John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: And my name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 286 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, well, way back in Episode 37 we discussed dialogue. Today we’re doing a follow up on that. A part two on dialogue. The ways in which characters communicate with each other and let us know what’s inside their heads. Then we’ll be discussing two terms often applied to screenwriters and I will be urging people to stop using those terms.
Craig: Yeah. That’s a great idea.
John: Plus, we’ll have a chance to answer some listener questions if we don’t run out of time, so we should probably get started. Craig, last week we asked How Would This Be a Movie, and several of our listeners wrote in to say that was already a TV show.
Craig: Yeah, who knew? So, this was the Alexis Manigo story. This was the girl who was stolen from her parents when she was born, from the hospital, and raised by an entirely different woman. And then comes to find out when she’s 17 or 18 what the truth is, and it was an interesting story. So, she was born Kamiyah Mobley and then was raised as Alexis Manigo, and I guess now she’s back to being Kamiyah Mobley. Regardless, many folks wrote in, including – do you remember this guy, Stuart Friedel? [laughs]
John: Vaguely. I think he was a producer early on on Scriptnotes. That’s maybe how we knew him, Stuart.
Craig: Only for the first 98% of the shows. Regardless, Stuart and others wrote in to direct our attention to an MTV series that was called Finding Carter. And that show was about – we’ll see if this sounds familiar- a teenage girl whose life is turned upside down when she discovers that the woman she thought was her mother had abducted when she was a child. That’s the exact same story. And it was created by a writer named Emily Silver. So, yeah, looks like I guess life has imitated art there?
John: Perhaps. Or Emily Silver was ahead of the game. Perhaps she traveled through time and she saw the story and went back in time so she could be the first one there with that story.
Craig: That’s the most likely explanation.
John: That is absolutely. Occam’s razor suggests time travel is clearly what was at work here. It’s a good idea for a story in general. So that was a fictional version of that story. I kind of remember a promo for it, because I don’t watch a lot on MTV, but I watch MTV’s The Challenge and I would see promos for Finding Carter back in those days.
Craig: I got to tell you, I have forgotten that MTV even exists. I mean, look, when we were kids MTV came out and it was the bomb. Right? We all loved MTV. The astronaut dancing around. Videos were this new thing. We were just thrilled.
John: We also said words like The Bomb.
Craig: Right. Like that’s how old we are. And then MTV stopped playing music videos and started doing other stuff. And we were like, meh, I don’t know. But then they had MTV’s The Real World. And that became the new hotness. Right?
John: I loved The Real World. I probably watched the first six seasons of The Real World.
Craig: I don’t know how long I stuck around. I think I probably checked out after San Francisco, which was kind of the height of drama. At least as far as I could tell. And then I stopped watching MTV. I don’t even know where to find it. I don’t know what’s on it. And I’m not sure that’s necessarily a function of me being an old dude. My son is 15. My daughter is 12. I don’t even know if they know that MTV is a thing.
John: I think MTV is still a thing, it’s just because channels have become much less important, networks have become less important, and programs have become more important. So, like Teen Wolf is a big MTV show.
Craig: Ah, OK.
John: And so that is a big scripted show. And so that is sort of what they do now. And Finding Carter was a series, like Teen Wolf, but it didn’t break out in the way that Teen Wolf broke out to become a phenomena.
John: Yeah. I think you can still make some sort of movie version of that story, but I kind of feel like we were – obviously we weren’t going to know about Finding Carter. We’re just not in that demographic. But I think a TV series is actually a really interesting way to go with that idea, because it’s an ongoing journey. It doesn’t have to be a one-time situation to discover that you’re kidnapped. There’s a lot of story that you can stretch out ahead there. And so a TV series is a good way to do that. Congratulations, Emily Silver, your time travel seems like a great opportunity for narrative.
John: Silver! Next up, we talked about sea monkeys. And, again, there was a TV show. I have no idea there was a TV show. There was a television program that ran for 11 episodes in 1992 called The Amazing Live Sea Monkeys. It starred Howie Mandel as the professor. The show was created by Howie Mandel, along with Stephen Charles and Edward Chiodo, who I looked up and they are like puppeteers. They are puppet makers. And so this was a live action show. The sea monkeys had sort of puppeted faced. I mean, they were like makeup faces. And so they were full size people.
I should probably just read the Wikipedia summary. “The plot revolved around the notion that the Professor had accidentally enlarged three sea monkeys to human-size, and plotlines followed their ensuing comical ineptness in the world. Each Sea Monkey displayed a certain odd character trait: Aquarius could not keep a secret, Bill was afraid of an Imperial, Dave would grow excited at the sound of polka music. They occasionally come into contact with their next door neighbors the ‘Brentwood’s, whose daughter Sheila becomes the Sea-Monkeys best friend.”
Craig: First of all, what is happening? I mean, we’ve talked a lot about what it means to build a character. This is a good example of what to not do. “Dave would grow excited at the sound of polka music” – not really a solid substitute for verisimilitude in a living creature. But, what the hell does “Bill was afraid of an Imperial” mean? What?
John: I don’t know. I feel like we shouldn’t entirely judge a show based on its Wikipedia summary.
Craig: The Wikipedia summary. Right.
John: But we will put a link in the show notes to the YouTube clip so people can watch it. I feel like if you were taking advantage of California’s new medical marijuana laws, this might be the thing to start watching, because it is surreal in the strangest ways.
Craig: Well, it is. I watched about, I don’t know, two minutes of it. And it is – “ensuring comical ineptness” – sounds correct. There was comical ineptness all around there. But I was struck by how, once again, John, how old we are, because this show looked honestly like it was – other than being in color, it could have been made in 1840. [laughs] And it was from 1992. I graduated college in 1992. I can’t believe that this was what was happening back then. Not good.
John: No. Not good. I will say that this falls into that gap of – I grew up watching Saturday morning shows. I think this was a Saturday morning show. I hope this was a Saturday morning show. But I grew up watching those. But then, of course, you turn to junior high and high school and you stop watching those shows. And so there’s a whole generation of those shows that you would not have caught.
So, Stuart Friedel, again, probably would have watched this show.
John: But you and I would not have watched this show.
Craig: I bet you Stuart still watches it occasionally.
John: Stuart is a huge fan of children’s television. And I guess sort of young adult television. That’s why he knows about Finding Carter. He can tell you what’s happening on the Thundermans. He’s very good at that kind of stuff.
Craig: And not in a weird way, by the way.
John: No, there’s nothing at all weird about Stuart Friedel. He’s as straight-forward as you could come.
Craig: He legitimately loves children’s–
John: He really does.
Craig: I had dinner with Stuart the other night.
John: Tell me about dinner with Stuart Friedel, or after the air if it’s too embarrassing.
Craig: No, it was – well, after dinner was what normally happens with me and Stuart. And, you know what, we’re good. We’re cool. It was delightful. It was delightful. He is a lovely person. And a very, very smart person. He’s doing quite well.
John: Yeah. And he’s married. Congratulations, Stuart Friedel.
Craig: He’s married. Yes. One day our show may be produced by Jimmy Friedel, Stuart’s son.
Craig: [laughs] Yeah, just named his kid for him. Why not?
John: So, if you’re curious about the sea monkeys, we will link to an episode called the Octapotomus, which is just fantastic.
Craig: People should know, by the way, that this episode is going to be wild, because normally we try and do this where it’s kind of mid-morning for me, and early evening for you because of our continental divide. But because of scheduling issues, it’s currently nearly midnight for me and crazy early in the morning for you. This is going to be wild.
John: It’s going to be wild.
All right, last bit of follow up here is the Sinbad genie movie. So, we talked last week about the Sinbad movie that never existed in which he plays a genie. And so as we were discussing it, in our show notes we were going to talk about the Mandela Effect. And there’s even a link in last week’s episode to the Mandela Effect because we were supposed to talk about it. We didn’t talk about it.
The Mandela Effect is a general term for situations like what’s happening with the Sinbad genie movie where people have a memory that is not actually true. There’s a collective memory that’s not true. And the Mandela Effect describes people’s memory of Nelson Mandela dying long before he died. Sort of a theory that there’s something weird and metaphysical happening there. So, we didn’t get into the Mandela Effect last week.
But, Craig, this past week you were describing a situation you had with David Kwong which sounds like a very similar kind of phenomenon.
Craig: Yeah, so the Mandela Effect I guess posits that there’s parallel universes and there’s like a glitch in either the computer simulation that we all live in, which I believe we do, or a glitch in parallel universes so that a lot of people are accessing some parallel alternate reality in which Sinbad did in fact play a genie in a movie called Shazam, which he did not.
So, David Kwong, our friend of the show, world famous magician, and now creator of a TV show. He’s got a new TV show that he’s doing. I was at dinner with him and the word dilemma came up, you know, just in use. And he said, “You know, up until three years ago,” and David Kwong for context, Harvard educated, one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life. He said, “Up until a couple years ago, I was convinced that the word dilemma was spelled D-I-L-E-M-N-A.” As in “dilemna.” With the M sound sort of being like autumn, which of course ends with M-N.
And he said what prompted him to go down this rabbit hole was he saw a poster for the movie a few years ago called The Dilemma, and he thought, “Oh, that’s somehow they’ve done a pun or something. Because they’ve spelled dilemma wrong.” And he looked it up and realized, no, you spell dilemma with two Ms, not M-N.
So, he goes online and realizes that he is one of many, many people who not only were under the impression that the word dilemma was spelled D-I-L-E-M-N-A, but have very clearly memories of being instructed that this is the case in the way that we are instructed in school about words that we might think be spelled one way, but are in fact spelled another way.
You know, so in school I remember we learned that the word separate, there was a poster that said, “There’s a RAT in SEPARATE,” because people sometimes misspell it Sep-e-rate, and it’s Sep-a-rate. These people have clear memories of being instructed, even textbooks instructing them that it’s DILEMNA, and there’s a website dedicated to this called dilemna.info.
So, we’ll link to that one.
Craig: And you can read all about this bizarre glitch in the matrix.
John: Yes. So when you told me about David Kwong’s situation there, I have a memory, too, of having spelled dilemma with an N in it for some reason. And I don’t remember being specifically instructed, but I do remember thinking like, oh, that’s how you do it. And words like column or autumn have similar sort of patterns so it would kind of make sense. Also, dilemma is a word that you don’t use as a child. It becomes a middle school word at earliest. So, I can see sort of how that happens. I still think dilemma looks a little weird with two Ms. There’s something just really strange about the word dilemma. So, it’s not surprising to me that we have this weird situation around it.
Again, I don’t think it’s a metaphysical Mandela Effect necessarily. But, I get it. I get why people are a little bit creeped out by a false memory of having learned it a certain way.
John: So this idea that it was in your textbooks, well, we can’t find the textbooks that would actually have it printed the wrong way. We can’t find dictionaries that have it printed the wrong way. Yet, I could believe that teachers might have taught it the wrong way. And it’s not a recent phenomenon. Apparently it goes back 80 years. You see examples of people misspelling it in that specific way. So, something is going on there.
Craig: Right. And at the dilemna.info site you have – because the one theory was, well, if it’s people from a certain generation, maybe there was just like a bad textbook or something. But there’s a 90-year-old man who remembers this. There are 20 year olds who remember this. It’s a weird one for me because I always remembered how to spell dilemma because of Lemma. I don’t know if you remember the word “lemma” when you were doing geometry or not, but so it’s a Greek word. And dilemma is just two lemmas.
So, I – this is a weird one for me. I’m surprised. And, by the way, they do – they talk about how they remember it in textbooks, but no one can find them because, of course, they don’t exist.
Craig: Or do they?
John: Or do they? Hmm.
All right, let’s segue to our main topic today, which is words again. It’s dialogue. So, way back in Episode 37 we had Let’s Talk about Dialogue, was our first conversation about how we write dialogue for film and for television. And I wanted to sort of revisit that, because I’ve been thinking about that more over the last week. I’ve been doing some polishing. I’ve been doing some nips and tucks on a project. And it comes down to the dialogue for what I’m doing right now.
And I thought we’d start with sort of a history of what dialogue is, because obviously human beings who have been speaking for our entire existence – that’s one of the things that sort of makes us human. But dialogue is a very special case. And so I was thinking back to well what is the first example of dialogue. It would probably be reported speech. So, if I’m telling you a story and I’m using the speech as the characters in the story, or like I’m recapping something and saying like that he says, then she says, and it’s that situation where you’re modeling the behavior of what was said before. And so you can imagine sort of cavemen around the campfire doing that kind of reported speech would be the first kind of dialogue. Within a monologue, it’s the speech in that. Sort of like how an audio book works.
But then we have real plays. And so have the Greek dramas, the Greek comedies. If you think about the Greek dramas, a lot of Greek dramas are not people kind of talking back to each other. It sort of feels like I say something, then you say something, and there’s not a lot of interplay. But the Greek comedies, they do actually sort of talk to each other in ways that are meaningful. Of course, Shakespeare has plays in which characters are really communicating with each other. The thing I say influences the thing that you say back to me.
And then you have the Oscar Wilde comedies, which are all about sort of the craft of those words, and sort of like badminton where they’re just keeping the ball up in the air. It’s not a ball, but I’d say it’s a birdie.
Craig: Yeah, exactly. I went through a period where I was reading some of the old Greek comedies, Aristophanes and so on, and I was stunned at how contemporary they felt in terms of the back and forth of dialogue. It was kind of remarkable. And they are plays – so you’re reading essentially a script. A thousand and thousand year-old script. And they had figured a lot. It’s actually insane how little has changed.
John: Yeah. But I think it’s important to distinguish the comedies from the dramas, because when I look at the old Greek dramas, there is back and forth, but it’s not the same kind of back and forth. And it ends up being sort of a lot more like I’m going to tell you this whole long thing, and the next person is going to tell you this whole long thing.
John: There’s less of that sort of back and forth.
Craig: I agree. It’s very declarative. The dramas are very much about speeches.
John: Yeah. But then you look at what happens next is as we get into radio plays, then it’s all dialogue. So, when you have stage plays, you can see the action happening in front of you. You have people there. But we get to radio plays, it’s just people talking. And so the words have to do so much more in order to communicate not only what’s being said, but sort of the world around what’s being said. And so it’s more naturalistic in some ways, but it also has to be sort of pushed in a way because it has to explain everything through just the dialogue.
Same time we were seeing radio come up, you have the silent movies. And so in silent movies, of course, you have characters in scenes together, but the dialogue, if there is dialogue is just title cards that are put there. So, you have characters emoting a lot and then we cut to a card that has a very shortened version of what they would say. That’s a strange form–
Craig: It’s very strange, because the cards – they don’t make conversation possible so even though people are talking together, they will choose a, I guess, some kind of representative line of dialogue for one person to sum up this entire exchange that these two people might be having. And, of course, that is probably why a lot of silent films also de-accentuate conversation. And it’s very much about one person making speeches, while another person listens.
John: Yep. Then, of course, we transition to the talkies, and then everything is changed, because in once you actually have dialogue and characters that are in a scene together, it changes the frame of reality around things. So you can’t just have a person emoting wildly and then you cut to a title card. They actually have to have a conversation. You have to keep that ball up in the air. And it’s a huge shift in sort of how the audience’s experience of a story and really the writer’s experience of how you’re going to communicate this information. You cannot expect the audience to just be watching and gleaning something. They are expecting to have a real conversation happening in front of them. And that changes everything.
Craig: It also famously changed the skill of acting. I mean, the school of acting prior to talkies was very much about being emotive and really more of a filmed version of what people would do on stage, which was very formalized.
And because their faces and movement had to stand in for so much, but once you shift to sound, we begin to see the birth of naturalistic acting which peaks with the method movement that leads to all – you know, famously some of our greatest American films of the ‘70s.
John: Yeah. So there’s an expectation that the performances are naturalistic, and therefore the dialogue is supposed to be more naturalistic. It’s not always that way, but the dialogue gets twisted towards naturalism quite heavily once you have real characters speaking to each other.
Craig: But then eventually you get to the sea monkeys, which that’s a different kind of–
John: That’s really the pinnacle. It’s sort of sad that we peaked in 1992, but at least we have YouTube so we can go back and look at sort of what the sea monkeys were able to do.
Craig: [laughs] Because they talk, their mouths are all – ugh.
John: It’s amazing. Television in general was a huge shift in dialogue as well. Because you think about how people watch television, you’re watching the screen, but sometimes you’re not really watching the screen. Sometimes TV is playing off in the background. So, there’s a midway quality between what our expectations are of film dialogue and radio dialogue. There’s a little bit of over-explaining that tends to happen in TV. I think less so now than, you know, 20 years ago. But TV dialogue could be a little bit more artificial because there was an expectation that you got to talk people through the process. Even procedural shows right now, there’s an unnatural quality which is sort of inherent to the genre where you are talking as if the other character doesn’t have that same information so you can get it out to the audience.
Craig: And prior to – a fairly recent revolution where so much of our television is streamed, commercial-free for instance, if you’re watching it on Netflix or Hulu. Network television which dominated all television was highly bifurcated/trifurcated/quadfurcated because of commercials. And there was an understanding that some people were just coming in, you know, they had missed it. Or, they went to the bathroom while stuff was going on. There was no TiVo. There was no pausing. So, people were constantly reiterating things so that folks wouldn’t get lost just because they went to go get a sandwich.
John: Yeah. As you were saying, in recapping what just happened.
John: So let’s talk about what characters are doing in scenes and sort of what ideally you would love to have your dialogue be able to perform in the scenes you’re writing. So, the first thing we’re looking for is dialogue, which means characters talking to each other, with each other, and not just intersecting monologues. And one of the great frustrations I have in some of our Three Page Challenges is I feel like characters are just having a monologue that’s just occasionally interrupted. Or like two parallel monologues that don’t actually have anything to do with each other.
When dialogue is working well, it should feel kind of like Velcro. Those two pieces of conversation, they’re designed for each other. And so they can only exist together and they’re strong when they are together. But you couldn’t take those people’s lines independently. They would be sort of meaningless. They’re all informed by what the person just said before that.
Craig: That’s a very good way of describing a common rookie limitation – intersecting monologues. And it’s understandable because the complexity that is required to create dialogue that answers and is responsible to the reflection back from another character, it is logarithmically more complicated than one person saying something and then another person saying something. The listening is that, you know, they always say that silence is just as important in music as a note. And it’s the listening of dialogue and the reacting and the incorporation and the adjustment, that’s the swordsmanship. So, I think when we look at stuff where we have the intersecting monologue problem, it’s like we’re watching two fencers who are putting on an exhibition for us, and they’re showing us their fencing moves towards us.
But they’re not fencing each other, which is just a totally different thing.
John: It is. So let’s take a look at sort of how we indicate in the real world that we are listening to each other and how listening shapes the lines we’re going to say next. And so I want to talk about discourse markers, which is the general term for those words that function as parts of speech that are not quite nouns or adjectives or anything else. They’re basically just little markers that say, “Yes, I heard what you said. I’m acknowledging what you said. And here is my response to it. So, I’m talking about words like you know, actually, basically, like, I mean, OK, and so. Things like also, on the other hand, frankly, as a matter of fact. As I do very often, as you’re talking, I go, “Uh-huh.”
John: It’s those small acknowledgments that I hear what you’re saying and keep going, or I’m about to respond back to you.
There’s an acronym which I found online for it called FANBOYS. So if you’re trying to remember those words it’s For And Nor But Or Yet or So. Basically it’s ways to take what has just been said and put your spin on the next thing that’s going to come out. And so let’s take a look at why you would use those discourse markers and as a screenwriter how to be aware of those things. Because I think so often we try to optimize our dialogue to the point where we’re getting rid of all the natural parts of speech. But without some of these little things to help you hook into the previous line, it can be hard to make your speech flow naturally.
So, here’s one function. It’s when you want to soften a blow, especially if it conflicts with what the person just said. So, it’s an example of like, “Well.” “Well, that’s not entirely true.”
John: You could say, “That’s not entirely true,” but that’s a harder line. The well takes a little of the edge off that. And sort of connects like, “Yes, I heard what you just said, but I’m going to say the opposite.”
Craig: Yeah. So, these words are wonderful to indicate that the person who is starting their sentence with them has changed. Somehow what you said to me changed my brain. I’m not saying it changed my mind in that I have a new opinion. But it has changed my state of brain, which is exactly what goes on in conversation. So, as you’re talking to me, you’re changing my brain because I’m listening to you. Actors understand this. They’re taught very carefully and very rigorously how to listen. You can always tell a bad actor because they’re not listening. They’re just thinking about their next line.
Craig: Similarly, bad writers write characters who are just thinking about their next line. And so you lose these little things. And when we talk about, well, everyone is familiar with the phrase “an ear for dialogue.” A lot of what an ear for dialogue is is this. It’s really not so much an ear, it is a sense of human psychology and an understanding of how it feels to listen.
So, when you’re writing two people talking to each other, you have to schizophrenically – I use that in the wrong sense – you know, split-mindedly say something and then immediately throw yourself into the other person and hear it. And that is what will naturally lead to some of these very useful words.
John: Yep. So, you know, we talked about softening a blow. A lot of times you’re also comparing two ideas. And so an example would be, “So, it’s like Uber for golf carts.” And so you’re basically taking the idea that’s been given to you and synthesizing it and putting it back. You might want to add onto an idea. So, that’s, “What’s more, there’s no evidence he even read the book.” So that “what’s more,” you could take that off, but without it it doesn’t connect to the previous line of dialogue.
Craig: Right. It’s not an acknowledgement that you’ve heard that. You’re agreeing with it, tacitly. And now you’re adding. So much gets unsaid by a “what’s more.” But we hear it, and the audience hears it, and they know so much because of it. That’s amazing. I’ve never really thought about that. Interesting.
John: Yeah. It’s a way of like sort of underlining that previous point. Another example would be indicating that a point has already been conceded and that you’re kind of moving on. So, an example would be, “No, you’re right to be concerned.” And so essentially saying like, “You said to be concerned. I’m agreeing with you to be concerned. Let’s move on to the next point.”
John: What I also find so fascinating about that no is that’s an example of how no can mean yes in dialogue. And I hear myself doing it all the time, where I will say no when I mean yes. And it’s basically that no means I’m putting no argument up against you. I’m agreeing with you. I’m not denying you. It’s awkward that, and of course, it’s an example of no really meaning a yes. But it’s just the way that it works in our language.
Craig: Sometimes I think the – we’ll call it the affirmative no – sometimes when people use it, I feel like they’re actually responding to themselves. So you say something, I’m thinking a thing. You give me a different point of view. And I say, “No, yeah, I think that’s right,” as in, “No, stop thinking the thing you were thinking. This new thing is correct.”
Craig: It is fascinating how many words we elide as we go through. Yeah.
John: A lot of times you’re going to use one of these words to demonstrate a sense of logical sequence. So, “OK, once we disable the cameras, then we can start working on the vault.” Basically, I am going to now set forth a chain of events that describes what’s going to happen next. Or, we’re going to offer an illustration, an example. So, “And we all remember how drunk he got at the Christmas party.”
Again, you could take off that “and” and start and say, “We all remember how drunk he got at the Christmas party.”
Craig: Yeah, that’s not a–
John: But that “and” is really helpful because it means I’m adding on to the thing you just said. I’m giving you an example of the situation that we’re talking about. That “and” is incredibly helpful and without that “and” the sentence doesn’t mean the same thing.
Craig: I think sometimes when educational therapists, there’s a whole world of people who work with kids who have autism, or Asperger’s and they struggle with social interaction. Some of these things are the things that they’re actually instructing them, because for some people, that “and” is absolutely superfluous. And from an informational point of view, it’s close to being superfluous. But what they’re missing is that they’ve eliminated that social glue that says, “Just so you know, I listened to you, and I heard you.” When, of course, somebody who is very regimented and perhaps rigid in their thinking might think, “The fact that I am here staring at you is an indication that I heard what you said.”
And some people need to be taught these things.
John: When I was in Madrid last week for the screenwriter’s event, it was the first time I clocked that people say in Spanish say “Vaya” all the time. And Vaya is basically OK. It’s like it’s the uh-uh, it’s the acknowledgment. The equivalent would be d’accord in French. And a non-fluent speaker doesn’t know to say that. And so I don’t know to say that. And so therefore I seem kind of autistic in Spanish or in French because I don’t have the social cues to sort of like acknowledge that thing. So I can sort of nod and sort of say that I’m getting it, but the Vaya is that sense of like, “Yep, got it.”
Craig: That’s why you seem autistic in French? Really, John, that’s why? Not your autism? [laughs]
John: No, my robot programming.
Craig: Yeah. There’s a phrase that I picked up when I was taking Italian in college. We had a professor who was a native speaker and he would constantly say, you know, he was giving us a lesson and then he would pause and go [vediamo un po]. And [vediamo un po] means let’s see a little. I think that’s what it means. Yeah, vediamo un po. Let’s see a little. Which is like, okay, so it’s a version of that. And, yes, you’re right, it’s the kind of thing that makes you seem like you’re in the moment. And when you’re not a native speaker you just don’t have those little bits and bops.
John: You don’t. But talk us through sort of then the modes of dialogue. What are the tones of dialogue? What you’re trying to do in basic structures of dialogue.
Craig: Yeah, I was thinking about this question of the kinds of ways that we – we meaning humans or characters – speak. And if they could be divided up into categories. And I don’t know if these are all of them, but these are certainly many of the ones that you’ll see and use as a writer all the time.
The first one is the easiest and most obvious, which I just call neutral. And that’s sort of the way we talk throughout the day. It is – it’s how we’re talking right now. It’s low stakes. It’s even-tempered. It’s not particularly loud or soft. It can be inquisitive, or informative, or social. It’s two people chatting at lunch. And in movies sometimes that’s what’s going on, but it’s important to match the neutral mode to the actual circumstances. You don’t want to have people speaking neutrally when perhaps it might be more interesting or dramatic or appropriate for them to be speaking a different way.
Craig: Then there’s emotional. And that’s what we probably think of when we think about Oscar movies and so forth. But emotional dialogue is in every movie, of all kinds. And that is dialogue where the character is revealing some part of their inner emotional state. It is typically well controlled speech. It can often be uneven because we understand that it is an expression of the lizard brain, our flight or fight type of instinct. Very often this kind of dialogue is irrational. It can be contradictory. It can be very loud. It is rarely well-articulated – and this we’ve seen a lot in Three Page Challenges. People speak in this remarkably well articulated, even – well, I won’t say even-tempered, but very well-articulated way when in fact in the moment they should have an emotional mode which is clumsy and often truncated or weird.
John: There was a screener I was watching this last week, a movie that I genuinely loved, but there was a moment in there where a character has a huge emotional moment and I was frustrated that the character was far too articulate in that moment. They actually dialed up the sophistication of the dialogue in that incredibly emotional moment. And the actor was talented enough to pull it off, basically. And, yet, it didn’t actually track. It didn’t actually make sense. Like the moment should have been less coherent and more emotionally clear. And it was sort of too precisely, too finely written for where that character was supposed to be at emotionally.
Craig: Well, it sounds like perhaps the writer fell into a fairly common trap where when you should be emotional, you opt for something that I’ll call declarative. This is the mode of speaking when you are intentionally getting across some kind of meaningful insight or important news or dramatic revelation. Declarative, the most obvious example would be a lawyer giving a final argument. There’s that moment in – what was that movie called, A Time to Kill, where Matthew McConaughey delivers this impassioned speech about what happens. And then he says, “Now, imagine she’s white,” which is a very declarative, insightful, there’s a wisdom to it. And actors and writers love these moments because they are so remarkable.
You know, Yoda is always declarative. These very – but when you are emotional, you should not be declarative. That would make the emotion seem fake and it would make you and the character and scene feel inauthentic.
John: Yep. It’s the reason why the lawyer can’t give that passionate closing argument after having just found out that his wife died.
John: There’s a mismatch of sort of what’s going on in his mental state to be able to do that. And it’s a very controlled thing for him to do that remarkable speech.
Craig: That’s right. And, by the way, that example that you just gave, oh and interesting, I just used “by the way” which is another great signifier to indicate that I heard you and it’s triggered something else. Sometimes you’ll see these notes come up where somebody will say there’s a mismatch in the way this moment with how they feel and without putting their finger on it what they’re saying is you’re using the wrong mode of dialogue for what would be the mental state of this person.
Interestingly, there’s this other mode that I’ll call manipulative, which makes it sound Machiavellian, but I’m using it more as an over-arching term. And manipulative dialogue is anything where you’re trying to either convince somebody or calm somebody down or inspire somebody or avoid their questions. You’re using dialogue purposefully to achieve an effect in this other person. And if you think about our example of the lawyer, that’s the difference between a lawyer who is trying to get one over on a jury, and a lawyer who fervently believes what he’s telling them. One person will be manipulative, and the other one will be declarative.
John: Absolutely. So, what I find so fascinating about everything we talked about with dialogue in this segment was it’s all about the emotional state and the emotional content of dialogue. So, in no ways are we trying to talk about dialogue as a mechanism for conveying story, at least story in terms of plot. We’re really talking about like how do you convey characters’ emotional states and how are you going to let them try to change the emotional state of the other characters in the scene.
That’s really what dialogue is supposed to be doing as it functions now. Not like how it functioned historically, but what we do now when we write dialogue is to be able to provide insight to the audience about what’s going on inside the character but also let the characters try to change the emotional state of the characters around them.
It’s part of the reason why the example of neutral modes of dialogue, that’s why those scenes are generally not so exciting because there’s not going to be a conflict there. There’s not a challenge for the character there. There’s nothing they’re trying to do to the other characters in the scene. There’s no inherent drama there.
Craig: Precisely. And this is one of the great challenges of writing a scene is that you have to be – let’s just say – we’ll limit it to two people talking. Forget three or four. You have to be three different people at once. You have to be the architect of the story, who understands in an intellectual way that something must be achieved in terms of plot and character to advance this narrative.
Then you have to be both people, who do not know that, and don’t have access to that, and are reacting and living in the moment. Reacting to the world around them. Reacting to the feelings inside of them. And most importantly, reacting to what the other person is saying. So, that is very difficult for a lot of people. When we talk about talent in writing, sometimes I think that’s what it is. Those are three different people at once and the best writers are the ones that are talented at being all three of those people. The writer, and then the two people in the scene. And one of the ways I think I immediately am aware of quality in these moments is when there’s a mismatch of mode between two characters. Maybe one character is being neutral, and the other one is being manipulative. Or the other one is being emotional, and the other one is being declarative.
You know, Luke is very upset and Yoda is very calm and wise. Or, somebody is very emotional and the other person is calming them down. So, whenever possible you do want that mismatch because that is creating conflict or resolution. When two people are emotional, it’s just two people yelling and absorbed in their own minds. And when two people are being wise and informative, you’re wondering why they’re both telling each other these incredibly wonderful fortune cookie insights.
Mismatching these modes is a huge help when you’re navigating your way through a scene.
John: Absolutely. You want to be able to give the characters someone to play against. And if they’re trying to play the same melody, it’s not going to be nearly as exciting as if there’s a conflict between what they’re trying to do and sort of where they’re at in the mode of the scene.
John: But, talking about the skill of the writer here and sort of good writing versus bad writing is a great segue to our next big topic which is two terms you hear thrown about about screenwriters, specifically the quality of screenwriters, and I’m going to urge people to stop using these terms because people don’t really use these terms. And whenever I hear them, the hairs on the back of my neck go up.
And so I want to talk about and hacks.
John: So let’s talk about script doctors, Craig. Do you ever hear people in Hollywood use the term script doctor?
Craig: The only people I ever hear use that term are insecure writers trying to convince other people that they’re important. That’s it. And thankfully there are not too many of them. But every time some on the bubble or low self-esteem writer announces that they’re doing some script doctoring, everybody else puckers up, clenches their buttholes, and gets very awkward. Because it’s atrocious.
John: It’s atrocious. And so I heard this term a couple times the last months. When Carrie Fisher passed away, some of the articles talked about her “script doctoring,” always in quotes, and then when I was in Madrid someone asked what is it like to be a script doctor. And I had to say like, “First off, no one uses that term.” And truly, honestly, the only people who use that term are people who are like outside of Hollywood who have seen that term in a magazine and thought it was a term that was being used.
So let’s describe what they’re trying to talk about here and the real words we use for that work. So, I think by script doctoring they’re meaning a writer who comes in to do a short bit of work on a specific project, usually a movie that’s about to go into production. Usually in a sort of high stakes situation. There’s actors involved, directors involved, lots of money is on the line. And that writer is coming in to do specific work to fix, change, alter something in the script to make people happier. That is the function of what these writers are doing in those situations. But we don’t call them script doctors. And we shouldn’t call them script doctors because doctors are like – Doc McStuffins’ mom is a doctor. These are just screenwriters.
And Craig and I both do this kind of work, but we would never call ourselves script doctors.
Craig: No. And you put your finger on why it’s so gross. It’s a forced romanticization of what we do. Oh no, the movie is in trouble, we’re two weeks away – what do we do? Call the doctor! That’s ridiculous. And then I’ll come in with my eyepatch and I’ll say, “Everybody, get out of my way. I need a computer, a glass of water, a window.” [laughs] I don’t know, it’s ridiculous.
It’s not how it works.
Craig: At all. What you’re doing is you sit down and you’re like, OK, I read the script, here’s what I think. What do you guys think? What are you trying to achieve? Got it. OK. Here’s what I think I can do in the time I have. Let me talk to the director. Let me talk to the producer. Let me talk to the actor. OK. Here’s my proposal of what I should do. Does that sound good? Great. Let me start writing it. I’ll start sending you pages.
And then hard days ensue where you’re too tired. You’re not some – they might as well call it Script Hitman, or – do you know what I mean? Like Script Assassin. Script Savior. It’s ridiculous.
Craig: Script doctor.
John: I don’t know where the term first originated. I remember the first time I heard a Hollywood person use it, I think, was an interview with Spielberg where he was talking about Steve Zaillian coming in and doing something. And I’m paraphrasing here, but I remember saying like, “Oh, we call him the doctor because he comes in and can solve these problems.”
Steve Zaillian is Steve Zaillian. He’s a remarkably talented writer. So, as a metaphor to say that he was a doctor who was helping out on something, fantastic. But it’s not a term that’s used in daily life here. No development executive is going to say like, “Oh, we need to get a script doctor in here to work on this.” Just doesn’t happen. And so when I hear people outside the business say that term, I think of like – it’s like me describing an NFL kicker as a “field goaler.”
It reflects what’s actually be done, but no one would actually use it. And when they hear me say it, they think, “Well, he’s an idiot.” And so I would just urge people to stop saying it.
Craig: Right. When Ted Cruz was in Indiana and referred to a basketball hoop as a basketball ring. [laughs] What an idiot!
John: Yeah. Remember Ted Cruz? Remember that life?
Craig: Don’t worry. He’ll be back.
John: He’ll be back.
Craig: He’ll be back. No, you’re absolutely right. It’s grating. It sets your teeth on edge because it’s so goofy. And, yes, sometimes in conversations when we’re doing this work we might say, “Look, we’ve got a sick patient here.” You may do that – internally, you may talk about things like that. “Or like, no, there’s definitely a pulse here.” But you would never describe yourself as a – that’s just like a silly metaphor. You’re not a script doctor. That’s ridiculous.
John: It’s ridiculous.
Craig: And I guess, more to the point, if Steven Spielberg wants to call you a script doctor, great. But god knows you should never refer to yourself as one. That is just goofy.
John: That is goofy. So, if script doctor is the glorious term applied to the very high level writers who are doing this work, hack is the opposite of that. Hack is a pejorative, reductive term. Because it’s pejorative, you know, sometimes it’s used on yourself, sort of self-mockingly, like I feel like such a hack for that scene. Or, this line of dialogue feels so hacky. So, it’s one of those things I will hear writers refer to themselves that way. But I don’t hear writers refer to other writers as hacks. Or if they do, I throw some major side eye there, because it’s not cool at all.
Craig: I know. Again, it’s clunky. If you want to go after some writer and, you know, look, I never do that publicly. Like you and I never do that on this show. Not once in all these episodes, nor do we ever do it on Twitter. But in a private conversation, you may say, “Look, I don’t understand why everybody loves this person. I think they stink.” You know? And you might say, “I just feel like they’re kind of a fraud. I don’t know, they just seem hacky to me, or whatever.”
But that’s private. You know? Where I’m shocked is when people use that word seriously and you’re like, what are you, from 1930? “You’re a hack, kid.” It’s a dumb word because it doesn’t mean anything. It’s taking the place of what you should be saying which is, “I don’t like their work,” which is completely fair. That’s your opinion. And the work is meant to be absorbed by other people. Naturally, some will like it and some will not. But if the purpose of the term is to denote somebody who doesn’t care about their creative work, which is I think what that word means, somebody that literally doesn’t care about the quality or the writing, the passion, nothing. They’re just doing it for a check. That person doesn’t really exist, as far as I can tell. Or exists very briefly. [laughs] And is never hired again.
I mean, do you know anybody who consistently just writes whatever they need to write so someone gives them a check without any care, love, passion, concern?
John: You know, I have encountered some writers who at a certain point in their career seems like they stopped caring. They would literally just take any note and just do that note and not sort of worry about. And seemingly not lose sleep over it. And so that’s, I think, what we are pointing towards when we talk about hack. Who is doing the lowest common denominator version of any joke, of any scene. You sort of feel like a robot could write those things.
But I’m not going to call those people out as hacks, because I don’t know sort of what their real situation is. And a lot of times I think the people who are pointed at as being hacks, they’re trying to do something very specific and very true. And they’re actually killing themselves to do it. It’s just not working out especially well. So, it’s such an ad hominem to attack the person rather than to look at the work that they’re actually doing.
Craig: I think hack is the definition of ad hominem, right? You’re saying I know why you wrote something I don’t like. No you don’t. It’s OK to just not like it. But to presume that you don’t – I mean, reviewers will use the word “lazy” all the time, like, what? Were you there? What? Lazy? How do you know? [laughs]
I mean, that’s lazy, right, to just decide that somebody was lazy because, you know. A lot of times when people look at something and they go, “Oh my god, I saw that movie. That guy is such a hack.” They don’t understand that that guy or that woman showed up to try and make something good and it was destroyed by the process, or by other people, or maybe that person showed up and something was bad and they just did everything they could to make it a little bit better.
Nobody knows why these things happen because they’re not there. And Hollywood is really good at concealing its process from everybody else. They are a restaurant where you cannot see into the kitchen. The more you see into the kitchen, the less interesting the food is. It’s an illusion business.
So, while there is somewhat ironically this enormous industry that professes to know what’s going on behind the scenes and what’s going on inside people’s minds and their hearts and why they do things, the truth is most of the time not only are those implications of hackery or motivation wrong, most of the time as far as I can tell they’re nearly completely wrong.
John: Yeah. It’s so maddening. So, I think we are casting major aspersions on anybody who uses the term script doctor on themselves positively, or calls any other writer a hack. Because they’re unacceptable. And so if you see this being done on Twitter, please mock them and CC us. @ reply us so we can join in on the call for these two words to not be used.
Craig: It will be a nice break from the current Twitter stream I have from Nazis. [laughs] Oh my god. John, there are so many Nazis on Twitter. Like legitimate Nazis.
John: Why are Nazis a thing again? It frustrates me so greatly that like, you know, I like them as a historical and fictional adversary. Not actual adversaries who show up in our lives.
Craig: It’s so strange. My wife was like, “Does this upset you?” Because some people are using terrible slurs and talking about putting me in an oven and so on and so forth. And I just thought, no, I actually feel great. This is kind of remarkable. I don’t know why it put me in such a good mood. Something is really wrong with me.
John: Something is really wrong with you. Not a shock. Not a surprise.
Craig: I know.
John: Also not a surprise is that we completely ran out of time for our questions. Sorry Jessica and Alyssa and Telly Archer. We will get to your questions. We promise.
Craig: We’ll get there.
John: But it is now time for our One Cool Things. And this actually ties in very well with your Twitter escapades. This is a great article I read this last week written by Mirah Curzer called How to #StayOutraged Without Losing Your Mind. And so what she’s describing is how – it sort of goes back to right after the election you and I had that horrible short episode in which we talked about like not that everything will be OK, but this feeling will end.
John: And you described I think in very good psychological terms why you cannot stay at this level of peak paranoia and fear, because your body just will just it down.
John: So, what she’s looking at is how do you stay outraged, how do you stay fresh to what’s going without just completely falling apart. And as I was reading it, I was nodding a lot, but I was also recognizing that a lot of what she’s describing is not just about our current US situation. It’s really about any sort of like long term conflict, like which is making a TV show, or a long shoot on a movie. It’s how do you sort of keep fresh on something when it’s just so hard day after day.
So, the four things she sort of focuses on that you need to look away in order stay fresh. To see clearly, you have to be able to look at something else. And that’s something I’ve really found while filming or trying to run a TV show, you have to not be thinking about it for certain hours of the day, otherwise you cannot even see what you’re doing. You have to be able to focus on something in the distance so you can come back and take a look at it.
If we’re in the editing room, doing a cut, if the editor is working on the cut, I will deliberately put my gaze someplace else so that I cannot see what he’s doing. And then I can look back with fresh eyes. And you have to do the same with in a bigger scale for sort of world events.
She stresses you can’t do everything, so you have to pick what you’re going to focus on and let others pick what they’re going to focus on. And that’s a thing I really learned as a director is that I can have an overall vision for how the things are I want to do, but I have to let people who are specialists in different fields really focus on those things. And so I can look at the things that are most important to me, but I’ve got to let other people worry about those things because I can’t do everything.
John: You have to make it fun. You have to have some enjoyment in your days. You have to look forward to going to the set. You have to look forward to being part of that. You have to find some moment of joy in your day, or else it’s just going to be horrible.
And then, finally, you have to focus on staying healthy. And people who are on TV shows a lot of times, like they will not go to the doctor or the dentist for the entire run of filming, and then in the two months of hiatus they’ll have to do all that stuff. You can’t do that. You got to go to the gym. You got to sleep. You got to get your appointments. You cannot, you know, put aside your entire life just for this one thing. You got to do all the other stuff to stay healthy.
So, I thought it was a great article both for sort of how to address the current conflict in the world, but also how to look at the long term conflicts that a person is going to encounter in their life.
Craig: Yeah. It’s really smart. I wonder if – I don’t know if this is in there, but I would my own little fifth thing to that, which is don’t respond to or take seriously anybody who tells you that these things aren’t right. Because there are people who are like, “Why are you talking about this when this is going on? And how can you laugh at a time like this? And why are you spending your time blah-blah-blah when you seem to care about…”
Just ignore all of that. Ignore all of that. There are people who will demand that you express your outrage purely and perfectly. But you can’t. So, don’t.
Craig: And don’t bother defending yourself either. Just ignore them. Man, I find that I have become an ignoring addict. I love it.
John: On Twitter, you just ignore it? Oh yeah, I love it.
Craig: Yeah. There’s so many things where like, you know, there are phases of it. I think the first phase is people say things and you respond and you’re in fights. That’s like the first run of your life online. And then the second run is you start to respond to them and you go, no, I’m deleting this. Then you get to the enlightened place which is, well, that’s stupid. Ignore. [laughs] It’s gone. It’s literally gone. And the funny thing is that the people who are poking at you, they’ve forgotten about you and the thing they said the second they’re done typing it.
Craig: So why not give them the gift of that in return?
John: I was talking with a friend who was describing – she got this long email and she was going to respond to it. And then she’s like, “You know what? I’m not going to respond to it.” And she just deleted it.
And so this person wrote back this long response. And we talk about the joy of deleting without reading. To know that somebody spent half an hour writing this thing and you’re like–
Craig: I know!
John: It did not even hit my inbox. It’s just gone. You’ve wasted your time.
Craig: Talking about declarative modes of dialogue, when my wife first started getting really active in PTA and she was the president of the school PTA, and then there was this older woman who was the president of the council, which is the Over PTA for all the schools. And Melissa was talking to her and saying, “I’m getting these – I got a couple of wacky parents, a couple of wacky moms in particular, who keep emailing me these long things and I don’t know how to respond to them because I think they’re crazy.”
And this older woman just looks at her and went, “Delete.” [laughs] I thought that was the best advice ever. Just delete. That’s it.
Craig: And you’d think like, but they’re going to keep writing me and demand why I haven’t written back. No they don’t. They don’t. Because they have 12 other letters they have to write to people. And whomever responds, that’s the winner of the day for them. And they just keep going with them.
Well, speaking of staying outraged, my One Cool Thing, John, is women.
John: Women are great.
Craig: Women are spectacular. And I say this today that seems perhaps a little general. A little too wide of a category. But specifically I’m saying women because the Women’s March was remarkable. Not only was it massive. I think the largest protest in history in our country? I think. I think.
John: Yeah. Yeah, probably.
Craig: But it was the most peaceful protest I think we’ve ever had in this country. Not just in Washington, DC, but in New York, and Los Angeles, in Boston, in Chicago. In every major city and every minor city it seemed. There were women that were marching in Alaska and Antarctica, all across the world. And everywhere it was perfectly peaceful. No violence. No ugliness. It was the utopian ideal.
Craig: Of what a civil protest should be. And it could have only been that way because it was women. Because if you throw – like once you hit, I don’t know what the tipping point is, probably 15% men, you have fist fights. Fist fights. Molotov cocktails. And people getting punched in the face.
So, fantastic job, women. Outstanding. What a great example. And also great proof of, I think, hope for us all. And for humanity as it goes through this challenging time.
John: I had a delightful time with the Women’s March in Paris. I was there with my family, with my daughter, with a friend’s family. And it was just remarkable seeing everyone gathered together. We marched from Trocadero down past the Eiffel Tower, and to the Ecole Militaire. And it was remarkably well put together and run. Every sign was great. Some were in French. Some were in English. But just to see everybody coming together to do this was great.
It was also wonderful because of time zones, again, we were ahead of the US marches, and so this went really well. And so fingers crossed that the American marches are going to go great. And, of course, they were nutso and fantastic. And the Los Angeles march was off the charts great. So, I’m so proud of everyone who did it. And also inspired by sort of what can happen next given this energy. So, more hope.
Craig: It was great. I saw they were talking to a cop in New York. And he seemed stunned. They were asking him about the march and were there any problems. And he said, “No. Nothing. I’ve never seen anything like this.” Actually, he seemed a little scared. Because he’s just like this isn’t the way this goes.
It was just great. So, congratulations and thank you, women. Outstanding job.
John: I would also like to single out Carrie Fisher as the Princess Leia’s character was featured in many, many signs, sort of a woman’s place is in the revolution. It was wonderful to see. I think she would have been delighted to see her place in the memes of this march and I think what’s going to be coming forward.
John: That’s our show for this week. Our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Puddles Pity Party.
Craig: Oh, of course it does. [laughs]
John: So, I’ll put a link to the video, because you’ll see that he’s actually a clown who sings. But he’s singing the Mary Tyler Moore theme, because Mary Tyler Moore passed away this past week. That show was a huge inspiration for me growing up. It is so well constructed. It is a character on a journey. It was an amazing show. She was an amazing talent. And, weirdly, the Mary Tyler Moore theme song is kind of close, melodically, to the Scriptnotes theme. So I’m going to call an audible there and say it’s sort of like the Scriptnotes theme.
Craig: That’s what they were thinking at the time.
John: That’s what they were thinking.
Craig: It’s certainly not that our theme is a little bit like the Mary Tyler Moore theme, because that would be ridiculous.
John: No, come on, Mandela Effect. You know, they traveled through time. Somehow it all bled over. So, I’ll let you listen to this.
If you have an outro, you can send it to us at email@example.com. A link is fantastic for those. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions like the ones we neglect to answer. But for short questions, I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
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You can find show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com.
Craig, thank you so much for staying up late.
Craig: Thank you for waking up early.
John: All right, and we’ll talk to you next week. Bye.
- Episode 37: Let’s talk about dialogue
- Finding Carter Trailer
- The Amazing Live Sea Monkeys
- The Mandela Effect
- David Kwong and Dilemma
- Discourse Marker
- How to #StayOutraged Without Losing Your Mind
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Puddles Pity Party (send us yours!)
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here.