C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

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In writing dialogue, what sounds real?

This week, as I listened to some NPR folks talk about writing on a podcast called Culturetopia, I found myself getting agitated. They were coming down hard on Diablo Cody for her dialogue in Juno. The

Diablo Cody, writer of the film Juno

Image via Wikipedia

complaints were variations on a theme: teens don’t talk like that. They grudgingly admitted that some of the dialogue was funny, but added it was the actors’ charm that sold dialogue that wasn’t “real.” (Whatever this reality thing is…but that’s another post in which I discuss quantum physics, multiple earths and Twinkies.)

How charming do these critics imagine actors can be if they’re mute? Do they really believe the charm oozes off the screen just because actors walk onscreen? (In my experience, that only happens in porn where dialogue is tertiary. Primary? Looks. Secondary? Action (and, equally, the presence of umbrellas open indoors…but that’s my fetish.) In so-called real life and on film, actors have to speak the lines in the script (and possibly throw in some improv) to sell a performance. JK Simmons is a great actor. But if he played the dad in Juno as a mime bereft of Cody’s dialogue, I would have to kill him. (As is my mission with all mimes.) What I’m saying is, Juno as a silent movie wouldn’t work nearly so well for me.

There are so many lines from that comedy I loved:

“It’s a pilates machine.” 

“Great! What’s it make?”

And the teenage mother played by the wonderful Ellen Page tossing off the reaction of her peers to her advancing pregnancy:

“They call me the cautionary whale.”

Cody’s critics were even cheering her “failure” with her second movie, Jennifer’s Body, to teach her humility (presumably so she can write another, more banal movie that’s not so threatening to their self-image and worldview.)

There are three answers to this line of attack on Diablo Cody:

1. It was a comedy. Lighten the fuck up.

2. “Teens don’t talk that way”: Really? All teens? Everywhere? Ever? Every teen and every adult must conform to one sound, one point of view, one CLICHE?! Ellen Pages’ character was a smart, glib kid who spoke in one-liners. Sometimes I speak in one-liners and the only writer working for me is me. Maybe the critics don’t know any smart people who are funny at the same time. They need to meet more comics because that’s what some of them can sound like on and offstage. Maybe after giving up her baby to Jennifer Garner, Juno went off to work the Comedy Store. Or she took up particle physics. Funny and smart at the same time is possible, at least in the form of Juno.

3. Critics: Don’t be so damn churlish. I’m thinking of two words. The second word is “you.” The first word is not “thank.”

Filed under: publishing, Rant, Rejection, reviews, scriptwriting, Writers, writing tips, , , , , , , , , ,

8 Responses

  1. jaurquhart says:

    Agree with you 100%. I loved the dialogue in “Juno,” and I could not care less whether or not it conforms to some imagined norm for the way all teens everywhere supposedly speak. As you say, the movie is a comedy; it’s supposed to make you laugh. I did. Heartily.

    • Chazz says:

      It makes me think of the author who became published, but only after multiple rejections. That’s an old story, but one of the rejections from an agent stated flatly that the author had no clue how teens really speak. You guessed it: the author was a teen herself at the time.

  2. blackalchemy says:

    I agree as well, and I’m glad you shared this. Writing dialogue that is “realistic” is a continuous challenge for me, but a couple of things I strive for is to try and make sure that it doesn’t ring insincere, jar the reader out of the tale, or worse, not serve the story. Let’s not underestimate the popularity of wit and word by-play among us all – I enjoy one-line zingers in real life ane fiction equally as well. 🙂

  3. Chazz says:

    Thanks for that. One of the principles that guides me is I write about extraordinary characters in extraordinary circumstances. Bad things happen and they get to react in interesting ways. They are surrounded by more ordinary characters for verisimilitude, but nobody gets to be boring.

    For instance, this morning I wrote another chapter in my Poeticule Bay novel (drawing on characters from the stories I’ve already published.) The protagonist is a comedian and starlet who returns to her home town in Maine and the town hates her. There’s a lot of fish out of water stuff, family dynamics and a major crimes are committed. In today’s writing marathon, I wanted a new character to discover a body.

    It’s a little more complicated than that, but long story short, an ordinary little old lady goes for a walk in the Maine woods too close to sunset. She gets turned around and gets lost. And she’s already depressed. And she’s worried about senility. And her sons want to put her in a home. And maybe she’d a little suicidal too having recently become a widow. She’s got a deep back story because everybody has a story. She’s not just a throw away device.

    You really worry what she’s going to find and what happens to her at the end of the chapter. The old lady talks to her dog a bit and struggles for survival and she has a wry sense of humour. Her dialogue isn’t as over the top funny as the protagonist. (She’s a little old lady from Maine, not a comic.) But she gets a lot of good lines. She’s believable. You’ve already met her. Everybody knows somebody’s old aunt who’s kind of losing it toward the end of her life.

    That’s what infuriated me about the criticism of the Juno dialogue. It’s an overcorrection toward the mean of banal dialogue because somebody (who maybe doesn’t know shit) says “Nobody talks that way.” The world has clever people. I can believe or would like to believe people do talk that way. I have far less interest in reading dialogue that is too real. I don’t have to open a book or see a movie for that. I can talk to my postal carrier, or the guy who fixed my toilet. They’re real. And pretty boring to talk to!

    Thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂

  4. Fantastic blog! Do you have any tips for aspiring writers? I’m hoping to start my own blog soon but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you propose starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that I’m totally overwhelmed .. Any suggestions? Bless you!

    • Chazz says:

      Thanks! To your question, it depends on what your goals are. I don’t expect to advertise on this blog but my reader site will require more flexibility in the future so I’ll switch it over to a hosted site. The most important thing is to start right away if you’re going to do it.

  5. Modern audiences complain when movie dialogue is clever, calling it “unreal,” but swallow mass quantities of impossible special effects without a murmur, mistaking it all for drama. In the great old movies all the dialogue was written in heightened prose. We liked it. It was good.

  6. Chazz says:

    Right you are. Your post made me think of the movie Shakespeare in Love and how they switched in and out of formal dialogue for performances. I wonder if it’s modern audiences who complain about clever dialogue or just the movie critics? I suspect the latter.

    It’s funny how tastes change. Now it’s cool to walk away in slo-mo from the explosion you set because if you have your back to the explosion, it can’t hurt you. In ’80s action movies, heroes ran away from explosions and then (at some unseen signal with uncanny timing) threw themselves to the ground and toward the camera just as the explosion hit. (Same rule applied: back to the explosion and you were as safe as in your mother’s arms.) Movie physics are awesome that way. 🙂

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