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Sunday, October 08, 2006
When vandals come and strip the road to hell of all its good intentions and sell them at the Long Beach swap meet, what will be left behind is the dusty trail of writers who "love to write dialog" (meaning: love to toss same-same quips together in a sly string of characterless one-liners) but can't structure a story to save their souls.
Still, there's no doubting that writing snappy dialog is a lot of fun. Amidst this fun there exist two major challenges: consistency and differentiation.
Consistency means that a character should sound the same from one scene to the next. Differentiation means that every character should sound different from each other.
A have a lot of tricks that I use to achieve both consistency and differentiation. I happen to have a ton of experience working with licensed characters -- from Buffy to Kim Possible to Hellboy. I discovered something early on that has changed the way I think about, study, and write dialog.
Before jumping on a project with someone else's characters, I build a dialog study.
I take some of the source material (usually a bunch of scripts), pick a main character, and retype all of this character's dialog. No description, no context.
Most of the people I know -- and this includes most fictional characters -- have very limited vocabularies. Even skilled rhetoricians often use the same words and phrases over and over, sometimes for effect, sometimes unconsciously. Looking at a person/character's isolated dialog should bring to the surface all kinds of revealing ticks.
In addition to repeated key words (words like indeed, actually, I think, yeah, dude, etc.), you can find other things that might not be immediately apparent: Maybe one character doesn't speak in contractions. Maybe another starts speaking with contractions or other bridge words (and, but, so, well), while another never does this.
When I started working on the Hellboy Animated comics, one of the first things I did was take the two screenplays for the animated films and retype all the dialog. I was having a bit of a problem finding the character distinction between Kate and Liz. I understood (or thought I understood) the kind of women they were, but was having a hard time putting that into distinct words to come out of their mouths.
What I found was immediate obvious, though I hadn't seen in when reading the scripts: Liz almost never said more than two sentences at a time. Her dialog was largely very short reaction lines. While each time Kate spoke it was almost three lines of exposition. If all of the line I wrote for Kate were too brief, it simply wouldn't sound like her.
Let's say you are not working on a licensed project. It's a great idea to do this "study" on your own characters. Inconsistencies are much easier to find this way. You may even discover some of your hidden subconscious secrets.
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
I got a beautiful piece of direct mail today from Getty Images. It's an accordion fold brochure. On the front is a series of white panels that have big slogans on them ("Advertising doesn't tell it like it is" and "Technology is taking over"). These white panels are perforated, and when you peel them back, a glossy high-res photo is revealed with an associated sub-caption. For example:
Technology is taking over --> We'll desire the simple life and technology will become more invisible.
Apparently commas between two independent clauses will also become invisible. But that's not my gripe.
Because, believe me, people. I have a gripe with Getty Images.
Behind door number "Do more. Earn more." is the very contemporary thought: "Those who go back to their roots and do one thing well, will replace the heroic multi-tasker."
Ah! That's where that comma went! (Still not my gripe.)
Putting aside my fun with commas, let's look at that sentiment again.
Those who go back to their roots and do one thing well, will replace the heroic multi-tasker.
Getty, are you serious?
I am trying very, very hard to come to terms with the fact that this sentence appears to use the word HEROIC as a fucking insult. Please, pretty please, someone tell me that I'm over-reacting and I'm not really reading this last bit as: the multi-tasker is "heroic" because he attempts greatness and FAILS.
No, seriously. I'm flabbergasted. This piece of fucking propaganda -- from a respected, high-class photography house -- suggests that practicality wins over idealism.
If you say, well yeah, it does -- get the hell off my website.
I have, for many years, thought and despaired over the idea that I was fragmenting my talents to my own detriment. If only I focused and concentrated on just one thing, I could do that one thing better than anyone. So what should I give up?
Then I snap out of it. I can't give anything up. It's not who I am. It's not what I do. And it's not what I want to achieve.
What I want to achieve takes a lifetime to achieve, so you'll pardon me while I get back to work. Before I go, here is the Pasconian caption to that image:
Who will replace the showy, shallow, and self-important multi-tasker who busies himself yet accomplishes nothing? The individual who begins by doing one thing well, then continues to learn, to act, to achieve until he ascends into the heroic.
Monday, October 02, 2006
I am honestly surprised by the disproportionate lack of attention paid to the mechanics of writing.
By "mechanics," you may immediately assume I'm talking about the very basics: spelling, grammar, syntax. While a case could be made that not enough attention is paid to these building blocks of writing, the type of craft I'm talking about is the middle ground between the elemental (words and sentences, spelling and syntax) and emotional (coming up with ideas, dealing with writers' block). The middle ground includes:
How to write believable dialog.
How to create suspense.
How to develop an effective plot twist.
How to work scene transitions.
How to build meaningful chapters and story sections.
All sound like program topics at writers conventions or class titles at the Learning Annex, but in my experience when writers/instructors deal with discussing these topics, the lessons go straight back to the emotional -- write what you know or pour out what's in your heart and edit later.
I imagine that a significant part of learning to be a doctor is developing the confidence to face a patient, the confidence to perform -- whether that means surgery or a simple routine examination. Still you wouldn't really expect to read a pre-med book on "finding your inner surgeon" or "unleashing the operation within you." Too often I've heard veteran writers, who have been "doing it" for so long their own process becomes transparent, not be able to explain the PROCESS OF CREATION in easy 1-2-3 steps. Or worse, they would have you believe that a large part of it is inspiration and you-just-need-to-feel-it malarky.
Writing is work, and work often means getting your hands dirty. If you can't stand the sight of blood, here's a news flash for ya: don't be a doctor. In fact, you might want to steer clear of the medical profession in general. I hear accounting is relatively blood-free, although the idea of a tax office stuffed with bloody accountants fills me with a cauldron of joy.
Writers should read every book a minimum of two times. A Pasconian truism: better to read fewer book multiple times than many books only once. Writing is not a cocktail party -- you don't get extra points for saying "I read that" if you don't understand HOW IT WAS DONE. This isn't elementary school -- you don't get extra points for doing a book report and knowing the names of the main characters and identifying the theme.
When a book makes you laugh, makes you gasp, makes your eyes well up -- figure out how the writer did it. It's all there, right on the page. You just need to dissect it.
For me, studying the anatomy of story involves stripping the emotional out of the equation and looking closely, clinically at the pieces. Makes lists. Pick a favorite book and write down all the adjectives in it, all the verbs, all the adverbs. Look at them collectively, like they are organs on a stainless steel table; study them in context and try to understand how they contribute to the live of the story organism.
Does your favorite writer use more metaphors or similies? Have no idea? Would you trust a nurse who didn't know if there were more bones or blood vessels in your body.
Writing IS a science, and writing IS magic. Like Houdini's craft, there are secret tricks. Also like Houdini, many writers (even those getting paid to TEACH) often guard these tricks very closely).
next up, I put my money where my mouth is and talk about one of my card tricks: the dialog study.
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