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Photo courtesy of IMDb
I’ve read a lot over the years—not as much as some of those insane speed readers who seem to devour a book a day, but a lot. In fiction, my tastes vary between pulp and literary. And I have to say, a lot of literary writers write dialogue that is wooden and boring. I mean, I know this stuff is supposed to be highbrow and all, but honestly! Sometimes, I want to reach in between the pages and strangle the writer with his typewriter ribbon while screaming, “Nobody talks like that in real life!”
If you are, like me, a modern writer, and you suspect your characters’ speech is less than scintillating, then I have a tip for you: watch more movies and television—especially TV. And I’m not talking about network sitcoms. There’s nothing worse than trying to pass off bad writing by adding a laugh track. ‘Schitt’s Creek’ is a Canadian show I had the pleasure of watching on Amazon Prime recently. At least two of the stars—Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara—you will recognize from their work in many of Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries like ‘Best in Show’ and ‘A Mighty Wind.’ This outing, if you check the credits, seems to have required the entire Levy clan. Nevertheless…
It’s Not What You Say
Let me start by saying that the show is hilarious. Not so much the situation, though. Essentially, this production is a reimagining of the old fish-out-of-water series ‘Green Acres.’ You know, cultured, affluent people finding themselves in the middle of Armpit, USA. What’s funny is the dialogue, which is very well written and real. And it’s different from what you’d find in a David Mamet script (think ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’) where words are more weapons than communication, or in an Aaron Sorkin show (think ‘The Newsroom’) where everyone is super-smart and acts accordingly. (Both are outstanding, BTW.)
In ‘Schitt’s Creek,’ the way people speak is authentic. I mean, I’ve heard people in the street who carry on like this. I’m not going to go into the plot; you can watch the show for yourself. I want to focus on the dialogue. Now, I’ve identified four qualities I think writers will find useful:
- Everyone is passive-aggressive.
- People speak past each other.
- Characters lie their ass off.
- There’s a boatload of upspeak.
I Love You—I Hate You
Practically every time someone attempts to give a compliment, what comes out is laced with venom. But in a nice way! Here’s an example. Johnny, Moira, and their son, David, arrive at the Mayor’s house for dinner—a meal none of them are not looking forward to sharing with their hosts Roland and Jocelyn.
You have a really lovely home. It’s really, um,
Thank you. I get a lot of my ideas from magazines.
Don’t be modest. This is one hundred percent you
and only you.
In lesser hands, this scene would have been written broadly, with someone making a tasteless wisecrack about an ugly table lamp. (Cue laugh track.) In this scene, however, everyone knows what’s being said, and no one is fooled. But each character still manages to maintain a razor-thin veneer of social grace. Think about adding this layer of subtlety to one or more of your characters and see what happens to your scenes.
Hello? Is Anyone Listening?
There’s a wonderful exchange when the motel manager, Stevie, lets David know she’s going to a “sketchy” bar later. David immediately invites himself, but it’s clear she’s not comfortable with that.
We’re going to be each other’s wing people tonight.
Um… Now, how diverse is the clientele at this local
I would say, very diverse.
Do you remember what life was like before dating
apps? Both excited and terrified for tonight.
I don’t think I ever said you could come.
Okay, so what time, though? Um… And is there a
dress code? ’Cause I want to come prepared.
For me, this scene illustrates so well that each character is determined to further their own agenda. So, even though these two are having a conversation, they are actually talking past each other toward the outcome they desire. Stevie doesn’t want David to go, and he wants to.
I Can See Why You Would Think That
Lying is a staple in television comedy, but these guys do it with elegance and grace. So much of it is used to cover something up, but sometimes, it’s to shield the other person from reality because, well, it’s just too much trouble being honest. In this exchange, David has reluctantly decided to find a job, and he’s asking for Stevie’s help:
Do you have any other skills or areas of expertise?
Uh, I’ve been told I have really good taste?
Uh, well, that’s good. Um, let’s see… Oh! Bag boy at
the grocery store.
I don’t know what that is.
You put groceries in bags so that people can carry
their groceries out of the grocery store.
Okay. And how much do you think that would pay?
Mm… I’m gonna say minimum wage.
Which is what, forty, forty-five something an hour?
This Is a Statement of Fact?
I’m not really sure where upspeak (or uptalk) came from. I want to say it all started with the movie ‘Valley Girl.’ But today, everyone does it—even me, sometimes. And if you don’t have at least one or two characters speaking that way in your book, you’re probably not trying hard enough to get some variety in your dialogue.
In ‘Schitt’s Creek,’ David and his sister, Alexis, do it a lot. In fact, most of the townies don’t speak that way, so there’s a nice contrast. I won’t provide any dialogue examples here because there are too many. But here’s a clip to get you started:
So, there you have it. For me, a big part of writing great dialogue is introducing variety. A good test is to switch the names of characters speaking and see if the scene still makes sense. If it does, you’ve got a problem. Getting back to literary fiction, as far as I’m concerned, many characters are interchangeable regarding speech. Some great authors have an incredible ear, though. Whether or not you like Charles Dickens, the man knew how to make each of his characters shine through dialogue. (I’m thinking in particular of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House.)
As writers, we spend so much time figuring out the plot and writing about a character’s inner life. But don’t forget, when someone reads your book, they are saying the words aloud in their head. And when they get to the dialogue, they hear your character’s voice. Make sure they can distinguish one person from another. Now, enjoy the trailer from Season 1, available for free at Amazon Prime.
Surprise! I haven’t fallen off the planet. Yet. Actually, I’ve been busy polishing my new novel, based on a screenplay I wrote several years ago (see “Adapting a Screenplay—Fun Times”). Curious? Before I get into the details, I want to tell you that this thing is a real departure from my last three books, which make up the TELL ME WHEN I’M DEAD trilogy, a horror thriller blood fest that takes my beloved antihero Dave Pulaski from the fictional Northern California backwater of Tres Marias south to the very real and horribly violent City of Angels.
Anyway, after lots of gory mayhem, I thought I’d try something different—family fiction. Yep, you heard me right. This is a story about a modern family in crisis. Now before you get too wound up, let me just say that there is still plenty of horror. And laughs. Only this time, the not-so-gory mayhem is seen through the eyes of a precocious fourteen-year-old girl, who I am hoping will steal readers’ hearts.
Still with me? Great. Because today, I’m giving you a glimpse of what’s coming. The book is called Chainsaw Honeymoon, and—trust me—there’s something in it for everyone.
Chainsaw Honeymoon Synopsis
Ruby Navarro is not your typical fourteen-year-old girl. Sure, she’s bright and funny. But she’s also an incurable carnivore who adores horror movies—the bloodier, the better. A year ago, her parents separated, leaving her to live with her mom, Stacey, and her dog, an over-caffeinated Shih Tzu named Ed Wood. Now, Ruby loves her mom, but she also misses her dad. A lot. People split up all the time, and most kids might get over it, providing they could still Snapchat. Not Ruby. She has decided it’s her mission to save her family. And save them, she will!
Ruby is leaving home to spend the summer with her dad, Alan, a top-performing salesman at a luxury car dealership. At his apartment, she divides her time between her machinima project—a dark fantasy featuring a crazed killer with a chainsaw—and hanging out with her two best friends, Claire and Diego. While Ruby is away, her mom’s boss proposes marriage—ew! And Stacey is seriously considering accepting. In the meantime, Alan stupidly believes he can win back his wife, and gets to work on a “best of” video reel, using years of mind-numbingly boring home movies. Ruby suggests contacting her dad’s younger brother, a talented but arrogant student filmmaker. But her uncle has other ideas, and he talks her dad into making a real movie—with actors and a script—a romantic comedy guaranteed to win Stacey’s heart.
As the movie takes shape, unexplainable things are happening to Ruby. Diego is acting weird around her—what is up with that boy! She’s having nightmares. Her doll Mr. Shivers might be trying to talk to her. And a creepy stain on her ceiling is turning into the killer from her machinima project. Oh, and people are dying—for realz. While on location for the movie, Ruby accidentally discovers that her uncle is actually using her dad’s money to shoot a horror movie, instead of the rom-com he promised. When Alan finds out, he gets into a fist fight with his brother, cuts off the production money, and returns home with his daughter.
But Ruby is still determined to get her parents back together. She gets her uncle’s girlfriend to help, and together they cook up a plan to get the movie back on track. Stacey, a certifiable “horrorista,” is totally on board. And Ruby’s dad? Well, “Mr. Rom-Com” is another story.
Photo courtesy of IMDb
Guest Post by Elizabeth Rose
In 1984, when audiences first heard the chilling word “Zuul”! emerge from Sigourney Weaver‘s refrigerator, and a guardian of Gozer crashed Rick Moranis’s flat party, they immediately got the chills. From the opening library scene, an air of real doom was present. Don’t forget that this was the movie season when Freddy Krueger invaded dreams, Gremlins took over a town, Indiana Jones explored the Temple of Doom, and the crew of the Enterprise championed the modern environmental movement. The world was completely taken with the supernatural, but ‘Ghostbusters’ added a fresh comedic way to tackle the “other side.” Based on fan reactions to trailers and reviews, however, the 2016 reboot may not come anywhere close to enthralling moviegoers like the original and its sequel.
The reason ‘Ghostbusters’ I and II were such iconic creations is that they only used comedy and hip cultural motifs to hold an audience captive, while the main characters saved humanity from a force bigger in scope than the stresses of modern life. Like their box office counterparts, they were delightfully original successes at hero-building (both of the originals are streaming on Netflix and DTV at the moment, if you want to be reminded).
Every character in the first two ‘Ghostbusters’ films had qualities with which the common person could identify. Three struggling scientists and another friend play off each other’s eccentricities to confront the inexplicable. A goddess from the underworld is trying to manifest on Earth, and she chooses New York City as her home base. Of course, angry and preoccupied New Yorkers pay no attention. The destruction of the planet doesn’t compare to the chaos of rush hour traffic.
As more and more supernatural events occur, the city’s mayor recruits the newly-formed Ghostbusters “agency” to calm the nerves of the city. Throughout the movie, audiences are treated to absolutely terrifying demon guard dogs, a conveyor belt of endless masterful catch phrases, larger-than-life apparitions, a wide spectrum of emotional underpinnings, and the ultimate solidarity of a city full of people who refuse to kowtow to their fears.
The ‘Ghostbusters‘ reboot, hitting theaters in July, is a complete reversal of the original movie’s intent. It’s like reversing a charged particle stream, and just as dangerous! The remake hijacks all of the familiars associated with the original films, but uses them only as portals to interject loose contemporary social commentary.
There’s no doubt that the new Ghostbusters are composed of a very talented group of comedians. Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones are the female alter egos of Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis), Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), and Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), respectively. Director Paul Feig and writer Katie Dippold make sure every physical and ethereal element of the original has a cameo in the remake. This includes Slimer, the Ecto 1, the old firehouse and containment unit, and endless views of New York City.
Unfortunately, it’s the trite treatment of what’s familiar that makes this movie fall flat as entertainment. Every entity in the original movies was animated with minimal digital resources. Of course, this is due to the era. Computer animation was new, but the ghosts had to be convincing. The ghosts of the first two movies seemed so real that an audience member had the distinct impression they could get slimed in their seats. The animation in the new movie is neon, wispy, and similar to the graphics of a lower tier PlayStation game.
What is evidently putting off fans of the original the most, is the obvious politicizing of one of the most revered storylines in movie history. Instead of men, four women are now the heroes. Costumes and equipment are sexualized (watch for the proton gun in the official trailer). One of the larger entities is a ghostly Uncle Sam. Does this imply America’s symbols are just old, dead, evil relics? The feminist take on the script makes vulnerability impossible, so the new ghosts have to be able to magically possess people, and instead of Sigourney Weaver’s legs, viewers now must behold Chris Hemsworth’s bare chest.
None of these gimmicks are totally new. The originals had a bit of sultriness and kitsch, but there always existed a degree of import. The StayPuft Marshmallow Man got fried because he stepped on a church, and the Statue of liberty came alive to save the city in ‘Ghostbusters II.’ On top of all this, who can forget the Billboard success of Ray Parker Jr.’s theme song, and the New Year’s party positivity of Howard Huntsberry singing “Higher and Higher”? The ‘Ghostbusters’ remake features (surprise) a remake of the original theme song with a depressing industrial vibe.
There are innumerable parallels between the America of 1984 and 2016. People of both eras are experiencing social and economic changes that are frightening and seemingly too big to overcome. The original ‘Ghostbusters’ movies used the supernatural to embody these fears. They were eventually defeated with innovation, lightheartedness, and the necessity of human fortitude. The remake seems to hold wonder and fantasy in contempt, and tough situations only as opportunities to promote the self. This movie will probably be very funny, but instead of trying to build on a cinematic monolith, it’s likely summer audiences will have to watch a theory on how the ladies from ‘Bridesmaids’ would deal with the underworld.
About the Author
Elizabeth Rose is a film and entertainment blogger who was born and raised in Chi Town, Illinois. She especially favors fantasy, as well as sci-fi and other fiction genres. You can connect with her on Twitter.
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Happy Wednesday, Booklovers!
This week we’re sharing coffee with horror writer Steven Ramirez and his zombies. And these are the blood-thirsty kind, so keep your wits about you. :)
Welcome, Steven. What would you like to drink?
STEVEN: Iced Caffè Americano year round.
Ally: Perfect. Coming right up. It’ll be ready by the time you’ve shown readers your bio.
Steven Ramirez is the author of the horror thriller series Tell Me When I’m Dead. He has also published a number of short stories, as well as a children’s book, and he wrote the screenplay for the horror thriller film ‘Killers.’ To hear about new releases, visit stevenramirez.com/newsletter/. Steven lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughters.
Tell me something unique that isn’t in your regular bio: “Many years ago in Pasadena, I ran into the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, who was presumably on his way back to Cal Tech. I babbled something about how great I thought he was. Then his assistant wheeled him away. I’ve always regretted not having been better prepared.”
Author Website: http://www.stevenramirez.com/
Author Twitter: https://twitter.com/byStevenRamirez
Author Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/StevenRamirezWriter
Author Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/StevenRamirez
Author Google+: https://plus.google.com/+StevenRamirezWriter
Ally: Now we’re settled, let’s start off by talking zombies. How are yours like or different from those in other books and tv shows?
STEVEN: This is the third book in my horror thriller trilogy. When I started out the zombies were of the slow, shambling variety that anyone would recognize from Night of the Living Dead or The Walking Dead. But over the course of the story, the infecting virus evolved, and these creatures became faster and more cunning. By the time we get to the last book, they are blade-wielding sociopaths who like to hunt.
Ally: Needless to say, your zombies aren’t the romantic type. :) Let’s talk about something a little tamer. Tell us about your setting. Is it contemporary, such as in urban fantasy, or have you created an entirely different universe?
STEVEN: The Tell Me When I’m Dead series is contemporary, the first two books taking place in a fictional Northern California town called Tres Marias. For the third book I decided to move the action south to Los Angeles. Although the universe is recognizable to anyone who has lived in LA, there are elements that seem bizarre. For one thing, it rains like crazy throughout the book. Also, the fact that these maniacs are running around carving up people makes the story somewhat apocalyptic. To provide realism I tried using as many actual LA locations as I could. But I did take license with certain scenes for dramatic purposes.
To read the rest of the interview, please visit Ally’s blog.
Early in my writing career I focused entirely on writing screenplays—something I would not recommend to the foolhardy. You see, unlike novels, screenplays serve absolutely no purpose if you can’t sell them. They sit in a pile in the corner of your home office collecting dust, instead of appearing with nice covers on Amazon. That said, if you are lucky enough to have a written a screenplay that sold (I did that once), you might be on your way to an actual career in the movie business.
But enough about fairy tales.
Horror Comedy, Anyone?
I want to talk about a particular screenplay I wrote a few years back that had to do with a fourteen-year-old girl, a nasty marital breakup and a behind-the-scenes look at an indie horror film. Sounds fascinating, right? At the time I really thought I could make that thing sing. Now, from a technical perspective the work was professional. But I was never really able to generate enough interest. So … I tossed it into the corner and allowed it to gather a nice patina of dust.
I’d been toying with the idea of adapting some of my screenplays into novels. I mean, why let all that good writing go to waste? And I decided that, because I had just come off a heavy horror thriller trilogy with lots of bloodshed, I would tackle a fun horror comedy … with somewhat less bloodshed.
I’m just about finished with the “novelization”—something I’d never done before. And let me tell you, it’s hair-raising. In screenplays, each page is a combination of slug lines, short descriptions and dialogue. That’s it. Try turning that into beautiful prose that descends on the reader like the first gentle snowfall in a New England winter. The process is quite instructive, though, and I am learning more about voice than I ever thought I would.
I’ll keep you posted on the progress from time to time, but it’s my goal to turn this thing into an enjoyable book that captures some of the craziness of living in LA, from the POV of a precocious teenager. Wish me luck.
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Photo Courtesy of IMDb
So, I’ve been thinking about that old TV show, ‘Gilligan’s Island’—don’t ask me why. Writers do that sometimes. Anything to occupy our minds so we don’t have to sit down and actually write. Anyway, I’ve been thinking it’s time for a reboot. Only now, instead of concentrating on a small band of survivors simply stuck on island with no way to escape—never mind that you’ve got a Professor who supposedly can invent anything out of coconuts and vines, but cannot seem to fix the friggin’ SS Minnow …
Getting back to my idea. I’ve decided it would be cool if you added zombies. So now, these guys are stuck there. But instead of being undone by their own petty fighting and incompetence (mostly on the part of Gilligan himself), they have to fend off the skin-crawling, slavering advances of the undead. Wouldn’t that make for a great show? Of course, it would.
First off, though, the eternal question—namely, who really would survive in a zombie apocalypse? I can tell you right now, the Howells are out. What, Mrs. Howell is going to hit some dead sailor dripping with gore with her purse? The old man is going to break out a 9 iron and hit the rotting thing in the face? And by the way, why did those two even pack all that stuff for a one-day trip?
The professor is a given. He is pretty smart, though naïve. And what about Skipper? Sure. Why? Because, in the words of Napoleon Dynamite, he has skills. Same goes for Mary Ann. I mean, come on, she grew up on a farm. She knows how to grow food, cook and keep livestock. Maybe should could capture a few wild boars and raise them for meat.
Now, Ginger. Yes, she’s beautiful. But in a zombie apocalypse, beauty will not help, my friend. Not unless you plan on seducing the zombie. So she’s out. And here’s my thought about her character. I think in this reboot that I am already casting, you need to replace her character with a slacker played by Aubrey Plaza. Can you imagine it? Every time a zombie takes a hunk out of someone, she’s off making these caustic remarks like a one-woman Greek chorus. Yes, the more I think about it, Aubrey Plaza would be awesome.
That leaves Gilligan himself. Okay, the guy is a boob. He has no skills and no brains. He’s a mouth-breather from way back who should have been dead a long time ago. But you know what? He’s lucky. So, I say keep the schlemiel—the show will work better.
And like the old show, every once in a while you can have over-the-hill guest stars like Erik Estrada and Loni Anderson land on the island and get eaten while Aubrey Plaza provides the sarcastic commentary. Hey, this thing practically writes itself!
So what would you like to see in this new show? Anyone? I’ll be standing by, awaiting your comments.