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.