Monday, October 11, 2010

What I Learned About Dialogue, Thanks to Grey's Anatomy

I was never one of those Grey's Anatomy watching people. Not for any particular reason, because we all know I'm not a television snob (since I frequently watch a little show called America's Next Top Model), but I just didn't watch it. But sometimes, at around noon, I have to take a break from the writing and the only thing on television is, you guessed it, Grey's Anatomy on Lifetime. Oh, Lifetime. What a channel.

I've watched a few episodes in the past few months, and I have realized something: you can learn a lot about dialogue from Grey's Anatomy. I know what you're thinking. How so? Is it because their writers set such a good example?

The answer to that is: no. No, they do not. They set a pretty
bad example, actually, which is why the next time I need a break I'm going to go for a walk rather than find out what happens between whatshisface with the hair and whatsherface with the scrubs and their illegitimate child and their patient with leaves growing out of his nose, or whatever.

As I watched, I found myself wondering, what exactly is it that makes this dialogue bad? And how can I avoid whatever makes it bad in my own dialogue? I did a little research, and I've isolated several examples.

Item 1: Repetition Is Not Always Your Friend

Lex, I'm still in love with you. I tried not to be, but it didn't work. And Sloane's gone. There's no baby. And I don't wanna sleep around. I want another chance. I'm in love with you.

This is fairly typical of Grey's Anatomy dialogue, from what I've seen. There is a bold statement that pretty much summarizes what comes after, sort of like a thesis. In this case:
I'm still in love with you. And then there is a more fleshed out explanation of that statement-- above, all that stuff about the baby and the trying and the not sleeping around. And then that bold statement is repeated for emphasis (like when you put your thesis statement in the first sentence of your conclusion paragraph). As if people really speak in five paragraph essays.

Seriously, though. Look at this:

Thesis: I'm Still In Love With You

Body Paragraph 1: I Tried Not To Be, And It Didn't Work

Body Paragraph 2: Sloane's Gone; There's No Baby

Body Paragraph 3: I Don't Wanna Sleep Around
Conclusion: I Want Another Chance; I'm In Love With You*

*=Thesis, Repeated For Emphasis

Yeah. So. Some people definitely repeat themselves a lot in conversation. But two things about that: A. Unlike on Grey's Anatomy, not
everyone repeats themselves, and B. People generally find that kind of repetition annoying, so you have to be careful about how you use it. The thing about repetition is, it's a tool that you can use to make one character's manner of speaking different from another character's manner of speaking. But it is not the normal base line for most people.
Item 2: Speeches Are Called "Speeches" For A Reason

George was a surgeon. He had a purpose. He wanted to save lives. Now he doesn't get the chance. Now he doesn't get the chance to do anything anymore. But you do. You could go to medical school. You could hang out with your freaking friends. I don't care what you do, just go do something with your life, because you have one. You lived, and George didn't! And I know that feels horrible and shocking and terrifying, but you lived. So go live your freaking life.

Let us, for a moment, ignore the fact that this quote basically restates the same thing over and over again, adding no new information each time. I am focusing instead on its length. This paragraph is delivered in one single piece, Izzie Stevens to...this other chick. A few things wrong with this picture:

A. People don't speak in speeches. The definition of a speech?
A form of communication in spoken language, made by a speaker before an audience for a given purpose. They are a separate form of communication, distinct from normal conversation. Generally, the only time people give speeches is when they are planned and prepared. And if people do speak in a larger chunk, it's far more disorganized and rambly than that, unless your character is a good public speaker or has particularly organized thoughts. I am certainly leaving room for that possibility, but again, long streams of dialogue should be used carefully and on purpose, not as a normal occurrence.

B. People don't always just sit and listen while someone lectures them. I feel like, in real life, the odds are good that the chick listening to that speech would have interrupted Izzie Stevens before the whole lecture got going. Of course, it's possible that she wouldn't, but it's something to think about: is my character the kind of person who just stands there and takes it? Or no?

Item 3: Not Everyone Says Exactly What They Mean

I'm not good at this. I'm not good at ...relationships or talking about stupid feelings. And you are, so maybe you could teach me or something. Tell me where I go wrong.

This is one of those "show, don't tell" things. I mean, really, I should know that Alex is not good at relationships just by watching the show, but the writers don't trust me to get it, so they put the lines in his mouth and have him explain it to me, just in case. Not a good move.

One of the critiques I got in a writing class once was: when people fight, they don't always discuss what they're actually fighting about. Okay, that's sort of unclear-- what I mean is, on the surface, the characters are yelling about who let the dishes sit in the sink for three days, but under the surface, they're fighting about how she doesn't communicate with him anymore, or how he's been working too much. Know what I mean? People resist confrontation, and they don't always know how to express themselves, so sometimes, they don't say exactly what they mean-- because they don't always know exactly what they mean. They barely know themselves.

So if you have a character who knows himself, knows what he's thinking and feeling, and says it, that is a very special kind of character. Not to be used lightly.

Basically, what I have learned is this: every writer, unless you're jaw-droppingly amazing and perfect, has a bad dialogue default setting. Mine is kind of Item 3-- my characters tend to be very straightforward. What we need to do is learn how to use that default setting sparingly, to develop character, and not constantly, to form a dialogue base line.

Easier said than done, I know.

Any other dialogue tips, anyone?


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