bed across a street. There was one wise guy who had to ask if we had a match. The standard retort in that situation is: “Yeah, I got a match – my ass, your face.”
A fantastic quip for a writer. Properly timed and spoken it could be a gem - - worth a million dollars.
The look on Tom’s face when he realized he’d said it backwards - - priceless.
More Blogs by L J Hippler
A Little Validation - Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Curb your enthusiasm – but let the bigotry fly. - Tuesday, November 03, 2009
Best Case, Worst Case and Most Likely - Monday, December 29, 2008
On Hotness - Sunday, November 16, 2008
The Week That Was - Sunday, October 12, 2008
When-and Where-You are Gaius - Monday, September 15, 2008
Dialog - Monday, August 18, 2008
Recession, Economics and Dead Men Walking - Wednesday, July 16, 2008
There’s No Place Like . . .Where Your Stuff Is. - Monday, June 30, 2008
A Little Validation - Thursday, June 05, 2008
Money, Class and Living Well in Fiction - Thursday, May 08, 2008
LIVING small - Monday, March 31, 2008
Who is bigger-than-life? Who’s not? - Friday, February 29, 2008
You write what now?” - Thursday, January 31, 2008
About last night . . . - Monday, December 31, 2007
Here's the thing . . . - Thursday, November 22, 2007