Friday, May 18, 2007

Context and Conversation

Let's talk about real life for a moment. Have you ever staged a conversation? Ever heard someone talking on the phone nearby, and realized that the conversation was staged for your benefit? Maybe when you were 8, and hijacked your sister into a conversation about what you want for Christmas and why you're so deserving, and all the good things you did. Or when you're sixteen, and you overhear your parents talking about the evils of smoking, and how good parents listen rather than judge, at least if you come to them sooner rather than later. Maybe the midle manager sitting next to the pretty girl on the morning train, who loudly moves millions of dollars with a simple phone call.

What does that conversation sound like?

"Well, you're my wife, so you've known me for a long time, and I may be hot under the collar at times, but you know I care more about my kids."

"You're serious? I made a cool million before the market even opened? I just wish I had a beautiful woman to take to the Hamptons with me this weekend."

"WOW, you cleaned the whole garage? You must be a devoted and deserving son." "I am a deserving son, Jane. A damn good one who doesn't get enough respect in this family."

When I overhear conversations like this, I turn pale. Beads of sweat trickle down my forehead. It's happened -- there's a rip in the space-time continuum, and these poor people are stuck in the first draft of a screenplay!

Humans are programmed to understand social context. We can't not do it. Reading context is part of our evolution. And when it's not present in a conversation, it sticks out like a sore thumb. When's the last time a 10-year-old sister was interested in her brother's hard work? Why is the millionaire telling his secretary about his love life? Is the father worried that the woman next to him has forgotten she's his wife?

Many writers start and end by writing dialogue. It figures large on the printed page, so it seems natural. But dialogue is a huge trap for screenwriters. If you concentrate on dialogue alone, you'll never get to what makes a script feel natural and comfortable to a viewer.

What it does do is allow you to engage themes directly, and writers will often run miles with that.

-- Maybe Johnny's smoking because he thinks we don't care about him.

-- But we love him so much! If only we could tell him... then maybe he wouldn't smoke!

-- Don't say it!

-- I'm sorry, I have to say it! I was the sixth of seven kids, and I promised myself that Johnny would never know what it feels like to be neglected like I was! So I had the abortion!

-- You can't blame Johnny for the abortion.

-- I don't! I blame you!

-- NO!!!

Not infrequently the writer of this stuff thinks they've plumbed the depths of human consciousness. But hand it to a group of actors, and you'll inevitably hear the word 'turd'.

Everyone writes turds like this sooner or later. How do you avoid it? Two cues.

1. LISTEN. Listen to conversations on the bus. Listen to how your family talks. Write down a transcript in your head. What's it look like? Elliptical. Unfocused. You knew exactly what they were talking about. But it's not so clear as a transcript. Why? Because you've taken away the context. That's what dialogue looks like. That's how the middle class family with the angry mom and smoking son talk.

2. Go to your own scenes. Look for the turds. Don't hate yourself. Don't agonize. But start the editing process in a creative way. Build in context by:

-- Thinking of exacty where the character is at that moment. What happened in the last scene? Are they angry? Hungry? Horny? Bored?

-- Replace at least one line of dialogue with a visual cue.

-- Replace at least one line of dialogue with an action.

-- Listen to what your choices tell you about your story, and repeat the process.

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