Thursday 27 August 2009

Silence is Golden (and a bit of homework)

It's all too easy to get hooked on honing your dialogue. In long years of experience, I've learned that sadly, there's about ten percent of the population that can't write dialogue and never will. It's like being tone deaf, if you can't carry a tune, it's unlikely that you'll ever learn. Like music, capturing dialogue requires an ear for tone and rhythm. Even more disturbing is the realisation that of the ten percent of those that can't make a speech sound human, ten percent of them are being paid to write movies and TV shows. But let's assume and hope that you're in the ninety percent, what are the tricky bits?

Two of the toughest areas of dialogue to write are backstory and emotional conflict. How often will you be watching a period drama when a real historical figure is introduced by another character with what sounds like a chunk lifted straight from Wikipedia? And when it comes to emotional conflict, whether it's Hollywood weepie, gritty Britsoap or HBO emmy-laden uber-melodrama, how often do you hear people openly discussing the dynamics of their relationship in scenes that in real life would be no more than a series of grunts and shifty looks, or a heavily subtext-laden argument about grouting the bathroom tiles?

So, I thought I'd give a couple of practical examples for people to go and take a look at. Coincidentally they both fall into a SF/fantasy genre, but the lessons are just as valid for any form of drama.

For great backstory - watch the opening 40 seconds of M Night Shyalaman's 'Signs'. It's not exactly a work of genius, but the opening sequence is bliss. Using nothing more than props and set design and without any dialogue we learn that Mel Gibson used to be a clergyman until his wife died young, leaving him with two kids, anxiety attacks and as a result, he's renounced his faith. I actually applauded spontaneously in the cinema at this point which got a few strange looks... watch for the photo, the dog collar, the double bed, and best of all the missing crucifix. (incidentally, two minutes in you get a wonderfully leaked fragment of backstory after Gibson discovers his crops have been vandalised. Just the lines 'I don't even care if it was him - you can just have a word with him and that would be enough for me')

For emotional resolution (and for a rattling good scare and action fest with a bucket full of yoks) watch the whole of Josh Whedon's award-winning 'Hush' from season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Leaving aside Whedon's astonishing chutzpah in choosing the centrepoint of all his major story-arcs to experiment with form, this is a marvel of silent story-telling. For those that don't know the piece, every one of the major players has a secret that they just can't quite bring enough to tell the one person it would most effect. Most writers would be setting themselves up for a car-crash of epic melodramatic dialogue having so many plot points collide at once, but Whedon grasps the nettle and casts a spell over the entire town that renders them mute. Thus, robbed of the power of speech, all their secrets become revealed through action. And the pay off line is magnificent.

There you go then, a bit of very enjoyable homework that means you can pass off some quality sofa time as an educational neccessity. And if anyone believes recommending Buffy as an example of quality writing is puerile or silly, they should give up writing forever.

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