Why I Write

Do you know why I really love to write? It’s because I’m a smartass. I have a level of sarcasm that borders on the sadistic. The world should be thankful that I don’t say all the things I think because what I usually think is pretty horrible. Not that what I ultimately say is good, it’s plenty bad, but I’m usually thinking worse things.
What does that have to do with writing, you may ask. Only everything.
Have you ever been having a conversation with someone about a piece of trivia, and you know you’re right and they’re wrong, and you’re just waiting for the perfect moment to hit them with the truth? But instead, they stop and admit that they were wrong and you were right?
In a story, you can push that conversation to ridiculous levels and make one character push the envelope and deliver that great slamming comeback. In real life, rarely does a person set you up like that. Although I’ve had a few conversations that could appear verbatim and be ridiculously funny. This actual conversation happened between me and one of my coworkers:

Coworker: I can’t stand orange juice.
Me: Why? Orange juice is awesome.
Coworker: I was drinking screwdrivers one night and I threw up all over the place.
Me:You don’t think maybe it was the vodka?
Coworker: (confused) What do you mean?

But God is not always smiling on us like that or like this. This was a different coworker.

Coworker: I didn’t get any sleep last night.
Me: Why not?
Coworker: My baby stabbed her lip with a nose ring.
Me: Your baby has a nose ring? That’s really inappropriate.

But most conversations go like this.

Guy #1: Charlie Sheen wasn’t in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Guy #2: Of course he was. It was an iconic role.
Guy #1: I think you’re wrong.
Guy #2: Oh well.

When instead it should go like this.

Guy #1: Charlie Sheen wasn’t in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Guy #2: Of course he was. It was an iconic role.
Guy #1: I think you’re thinking of Matthew Broderick.
Guy #2: I don’t think we can be friends anymore.

Of course, if I were writing the scene it would be much longer but not much funnier. But that’s not the point. The point is that, as writers, we get to control both sides of the conversation. We can use that to pump characters up and tears characters down. To me, being good at dialogue is the most important skill a writer can have. In novels, having the skill of description and exposition are important, but dialogue is where most stuff happens and it should contain the bulk of your story. Any good story should be 60-70% dialogue. And if you’re writing a screenplay, all direction should be limited to that which serves the particular scene you’re writing.
I have a few favorite writers when it comes to dialogue. First is Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of Gilmore Girls. If you’ve never seen the show, here’s an example:

Lorelai: And it’s so hard to believe that at exactly this time many moons ago, I was lying in exactly the same position—
Rory: Oh boy. Here we go.
Lorelai: Only I had a huge, fat stomach and big fat ankles and I was swearing like a sailor—
Rory: On leave.
Lorelai: On leave—right! And there I was—
Rory: In labor.
Lorelai: And while some have called it the most meaningful experience of your life, to me it was something more akin to doing the splits on a crate of dynamite.
Rory: I wonder if the Waltons ever did this.
Lorelai: And I was screaming and swearing and being surrounded as I was by a hundred prominent doctors, I just assumed there was an actual use for the cup of ice chips they gave me.
Rory: There wasn’t.
Lorelai: But pelting the nurses sure was fun.

That’s gold right there. Even if it was the first episode of Gilmore Girls you’d ever seen, you would need almost no backstory to understand it. You see the witty interplay between a mother and daughter that are on the same intellectual level. Later, when we see Lorelai talking to her own mother, the dialogue changes drastically.

Emily: You are impossible to reach.
Lorelai: Well there’s no messages on the machine, Mom.
Emily: I don’t leave messages. If I wanted to talk to a machine I’d talk to my VCR. Where were you?
Lorelai: At a wake.
Emily: A what?
Lorelai: A wake… a funeral.
Emily: A funeral? Whose?
Lorelai: It was for the neighbors’ cat.
[Emily is silent]
Lorelai: Mom?
Emily: Hold on. I’m looking up aneurysm in our medical dictionary to see if I just had one.
Lorelai: I just wanted to be honest with you, Mom. Silly me.

The wit is still there, but it’s clear these two are not on the same level. There’s a clear hierarchy between Lorelai and Emily. Rory is clearly having fun with her mother in the previous section, but Emily is not having any fun at all.
Dialogue in a novel, though, has to be different. You can try to pace a scene like Aaron Sorkin, but it’s unlikely your readers will be able to keep up. And you have to pick and choose your moments, as well. For every intense scene of two minds at battle, you need that slow scene that shows how much people may care about each other or hate each other.

From Sorkin’s Sports Night.

Casey: I speak four languages!
Dan: You speak three languages.
Casey: I speak four languages.
Dan: You speak German, French, and Italian.
Casey: I dabble in a little English.

But then.

Casey: What are you doing?
Dana: There’s just… uh… nothing.
Casey: The network says “Intend-to-View” tracking puts us in 4.2 million homes. It’s a landslide. You’re about to take us into the big time, Dana. You deserve credit for that.
Dana: I sent her there on purpose. I sent her there instead of Jeremy because I knew how Patrick felt about women in the locker room and I thought I could provoke a more… a better response to the questions. I sent her there on purpose.
Casey: I know.
Dana: Does she? Does Natalie know?
Casey: Of course she knows. She learned from you. (Pause) It was the right thing to do.
Dana: Does she know that I sold her?
Casey: Dana, Natalie wouldn’t complain if her hair was on fire.
Dana chuckles.
Casey: She wants what’s best for the show.
Dana nods.
Casey: And she knows what I know.
Dana: What’s that?
Casey: That you tend to do the right thing.
Dana smiles wryly.

This is an intense scene in a show that’s a half-hour sitcom. Sorkin trusts his audience to follow him into more dramatic moments throughout the show’s run. It’s the dialogue that lets people know where this change occurs. And he loves a good speech.

Sam Donovan: You guys know who Philo Farnsworth was?
J.J.: Philo Farnsworth?
Sam Donovan: Yeah.
J.J.: What’s going on?
Sam Donovan: He invented television. I don’t mean he invented television like Uncle Milty. I mean he invented the television in a little house in Provo, Utah, at a time when the idea of transmitting moving pictures through the air would be like me saying I figured out a way to beam us aboard the starship Enterprise. He was a visionary. He died broke and without fanfare. The guy I really like though was his brother-in-law, Cliff Gardner. He said, “Philo, I know everyone things you’re crazy, but I want to be a part of this. I don’t have your head for science, so I’m not going to be able to help much with the design and mechanics of the invention, but it sounds like you’re going to need glass tubes.” You see, Philo was inventing the cathode receptor, and even though Cliff didn’t know what that meant or how it worked, he’d seen Philo’s drawing, and he knew that he was gonna need glass tubes. And since television hadn’t been invented yet, it’s not like you could get them at the local TV repair shop. “I want to be a part of this,” Cliff said. “I don’t have your head for science. How would it be if I were to teach myself to be a glass blower? And I could set up a little shop in the backyard. And I could make all the tubes you’ll need for testing.” There ought to be Congressional Medals for people like that. I’ve looked over the notes you’ve been giving over the last year or so, and I have to say they exhibit an almost total lack of understanding of how to get the best from talented people. You said before that for whatever reason, I seem to be able to exert some authority around here. I assure you it’s not ’cause they like me. It’s ’cause they knew two minutes after I walked in the door I’m someone who knows how to do something. I can help. I can make glass tubes. That’s what they need. One last thing, the first and last decision-making authority on this show will rest with Isaac Jaffee until Isaac Jaffee says otherwise, and if you disrespect him in my presence again, I will rededicate the rest of my life to ruining the rest of yours. And if you think I’m just mouthing at you, you should ask around about me. I have absolutely no conscience about these things.

That remains to this day my all-time favorite moment in the history of television. And it’s by a minor character in a short-lived TV show that most people have never heard of. By giving a character a monologue like that you let the reader/audience know that they’re in complete control of this situation. This character may be meek or understated at other times but here, the author is letting them speak full-throated, directly to the reader/audience. It’s a powerful tool (one which can be abused).

Sorkin loves using real-life example when making his shows and this is something you have to be careful about. In Sports Night, he uses it to bring up issues that would really be important on the set of a TV show. But in Newsroom, he uses it to make his characters prescient in a way that begs credulity. No one knew that the Deepwater Horizon spill was going to be as bad as it turned out to be. But one of the characters in Newsroom instantly recognizes the newsworthiness of the report of a fire on an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. He’s an expert on how deep they drill and shutoff valves and it seems ridiculous after a minute. Keep in mind the Deepwater Horizon story didn’t become big news for days after the explosion. In another moment, a producer on the show realizes we’ve killed bin Laden after receiving a message of a late night White House press conference that could’ve been anything. Be careful how you use actual events in a story, it can come back to burn you.
The point you need to take away from this post is that, as a writer, you’re in complete control of the story. You can make your MC heroic or foolish. You can make your antagonist awful or sympathetic. Don’t always play to conventions and don’t go against the grain just to be different. Your decisions have to serve the story.


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