Archive for the ‘Dialogue’ Category

I have noticed a disturbing trend in my media of late. At least, it’s disturbing to me.

Maybe it’s the stories.

Maybe it’s the theme.

Maybe it’s writers who are too proud. Or directors afraid to offend. Or editors, producers, and publishers. But…

Characters aren’t admitting their guilt anymore.

I’m not talking about the villains. I’m talking about the heroes.

I’m of the old school in which a person who commits a crime or is guilty of some fault is expected to admit their guilt as proof of their change-of-heart and this must happen before their status with their community is restored. But I’m not seeing it play out like this anymore either in the movies I watch or the books I read.

This concept is the heart of the Christian conversion experience and has been a staple of media in western culture for centuries. Heroes typically change over the course of their stories so this concept is tailor-made for them. Usually, a bit of dialogue is all that is required because change can usually be shown. However, it seems the modern incarnations of our heroes are taking a lesson from the villains’ playbook and never admitting to anything anymore.

Maybe I’m not watching the right movies or reading the right books, but I think this is a trend nonetheless and I think a bad one.

Brave Logo
If you’ve already read my post on Pixar’s latest movie, then you may remember my complaint that neither Merida nor her mother ever fully apologizes for their behavior. Merida’s rebellious attitude goes unrecognized and unpunished. Her mother’s anti-social behavior too.


My best guess is that it’s a symptom of modern culture. Because in everyday life even our President, someone who I largely support, has not prosecuted the wall street professionals responsible for taking our economy to the brink of destruction. I applaud him for moving us forward and seeing us through some very difficult times, but part of me wants Justice. Accountability. Revenge too, if I’m being honest. And now that our most pressing issue  – the US economy – is being dealt with I’d like to see these troublemakers get their comeuppance but it hasn’t happened yet.

Personally, I have more respect for baseball players like Mark McGwire who admit their drug use – even if it is years after the fact – than those who continue to hide their faults. (Better late than never but also better early than late.) Of course the irony of modern culture is that all publicity is good publicity. The fact that we know certain names and not others has little to do with morality and lots more with what makes a story news-worthy.

As for me, I plan on having my characters admit their guilt if doing so is in keeping with their character. It is easy as a writer to avoid the hard conversations, but it is those types of conversations where honesty prevails that are most memorable and true to life.

The following statement was issued by Mark McGwire on January 11, 2010 admitting to steroid use during his career:

“Now that I have become the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, I have the chance to do something that I wish I was able to do five years ago.

“I never knew when, but I always knew this day would come. It’s time for me to talk about the past and to confirm what people have suspected. I used steroids during my playing career and I apologize. I remember trying steroids very briefly in the 1989/1990 off season and then after I was injured in 1993, I used steroids again. I used them on occasion throughout the ’90s, including during the 1998 season.

“I wish I had never touched steroids. It was foolish and it was a mistake. I truly apologize. Looking back, I wish I had never played during the steroid era.

“During the mid-’90s, I went on the DL seven times and missed 228 games over five years. I experienced a lot of injuries, including a ribcage strain, a torn left heel muscle, a stress fracture of the left heel, and a torn right heel muscle. It was definitely a miserable bunch of years and I told myself that steroids could help me recover faster. I thought they would help me heal and prevent injuries, too.

“I’m sure people will wonder if I could have hit all those home runs had I never taken steroids. I had good years when I didn’t take any and I had bad years when I didn’t take any. I had good years when I took steroids and I had bad years when I took steroids. But no matter what, I shouldn’t have done it and for that I’m truly sorry.

“Baseball is really different now — it’s been cleaned up. The commissioner and the players’ association implemented testing and they cracked down, and I’m glad they did.

“I’m grateful to the Cardinals for bringing me back to baseball. I want to say thank you to Cardinals owner Mr. DeWitt, to my GM, John Mozeliak, and to my manager, Tony La Russa. I can’t wait to put the uniform on again and to be back on the field in front of the great fans in Saint Louis. I’ve always appreciated their support and I intend to earn it again, this time as hitting coach. I’m going to pour myself into this job and do everything I can to help the Cardinals hitters become the best players for years to come.

“After all this time, I want to come clean. I was not in a position to do that five years ago in my congressional testimony, but now I feel an obligation to discuss this and to answer questions about it. I’ll do that, and then I just want to help my team.”

(Source: ESPN)

Note that McGwire didn’t issue this statement as a player. Nor did he admit to using drugs during a congressional hearing. He issued this statement after accepting a new position as hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. In other words, his conscience was bothering him and he admitted his guilt honestly from feelings of remorse. That’s why his fans believed him. That’s why he got a standing ovation prior to the Cardinals home opener on April 12, 2010 – four months after his admission.

His statement before the house committee on government reform is illuminating too:

Asking me or any other player to answer questions about who took steroids in front of television cameras will not solve the problem. If a player answers ‘No,’ he simply will not be believed; if he answers ‘Yes,’ he risks public scorn and endless government investigations…My lawyers have advised me that I cannot answer these questions without jeopardizing my friends, my family, and myself. I will say, however, that it remains a fact in this country that a man, any man, should be regarded as innocent unless proven guilty. (Source: CNN)

This is reality. Why aren’t we writing more material that includes scenes like this?

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I recently discovered the excellent Cockeyed Caravan blog. The author, Matt Bird, has been on a journey to discover what makes movies tick and, oh my soul, has he uncovered some great insights. It’s rare I subscribe to anything anymore, even rarer that I go back to the first post and work my way forward in time to sniff out all the insightful goodness that I missed, but that’s what I’m doing. If this were a magazine, I’d be reading it cover to cover.

In the spirit of his excellent series, the Storyteller’s Rulebook, I offer this post (because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery).

Bridesmaids (2011)

Let’s talk about Lazy Writing.

There is a certain movie that has received a lot of hype recently called Bridesmaids. I got to watch this movie because my wife set our DVR to record it without being aware of the hype surrounding it. Then, on one of those rare occasions when our girls had fallen asleep early, we turned it on.

Unfortunately, we didn’t finish it. We got to the part with the wedding shower where the heroine met the usurper and cut it off during the next scene. Every third word was a curse or a not-veiled-at-all sexual reference and that’s not what we expected. It was a major turn off for us which brings me to the topic of lazy writing: Using foul language to fill out dialogue is lazy writing.

Now, cursing can be used effectively. Curse words convey powerful emotions so they can be used in circumstances where this is warranted. During moments of extreme duress or tragic circumstances, for example when discovering the death of a loved one, using strong language can successfully convey that strong emotion. Curse words were invented because humans are capable of feeling powerful emotions and thus need to purge those emotions in some way. This is what writers call catharsis and it is one of the primary reasons we watch movies and read books: to experience an emotion and consequently purge it.

But casual cursing is just stupid. It’s like the writers, actors, and director are trying to emphasize every bit of dialogue. However, the end result is that if everything is being emphasized, then everything has equal emphasis and nothing is really being emphasized over anything else. It’s lazy writing.

Pixar’s feature films don’t incorporate curse words. The entire Harry Potter book series includes just one. (It’s during the end battle when Mrs. Weasley discovers Bellatrix attacking her daughter Ginny.) So if these very successful stories can be successful without using foul language or very judicious use of cursing, then why must stories like Bridesmaids use them? I think such stories are successful not because of their language content but in spite of it.

UPDATE: My wife and I recently watched a very fun romantic comedy called Revenge of the Bridesmaids starring Raven-Symoné and JoAnna Garcia Swisher. It came out in 2010 (one year before the other movie) and it’s a better movie by far. I recommend it.

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Adam Heine at Author’s Echo recently published a series of 4 posts on how to write fantasy slang. They are:

They’re excellent and quick reads too.  Anyone wanting to add some authenticity to their writing should read all four. Better writing could be only 15-20 minutes away.

Image Source: http://myesllab.wordpress.com/2009/11/06/slang-of-the-day/

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Source: Your Brain on Stories | Neuromarketing.

Fabulous insight. The article is about writing stories for advertisements, but the concepts apply even more directly to writing any kind of fiction. This article is definitely worth a read.

That these stories resonated with readers for so long is very telling. In The Narrative in the Neurons, Wray Herbert describes another timeless piece of text, the opening lines of The Tower Treasure, a Hardy Boys novel first published in 1927:

Frank and Joe Hardy clutched the grips of their motorcycles and stared in horror at the oncoming car. It was careening from side to side on the narrow road.

“He’ll hit us! We’d better climb this hillside—and fast!” Frank exclaimed, as the boys brought their motorcycles to a screeching halt and leaped off.

“On the double!” Joe cried out as they started up the steep embankment.

When subjects read this passage and several others in an fMRI machine, researchers were able to observe which parts of their brain were activated as the subjects read different elements. Depending on what was happening in each sentence, quite different brain activation patterns were observed:

For example, a particular area of the brain ramped up when readers were thinking about intent and goal-directed action, but not meaningless motion. Motor neurons flashed when characters were grasping objects, and neurons involved in eye movement activated when characters were navigating their world.

Wray notes,

Readers are far from passive consumers of words and stories. Indeed, it appears that we dynamically activate real-world scripts that help us to comprehend a narrative—and those active scripts in turn enrich the story beyond its mere words and sentences. In this way, reading is much like remembering or imagining a vivid event.

I think the take-away for authors is clear. Write stories as if they are movies, but more than that, write stories as if readers will live out the events they read about – because they will. And if they do not live the lives of our characters, then they have not connected with our books in a meaningful, lasting way.

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Source: Dragon Slaying 101: How to Use Heroic Language to Battle Boring Copy | Copyblogger.

Source: Romance 101: How to Use Feminine Words That Sell | Copyblogger.

The Masculine, Heroic words:

  • Battle / Fight
  • Dragon
  • Enemy / Nemesis
  • Quest
  • Treasure
  • War

The Feminine, Romantic words:

  • Love
  • Heart
  • Secret
  • King, Queen, Prince, Princess, etc.
  • Temptation / Forbidden
  • Cloud, Moon, Stars, etc.
  • Heaven / Paradise
  • Kiss
  • Virgin
  • Magic / Enchanted / Bewitched

View the source posts for explanations. Bottom line: Know your target audience so you can write (and therefore sell) to your strengths.

Four example variations from the author:

Plain: “Solve Email Problems”
Heroic: “Battle Your Email Overload”
Romantic: “Love Your Email Inbox Again”

Plain: “Stop Procrastinating”
Heroic: “Defeat Procrastination”
Romantic: “Kiss Procrastination Goodbye”

Plain: “Advice to Help You Do Better”
Heroic: “Advice to Help You Win”
Romantic: “Advice to Make You a Star”

Plain: “Ditch Your Bad Habits”
Heroic: “Conquer Your Bad Habits”
Romantic: “Make Your Bad Habits Disappear Like Magic”

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Source: Left vs Right | Information Is Beautiful.

If you ever need to write a politically-motivated character or write political dialogue, then this diagram may be very useful. It was created as a joint effort by David McCandless and Stefanie Posavec for David’s book, The Visual Miscellaneum.

Left vs Right (US Version)

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Source: Tom Swifties Adverbial Puns

Who knew this list existed? There are some good Tom Swifties and then there are others:

“I’ve been a baaaa-d boy,” said Tom sheepishly.

Remember, these are the dialogue equivalent of a double-negative in grammar. So never use them in writing unless you mean to write puns intentionally. This comprises a good list of the dreaded -ly adverbs to be avoided in dialogue tags too.

“Those cobs are amazing!” said Tom cornily.

I rest my case. Enjoy!

“His Honor is crazy,” Tom stated judgementally.

(Well, maybe just one more. 😉 )

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Source: BYOD: How to Detect Deception, Part I – The Keyboard Detective
Source: BYOD: How to Detect Deception, Part II – The Keyboard Detective

Tony Bridges, the Keyboard Detective, has two great posts up on detecting deception. They constitute a great overview and introduction for writers who need to write deceptive dialogue. There are some good links included with the article for further study.

A quick summary of topics:

  • Part I
    • Distancing Language
    • Passive Voice
    • Pronoun Usage
    • Proper Noun Usage
    • Text Bridges
  • Part II
    • Contextual Embedding
    • Reproduction of Conversation
    • Unexpected Complications
    • Work Backward through the Story
    • Reality Monitoring
    • Narrative Balance

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Source: BYOD: How to Detect Deception, Part I – The Keyboard Detective

Tony Bridges, the Keyboard Detective, has a great post up on detecting deception. While it’s a great read for writers who are writing deceptive dialogue for characters, I see another use for one part of the information. That section refers to something called a “Text Bridge”.

A text bridge is a word or phrase used in dialogue to skip over part of an explanation. Consequently, it creates a logical gap in the sequence of events. If the speaker is being deceptive, the part skipped over is usually important. Thus, the importance of noticing when text bridges are used if you are in law enforcement.

However, I see another use for these things. I think they can and should be used to alert us – the writers – to gaps in the logical sequence of our own writing. The post goes on to quote a list of common text bridges which I have reproduced below. I’m sure this list isn’t exhaustive, but it should serve as a good starting point for writers who are troubleshooting a scene. Look for text bridges in your writing. Wherever found, eliminate them by clarifying the gap that they gloss over.

Common Text Bridges

  • “I don’t remember…,”
  • “after that…,”
  • “afterwards…,”
  • “before….”
  • “besides…,”
  • “consequently…,”
  • “even though…,”
  • “finally…,”
  • “however…,”
  • “later on…,”
  • “shortly thereafter…,”
  • “the next thing I knew…,”
  • “then…,”
  • “when…,”
  • “while…,”

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