Monday, August 30, 2010

George Lucas vs. Aaron Sorkin

I'm back, friends! I spent a week in 65-degree upstate New York where I escaped NYC craziness and worked on my YA-in-progress. Despite a pretty great week, I have to say it's good to be home. (What can I say, I loves me some craziness. The return to 90-degree humidity, however, is a different story...)

While writing this week, I noticed that I write a lot of dialogue. Or at least more dialogue than narration. This is neither good nor bad in my opinion, but it got me thinking about writing conversations in general. I'm a big dialogue person - old-fashioned Bogie and Bacall banter, I eat it up. But how much does it really matter? For me, it's the first thing I notice when reading or watching something, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily the most important thing I look for. When reading requested material, queries, what-have-you, I usually see one of two extremes when dialogue doesn't work. I'll call it the George Lucas vs. Aaron Sorkin problem.

Explanation.

Take George Lucas. Star Wars has proven decade after decade that Lucas' story of a galaxy far, far away resonates with audiences, regardless of generation. He's reinvented the franchise yet again with Clone Wars, which is currently being enjoyed by the grandchildren of those who were first shocked over the identity of Luke's dad. (Don't worry; I won't ruin it for you.)

Yet, one thing George Lucas is notoriously guilty of (which he's even accepted himself) is that he cannot write dialogue. Like, at all. Sure, Han's "I know" to Leia's "I love you" was pretty badass, but given the rest of the lackluster attempts at romance, I think this gem was simply the result of Lucas' inability to convey genuine emotion.

Lucas proves that you don't need deeply meaningful conversation, witty banter, or even a college-level vocabulary to engage a massive audience. It should come as a surprise to no one that Star Wars is one of my favorite movies, but consider for a minute if it was a novel (and also ignore the many novelizations that already exist). After a few pages of "I'll be careful"/"You'll be dead!" exchanges, I think I'd be ready to throw in the towel. Some things just don't translate to the page with the same effect.

Aaron Sorkin, on the other hand, has the opposite problem. Now, before I explain the "problem" I have with a person whom I consider a master of dialogue, I will state that The West Wing remains one of the greater written shows of all time, and that I've loved everything Sorkin has ever written and/or created. With one exception - Studio 60. So, that will be my focus here. Studio 60, to me, represents exactly what not to do as a writer, even if you're an incredibly gifted writer. 

Sorkin has a philosophy that one should never talk down to one's audience. This is evident in his writing, and he stated it blatantly in Studio 60. I agree with him to an extent, but in the case of this "missing of the mark," let's say, he manages to take his trademark smart, witty, heightened language and turn it into whiny, preachy, condescending monologue. Even in near-perfect shows like Sports Night and The West Wing, Sorkin has been guilty of preaching. Since I usually fell into the choir he was he preaching to, I never really minded, but there were times where even I felt the eye roll-worthiness of some of Bartlett and Leo's seemingly unrelated anecdotes in reference to world-changing decisions.

With Studio 60, Sorkin took his preaching to a new level. Clearly still pissed at NBC for firing him from The West Wing, he managed to create an entire show of monologues that made fairly accurate points about unfairness, network greed, and censorship, among others. What he forgot to do while making these Obama-level speeches was to develop an actual plot. Stories and characters on television are created through dialogue, which is another thing he forgot to write. Or, at least, forgot to write it well. Hence, the show failed.

Lucas' ability to create a world in which people want to lose themselves is a testament to his talent as a writer. Whereas Sorkin's apparent inability to use words for anything other than wit and intellect is a testament to his particular talent. On the page, however, a balance needs to be struck, whether you're writing commercial or literary fiction. Exceptions are always made, depending on genre and style, but (for me, at least) I like seeing both factors given equal, or near-equal, weight.

How important is dialogue to you, and how do you approach it as writers? Does every word count toward the plot, or do you let your characters speak tangentially, the way people do in real life? Tell me how you balance your story, dialogue, and character development.

12 comments:

  1. Missed you blogging!

    For me, dialogue is one of the few things that writes itself. However, I try to develop my characters through actions, dress and attitude... I don't give people a Southern twang and call it a day.

    I DO let my characters talk a bit. But only for two, three replies tops. And it had better go somewhere. Better make one of them laugh or annoyed or something, something that will push the pace on.

    Trivia:
    Harrison Ford actually ad-libbed the "I know" to Leia's "I love you." He was tired of doing 50 takes 'cause she was either high or drunk, I can't remember. But that's a fact. It's on the commentaries! (Which is hilarious since it's easily my favorite line.)

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  2. It should be noted that Lucas didn't write EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. He provided the storyline but Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan wrote the screenplay. In fact, it's well documented that Lucas HATED Solo's "I know" line. If you want to quote bad Lucas, STAR WARS is brimming with horrible dialogue ("You'll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy." Seriously?) Just watch it back to back with EMPIRE and see how the writing (including dialogue) improved tenfold.

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  3. Um, apparently Harrison Ford ad libbed a lot of stuff. This is why he is hot.

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  4. @Jaimie - Figures that line came from Harrison Ford! You also bring up a good point about allowing your characters a few exchanges. Talking about something other than the plot also develops character, but again - balance, balance, balance :)

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  5. Damn, Jaimie out-nerded me with the Harrison Ford ad-lib comment. Well played. As for dialogue, I am an EXTREMELY dialogue-heavy writer, almost to the point where I have to be careful to remind myself that I'm not writing a screenplay. It's just the way I'm most comfortable telling my story, although that does raise many more opportunities for the dialogue to become stilted, which I try to keep an eye out for when revising. Generally, bad dialogue won't kill a story for me--Star Wars or anything by HP Lovecraft being two good examples--but great dialogue will elevate a bad story. Even some of Elmore Leonard's stinkers don't seem so bad when you're reading witty banter between two minor characters.

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  6. Like you, I'm mad for West Wing and was sooo looking forward to Studio 60. I tried to like it. Repeatedly. Thank you for helping me identify why I had to give up on it.

    Preachiness wasn't the only thing that turned me away, though, unless by preachy you encompass the all-important detail that it seemed he was mostly whining.

    Worse, much of the whining was written in such a way that I couldn't muster empathy OR sympathy. It seemed I'd have to be a TV insider (or wannabe) to care. I was left feeling disappointed that a man who could hook me on Sports Night when IRL I care not one fig for pro sports, couldn't make me feel welcome in a show ostensibly focused on smart entertainers.

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  7. You have finally pinpointed for me why I can't stand the recent Star Wars movies, as much as I want to. Bad dialogue on top of lame acting by the young actors (sorry, theater major!) is more than I can stomach.

    I'm a playwright, so my novels tend to be dialogue heavy. I have to remember that my reading audience can't see the "scene" in my head, I have to paint it for them. It is all about balance. Great post!

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  8. Yeah, isn't the "my hands are dirty" scene in ESB? It works so well onscreen with those particular actors, but if you read it in a book? Not so much.

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  9. Funny, but my two ugly mud turtles are named Bogey and Bacall. :)

    Dialogue comes naturally to me and as I rule I don't do banter. (I think it's kinda obvious from my excerpt some posts down, actually.) I have this obsessive line-editing tic so that I tend to trim most banter out. If it's character development it can stay, but I always think of banter as fun but pointless.

    And don't shoot me but I much prefer Star Trek to Star Wars, though, really, the dialogue is equally bad in many cases. Wait, that's just William Shatner's delivery.

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  10. Jess,

    It's funny that you refer to banter as "fun but pointless," since that's EXACTLY how I would describe my entire novel. Not surprisingly, it'd filled with lots of banter.

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  11. @Jess - Star Trek and Star Wars are like apples and oranges to me, but I think the poor dialogue is common to most science fiction. Sad, but true... but who needs banter when you're about to enter the final frontier?

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  12. LOL Gregg!

    Sarah, I agree but I find that most sci-fi fans are rabidly loyal to one fandom over the other.

    And you provide a good point. I'd be speechless in their situations, but that doesn't make for good storytelling, so we get bad dialogue instead. :)

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