The Magic Of Dialogue

It seems like writing dialogue is every writer’s favourite part of the process. Plot is tough and character demanding, but dialogue, that’s fun, right?

Maybe because dialogue doesn’t do the heavy lifting that other elements of the story do. Plot can be expressed through dialogue, but the best plot elements are the ones we can see happening, with few if any words. Character may be expressed in dialogue, but it’s more likely to be seen in what the character does. Because dialogue doesn’t have to support so much of the story, we can be far more playful and unconventional when writing it.

So what’s dialogue for? I think, essentially, it humanizes our story. Human beings love words. We love communicating our hopes and fears and dreams and bad jokes, and we love watching fictional characters do the same. It shows us the social shell the character puts on, the face the they show to the world – wise-cracking hipster, grumpy old man, stern mother. It shows us how they want to be perceived, and how they perceive themselves.

So, I thought I’d mention some dialogue tips and tricks – especially the one that lift your dialogue from simple communication into a deeper insight into the character’s soul…

The magic question: any time one character asks another “What have you done?”, a shiver goes down the audience’s spine. I think we’ve heard this precisely phrased question so many times in movies and TV shows, always preceding a catastrophically bad situation, that we automatically take it as a precursor to disaster. So if you need to create an instant feeling of doom, have someone ask the most active character  “What have you done?”

I’m not what you thought I was: This often manifests as a rhetorical question, say, “Who said I was here to help?”  or  “What makes you think I’m here to help?”  This is a question that needs to be answered by another question – who are you really? – and the place that question is asked is not on the screen, but in the heads of the audience. This dialogue trick invites the audience to become detectives, to enter into the film to unravel the real narrative – and once they start doing that, they’re hooked.

Unusual phrasing: We all spend a lot of time on making our dialogue sound completely natural for the character, the setting and the time. Indeed, if we’re writing a period piece, we may expend a lot of effort striking exactly the right balance between authenticity and modernity, conjuring up a period and a way of thinking while avoiding alienating the audience.

But deliberately using awkward, wordy or simply unusual phrasing for a line of dialogue can not only make it stand out – but tag it in the audience’s minds not simply as dialogue, but as a statement of theme.

Joss Whedon is the master of using unusual phrasing to emphasize a line; for example, in The Avengers, Nick Fury tells Loki,  “You have made me very desperate. You may not be glad that you did.”  He could simply have said  “You made me desperate. You may regret that,”  but it wouldn’t have had the impact that the more elaborate line has.

An excellent example of using phrasing to add deeper meaning, meanwhile, occurs in the current trailer for The Bourne Legacy.  Rescuing a woman whom we take to be the love interest/ Attractor for the story, Aaron Cross asks her,  “Do you want to live? Because I want to live.”  Note he doesn’t say  “survive” or  “stay alive”.  He says “live”, with all its connotation of ‘real’ life, ‘life in all its fullness’. This isn’t a movie about a man trying not to be killed; it’s about a man learning what it means to live. Or so that line would have us think.

The way a character speaks tells us how they view the world.  A character who phrases everything as a question is suspicious and uncertain; a character who makes bold, flat statements thinks they know the world and everyone around them pretty well.  Humour, pedantry, constant checking that they’ve understood their instructions – everyone reveals much more of themselves in the way they speak than they realise. So use that to your advantage.


Screenwriting Career Lessons From… David Bowie?

I was watching ‘David Bowie night’ on factual and arts channel BBC4 last night, which kicked off with a fantastic documentary on how Bowie created his Ziggy Stardust persona. And I realized pretty quickly there were a lot of lessons here for screenwriters, or indeed anyone in a creative career.

It takes time.  Bowie had been in the business for more than a decade when Ziggy made him a superstar. Space Oddity had been a huge hit for him, but a few years later, he was genuinely worried he was going to be a one hit wonder. The old saying  “It takes ten years to become an overnight success” were never truer than in the arts…

Nothing you try is wasted.  During those ten years, Bowie had released hard rock, folk, comedy novelty records, every type of music that existed then and probably some that didn’t. His follow-up to Space Oddity was a long-haired, guitar-led folk album. He even spent time ‘inventing’ a new rock star, a good-looking lad who would mime to Bowie’s vocals. But everything he ever did or saw or liked, right down to his background in mime and experimental dance, eventually fed into Ziggy.

Every great artist steals, urm, I mean ‘homages’.  Bowie was a magpie, stealing looks from pop culture and Japanese theatre, music elements from jazz and 1940’s film scores, and lyric fragments from existing songs. Challenged on this, he said  “Yes, but I know what to steal.”  What he also knew was how to use what he stole as a jumping-off point, something to twist and distort and change into something utterly new. That’s the difference between theft and genius.

Innovate and succeed.  Bowie basically invented the idea of the rock ‘stage show’ – elaborate costumes, theatrical lighting, dance, mime, spectacle. Before him, musicians essentially turned up, played the songs, and left. That made the Ziggy Stardust tour unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. Which could have backfired, and sometimes did – indeed, in the American Mid-West, he was playing huge arenas with a couple of hundred in the audience –  but to the right audience, it was utterly compelling.

Why?  Because of the most important lesson we can learn here –

His art genuinely spoke to a generation. The evening closed with the film version of the final Ziggy Stardust concert. Watching Bowie sing Rock And Roll Suicide  as the closing number – watching him sing “You’re not alone”, to a young, alienated, disenfranchised audience, in an era before feminism or gay rights had fully taken hold – is electrifying.  The song was transfigured by the audience’s response to it (in the same way a cinema audience interacts with a movie), and the audience were changed by the song.

Whatever medium you work in, if you have something empowering, humane, compassionate and life-changing to say, you can’t not succeed.

Things I Learned From… The Cabin In The Woods

Yes, it really has taken The Cabin In The Woods all this time to reach us, all the way out here in the wilderness. And what a movie it is! I actually laughed out loud several times, which is pretty much unheard of for me. And just as I thought I had an idea where the movie was going, well, the third act happened. Wow.

Here’s what I liked most about it. And it’s a sodding huge great SPOILER, so don’t read any further if you haven’t seen the film.

No, dude, seriously. Spoilers!

Last warning!

Still with me?  Okay then.

What I liked most about The Cabin In The Woods  is that the characters opted for the moral high ground, even though doing led to the extinction of the human race. Because sometimes you – the writer – have to make the brave choice.

Unconventional choices by your characters, especially at the climax of the movie, will always get you into trouble with your audience. Some people will respect them, but a lot of people will hate them. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t make them. But you’d better be sure you’re prepared to fight for them, because fight you will.

Some years ago, I was developing a low-budget sci-fi feature about an inscrutable alien construction crash-landing on earth and being explored by a small group, many of whom died horribly because of some unknowable transgression of the rules governing the place. In the end, the heroine figured out that, among other things, it was a doorway that would take her to its alien creators. No guarantees about what was waiting on the other side – though the signs were good, it could be anything from a warm welcome through to slavery and torture –  but at least you’d finally know what these creatures were and what they wanted.

So, being an adventurous type, she said goodbye to her friends and walked straight through it. End of movie.

Every producer and script editor who read that treatment hit the roof at that point.  “Why would she do walk away from the entire human race, with no guarantee she can come back, and no idea what’s waiting for her on the other side? No one would ever do that!”

As you’ve probably guessed by now, that idea did not sell.

Movie characters – especially in genre and commercial movies – are expected to behave in certain ways. They must love their families (even if there are a few hiccups along the way), cherish personal freedom as long as it doesn’t affect the wellbeing of others, embrace some sense of kinship with rest of the human race, and honour at least some basic, non-culture-specific ideas of morality, spirituality, and heroism. These are the things that decades of Hollywood movies have established as a baseline “right thing to do”, a hazy code of conduct somehow combining personal freedom and voluntary self-sacrifice.

In other words, they must make the moral choices that the audience would like to think they’d make. Largely because they’ve been programmed by all those other movies to think that’s how people react in these situations. How many of us would actually “make the sacrifice play”, to quote, is debatable, but we all tell ourselves that we would.

Any time your characters reject these patterns of behaviour, you’re challenging your audience. And that’s good. Your audience needs to be challenged now and then. But be aware of the culture shock you’re inflicting, and do what you can to convince them that the characters’ reactions are reasonable.

The Cabin In The Woods does this very well. The human sacrifices being played out are clearly immoral, whatever evil they protect us from. We’re so invested in these characters by this point that we care far more about them than the faceless, theoretical ‘rest of the human race’.  (Remember, we haven’t seen a single person in the whole movie who isn’t either one of the five protagonists, or someone trying to kill them. If we’d seen their siblings, parents and friends back home, this ending might not have worked.)

And the choice boils down to personal responsibility: either actually shoot your friend, yourself, and live with that; or let the human race perish at some other creature’s hands, which is, in the end, their choice, not yours.

Brave ending. But then again, this is Hollywood – and I guarantee you someone’s out there right now, trying to work out how to write a sequel…

What Amazon Studios Should Actually Be Doing

Here’s the really ironic thing about the whole Amazon Studios controversy.

People keep telling us the movie industry is on the verge of massive changes. Legal downloading, illegal downloading, narrowing of the theatrical window, overseas revenues outstripping US domestic revenues, crowdfunding, internet TV…

I’m not saying any of these things are bad. There are ways they could harm the industry, if badly handled, and ways they could be enormously good for all of us. But the fact is, there are practices going on right now that are harming the industry, and if we’re going to embrace systemic change, now would be a good time to tackle them.

You’d expect Amazon Studios – with it’s determination to provide a whole new approach to the movie business and create a new business model that generates new ideas and encourages fresh talent –  to be doing exactly that.

Unfortunately, their entire ethos for producing new scripts is entirely founded on the one thing that makes so many Hollywood movies bad. Too many cooks spoiling the broth.

For years, Hollywood has effectively been on a slow drift towards crowd-sourcing scripts. We don’t call it that, but that’s what it is. Most studio tentpole movies have several credited writers and dozens of uncredited ones. When a hot book or character or even board game is acquired by a studio, they invite in dozens of writers to pitch their take on the material – and, it’s alleged, take anything they fancy from those pitches, expecting the writer who gets the job to forge it all into some kind of coherent story.

Even once the development process is over, the tinkering continues. Production is regularly shut down for emergency work on a script, which may or may not solve the problem. Release dates are moved, and some movies shelved indefinitely.  Just last week, a well-known screenwriter was hired to rewrite the script of a major movie that’s already finished shooting, so they can have months of reshoots to repair whatever they feel is wrong with it.

This is a dumb way to run a business. And while I appreciate that no producer or exec wants to be in that situation, and the pressures of money and release dates can force scripts into production before they’re ready, maybe it’s time we all took a step back and refocused the business on what matters. You can have the best release date in the world, the most amazing ad campaign, and a cast to die for, but none of that will save you if you have a script that isn’t ready yet.

So, Amazon Studios, here’s what you ought to be doing. If you actually want to make money out of the film industry, stop pissing about with prize money and test movies and open-source scripts with endless amateur rewrites pulling the story in different directions, and make the most of your big advantage –

You’re outside the system. You aren’t burdened with release date schedules and over-excited marketing departments – because you have a whole new product delivery system that bypasses theatrical distribution!  So make the most of your freedom, and do the one thing that’s always worked.

Go out into the real world and find an experienced writer (or writing team) with a strong concept, good characters, and a passion for their craft. Work with them – yourself, in private, not by deputizing the development process to random people leaving their opinions on your site – and make that movie as good as you possibly can.

Then, and only then, make the damn thing.

If you’re not prepared to do that, then any real writer is bound to ask themselves whether you really want to be in the film business at all.

Things I Learned From… Prometheus

So, Prometheus. Eagerly anticipated, endlessly speculated about, and therefore pretty much guaranteed to disappoint everyone!

Actually, I thought there was a great deal about it that was excellent. It’s an intelligent attempt to broaden the Alien universe, to ask big questions, to tackle big issues, and yet reference some of the key elements of the earlier films – artificial intelligence, the biology of alien lifeforms, and the conflict between profit, scientific curiosity and survival.

It doesn’t always succeed. Indeed, some of those issues may be near-impossible to tackle: I have yet to see a movie, Hollywood or indie, that has anything profound or illuminating to say about religious faith. Any attempt to seriously explore the nature of belief invariably ends up shallow, mawkish, or awkwardly preachy. As a Christian, I find this both frustrating and strangely reassuring. Storytelling is a process of metaphors, after all, and perhaps the best way to approach profound themes in our work is metaphorically. Stories are there to teach us how to live, not which creed to believe or which rules to follow. And a good thing too.

Anyway, Prometheus. I wonder if the problems with the flagging, slightly muddled second act lie not so much in the writing but in the genre – the exploration movie?
Movies about people going out and exploring stuff have been around a long time, but they’ve never been a major genre. Or perhaps it’s fairer to say they’ve never been a genre in and of themselves – because in fact, most movies about exploration change genre in the second act.

Take Alien, which begins with the crew of an ordinary vessel being diverted from their journey home to investigate a planet for unknown reasons. But as we all know, the movie changes course – and genre – where there’s a kind of late, secondary inciting incident involving John Hurt and a facehugger. Now we have a horror movie, and exploration is out of the window.

Similarly, Indiana Jones may set off to explore some fascinating archeological evidence, but invariably there’s a secondary inciting incident that propels the movie into an action-adventure, and Indy spends the rest of the movie punching Nazis.

Prometheus may contain a few horror tropes – and some of them are certainly horrific! – but it never changes genre. Right to the very last frame, it’s firmly about the search for the origins of life and the meaning that knowledge would give to human existence.
The problem is, that may be what dooms the story – because the explorer is just there to explore. He arrives, he looks, he tries to get back home in one piece. He’s a detached observer –

And that’s the one thing the protagonist of a movie can never be. Alien could never be about the crew discovering an alien life form and studying it, without mishaps, on the way back to earth. Indy can’t just discover that Nazis want a magical artefact and say “That’s very interesting.”. In order to be a protagonist, he can’t simply observe: he has to make a moral choice and take action based on it.

The protagonist of Prometheus is never faced with a moral choice. She’s never asked to help save lives, to choose between humans and aliens and androids, decide whether to share her research or not, or tackle any other moral quandary that the situation might produce. She just keeps on sifting the evidence for scientific, academic answers.

Which makes her a great scientist, but just maybe, not a very satisfying movie protagonist…

Let’s Go Back To My Place!

As I’m sure you know, there’s a whole species of TV drama known as “precinct drama”. These series follow a group of characters who work in a specific place – typically a police station or a hospital, because, as wiser people than I have observed, stories walk right in the door of those locations, rather than having to be sought out.

The “precinct” provides a location that can be reused from week to week, cutting down on location and set-building costs, and also provides a rationale for the characters to spend time together –  they all work here. And by focusing on the workplace as a whole, rather than a specific family/person/ job title, changes in cast can be managed without destroying the tone or the integrity of the series.

But what a lot of writers don’t seem to appreciate is how much a recurring location can add to a feature script.

For a start, there’s still that whole issue of time and money. If you can set those five scenes between your hero and love interest in the same local diner, rather than five different meeting places, you just saved the expense of four locations, and the time it would have take to move the whole unit four times. Your location manager loves you!

Then there’s the relaxing effect on the audience. Each time you show the audience a new location, that’s something else for them to take in. And any time they’re thinking “where are we?”  or  “is this the bar she was in before, or a different bar?”, they aren’t concentrating on your story. Take them back somewhere they know, they relax a little. Indeed, recurring locations are great for exposition. If you have something really important or complex to get across, doing so in a familiar location gives the audience one less thing to take in.

But reusing significant locations has thematic benefits too. Let’s take a look at the two recurring locations in The Avengers, and see what they’re adding to the plot…

First recurring location: Stark Tower, which appears three times in the movie. The first time we see it, it’s a scene of domestic bliss (of a sort), interrupted by Coulson arriving to ask for help finding Loki.

Note: Tony Stark is the only Avenger who’s seen to be attached to a physical location. Thor comes from another dimension: Banner is a fugitive (and we don’t see his home in Calcutta, only places he’s giving medical help). Rogers has an apartment we never see, but he’s adrift in time, doesn’t belong anywhere in modern society.  Barton and Romanov are out doing their jobs, presumably living out of suitcases. No one has a “home” in the full sense of the word –

Apart from Stark, whose home is so ‘his’ that his name is on the front in lights. We even see him playfully arguing with Pepper about whose name should be on the lease and how much credit she should take for it. The message is clear: This Space Is Mine.

Next, the action moves to the second recurring location: the Shield helicarrier. What does that symbolize for the story? Well, it’s a place where these wandering, homeless characters can come together. It has a lab, and weapons, and space for everyone’s armour and costumes and scientific specialities. In any other version of this story, this would be the team’s  “precinct”.

But this is The Avengers according to Joss Whedon (and Zak Penn, of course), and for him, the military-industrial complex is never going to be a fitting home for these characters. They don’t quite feel comfortable here. There’s a wonderful lab for Banner, but there’s also an inescapable cage. There are locked doors hiding secrets, and computer files full of weapons of mass destruction.  When the helicarrier comes under attack, it proves to be woefully vulnerable, and elements of it (the cage that traps Thor, the fact that The Hulk is on an aircraft with nowhere to run) are as much a danger to the occupants as any enemy action.

The helicarrier, for all it’s initial promise, is not the home these characters are seeking. It stands for the wrong things. It’s a trap, a physical and ethical danger to them – and some of them are a danger to it.

So we’re into Act Three, and it’s time for our second visit to Stark Tower, which has literally been invaded by the forces of evil. The Tesseract is on the roof, opening the portal –  the safety of “home” is under attack from an entire other dimension! –  and Loki has taken possession of the penthouse (Stark’s personal space) and external platforms (associated with the Iron Man suit), which soon become a battleground.

In order to win it back, Stark has to walk defenceless into what should be his own territory and face his adversary  (answering Rogers’ earlier question, “Take off the suit, and what are you?” in the process).  He doesn’t succeed initially. Rather than defending his home, he has to go fight the wider battle before being able to repossess what’s his. Indeed, he won’t fully win back his personal space without the help of the rest of the team.

Third time – and we all know about the magic power of showing things or saying things three times, don’t we? – is at the very end of the movie. The Tower is largely wrecked, but Stark and Pepper are planning to rebuild. And what’s the only letter left in the name on the outside of the tower? A, for Avengers. What was Stark’s private property has now become, at least symbolically, a home for the whole team.

All that thematic resonance, just from a choice of locations!

Things I Learned From… Men In Black 3

So, Men In Black 3. Ten years after the last installment. Did someone run out of money and have to raid the Storecupboard Of Ideas That Worked Last Time Round in the hope of making a quick buck?

It was… okay. Should have been a lot funnier. For a start, if your whole point is that something happened to Agent K that changed him into an emotionally shut-off, all-about-the-job kinda guy, shouldn’t he, urm, not be like that in the past? Imagine Agent J going back to 1969 to find that K was originally a wise-cracking hippie wild man, seducing the chicks and trash-talking his enemies! Suddenly J is (comparatively speaking) the stuffy one, scrambling to restrain his crazy-impulsive partner!

No?  Well, anyway, it should still have been funnier.

But actually, my major problem with Men In Black 3 is that the plot seems to be deliberately designed to keep the central character from actually doing anything in Act Two.

Spoilers. Obviously.

End of Act One, Agent J is going back in time to save his partner’s life. He knows when K will die, and where. So he jumps straight there, right?

Well, apparently not. He jumps to the day before, under orders not to go anywhere near his partner, because… well, I have no idea why, actually. I could theorise it’s because of the Grandfather Paradox, but no one bothers to say that’s the reason – and given that J bumps into K within minutes, spends the rest of the film with him and there are no apparent ill effects…

So there he is. 1969. Twenty-four hours to wait before he can save his partner’s life at the Apollo 11 launch. So what shall we do in the meantime, movie viewers? Let’s, urm, try half-heartedly to save the lives of some random aliens whose importance to the plot is never explained. Let’s meet a actually-quite-fun alien who gives us a Magic Thingummy to save the Earth. Let’s pull Andy Warhol’s wig off. And eat some pie. That’ll do, right?

This is a movie that doesn’t have an Act Two. It has no idea how to complicate the hero’s journey towards his objective, no idea how to wring fun and games (in the Blake Snyder sense) out of it’s premise, no idea what facets of the two agents’ characters can be usefully explored by making one of them thirty years younger and dumping the other in a strange and hostile time period. Given half a chance, this movie would cut straight to Cape Canaveral and dangle off a launch gantry for ninety minutes.

Come on, people.  The episode of Stargate SG:1 where they went back to 1969 was way better than this, and it didn’t even have Will Smith!

How could Act Two have been improved? Well, one option: they could have made Agent K a target from moment one of the 1969 section. If Boris the Animal has jumped back in time to kill him and Agent J isn’t certain when it will happen (it would have been easy to find a way to deny him that information in the present), then J has to go straight to K and stick to him like glue, waiting for Boris to make an attempt on his life. (Of course, Boris will make several, each increasingly complex, funnier, and closer to succeeding.)

Then all you need is to make K unwilling to have J around – he doesn’t believe J’s wild time travel story, doesn’t like him, or even selflessly wants to stop him getting in harm’s way – and you have not only a meaningful plot, and a real threat, but also, conflict between your two main characters. And character conflict means comedy!

That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure you can do better. But whatever you think should have happened, learn the lesson – Act Two is not a process of waiting for the good stuff to happen. It IS the good stuff.

It’s the place where we find out who the characters really are under pressure, what’s really at stake, and how evil the bad guys really are. If you don’t lay that groundwork in Act Two, then Act Three is meaningless shouting and running around.