Friday, April 30, 2010

Sci-fi Dialogue

If you write in the science fiction genre you are probably going to encounter more dialogue challenges than other genres. Science fiction has a lot of traps and if you aren’t aware of them you run the risk of writing something that comes across as silly.

One of the first things that will affect your dialogue is how far in the future your story is set. If your story is set in the present or the near future, people will likely speak pretty much as they do today. But if it’s set more than ten years in the future or in an alternate universe, you will face some of the same challenges as writing period dialogue.

Basically you will want to avoid modern slang, idiom and cultural references. You need to work from a more generic use of language without becoming too formal and without losing a sense of character.

Some writers create new slang for their future/alternate world. For example, Star Wars (written by George Lucas) abbreviated the word “android” to “Droid,” which emphasized how common robots were in that culture. Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron) introduced “stay frosty” as a future version of “be cool.” And the recent incarnation of the TV show Battlestar Galactica (created by Glen A. Larson and Ronald D. Moore) very effectively used the made-up word “frak” to replace a certain swear word that was forbidden on their cable channel.

This technique can help your fictional world feel more real. Remember how in Blade Runner (screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples), they used both the term “replicant” for the human like robots and the derogatory term “skin job.” That gave us a subtle sense of the way the robots were perceived by society in the imagined future of the movie.

Alien Languages

If your story involves aliens you will have to decide how to deal with their language. B-movie sci-fi has sometimes had humans land on a new planet only to discover all the aliens speaking English. This is a little ridiculous, of course.

If your aliens are invading Earth you can always just say they learned English from TV signals or something in anticipation of the invasion. Avatar (written by James Cameron) took a variation on this approach – when the story starts the humans had already taught the Navi English. The Navi did have their own language – which was occasionally used with subtitles – but this plot device meant most of the movie could take place without requiring the audience to read.

If you’re doing a space opera story with lots of alien races and cultures the easy way out is the “universal translator” technology like they used in Star Trek (created by Gene Roddenberry). On the other hand, embracing the challenge can add realism to your universe. If you take that path you will face the same issues as stories that use foreign languages. The difference is you may have to actually create this foreign language!

Star Wars used this approach and employed a wide range of tools to deal with it. Chewbacca speaks Wookie and we never understand what he’s saying. But Han Solo does and we grasp the meaning of Chewbacca’s howls from Han’s responses (though Chewbacca doesn’t speak English, he understands it). In the scene with Han Solo and Greedo or with Jabba the Hut in the sequels the filmmakers use subtitles. And they also include C-3PO as a robot who can translate thousands of languages. In Return of the Jedi (story by George Lucas, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas) the characters (and the audience) simply don’t understand the Ewoks until C-3PO is available to translate. The result is a more linguistically believable fantasy universe.


Probably the biggest challenge in most sci-fi is the technical exposition. Science fiction by definition deals with future technology that you’ll have to explain to the audience. How you deal with this depends a lot on whether you’re using a science fiction world as a backdrop for another type of story or whether technology is actually a critical part of your theme.

Star Wars is really an adventure movie set in the future while Alien (story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon) is a horror movie set in space. In these kinds of movies you want to spend as little time as possible talking about the technology. In fact, when Lucas started explaining the force and light sabers and so on in the second trilogy it got a little painful. In the first movies they just existed and we accepted it.

However, you do still need to make sure the rules of the technology are clear. Otherwise, the audience will feel like anything is possible and that will kill a lot of the tension in your story.

Star Trek has teleportation technology. Little time is spent on the science behind it, but the rules are clearly established. People generally have to be fairly still and have a communicator for the operator to lock onto. The range of the teleporter is roughly the distance from a planet’s surface to a space ship. They can’t teleport someone between solar systems. The writers can then use these rules to create dramatic situations, such as in the most recent movie version where Scotty had to teleport people who were falling.

If your story is more pure sci-fi and deals with the impact of a certain technology on society you may want to spend more time on the ideas behind that technology. Minority Report (screenplay by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen) is a good example. It introduces the technology of precognition to explore themes of fate. This requires a more thorough explanation of the nature of the precognition technology.

The Matrix (written by Andy & Larry Wachowski) is another good example. The themes of the movie relate to reality and perception. The technology of the virtual world is a device to explore those themes. Thus discussions of the agents as virtual representations of computer programs are not just informational but thematic. And perceptual concepts like déjà vu are given a technological twist to add depth to the story.

Regardless of how much exposition you need, it’s key to deliver it in a palatable and dramatic fashion. See my post on exposition for more on this.

In a way the dialogue challenges of sci-fi movies are much the same as any other kind of movie. It’s just that the pitfalls are deeper. The key is to remember that no matter what your genre the audience is interested in hearing a story about a character with a problem. You need to set the stage for this story, but you don’t want to get bogged down in techno-speak!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Someone Hated my Script

When I was not too far out of film school I entered a screenwriting contest. I made it to the final round – a good accomplishment, certainly, but the early rounds were judged by volunteers from the group sponsoring the contest. The final round was judged by a panel of industry professionals. That would be the real test of the caliber of my writing.

The contest did a very cool thing. They asked each of these judges to fill out a three-page form giving their opinion of things like the dialogue, description, characters, etc. for each script. They then sent these forms (anonymously) to the contestants. Before sending the forms the contest coordinator called me to warn me that one of the judges had been pretty hard on my script.

He wasn’t kidding.

The first line of the feedback from this judge was: “Absolutely repellant. It’s hard to believe other people have actually recommended this script.”

Other juicy bits included:

“I would pay not to see this movie.”

“The script violates all Aristotle’s dicta of probability & necessity.”

“Obstacles occur or are conquered willy-nilly with no sense of reality.”

“The whole point of structure in a screenplay is to bring order into the chaos of real life. This script manages to thrive on chaos without ever brushing up against real life.”

“Characters have no emotional reality or believability across the board.”

“I do not want to know these people, much less spend 2 hours w/ them.”

“Dialogue is extremely on-the-nose. No subtext, no subtlety.”

“Characters are virtually indistinguishable.”

“Good title.” (I guess they felt they had to say something nice.)

“Truly an awful script. I wanted to trash it by pg. 2. By pg. 6 I was convinced.”

Ouch. So why do I bring up this scathing review of my writing? Because I won the contest.

Clearly this very qualified judge loathed everything about my script. But at least three other industry professionals thought mine was the best one of the bunch. I’m told the debate in the judges meeting was quite heated. I can imagine.

I have this coverage displayed in my office right next to the plaque I got for winning the contest. It’s there to remind me of two things I think you would do well to consider:

First, no one person’s opinion matters that much. If I really took that scathing assault on my abilities to heart I wouldn’t be a professional writer today. You can’t take criticism too personally. Of course that means you can’t take compliments too personally, either, but that’s probably also for the best.

Second, passionate responses are the goal. I’m sure there was a finalist whose script was liked by all the judges. That script didn’t win – mine did. That’s because enough people cared enough about it that they fought to give me the award.

You won’t win a contest or get an agent or sell a script because a lot of people like your work. You need a few people to love it. And it’s a fact of the wonderful diversity of human taste that when people love something other people will hate it.

So if you get the kind of vitriolic feedback on your work that I did, be proud. At least you weren’t boring!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Accents and Cultural Speech Patterns

When writing dialogue we strive to create distinctive voices for characters and to capture the flavor of natural speech. In real life accents and cultural speech patterns are two things that really stand out. They can be useful in screenplay dialogue as well, but must be used with care.

People don’t speak in proper grammar and your dialogue should reflect that. Screenplays often use words like “gonna” to mimic the way people actually talk. And dialogue like…

He done went down to the crick and got hisself eaten up by one of them crocodiles.

…can really add flavor to your characters if done well. English teachers might faint reading that, but it certainly suggests a strong voice.

Accents can do the same. Of course any line that’s written in standard grammar can be delivered by an actor in a variety of accents. But we have the option of phonetically spelling out the accent to capture the effect on the page. Here’s an example of what I mean:

Ahm gohn tell y’all about a little thing cahlled dignahty.”

The key here, though, is discretion. It’s much easier to listen to an accent than to read one spelled out phonetically. What can add charm at first can quickly grow tiresome – especially over a whole script. Consider the following exchange between two fictional New Englanders:

“Ahm pretty soah. Those new instructahs at the gym are slave drivahs.”

“Ayuh. But a wagah they leave befah the fahst nath’eastah.”

“Maybe you bettah take the oppahtunity to take a class befah then.”

“Exercisin’ is yaw cawse, not mine.”

Exhausting to read, isn’t it? Imagine that for 110 pages. Throwing in one phonetically accented word every couple lines would give us the idea without making our head hurt.

Better than accents is capturing the speech of a certain culture. It can give a real sense of place and class (note that people of different classes in the same place often speak quite differently.) This was used brilliantly in Fargo (written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen) to capture North Dakota. Here’s a brief exchange from that script:

Ya got the car?

Yah, you bet. It's in the lot
there. Brand-new burnt umber

Yeah, okay. Well, siddown then.
I'm Carl Showalter and this is
my associate Gaear Grimsrud.

Yah, how ya doin'. So, uh, we
all set on this thing, then?

Sure, Jerry, we're all set. Why
wouldn't we be?

Yah, no, I'm sure you are. Shep
vouched for you and all. I got
every confidence in you fellas.

The Coens captured a bit of the accent by using the occasional “yah” and “fellas” but kept it very subtle. Then they captured the speech patterns of North Dakota with phrases like, “Yah, you bet” and “all set on this thing, then.”

Clueless (written by Amy Heckerling) does the same thing by including words and phrases like “totally,” “outie,” and “I’m like…” to capture the speech of Beverly Hills teens. Fried Green Tomatoes (screenplay by Fannie Flagg and Carol Sobieski) uses phrases like, “bless her sweet little old heart” and “a heap of trouble” and “what in the name of Christmas” to capture a specific time and place in the South.

Done badly this kind of thing can feel cliché or stereotyped or gimmicky. If you’re not writing about a world you know personally you probably need to do some research. Ideally you go spend time with the kind of people whose voice you’re trying to capture. At the very least, dig up some audio or video recordings. Jot down colorful idioms and turns of phrase that you can sprinkle into your dialogue.

It’s important for screenwriters to remember that a screenplay is not a finished product; it is a guide for making a movie. The actors will add their skill to the dialogue, doing the accents needed. Hopefully they do them well – if not, nothing you write will save them.

When you’re writing your dialogue consider the reader. Use idiom and phrasing to give a sense of place and culture and sprinkle phonetic accents in with care to capture the flavor of speech. Then leave the rest to the actor.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Genre Considerations - Historical and True Stories

(SPOILERS: Inglourious Basterds, The Hurricane)

Writing movies based on historical events or true stories can be more difficult than it seems. On the one hand you have a lot of material to work with and presumably it’s inherently dramatic. On the other hand, real life is messy. It seldom fits neatly into a compelling storyline. And you can have a problem with too much material to squeeze into a roughly two hour film.

One of the first challenges is deciding how accurate you have to stay to actual events. Ultimately we’re not creating documentaries we’re creating fictionalized stories. However, if you claim that your story is “true” there is some expectation of accuracy.

In general the more recent the events and the greater political or social agenda you have, the bigger the obligation of accuracy. Movies like JFK (screenplay by Oliver Stone & Zachary Sklar) and Hotel Rwanda (written by Keir Pearson & Terry George) must hew to facts more than movies like 300 (screenplay by Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon) or Braveheart (written by Randall Wallace).

The Hurricane (screenplay by Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon) was picked apart for any liberties it took with the facts because it was about a guy who was alive and in prison and suggested that he was innocent. There were real world implications to how accurate the movie was. Movies about people long dead are less likely to draw such criticism – with the exception of movies that take a negative view of religious icons or patriotic heroes.

If anybody in your movie is still alive or was recently famous you may have legal issues to contend with as well. I’m not a lawyer and so won’t offer any advice in this regard, but there are several books on legal issues for writers you can consult. And you would be wise to do so!

So now you’re faced with this messy true story. You’ve probably done a lot of research. How do you organize everything?

The first thing to do is figure out what draws you to the story. What is the movie you want to make really about? Keep in mind I might make a completely different movie about the same events. That’s why this is art and not a history lesson. Try to summarize your vision of the story in a logline of twenty-five words or less. Once you’ve got a logline that you think really captures the core of the story, hang onto that dearly as you outline your material.

In my personal experience and with my students who have written true stories one of the challenges you will likely face is too much material. That’s why this core logline is so important. You will probably need to reduce the big scope of true events down to a smaller, more manageable storyline. And that may mean losing things you really love but don’t serve your primary concept.

This is especially true if you are trying to write about a person with a long, interesting life. It’s difficult to cover the entirety of someone’s life in two hours. You may need to find a period that is representative of what drew you to the subject in the first place.

If you’re writing about a specific historical figure then you probably know who your main character is – though remember Amadeus (screenplay by Peter Shaffer) took the unexpected route of making Salieri the main character in a story about Mozart, so you might want to consider whether the most significant figure is actually your best main character.

If you’re writing something more sprawling you’ll want to identify a strong main character to lead us through the story. We need to become involved in a person to really care about the events of the movie. Hotel Rwanda told the story of that genocide through the eyes of Paul Rusesabagina and JFK used the character of Jim Garrison to get us inside the mystery of Kennedy’s assassination.

You’ll find you’re constantly honing, compressing and focusing the story. You’ll probably need to cut and combine minor characters. In real life someone may influence the story in an important way for one scene and then leave. In a movie you may need to combine that person with someone else to avoid having to introduce so many characters. If you’re dealing with living people, you may want to create a fictional character that’s an amalgam of several real people to avoid any legal trouble.

You’ll also have to combine events that happened at different times into single scenes for space reason. You will probably have to reorder events as well. Again, how much freedom you have to do that depends on how recent and political your story is.

You also have to consider how well known the events are. I had a big problem with Inglourious Basterds (written by Quentin Tarantino). I liked a lot of the movie…until the ending when Hitler is killed in the theater bombing. It broke my suspension of disbelief because I know how Hitler really died.

I think Tarantino could have told an excellent fictional story set against the backdrop of World War II where a fictional Nazi general is killed at the end. But by including Hitler the movie raises the bar for accuracy on itself and then fails to deliver.

The farther back in history you go, the more likely you are to find unique challenges. I once wrote a historical biography (as yet unproduced) set in 16th century Denmark where a significant conflict comes from the prohibition against nobles marrying commoners. Since we’re completely unfamiliar with those social conventions these days I had to work hard to give the audience the context for that conflict.

In the same story a lot of the historical arguments actually happened via letters. That’s not very filmic. So in my script I often took the main character (a noble) and the antagonist (the king) and put them in the same location so they could have their arguments face to face. Not accurate but it makes for a better movie.

Another challenge for historical movies, of course, is period dialogue. I covered that in my last post.

Ultimately when writing about historical and true events you must remember that story rules. Honor the truth not the facts. And keep it dramatic!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Writing Period Dialogue

One of the challenges in writing period pieces is crafting believable dialogue. The key word here is “believable” – and paradoxically realistic period dialogue often is not believable. It’s more important that the dialogue sound right to the average audience than that it past muster with a historian or linguist.

If you’re over a certain age you probably remember the brouhaha over Kevin Costner’s bad British accent in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (story by Pen Densham, screenplay by Pen Densham & John Watson). But it was a strange criticism – people from that time period would have been speaking in some form of Old English. We wouldn’t understand a word they were saying. So why do we care that Costner’s accent was bad when he wasn’t even speaking the correct language?

We care because it just didn’t sound right. It was distracting. Now fortunately as writers we don’t have to worry about the actors’ accents. But we do have to worry about the construction of our dialogue.

There are actually two types of period dialogue to address. The first is dialogue from more recent history – say the last 300 years – where the language is basically the same as ours but different expressions, idioms, phrasing and slang were in vogue. The second is dialogue from times when people spoke what amounts to a foreign language even if it was a forerunner of English.

In both of these cases it’s first important to strip away modern slang words and terms. Obviously nobody’s going to say “LOL” in the 1990’s or in the 1690’s. But some terms are a little trickier. Would someone use the term “road rage” in 1975? What makes this hard is that we’re so used to talking in modern phrasing we do it without thinking.

For movies set in the last 300 years you may need to do a little research into the period. It’s particularly useful to read letters and things from the time to get a sense of how people used words. Though keep in mind that until only recently people tended to be much more formal in their writing than in their speech.

Dropping in archaic terms can help set the mood. It can even be fun, particularly in more recent time periods when we have fond memories of the slang. Consider these lines of dialogue from scenes set in the ‘80s from an early draft of Hot Tub Time Machine by Josh Heald:

“Genius! Man, not to get all fag on you, but I’m digging your fresh threads, bro.”

“You guys a couple of spazzes?”

And the movie 13 Going on 30 (written by Josh Goldsmith & Cathy Yuspa) drops slang like “dorkus,” “freakazoid” and “totally” into its ‘80s scenes.

You might load up the dialogue with period slang and phrasing for comedic effect, but in general it’s best to use that kind of thing sparingly for flavor. Try reading something more than 100 years old. It can be difficult to slog through. You want your audience to be able to understand your characters!

For time periods before modern English the best approach is similar to what you would do when writing dialogue in English that would actually be spoken in a foreign language (see my post on foreign language dialogue).

You’ll want to avoid most slang and idiom altogether and write in a slightly more formal voice. Avoiding contractions often helps things sound period (for example, using “do not” instead of “don’t”). Consider some of the dialogue from the second draft of the Gladiator screenplay (revised by John Logan based on the script by David Fanzoni):

From Gladiator: “The first thing I shall do is honor him with games worthy of his majesty.”

A modern character might say something more like, “the first thing I’m going to do is honor him with some cool games.” Now consider this one:

From Gladiator: “Should Caesar permit, I’ll go home. I’ve been away too long. I’ve forgotten my wife’s face and I barely know my son.”

A modern version might be “If Caesar lets me, I’ll go home. I’ve been away so long I barely remember what my wife and son look like.” But the more formal phrasing sounds right to us, even though these characters would actually be speaking in a completely different language.

Now things get really tricky. You don’t want all your characters to sound alike. You’ll want to make your upper class characters well spoken and your lower class characters crass. You can also vary things like how verbose characters are, how blunt, how obsequious, how honest. These kind of things require more attention in a period script than in a contemporary one.

When you’re thinking about character and conflict and making your scenes work it’s difficult to avoid the occasional modern phrase. So you’ll probably have to do at least one pass in the polish phase just to weed out things that sound off.

I also like to have a few friends read the script and instruct them to make a mark next to any line of dialogue that strikes them as off. Since we’re talking about a fairly subjective idea of what sounds right it’s useful to get multiple opinions.

Ultimately good period dialogue feels natural. We should be caught up in the story and characters, not in the way they speak.