No One Talks About Nothing

So, I saw Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit a couple of weeks ago. Now, there’s a lot that could be said about this movie – for a start, it’s a movie about a Wall Street banker saving the world! – but here’s the thing that stuck with me most. Cargo pants.

You know what I mean. There’s a conversation where Ryan’s girlfriend teases him about how he used to wear cargo pants. Whatever they are. And they both say witty things and look like they’re having great fun, and it’s supposed to make us think they have a really deep relationship…

But it’s really a conversation about nothing. It doesn’t relate to them as people at all. For a conversation that’s supposed to humanise them, it actually turns them into simulacrums of humans, the smiling but formless non-people you see in clothing catalogues. 

You see this kind of conversation quite a lot in movies. Workmates quipping about how bad the coffee is, fighter pilots teasing each other about last night’s date disasters… Conversations that are so generic that they mean nothing.

Real people don’t say “Wasn’t it hilarious when I used to wear cargo pants?”  They talk about that exact pair of pants they had, the ones with the tear in the left knee, the ones they bought in a sale in that boutique in San Diego, the ones they left behind in the hotel and had to drive back and get them,  but the maid had already thrown them away…

You get the idea.  Conversation is specific, detailed, often unlikely and that’s why it convinces us these fictional creations are actual people. So next time you find yourself writing generic conversation, dig in and find the details that will make it real…

Qualities Of The Great Blockbuster Movie, part two

The dialogue in action scenes doesn’t consist entirely of people yelling each other’s names, or saying “Come on!” or “This way!”

Pointless dialogue is the number one sign of a blockbuster in crisis. And by pointless, I mean people speaking because no one’s said anything for a while, and a movie needs dialogue, right? Or yelling to draw attention to things, or clunkily convey or reinforce information.

Bad action dialogue can spring from a failure in the visual storytelling – or at least, a failure to trust visual storytelling to do the job. Someone forgot to show us a sign saying control room, or a trinket on the desk that would tell us this is the villain’s lair, so someone has to blurt “This must be the control room”. Someone didn’t trust the audience to remember that the heroine always wears purple and therefore this must be her jacket, so someone has to remember that aloud on our behalf.

It can also spring from a lack of personal goals for the characters. As we noted before, you get better scenes when your characters are strong individuals. And if they’re strong individuals, they’ll all have different goals and motivations, which they’ll have to argue for as the situation develops.

Think about the scenes on the Death Star in the second act of Star Wars. Luke wants to rescue the princess, as does R2D2. Han Solo wants to get his precious ship the hell out of here. C3PO just wants to survive. Obi-Wan is well aware of the coming confrontation with Vader. They all work together to survive, but  the things they say to each other are driven by their differing motivations and their desire to get what they want or do what they have to do.

So trust the visuals, and give your characters their own angles to work, and your dialogue will immediately improve…