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Thursday, June 18, 2009


I must be on vacation, because I'm reading comparative linguistics for fun. THE POWER OF BABEL, by John McWhorter is a witty, page-turning comparison of the languages of the world and how they got that way:
McWhorter ranges across linguistic theory, geography, history and pop culture to tell the fascinating sory of how thousands of very idfferent languages have evolved from a single, original source in a natural process similar to biological evolution.
There is one useful nugget for screenwriters here amidst the evidentiary suffixes and ergatives: spoken language tends to come in "idea packets" of about seven words. Written language often has lots of dependent clauses, but spoken language rarely has any:
Have you ever tape-recorded yourself and your friends talking casually and then listened to it later? What is striking is how few complete sentences we actually tend to utter, how contrary our daily utterances are to the idealization of language we are bombarded with on the page. We speak in "idea packets" or, better yet, when we try to spin out longer propositions, we risk being interrupted because our subconscious rules of discourse are founded on an expectation that people will talk in spurts.

This is one thing distinguishing real life from plays, in which characters stand around making five minute speeches while the other characters just sit and listen. If anyone does try to talk in chapters in real life, it's annoying. I once knew someone like this, and though the erudition and deathless zest for analysis were initially impressive and charming, it got old really fast.
When you write dialog, consider the rhythms of spoken language. I generally try to have my characters get to a complete idea as fast as possible. They can add another idea on top of that, but only after they've finished the first one.

This (from my pay cable pilot):
  • CHAZ
  • See, that’s the problem. You’ve been seeing things. This world -- you see it all around you, and you can’t escape it. So you tell yourself this is your real life. This flesh. These memories. That body you’re in remembers being a mom. But you’re something else. Aren’t you? Something that isn’t flesh. Something that fell as far as anything can fall.

Not this:
  • CHAZ
  • Your problem is precisely that you cannot escape the visible world around you. You tell yourself that your real life is made up of this flesh, these memories, and the body in which you find yourself, which remembers being a mom; but you're something that isn't made of flesh, which fell as far as anything can fall.

Lots of good writers give characters longer sentences than I do. I like a short choppy dialog style because when characters talk the way people talk, in quick bursts of single ideas, the audience won't get lost, and the actors can easily find places to breathe. When characters talk in long, complicated sentences, the audience gets confused waiting for the verb, and the actors have trouble figuring out where to breathe. That's when they start rewriting the dialog, and I hate that.

Listen to people, how they talk. They jump their train of thought from track to track, and they leave you to fill in the blanks. See if writing that doesn't make your dialog more vital.

Try breaking down your dialog into chunks of around seven words each. Don't worry about writing full sentences, or even connecting the thoughts explicitly; real speech is slightly disjointed because the speaker is making it up on the fly. When dialog is too logical, it sounds rehearsed, and they tune out halfway through even a sentence. When it's slightly disjointed, they don't know what's coming next, so they have to actually make the effort to listen to the whole speech. So when the audience has to work just a little to follow the train of thought, the effort pulls them into the experience.

In case the above sounds at all contradictory: I like the audience to be slightly off balance, so they're forced to pay attention; but I don't want them to have to absorb too many ideas at once, lest they get confused and miss something.

Does all this sound like an awful lot of analysis to go into dialog? Don't you just write what you hear in your head? No, of course not. You tinker endlessly. A good writer pays as much attention to the dialog on the page, and to his dialog style in general, as a poet might. You think about the meaning. You think about the sound of the words. You think about nuance. You think about rhythm. You think about how the words crash into the ear and make their way into the brain. You think about everything. You just want it to sound like you just heard it in your head.
A line will take us hours maybe. / Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought, / our stitching and unstinting has been naught.


Now back to those wonderful Proto-Indo-Europeans who came up with all these lovely words.

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4 Comments:

Alex, this is fascinating stuff, thanks. I'm a writer who's just getting into stand-up comedy, and this rang especially true:

"When dialog is too logical, it sounds rehearsed, and they tune out halfway through even a sentence. When it's slightly disjointed, they don't know what's coming next, so they have to actually make the effort to listen to the whole speech. So when the audience has to work just a little to follow the train of thought, the effort pulls them into the experience."

My biggest challenge as a comedian—by far—has been writing and performing in such a way that the material doesn't sound overly rehearsed. If I follow an idealized joke script too closely, it sounds too formal; if I deliver it too quickly, it sounds fake. Either way, it falls flat, and the laughs evaporate.

As a result, I end up writing for the comedy club stage in a far briefer, more declarative style than I do with any other writing. I had no idea what a linguistic highwire act stand-up would be before I got into it, and it sounds like writing dialogue for the screen is a similarly interesting challenge.

By Blogger CJ, at 1:46 AM  

That book seems absolutely fascinating. I have been looking for a way to spend my $20 gift certificate to Borders, so I think I'm going to go buy that tomorrow.

By Blogger Nicholas, at 2:11 AM  

I just finished my last pass on a short. You know, the one where I try to make the character not sound like they're in a script. And it is always amazing, at this stage, how minor tweaks can ring out and change the scene around them. In a way, it is my favorite part of the process.

By Blogger S. Harlan Cone, at 1:23 PM  

On the other hand, McWhorter also laments, in Doing Our Own Thing, that since the nineteenth century Americans have become less and less used to listening to oratory and long complex sentences, so that now even a model of economy like the Gettysburg address is difficult for us to parse. Giving the audience seven-word blurbs is fine, but it wouldn't hurt to challenge them once in a while, either. The West Wing and Deadwood both allowed their characters some complex, elevated oratory, and a certain percentage of the TV audience really responded to that.

By Blogger Seth, at 6:14 PM  

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