He Said, She Said

Bad dialogue in a book or movie is like a sour note in a song. It separates you from the reverie of the story experience. So what is it about good dialogue that makes it good? A discussion on the Black Board forums got me thinking about this. Contributors to the discussion point out that some bad lines cannot be saved, even by the best actors. And definitely not by a lesser actor. The humorous example given? It’s a scene from a 1987 movie called Tough Guys Don’t Dance. See for yourself.

TV comedy writer Ken Levine says that good dialogue has a rhythm and flow to it. Each character speaks in his or her own unique way. And they often avoid directly saying what they want.

I also like the dialogue tips found here and here. Both authors mention that good dialogue is unexpected, surprising, and richer than ordinary conversation. I know the lines I typically remember are those that express the character’s sentiment in the scene perfectly and also are stated creatively, or in a way I’ve never heard before. It’s probably wise to bear in mind that boring characters don’t say clever, interesting things. So good characters and good dialogue are really companions to each other.

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Welcome Back to Oakwilt Elementary

 
 
   Oakwilt Elementary School
A Dare Not to Discipline,
Ain’t Great to Hate School

 

Dear Parents,

Greetings Oakwilt Osprey! As Principal, let me be the first to welcome you back.

First, an important reminder that we are a nut-free school. We ask that you respect the manifold allergies and sensitivities of our students by also not sending gluten, milk, meat, vegetable, or fruit products in your child’s lunch box. And due to one student’s extreme Polynomial Phobia, we will be avoiding math or anything numerical in the classroom. You can take this matter up with the school board if you have any concerns.

In your child’s daily contact binder, please locate the 75-page parent packet which needs to be completed and turned in by tomorrow. A parent homework training packet is to follow. You will need to take the online “Homework Helper” training course and pass the test by the end of the week. At Oakwilt, we strongly believe in parent involvement. Using the “Free-Form” teaching method, our teachers like to spend each day gently introducing the idea of learning to your children, while you are urged to follow up with full instruction and testing at home. All textbooks are online, so please log in to the website for each book and begin familiarizing yourself with the material.

In other housekeeping, if you pre-ordered a packet of school supplies, your child has received them and will already need some name-brand replacement items. (Please avoid prolonged skin contact with the provided erasers!) Your child’s teacher will provide you with an additional 50-item supply list specific to class needs. A big shout-out to Suzie Golden for coordinating school supplies!

Speaking of Suzie Golden. If you haven’t already met her, Suzie is our Parent Or Teachers Together for You (PoTTy) President. Suzie is in charge of volunteer sign-ups. She will stand posted at the entry/exit door for the first two weeks of school, where she will work tirelessly to steer you to a volunteer slot that you are best suited for. Be assured there is a place for everyone. However, certain preferred positions have been pre-assigned by Suzie Golden. If you desire one of these slots, you can attend the thrice-weekly PoTTy meetings throughout the year to discuss it. For those of you with jobs or other conflicts, let me remind you that the direction of your children’s future is in your hands. As we like to say at Oakwilt, put aside your own needs, be it financial or otherwise, and always “Konsider your Kids” first! We feel it is never too early to instill a healthy dose of parental guilt.

(As a side note, please do not approach Suzie Golden, unless your presence has first been acknowledged by her. Also, unless you are Suzie Golden, do not ask for a change in classroom placement. Class assignments were determined through super-secret testing and formulas which are not available for your viewing. Unless you are Suzie Golden.)

We believe each child who walks in the door at Oakwilt is perfect just the way he or she is, and we wouldn’t dream of asking a student to change. Our teachers will happily accommodate all student misbehaviors and outbursts by asking parents to step in as classroom helpers, while they take a  “refreshment” break. We are a place where children form lasting friendships. As such, “best friend” proclamations and bullying behaviors such as hugs and high-fives are not allowed. In an effort to focus on social skills, there will be no talking allowed at lunch. Since we are achievement-oriented, we do not assign grades but instead employ a scale of slightly-varied happy faces. We want to create in each student a desire to succeed. So please remind your child not to brag about receiving a double-smiley on a paper.

If you have any further questions or needs, please know that I have an “open” door policy, and parents are always welcome, provided that they have a current parent pass and that they enter the building during the prescribed five minute time period allotted daily. If you need a pass, you may apply with Prunella Crabbs in the front office. She will require three forms of ID, an FBI background check, two letters of reference, and a bottle of Boone’s Farm.

Once again, I welcome you to Oakwilt. I can’t wait to wave you on in the car line. Keep those cars moving expeditiously along east to west. And have a great year!

Your Principal,

Mrs. Snootwell

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Tuning Up: Writing Voice and Opening Lines

Ahem. La la la la la la la. Pardon. Just finding my voice there —

Good interview with Stephen King in The Atlantic about the importance of opening lines and having a unique voice. What is a writer’s voice? According to King, voice is more than style. It is what readers look for, above and beyond genre.

“A novel’s voice is something like a singer’s — think of singers like Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, who have no musical training but are instantly recognizable. When people pick up a Rolling Stones record, it’s because they want access to that distinctive quality. They know that voice, they love that voice, and something in them connects profoundly with it.”

King also talks about how the opening sentence clues us into a writer’s style, while taking us right into the action and (hopefully) simultaneously luring us into the story.

King’s favorite opening line?

It’s from Douglas Fairbairn’s novel, Shoot–“This is what happened.”

His own favorite first line?

It’s from Needful Things–“You’ve been here before.”

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ScriptShark Gives My Screenplay a Thumbs-Up

ScriptShark recently gave a CONSIDER to my screenplay, Cooler Than You Think, and promoted it in their monthly Scouting Report. Nice to receive some recognition!

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Honor Thy Character

There’s an interesting lesson for writers in the American Film Institute interview with Dustin Hoffman, where he discusses preparing for his role as Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie. Before production began for Tootsie, screenwriter Murray Schisgal asked Hoffman to imagine, “If you were born a woman, how would you be different?” Hoffman had make-up artists work to turn him into a believable woman. But when their work was complete, he was discouraged to see that he could not be a classically beautiful woman. He had an epiphany at that point. As Dorothy, he felt like an interesting woman with much to offer. Yet he knew that in real life, Dorothy would lead a frustrated life and find herself ignored. So in throwing himself completely into this character, Hoffman says, “That was never a comedy for me.”

Similarly, a wise improv teacher of mine taught me to always believe in your characters, never disrespect or accuse them. And I think this is important for writers as well as actors to remember. When writing and and embodying characters, we need to honor them. We should never make fun of them or mistreat them. Sure, they will lead themselves into situations that will make them appear ridiculous. But the characters themselves must absolutely be believable. They will believe in the choices they are making. They will be people shaped by their characteristics and by circumstance. And the more real and believable they are, the more interesting they become.

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Dear Blog

Dear Blog,

What’s up? Nothing much with me, thanks for asking. OMG except can you believe it has been one year since we started out together? You remembered, right? I knew you would. This year has been so great. I just had to write and say thanks. So…

1. Thank you, Blog, for keeping me analytical about my writing this year. You have really kept me reading, researching, and learning. In addition to the deadlines for my various writing projects, you have helped me to stay on track.

2. Thank you for helping me connect with readers and for showing me that what I have to say is interesting to someone else out there. It’s been very gratifying to find that I have readers from all over the world coming to my blog. And strangely I am the top google result for some weird search terms.

3. Thank you for helping me find my voice. There is nothing like writing and then writing some more to help you find your voice as a writer.

4. Thank you for helping me to prove that I am a real writer and that I can keep with it. I’m glad we’ve made it through a year. Let’s never be apart!

5. Thank you for letting me say any old thing I want, without judgment. You are so great, that way. You never tell me that my ideas are stupid or any of that stuff. You’re like an electronic BFF!

So I guess I’ll just wrap it up by saying, in the words of Rihanna, you can stand under my umbrella. Anytime. Assuming it’s not raining too hard and that my umbrella is large enough for sharing.

And to all the writers out there – keep writing!

Emily

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The Red Lighter

The silence of the room prickled my skin like chigger bites on a summer night. It’s a real wonder I managed to stay here as long as I did. Time and again, the teddy bear pictures on the wall had creeped their way into my dreams. Today, their lopsided gaze warned me to get a move on. The air, a mingling of disinfectant and foul cat litter, prodded me with its sharp fingers. Even the sticky tips of the shag carpet pointed to the door, like swords raised towards sanctuary.

But I did take pause when I remembered the jewelry box on the bureau. Not because I had anything of value inside. No jewelry other than braided friendship bracelets and gumball-machine rings. It was that stupid red, disposable lighter I knew was resting on pillowed silk that made my chest grow tight. I cracked my knuckles one at a time before lifting the lid.

The red lighter felt familiar in my hand. More pink than red now, from all the rubbing I’d done on it.  I flicked uselessly at the metal wheel that hadn’t sparked in years.

The day Daddy left, I had snatched it up from the table. It was an idiotic idea; just the kind of naive plan a nine-year-old concocts. As if Daddy would have ever stayed behind just because his cheap bic lighter was missing. It did buy me about five minutes, though it was five minutes of him cussing and throwing stuff around the trailer. All the while, I stood there watching Mama. And Mama stood there watching Loreen.  Loreen from the truck stop. The way she put on airs, you might have thought her to be worldly. Unless you noticed how she tugged up her tube top and chipped at her nails.

Daddy made out like Loreen hung the moon, the way he went on about her. After he took up with her, it was like we didn’t even exist any more. And so when he gave up hunting around for the lighter that day, I knew that was the last I’d ever see of him. But I gave it one last shot. “Daddy,” I clung to him. “Don’t leave.”

“Let go now, Sugar.” He peeled me off with his hard hands.

Through the screen door mesh, I watched him drive away, his single tail light growing faint. Mama held a Kool to her lips and opened her palm to me. I lay the red lighter there on her hand, and she lit up, took a drag, and breathed out a sigh of smoke into the night.

Now here I was, leaving. Mama didn’t want to be here to see me off. Said it would be too much for her. But I knew that wasn’t true.

I dragged my suitcase, thump, thump, thump down the old steps. I pulled the lighter from my pocket and held it up to the sun, the plastic so thin now I could almost see through it. Then I let it fall. With a single stomp, it shattered into tiny bits. I kicked at the gravel until the pink shards were buried. After a moment, I yanked up the suitcase. And just like Daddy, I was gone.

 

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How Embarrassing

I was reading an article by veteran T.V. writer Sy Rosen in The Writer magazine about how he turned the embarrassments of his youth into story lines.

Sy talks most specifically about his episode for The Wonder Years, entitled “The Nose,” in which a high school girl finds confidence and social success despite her large nose.

This resonated with me, because I mined youthful humiliations for my most recent comedy screenplay. The lovely thing about re-living those laughable moments of the past, I think, is that you get to re-frame them. You can find meaning in the experiences and let your character grow and change because of them. In real life, growth is so painfully slow. Those character-building events can take so long to refine us. But we can allow the events to effect immediate change in our written heroes. My protagonist learns the lesson about accepting herself after a few months, while yours truly here took years, nay a lifetime, to learn those same lessons.

Sy Rosen suggests three preparatory steps to incorporating a past embarrassment into your writing. First, he says, find adult experiences in your life that you can relate to the past event. For example, rejections similar to one from your past. This allows you to conjure up the associated feelings. Next, he suggests you write details of memories related to the incident. Third, allow your character to experience a personalized version of the occurrence.

I love that writing gives us a way to celebrate all the humiliating moments we live through. (Especially since I’ve experienced perhaps more than my fair share.) I think as writers, it’s great that the atrocious things that happen to us can find a purpose in our writing. Our humiliations make our stories richer — and our characters more embarrassed.

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Child’s Play

If it feels impossible to get those creative juices flowing, it could be you’re dealing with a bad case of adulthood. Psychologist Alison Gopnick has discovered through her research that babies and children are more conscious thinkers than adults. (Hear her TED talk here.) Children, like little scientists, are constantly taking in and analyzing multiple stimuli.  We, as adults, have learned to focus and tune things out. But in so doing, we sometimes miss out on important information. Gopnick suggests that  “to have open-mindedness, open learning, imagination, creativity, innovation, maybe at least some of the time we should be getting the adults to start thinking more like children.”

I think this is a great idea. Kids play naturally. But as adults, we’ve oftentimes forgotten how. I have been experiencing how the kind of play I use in my improv class can carry over into my writing. Some of the notions finding their way into my writing are:

  • A feeling of playfulness in creating stories
  • The idea of WHAT IF…, and an open mind to all possibilities
  • Exploration of: if this is true, then WHAT ELSE might be true
  • Experimenting with the unusual
  • Fearlessly approaching new ideas
  • Feeling free to make mistakes

When I put something on the page that surprises even myself, I know I’m reaching into new, creative territory. I think our job as writers is to find the unusual in the usual and to dig for hidden feelings and meanings inside our characters and stories. So having an open, playful mind seems like a good approach. When stuck in the mundane and cliché, it never hurts to turn off the adult brain for a while and to think like a child.

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Editing Overload

I’m rewriting a feature and TV pilot project at the same time, and I must say I’m sick of editing.  I am so ready to move on to a new project. At times, it feels like it would be easier to start from scratch than to repair some of the problems I’ve discovered. Ugh. Griping a bit almost makes it better.

I have discovered a great list to review when you’re in screenplay editing mode. It’s Terry Rossio’s screenplay checklist. It covers Concept & Plot, Technical Execution, and Characters. I’m starting to recognize my recurring weaknesses.  Now if I can just avoid them in the first place!

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