Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Writing Realistically Unrealistic Dialogue

When I was a young lad kid, Dawson's Creek was the big cheese. (sidenote: I can't believe it's been off the air for a decade!) The main criticism of the show was that teenagers do not talk like these characters in real life. Dawson, Pacey, Joey, and Jen were too eloquent, using vocabulary that had been deep-fried in SAT Prep books. It was unrealistic. It's true that the characters didn't sound like real teens, but the dialogue was still one of my favorite parts of the show.

I love writing dialogue, and I love reading/hearing great dialogue. Snappy banter, witty retorts, juicy monologues. Yes, please, and thank you. The main purposes of dialogue is either to a) get out plot b) reveal character traits c) expose tension. Lots of writers use workmanlike dialogue: it gets the job done without being distracting. And usually the dialogue is enjoyable to read, even sometimes funny. But then there are writers who go the stylized route. Aaron Sorkin, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Williamson, Kevin Smith, Shonda Rhimes. Their dialogue is heightened and no way would ever get confused with realism.

Olivia Pope in SCANDAL, aka the best show you're not watching with amazing dialogue and trench coats.

High school films especially can get away with this. Some of my favorites -- 10 Things I Hate About You, Clueless, Heathers, Easy A, Juno, Bring It On, Brick -- feature characters who sound nothing like real teens. They exchange witty banter, infused with unique vernacular, rapid pop-culture references, and intelligence. Again, I'm salivating here. The dialogue is amazing in these films. When I'm reading a book/watching a movie, I don't want to hear realistic teen talk. I am entering a fictional world filled with fictional characters. How they speak should be just as creative as everything else in their world. That's part of the fun!

10 Things I Hate About You is boss when it comes to this. The dialogue in that movie, especially for Kat, was stuffed with sharp one-liners, delicious back-and-forth, and hyper-articulate characters. The film had the sound of Shakespearean language transplanted into high school. (Seriously, I think my SAT verbal scores improved from everything I watched growing up.)

Some choice quotes:
"Has the fact that you're completely psycho managed to escape your attention?"

"Can we, for two seconds, ignore the fact that you're severely unhinged and discuss my need for a night of teenage normalcy?"

"What is it with this chick? She have beer-flavored nipples?"

"Remove head from sphincter, then drive!" 

"People perceive you as somewhat.."
"'Heinous bitch' is the term used most often."

I could go on and on and on and on but yeah, teenagers (and most adults) do not talk this way. So why does it work? Why is this type of whip-smart chatter so prevalent in teen films without being distracting?

Because even though what they're saying is unrealistic, how they're acting is.  And that's the golden rule. The dialogue may be heightened, the plot may be miles from reality, but what characters are feeling and how they're acting must be relatable or else you'll lose your audience. The teens in Dawson's Creek may talk like Rhodes Scholars, but people watching could relate to them and understand the emotion they felt. If your character is talking in sonnets, sure, we'll go with you on that ride. But if his beloved girlfriend cheats on him with his best friend and he just shrugs it off, then we lose interest. Because that is unrealistic and will confuse/frustrate your reader. (note: unless he has a good reason to react the way he does that makes sense within the story and all that jazz, but this is just a broad example)

I believe that creating realistic, relatable characters with heightened, unrealistic dialogue makes the reader experience much more enjoyable. We read books for escape. Watching a show or movie where characters are like us but with better dialogue lets us live vicariously through them. Who doesn't wish they could have witty banter with friends and crushes?

Ok, some more witty banter for the road, courtesy of Easy A:

Woodchuck Todd: [in Woodchuck costume carrying head] Hey Olive.
Olive Penderghast: Oh my God! The illusion is shattered! This is exactly why they put you in the gas chamber if you take your head off at Disney World.
Woodchuck Todd: Actually I think they just, you know, they fire you. You're thinking of Disneyland. Disney World is much more liberal.
Olive Penderghast: Oh yeah! I always forget Disney World went blue in the last election.

How do you feel about dialogue? Are you delighted or distracted by overly articulate teens? 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Is The Fault in Our Stars Oscarbound?

Shailene Woodley (via

The Fault in Our Stars movie adaptation is quickly becoming a reality. Recently, they cast Shailene Woodley as Hazel Grace. With upcoming roles in Spider-Man 2 and Divergent, plus a Golden Globe nomination for 2011's The Descendants, Woodley is making a play at being the next Jennifer Lawrence. The producers of the TFIOS movie aren't messing around. It helps that the role of Hazel Grace is a dream for any young actress, especially in a movie biz where actresses are relegated to the "girlfriend" role. Unlike The Hunger Games and Divergent, the storyline of John Green's bestseller is very awards-friendly: dramedy + romance + cancer.

Historically, teen films have a horrible track record with awards. They usually lack the gravitas to appeal to the stodgy Academy who votes on the Oscars. The average Academy member is a 60-year-old white male, and American teen lingo and themes don't translate to the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press who vote on the Golden Globes. But sometimes, a movie is good enough and lucky enough and have the right people behind it to break through at the Oscars. And the last movie to accomplish this was Juno.

via wikipedia

Will The Fault in Our Stars be Oscarbound like Juno? Tonally, the two properties are similar. Both center around whip-smart teenage girls with a knack for sharp dialogue. Both are equal parts funny, romantic, and heartfelt. And screenplays for both films made the Black List, a highly-regarded list of the best unproduced scripts circulating in Hollywood. Juno was nominated for 4 Oscars (Picture, Director, Actress, Original Screenplay) and won Best Original Screenplay.

Juno is the gold standard for teen movies breaking through at the Oscars. (pun intended) The movie was well-received and a box office smash, but five years later, it's still shocking that it got this far. How did a cute film loaded with quirky dialogue ("Honest to blog") about a teen mom win over the stuffy, old Academy members?

Diablo Cody with her Oscar (via

  • It was marketed as an adult film. Juno was originally positioned as an indie film for movie-loving, upscale adults. It wasn't marketed to teens at first. The film screened at film festivals and started in limited release in December, in the thick of the Oscar race. Sure, it appealed to teens and twentysomethings, naturally. But it wasn't until it received nominations and expanded into wide release that Fox Searchlight began broadening the target audience. Here, TFIOS is at a disadvantage because despite mainstream success, it's perceived first-and-foremost as a YA story. Whether this will lessen the film's quality in the Academy's eyes remains to be seen.

  • It had the right auspices. Juno was always positioned as an auteur's film. Most teen films use hot stars to sell their film, but Juno was sold on the strength of its director and writer. Director Jason Reitman was coming off his debut feature, Thank You for Smoking, which established him as a filmmaker to watch among critics. Juno solidified his position as one of the top emerging talents in Hollywood. Diablo Cody's script transformed her overnight into a star, a rare instance of a movie getting attention because of its screenwriter. Her backstory -- former stripper turned blogger turned screenwriter -- gave the film tons of free publicity and made her a darling of the arthouse crowd. Finally, the studio that released Juno -- Fox Searchlight -- knows how to sell quirky to Oscar voters. The year before, they carried Little Miss Sunshine to two Oscar victories. If any other director, writer, and studio had made this film, it probably wouldn't have made it to the Oscars. TFIOS has a rising star and screenwriters (Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the duo who scripted (500) Days of Summer), but its director Josh Boone is an unknown. His first film Stuck in Love comes out in June, and if it's a hit with critics, then that could put him on the map as a director to watch, which would create nice momentum for TFIOS

  • It was released in the right year. Most of all, Juno benefited from perfect timing. 2007 had the darkest lineup of Best Picture contenders in recent history. Not standard weepies, but blackhearted, amoral movies: No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton, even Atonement ended on a downer. Other movies in contention that year like 3:10 to Yuma, Gone Baby Gone, and Bourne Ultimatum were ultra serious and violent. Juno was a breath of fresh air, a stark contrast to everything else competing for Oscars, which allowed it to stand out. Had it been released the following year, Slumdog Millionaire would've steamrolled right over it. 
I really like Juno. But frankly, there are other teen films with better, sharper scripts (Clueless, Mean Girls, Heathers). I like to think that the great, ignored teen films of the past were being retroactively recognized with Juno's screenplay Oscar. 

Will TFIOS follow Juno's path? It's very possible. Like with anything in publishing, it's all about quality, luck, and timing. The Oscars are only partially about awarding the best films. "Best" is subjective. So many factors go into who gets nominated and who wins. (marketing, genre, talent, campaigning...wasn't Argo's win last year mostly a "Ben was snubbed" reaction?) It's very possible that Shailene Woodley's role on Secret Life and questionable red carpet choices could've ruined her chances of getting nominated for The Descendants -- you know, nothing having to do with her actual performance. I don't think the people behind the TFIOS movie care about winning awards. I believe they just want to make a film that will please fans and touch general moviegoers. And really, that's the ultimate reward.