ALLIGATORS IN A HELICOPTER

a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Shhhhhhh

The other day I was walking down the street, when I saw a large, scruffy-looking man sitting on the curb, loudly talking to himself. I averted my eyes; if I learned anything from my years of working in Times Square, it is not to make eye contact with the crazy people.

As I moved by him, I risked a subtle corner-of-my-eye glance. And I realized that he had a really small headset on, and that he was talking into it. He wasn't crazy, he was doing business.

There are occasionally times when I talk to myself out loud. Usually it's when I kick the leg of my coffee table. But I don't speak in long, expository sentences, telling myself what I'm thinking.

Because if I did, I'd be nuts, right?

But I'm constantly reading scripts, in which characters talk to themselves. Out loud. Alone.

I understand that there's a theatrical tradition of this, of monologues and talking aside to the audience, though even that nutty Hamlet was likely missing a few smaller nouns from his bigger noun (insert your own creative Danish historical metaphor here). Hamlet would have been a fun blogger.

In movies, there's a talking-to-the-audience device too, and when it's well-done, it's forgivable. It works in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. But even then, he isn't talking to himself, he's talking to the audience.

And obviously, if your character is crazy (or really, really drunk), they are allowed to talk to themselves. Because that can be a signifier, that they are not right in the head, or that the suspicious pile of Jack Daniels bottles in the corner of the shot might well have their fingerprints on them.

But what makes me crazy (and yes, sometimes it even makes me talk to myself) is when a writer has a character talk to himself, not because they are crazy, or because they are talking to the audience, but because the writer can't think of any other way to express what is going on in the main character's head.

It's the expositional explosion of contrived dialogue, that happens way too often. And it's awful. It's like waving the amateur flag.

I wish I had an example. I've been waiting for an example, but I've been buried in books, and in books we're inside the character's head, so it isn't necessary.

(So now I spend fifteen minutes looking for examples, without success. I need to save more really bad things, like American Idol does).

So I'll make up some examples:

JANE
Oh my God. She's his sister!
John really does love me!

or

JANE
Oh my God. Crenshaw is the killer!

Okay, those are awful. I'm really bad at writing bad dialogue. Hopefully that's a good thing.

But the point is that I see this stuff all the time, and it really isn't necessary. There are always other, better ways to do this (and some probably-even-worse ways, including dropping voiceover into that one scene, or having us suddenly be able to read the character's mind, or having the character suddenly burst into on-the-nose song).

One way is simply to put someone else in the scene, for the character to talk to. Dr. Watson hangs around just so Sherlock Holmes will have someone to tell about what is bouncing around in his head. Gay men in romantic comedies should charge the main characters by the hour.

Some writers cheat by having the main character talk to a pet. Usually it's a woman, and usually it's a cat. The point of it is generally just to have the lonely woman say that she's just as happy hanging out with a cat and a pint of ice cream -- which of course, can be brought across just as easily by simply showing her with the cat and the pint of ice cream. Or the dog and the Pop Tarts. Or the pot-bellied-pig and the really big vibrator.

(Male readers, you have 10 seconds to picture it in your heads. Okay. Moving on...)

The best way is to simply trust the audience. If you've fleshed out your main character, if they are reacting to information the audience is also learning, the audience is going to know what the main character is thinking without going to the dreaded "blurt". If it's something weird, find them someone credible to talk to.

But if you run into a scene, where you need to get information across to the audience about what is in the character's head, and you think the best way is just for them to say it, even if there is no one listening?

There's always a better way.

14 Comments:

At 3:28 AM, Blogger Danny Stack said...

Die Hard does it really well because John McLane's in so much shit, we really want to know what his brain's churning as he learns more about the terrorists.

But likewise, in most scripts I read, it's usually a case of poor exposition: "that wasn't there before" or "now why did she do that?".

 
At 1:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree and must admit to have done the lazy thing on occasion.

There's always a better way. I'll remind myself of that when I'm tempted to force a character to say out loud what should instead be shown.

Daniel L

 
At 4:31 PM, Blogger Grubber said...

Scott,

Going with this topic, what do you think of my pages in the group project, as to me, that is exactly what you have discussed here.

I thought about using Hamilton to bring out that info, but I went for a dramatic opening instead. The discussion she has with herself, was in my mind, the anger boiling over......I know I do that myself sometimes. ;-)

The group project is all fun, but if I can learn anything out of it, all the better. Trust me, I'm a big boy and can take it. ;-)

cheers
Dave.

 
At 4:35 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Honestly? It's a bit awkward and clunky.

Though then again, she's a ranting alien, so who's to say that's out of character?

 
At 4:54 PM, Blogger Scott said...

I had a similar situation. I was in line and a woman was screaming to someone one cellphone headset. I turned around to look at her so she would hopefully quiet down, and there was no cell phone.

-S

 
At 5:14 PM, Blogger Grubber said...

Yep, need honesty, I do appreciate that, otherwise it be no good to this little black duck.

Now, are you referring to the whole piece, structure, flow, and dialogue, or just that particular sections, dialogue. We may as well rip it apart, as others can learn from it as well. See I'm throwing myself in front of the bullet. ;-)

I must admit though, my favourite line is in that section....DNA deficient dipshit. That is what is hard, I like that line, in my mind it flows, but to someone else, it may not.

Scott do you have any personal recommendations of scripts with good flowing dialogue?

cheers
Dave.

 
At 5:49 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I was going to e-mail the comments to you, but it kicked back. So --

-- You should mention Sylvia in the opening lines; it isn't even clear she is there until suddenly she is.

-- Unless there is a way for us to know that the Senator is the
Chairman of the Comittee for Alien Lifestyles visually, there's no point in just saying it in the scene description.

-- All of Sylvia's dialogue would work better if she was saying it to a dying Hamilton.

Otherwise, no real omplaints.

 
At 6:07 PM, Blogger Grubber said...

Thanks for those Scott. I do appreciate it.

With saying it to dying Hamilton...very good point....might let the dying person linger a bit longer next time. Was trying to go for quick, determined, type action for Sylvia so that thought did not cross my mind.

Another good point, should have mentioned her in opening lines. 12 quick flails across the back for that one. Thanks for the offer, but no, I will whip myself.

The title of the Senator, ie the chairman bit was something I really wrestled over with for a while, as I could not come up with a good way to introduce his title without it looking like Sylvia was reading it off que cards.

I tried to sort of imply it, by writing to direct the camera without stating the shots...mentioned the nameplate...(should have added it said Chairman of the committee, would have been easy solution in hindsight) also tried it by suggesting files could be seen with that on it. I was not totally happy with it when I sent it to Warren, I actually sent through a second scene I had done up as well, that was totally different to this one. More exposition, less action, and sent story in different direction. ie Will and Sylvia not on the run.

This is what is interesting…..you have ideas, whether you pull them off, and whether you are writing clear enough for the reader to understand your intentions in full.

Again, thanks for breaking it down Scott, I do appreciate your time.

Cheers
Dave.

 
At 6:09 PM, Blogger Grubber said...

have fixed email as well! thanks for that.

 
At 9:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm imagining if Agent Kujan had looked up after Verbal Kint left the room at the end of The Usual Suspects:

KUJAN
Hey, that cripple, he's...

kullervo

 
At 11:28 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Or "Oh my God, it says Kobiyashi on the mug!"

 
At 8:38 AM, Blogger The Moviequill said...

I try to avoid that and I just throw in the odd 'shit' or 'damnit' when characters are by themselves...basically what would I do

 
At 10:46 AM, Blogger Scoopy said...

I've seen this in lots of scripts too. I'm afraid it isn't going anywhere. Even seen it in big pro scripts, when there was a solitary hero who had to be alone, yet had to acknowledge some realizations aloud.

I think studios just don't trust the silent realization. They want everything externalized. When you're writing scripts for studio clunkheads, it's probably fine to punctuate an epiphany with talking-to-myself-out-loud-for-no-god-damned-reason moments.

That self-chat becomes a marker for something that the director may handle properly when the movie's shot and edited. So if you have a moment where it's necessary to have a character self-chat, that's perhaps excuseable. But if there's more than one or two, it's a sign that you may need to throw in another character or restructure the scene (or even the whole story).

Also, Die Hard let McLane talk to himself a lot, but he was also talking over the radio to both his twinkie-loving counterpart and Alan Rickman (yes, I'm too lazy to go to imdb), so when he continued talking to himself off-radio, it flowed. Whether on the radio or not, he appeared alone, so it worked.

Also, the story had him isolated, trapped away from others on purpose -- that was the point. His self-chat helped emphasize that plight and reinforced the tension, helping to put over the plot. Lastly, what he was saying was *funny*! If you write the dialogue well (especially if it's funny), you can smuggle it through the bullshit detector.

 
At 1:34 PM, Blogger Dave Olden said...

Expository self-mutterings? Nope, would rather not.
Has always struck me as amateur, and I agree mostly with Scott's post.

But if you can put a spin on it sometimes it can work (scoopy's DIE HARD example).

Ultimately it's just a flourish. I want to be able to turn the sound off, and get a smooth story.

 

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