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  • It’s Not What You Said, It’s How You Said It

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    May 23rd, 2010Jane EspensonDrama, On Writing

    A couple weeks ago, I was sitting in the audience at a classic film festival in here in L.A. and I overheard two young women having this exchange:

    BOSSY
    Have you seen “Seventh Heaven”?

    DITZY
    I’ve seen the television series.

    BOSSY
    Have you seen director Frank Borzage’s classic 1927 film “Seventh Heaven”?

    DITZY
    No.

    You’ve probably got a good sense of how these lines were said. I’ve helped cement this impression with the names. But here’s how they were actually said:

    BOSSY
    Have you seen “Seventh Heaven”?

    Ditzy hesitates. She knows this isn’t the right answer, but:

    DITZY
    (tentatively)
    I’ve seen the television series.

    BOSSY
    (affectionately amused)
    Have you seen director Frank Borzage’s classic 1927 film “Seventh Heaven”?

    DITZY
    (laughing at herself)
    No.

    What I love about the way this exchange actually happened is that it was unexpected and warm and human. It’s got subtler shadings than just a dumb girl irritating a bossy one. Sure, Ditzy is still a little ditzy and Bossy is still a bit bossy, but they’re tempered and real, more like people we know. That makes me more interested in getting to know them. Some might say that drama has been lost, but I think the old “drama is conflict” mantra can be a dangerous oversimplification. Simple conflict is less interesting than subtle conflict, even if that subtler conflict is less conflict-y. And you don’t need conflict between every pair of characters that has a scene together. Complicated shaded friendships are really interesting to watch, too.

    I chose this example because I enjoyed overhearing this interaction. It made me start speculating about the girls. I imagined them to be college classmates who didn’t know each other very well. Perhaps they’d met up at the theater by chance, not design? I got curious because the interaction seemed to reveal so much about them — about Ditzy’s desire to be liked, about Bossy’s ability to make clear she was laughing with, not at, the other girl. There was a lot going on in a very few lines.

    Pay attention to conversations around you when you’re out on your own. See if you can identify conversation molecules, the smallest pieces of conversation that capture important facets of all the characters involved. It’s really good training to help you write conversations that sound like they were lifted from real life, not from other writers’ screenplays. Even without collecting examples, I think you’ll find it’s a simple adjustment to look at dialogue you’ve written and play around with subtling up the attitudes.

    Lunch: a BLT with a fried egg. It would be a BTLE, but the E is silent. Delicious!

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