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Writerspeak

The scriptwriter's most dangerous weapon

I’m not sure whether John Kricfalusi was the first person to coin the term “writerspeak”, but his was certainly the first web site on which I read the term. He offers an excellent post pertaining to the writing of dialogue for animation, although I suspect that many live action screenwriters could benefit from reading it as well. In a sense, most of what he says is common sense, but sometimes you need to see things written down to actually understand the logic behind them.

John defines writerspeak as this:

A lot of characters in modern cartoons are simply mouthpieces for the writers. They speak in the writer’s voice rather than the character’s voice, tell the jokes that the writer and his writer friends think are funny, but are totally out-of-character for the character who is actually saying them. This common writer’s flaw is known as “writerspeak”.

I’d like to go one step further. I think there are basically three different categories of bad dialogue writing that can be claimed to be writerspeak:

1. A character suddenly says something that completely contradicts their personality because a writer thought of a funny line of dialogue and wants to show everyone how clever he/she is… even if the character is normally supposed to be a complete dolt. See just about every prime-time sitcom, animated or otherwise. In some shows, such as Family Guy, none of the characters have defined personalities anyway, so whenever someone speaks, it sounds like they’re suffering from schizophrenia.

It works both ways, though. Sometimes, a writer will make a character appear more stupid than they normally are for the sake of a joke. Here’s an exchange from the Season 2 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, When She Was Bad:

Willow: I mean, why else would she be acting like such a B-I-T-C-H?

Giles: Willow, I think we’re a little too old to be spelling things out.

Xander: A bitka?

Not only is Xander’s contribution eye-rollingly unfunny, it demeans the character something rotten. He may not be the sharpest tool in the box at times, but are we seriously expected to believe that he can’t spell the word “bitch”? It’s an excruciatingly bad bit of dialogue, even by the already low standards of writerspeak, because the very joke that the character is sacrificed for doesn’t even work.

2. A character tells us how they’re feeling or what they’re doing, despite it being blatantly obvious what’s happening if you just open your eyes and look at the visuals. Again, the sitcoms, whether animated or live action, are particularly strong offenders. This often manifests itself in the over-explanation of jokes. To quote the recent Simpsons movie, we see Fat Tony and his thugs hauling a bag which obviously contains a body towards the newly walled-off lake:

Chief Wiggum: Uh sorry, sorry, no dumping in the lake.

Fat Tony: Fine, I will put my “yard trimmings” in a car compactor.

Fat Tony and his men now walk off with the body. See, that on its own is quite funny. It’s an amusing sight gag that relies half on the presence of the body (shown visually) and half on the stupidity of Chief Wiggum (conveyed through dialogue). However, not content to simply leave it at that, the writer (one of the dozen or so credited as having worked on the script) has to spell it out for us in case we didn’t get it:

Lou: Uh, Chief, I think there was a dead body in there.

A lot of writers struggle to think visually. They feel that, unless an idea is expressed in dialogue, it won’t register. That’s probably because they spend most of the day staring at text typed up on a screen or on paper. Furthermore, if you’ve ever read a script, you’ll know that it’s much easier to read dialogue than to read descriptive text. For a start, it takes up less space. For another thing, it tends to flow better. Long, descriptive passages of action or non-action can be extremely tedious both to write and to read - it stands to reason, because the written word is simply not suited to describing visuals in a coherent, efficient manner. Scripts aren’t like novels - you don’t have the luxury of spending pages and pages describing a situation in minute detail. (Given that animation is traditionally highly visual, is it any wonder that cartoons written on scripts rather than conceptualised on storyboards are loaded to the gills with writerspeak?)

3. A character tells another something they already know for the benefit of the audience. The Rock contains an absolute doozy:

Chief Justice: This is for the sake of national security.

Womack: No, it’s the sake of national security that got us here in the first place thirty-three years ago. I knew some day this would come back to bite us. Forget it. He does not exist!

Chief Justice: He does exist! We just chose to forget about him for thirty years. We locked him up and threw away the key.

Womack: Oh, and a lot of goddamn good it did us. He broke out of two maximum security prisons, and if he hits the streets…

Chief Justice: He’s not going to hit the streets, Jim! Thirty years ago he was a highly-trained SAS operative. He is my age now, for Christ’s sake. I have to get up three times a night to take a piss!

Womack: We can’t risk letting him out. He’s a professional escape artist.

Before you ask what’s wrong with this exchange, bear in mind that both characters were already privy to all this information before they opened their mouths. It’s only one step removed from those phone calls where you only see one side of the conversation so Character A repeats back everything Character B said. (“Why, I’d love to come to a party at your place at six o’clock tonight. What’s that? You want me to bring a bottle of wine? But of course I will!”) I’m not sure who penned this Shakespearian exchange (Weisberg/Cook? Mark Rosner? Jonathan Hensleigh? Quentin Tarantino? Aaron Sorkin? Clement/La Frenais? They, among many others, contributed to the script, many of them uncredited), but it’s absolutely magical, one of the finest examples of writerspeak and makes me laugh every time I hear it.

I’m not claiming to be some sort of dialogue writing expert. Writing convincing dialogue is hard - I know this from experience. But really, there’s no excuse for some of the travesties I’ve mentioned above… unless they were meant to be intentionally funny, which I somehow doubt.

 
Posted: Tuesday, February 05, 2008 at 5:31 PM | Comments: 7
Categories: Animation | Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Cinema | TV | Web

 
Comments

1.

Writerspeak can often affect novels as well. You might think this wasn't such an issue; for example, you can get rid of the Rock example simply by giving a few descriptive paragraphs of Connery's character as back story so the writer can get up to speed. But...

Presented for your consideration - Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Frankenstein is mainly told in the first person (from Victor Frankenstein), but we get to see a letter written to him from his sister. This letter concerns their servant, Justine, whom we haven't previously met. How does Shelley introduce her? Why, by having the sister write 'You will remember, Victor, that -' and then proceed to tell him Justine's life story as if he'd never met the woman!

The other two faults can also crop up in prose writing; the first in particular. Go to Dracula, open it on any page and ask yourself if you can tell just from the style which of the characters is meant to be writing. It's hard. It's hard because Bram Stoker is not actually that good at characterisation in the first place. The good guys (particularly the men) are somewhat faceless, and if you don't have a face there's no way to recognise you.

I naturally try to avoid all this like the plague, but it can be difficult because nobody wants to make a task harder than it has to be.

Posted by: Baron Scarpia, February 5, 2008 10:31 PM

2.

Yes, but to be fair very few people have ever claimed Shelley was a good writer: Frankenstein, in particular, is generally regarded as being fairly clumsy and sophomoric in its prose construction. It's revered for its ideas and zeitgeist, not the way Shelley wrote them. Similarly, Stoker isn't noted as the greatest dialogist of all time either: he perpetrates some genuinely diabolical exchanges in Dracula. Given that novel is epistolary in form, it's understandable that much is stylistically interchangeable as the characters are writing in a very rigid format, in forebearance to mores of the time regarding missives.

Presenting declarative information for the audience (or reader) in a blunt fashion is nothing new - to be fair to the example from The Rock (accepting that it's mainstream multiplex action fodder intended for people with an attention span of five seconds who are likely unable to tell one character from another without colour-coding) it explains away and underlines some stuff without unnecessarily clogging up screen time until the next explosion or car chase or Nic Cage shouting "Zeus's butthole!".

Aristotle may have said (thereabouts) that it's always better to show rather than tell, but Greek choruses were warbling away obvious background information for audiences millenia ago. Given that most modern audiences won't accept the intrusion of the gods, dramatic irony or whatever (unless it's some indie flick or Danny Boyle film) and even narration is generally frowned upon as intrusive you pretty much have to have a character become a witless mouthpiece in certain situations. It could be more artfully done, but, well, I can't say I'm bothered in the middle of a Michael Bay film when someone says something dumb and expository.

Speaking of writerspeak, Aaron Sorkin can write great, zippy, witty dialogue, but can he make characters sound individual from one another? Not really. So, he's a great writer in one respect, but terrible in another, in that he only (generally) has one authorial voice for everyone.

Posted by: anephric, February 6, 2008 12:48 AM

3.

Yes, but to be fair very few people have ever claimed Shelley was a good writer: Frankenstein, in particular, is generally regarded as being fairly clumsy and sophomoric in its prose construction. It's revered for its ideas and zeitgeist, not the way Shelley wrote them. Similarly, Stoker isn't noted as the greatest dialogist of all time either: he perpetrates some genuinely diabolical exchanges in Dracula.

That was my point. I wasn't saying that Frankenstein or Dracula were overrated, I was simply using them as examples, and fairly well-known ones at that.

to be fair to the example from The Rock (accepting that it's mainstream multiplex action fodder intended for people with an attention span of five seconds who are likely unable to tell one character from another without colour-coding) it explains away and underlines some stuff without unnecessarily clogging up screen time

Well, here's the judgement call. How irritated do you get with things like this? It's usually the case that the more obvious the exposition is, the less patient a film watcher will be with it. The Rock contains a rather painful example - it's rather like being in a car that suddenly stalls. If you don't feel it, more power to you. But others will.

Greek choruses were warbling away obvious background information for audiences millenia ago.

Which doesn't make it any better. It simply means that the problem's been around for years.

Posted by: Baron Scarpia, February 6, 2008 1:00 AM

4.

Studio 60 and Californication are surely positive examples of writerspeak, since although they are basically mouthpieces for the writers/actors, they are also screamingly funny and coy enough to bring the audience in on the whole joke.

In terms of writerspeak which is characters reciting expositional information to clue-in the audience, I mostly assume this to be a product of the studios producers' involved and not the writers (Whedon for example always bemoans this kind of thing in commentaries and interviews). Yes this is quite obvious on all modern TV shows, and all modern blockbuster movies, even those brilliant ones like Buffy and X-Files and Battlestar and Angel and so on. Lost is also a very big offender.

I've started to become particularly attuned not only to this, but to the related and more annoying habit of looping dialogue when the studio wants lines added for expositional reasons or otherwise. They usually have an insert of the character from long distance or from behind, or wait until they are off-screen, and then you hear a (usually jammed in) line which doesn't match the tone of the actors voice or pacing of the dialogue, stating something incredible obvious or over-playing whatever emotional beat.

I apologise if anyone starts picking up on this now!

Posted by: Rob, February 6, 2008 3:47 AM

5.

You can forgive episodic TV having to do such expository recap things, though, simply because they have to cater for an audience that may not be up to date, especially with a convoluted narrative like Lost's, and especially with the big gaps between episodes that US shows sometimes have.

Studio 60 I liked, personally, but it got a bit tedious that every single character, even the tea boy, could zing out ripostes like Groucho Marx.

Posted by: anephric, February 6, 2008 11:46 AM

6.

http://www.wordplayer.com/columns/wp23.Points.for.Style.html

"Believe it or not, executives are renowned for reading just the dialog of a screenplay, and skipping the scene descriptions altogether. It's a quick way to get the basic outline of a story when you're pressed for time. (Then in the meeting, of course, they'll complain that the script 'Isn't visual enough.' Go figure.) This problem is so pervasive that screenwriters have resorted to repeating key story points in dialog, knowing that if the point is made solely with a visual, it might get missed.
I don't know if I'd go that far, but Ted and I did include an extraneous bit of dialog in a script once. In our MASK OF ZORRO script, during an action sequence, one of the characters executed a diversion that resulted in trapping a soldier. It took a few paragraphs to set the trap, and then pay it off. The page was looking a little gray. In fact, the entire page was a block of text. So we had the soldier shout, "It's a trap!" which broke up the middle of the page nicely. And for all those execs who were skipping the descriptions anyway, they at least knew what was going on."

Posted by: Chris B, February 6, 2008 5:19 PM

7.

Chris, that quote you posted doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. Actually, I’d heard that many executives routinely read the first and last ten pages of a script and base their entire judgement on that (which perhaps explains why films these days always “start with a bang” rather than gradually lulling you into the action).

Posted by: Whiggles, February 6, 2008 7:26 PM

Comments on this entry and all entries up to and including June 31st 2009 have been closed. The discussion continues on the new Land of Whimsy blog:

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