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Home » Archives » May 2006 » Reading what's been written to sound written as it's spoken
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05/09/2006: Reading what's been written to sound written as it's spoken

Have you noticed? The healthier the grocery store, the narrower the aisles. I was in a Whole Foods Market today and I spent the whole time pulling in my arms to keep from elbowing the macaroni and goosing the poultry. But I repositioned and eventually reprovisioned.

Wow. That is one "written" little paragraph. With the labored construction and the puns and the rhymes and some fairly long and obscure words. In general, in dialogue writing, you want to avoid language that sounds "written." Have people say "thing" a lot, and speak imprecisely, and search for the word. Unless... you're going for a joke that plays off the fact that someone is saying something that sounds written.

Here is a particularly blatant example of what I'm talking about. On Buffy, Anya was an ancient demon transformed into a human teen. And she was the queen of using "written" dialogue. Here she is, pointing out the fact that she is jealous:

Observe my bitter ranting! Hear the shrill edge of hysteria in my voice!

This is not naturalistic speach. This character was distinguished by her ability to produce dialogue like this. And that in itself is the joke -- the notion that anyone would speak like that.

Here's a slighlty subtler example. In another episode, a creepy guy tells Buffy about his problems with clogged ears:

Now I have a kit. For ear cleaning. It has this bulb mechanism.

The magic word is "mechanism." Most of us would say "thing." The technical word calls to mind something tangible and tubed. We try to picture it. It's not a word we would use because making people picture the device is creepy. Hence Phillip is creepy. This line was made all the funnier by an actor who said the word "mechanism" very slowly, with great relish. So a character we didn't know very well was defined with the help of a bit of "written" dialogue.

But I think the best, subtlest use of this kind of dialogue is when it's suggested that a character is using it on purpose to be self-deprecating. This works because we use it in real life this way sometimes.

Here is a nervous Buffy, having brought a date home with her. She hesitates outside her dorm room:

This is it. My door. It's wood. I think. Maybe some kind of wood veneer.

How many of us casually use "veneer" on a date? The word calls attention to Buffy's nervousness. Which is exactly what the character wanted it to do, since Buffy is subtly laughing at her own nerves in this moment.

In one last, similar, example, I came across a joke from an Animated Buffy episode. These eps were written but never produced, which is a shame, since they're really fun. In this one, Buffy realizes she's eaten her Mother's breakfast by mistake. She holds up the last bite of bagel and, instead of saying, "there's a bite left," she says:

There's a remnant.

Again, we get the sense that Buffy is being cute and a little submissive, trying to get a smile out of her mother by using an amusingly precise word.

By the way, I feel like I should apologize for using so many Buffy examples as I go through these techniques. But I have them all on my computer which makes them easy to search. And since I lived with them for so long, it's also easy for me to summon up examples of what I want to illustrate. For other examples of the "written" kind of dialogue, look at Stewie's lines from Family Guy... And Chandler on Friends did a lot of the self-deprecating kind, if I recall. I suspect, if you watch a night of TV with your ears attuned to this, you'll hear it all over the place.

Lunch: The "Frank's Fantasy" specialty burger from the place called "Mo's" up in the Valley. Sour cream and caviar on a burger. It looks gray, but it's delicious!


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