Thursday, 26 March 2009

Break out in monkey bites

Writing more dialogue today. As a Physics graduate, I often have to remind myself not to be precise. Dialogue should be poetic even if (especially if) that makes it vague.

I'm talking about words that speak to the EQ not the IQ. When a character states something in logical terms, that's something the reader can argue with. You can disagree, and then you've disconnected from the story.

An emotional appeal, on the other hand, is hard to pin down, so hard to contradict. It seduces you. Example. In Gangs of New York, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) has this voiceover line the first time Bill the Butcher leads his men to the Dead Rabbits’ house:

“The world turns. But we don’t notice it turning. Then one day we look up. A spark – and the whole sky is on fire.”

When it's done with honesty like that, nothing works better. The writer (Jay Cocks) is using a poetic phrase to sum up almost everything we've experienced in the movie to this point.

It has to come from the heart, though. Listen to the fake-poetic voiceover in a TV show like Grey's Anatomy, or the gosh-shucks homilies of A River Runs Through It. There it sounds like the vagueness is just covering up the fact that the writer has space to fill and nothing to say.

Those are the set-piece talk scenes. The big epiphanic moments of voiceover. But of course there needs to be a little lacing of poetry in even the commonplace dialogue:

Not “We’re in the middle of the ocean.”
Instead: “Look around, pal. Planning on growing fins?”

Not “I like fruit.”
Instead “I can never resist a juicy black plum.”

Howard Hawks said: "Hemingway calls it oblique dialogue. I call it three-cushion. Because you hit it over here and over here and go over here to get the meaning. You don't state it right out." And so, instead of a plain old "you're in love", he encouraged his writers (in this case no less a talent than Leigh Brackett) to come up with glorious dialogue like this: 

Sean: (Referring to the growing rivalry between Kurt and Chips over Brandy) So that's what's got you green around the gills this morning. The first sign of spring in the bush and the young bucks start butting heads.
Kurt: So what?
Sean: So... I can't answer that. Just don't let it gum up the works around here.
Kurt: Oh, I won't. But I won't let the Frenchman have a free hand, either.
Sean: Oh, this is gonna be great! The Indian is knocked off, I've got a woman photographer on my hands, now you and the Frenchman break out in monkey bites, and we're a month behind already!
Kurt: So?
Sean: So don't let him have a free hand.

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