Monday, January 16, 2012

Dialogue and Motivation

Let me start by saying I promise to never post a blog without first rereading it.  My last blog post was written while I was tired.  I posted it without so much as giving it a second's glance.  I had promised to edit it the following day, but only managed to get to it yesterday.  I was embarrassed by what I read.

When it comes to dialogue, I'm not an expert.  Dialogue is an area I frequently find myself struggling with.  My wife is the local expert.  One of her pieces of advice is to pay attention to conversations in television, real life, and literature.  It is most definitely a useful trick.

I'm going to compare two opposites: Alf and Dark Shadows.  The two television shows differ in every way, but one (two if you count the fact that both have a character named Willie).  The dialogue for both shows is terrible.  I've been watching through Dark Shadows slowly over the last several months.  Last night we reached the 111th episode available.  I also recently watched the pilot of the 80's sitcom, Alf.  One show is a soap opera drama with the supernatural.  The other is an episodic sitcom about an extraterrestrial.

Dialogue should be simple.  It is the choice of words characters use when speaking to each other.  We are exposed to dialogue every time we have a conversation.  Yet, with so much exposure, you'd think that writers would be able to piece together believable conversations onto a page.  Unfortunately, this doesn't happen.  There are a few reasons for this, but I think one of the most blatant sources for this poor writing is motivation.  This is part of the reason I find that Dark Shadow's dialogue is scores better than the dialogue used in Alf.

Everyone has motivation.  When we speak, we aren't just blurting something out at random.  We have our reasons for saying what we say.  This is just as important in writing as it is in the real world.  When writers forget this, the purpose of the dialogue becomes muddied.  Often times, writers will forget the overall character in exchange for the momentary motivation.  In the pilot of Alf, Willie has this wonderful line:
Willie:  "Alright, alright.  Just give me one day, okay.  If I can't get Alf going, we'll tell someone.  Just one day."
The dialogue makes me weep inside.  Not just because of how terrible it reads, but because of Willie's motivation.  This is the type of concern one would have with in-laws that won't leave.  However, Willie is talking about an alien from another planet.  After an earlier piece of dialogue, it is established the military would probably do experiments on Alf if they had him.  So, his argument is for a single day before they tell someone.  It's as if Willie completely forgotten about what will happen to Alf should the military find him.  This is a momentary motivation convenient for the single scene.  A more fitting piece of dialogue would have been, "Just give me one day.  If I can't get Alf going, we'll figure out something."  In the alternative piece of dialogue, it leaves a sense of uncertainty with Willie.  It might be tell someone, or it might be getting Alf to find somewhere else to go.

Meanwhile, over in Dark Shadows land, the characters have their motivations, they just have dialogue that isn't well written.  In Episode 321, Sam Evans, at the decision of Maggie Evans, has set a trap for Maggie's attacker.  A rumor has been spread to summon her attacker to the home where the sheriff's men are waiting.  This plan has been building for a couple of episodes now.  In one scene, Maggie is in her room when Sam comes in.
Sam:  "There are men all over the place.  Now if you hear anything, you just give a yell and they'll come running."
The motivation of Sam is present.  He is trying to comfort his daughter, Maggie.  The line doesn't even read that poorly out of context.  In context, this is clearly exposition.  They could have shown the men, or let the reader assume the Maggie knows.  Instead, we hear Sam say something to Maggie that the audience needs to know.  It is irritating (especially if you've watched all available 111 episodes up until this point), but it is within Sam's character.

The moral of the story is to make dialogue better, always make sure you know the motivation behind the speaker.

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