if you make this mistake, you just might bore your readers to death

 

 

I saw the movie LEGION today and thought it was a fun popcorn movie with some great action scenes.

There were also a lot of boring parts.

The movie lacked conflict.

And I’m not talking about the Big Conflict between the people trapped in the diner and the hordes of the possessed who want to exterminate them and kill the unborn child (because the child is The One…). Those scenes were creative and suspenseful. They made the movie.

But in-between the big action scenes, the characters have a tendency to speechify to each other. It would have been better — and more interesting — if the writer had thought up ways to deliver those messages not through long stretches of dialogue, but specific actions and moments of conflict among the characters.

I’m not talking Big Conflict, but little conflicts. Subtle conflicts. The conflicts of everyday life.

Conflict generates questions about what will happen next.  You can’t just depend on the big central story question (Will these people survive the ‘extermination’? Will the baby be okay?) to maintain suspense and reader interest during that long middle stretch.

The challenge is to take the abstract points you want to make, whether about character or theme, and cast them within concrete, specific actions….that will make your readers curious and worried.

For example, two or three of the characters in the movie talk about being ‘bad’. The teenage girl tells us — tells us, in dialogue — that she was a ‘bad influence’ on her friends. But she never actually does anything bad (except wear a somewhat questionable outfit), so all we have is her word for it. How much more interesting it would have been if she had, say, stolen something early in the movie, and lied about it (conflict)…and then, later on, returned it, as a sign of character growth. Or if she had flirted with the hot guy who is too old for her — and come on to him — and generated some uneasy sexual tension (conflict).

We also learn that Charlie, the pregnant woman, “hates” her baby and tried to get an abortion, except some mysterious force — a “feeling like death” — came over her every time she thought about terminating the pregnancy. We know this because she says so. Couldn’t the writers have thought of some way to show us that supernatural feeling? Maybe Charlie wants or tries to do something that would harm the baby, but that ‘feeling’ won’t let her (conflict), which only deepens her resentment — and she demonstrates that resentment by defying the people around her and being physically reckless (conflict).

Let the reader have the satisfaction of connecting the dots, of making inferences.

Besides, when you rely just on dialogue to deliver theme and emotion, you’re in danger of writing something superficial and melodramatic. And boring. And maybe even hilarious (not in a good way).

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Feb 15, 2010
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21 comments · Add Yours

Excellent example of “don’t tell me, show me.” Love the Good Dog font, by the way.

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thanks — I love this font too.

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Sounds like the character just exists as a convenient way to deliver plot.

But it isn’t just conflict, I think. I often find that in films the boring parts are caused by a lack of a compelling subtext as well.

Nothing crackles like a scene where the conflicts the characters are having in words and actions are merely a cover for what’s *really* going on.

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Conflict reveals and develops character, so if anything conflict is a vehicle for character. Character dictates everything. Character is first. And what you’re talking about — the conflict between subtext and text, yes, absolutely — what we communicate through words, and what we communicate through our ACTIONS and body language, are often two different things, and there’s another layer added when the reader knows things the characters don’t.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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Justine! Thank you.This part of what makes your writing jump off the page-so generous ofis you to she it! Missed you Sat

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…I should also add that conflict doesn’t work if the reader is not involved with the characters, another reason why so many action movies (for example) are so boring despite all the fireworks.

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Missed you, too, really bummed that I wasn’t there on Sat — next time for sure — and I have that book for you. :)

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Aaagh. I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that my characters are talking too much and not doing enough. Thanks for the reminder.

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I wrestle with that too. I’ve learned — am learning — to watch out for those little moments you can use to develop into a…well…a little moment. If you know what I mean.

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Great blog about the dangers of speechifying in fiction instead of following the classic “show, don’t tell” rule. I love good dialogue, but it’s easy to fall so in love with your words that you end up talking the reader/audience’s ear off. I’m reminded of when Martin Scorsese’s remake of CAPE FEAR played in theaters many years ago. Lots of great moments, but also lots of speechifying. The crowd in the Philadelphia theater we were in was getting restless. Finally — I believe it was when judge Martin Balsam started talking about “that great Negro educator, Booker T. Washington” (his words, not mine), one particularly fed-up man called out, “Everybody’s a philosopher in this movie!” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, thanks to the tears of raucous laughter.

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I wonder if the speechifying in movies like CAPE FEAR or LEGION is because the creators are self-conscious about the fact that they are ‘genre’ and are deliberately trying to add ‘depth’. But depth can’t be laid on like a coat of paint, and often speechifying = lazy writing, lazy storytelling. If you look at the great ‘genre’ movies — LA CONFIDENTIAL comes to mind, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, SEVEN, USUAL SUSPECTS, PULP FICTION, MYSTIC RIVER, UNFORGIVEN, HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, MATCH POINT– yes, they resonate (and some get nominated for Oscars, and once in a blue moon even win them) but they do it through drama. Not melodrama.

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Sorry, the response right below your response was meant as reply to you. Apparently I didn’t hit the ‘reply’ button. I can be like that.

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Excellent point about drama vs. melodrama in genre fiction. If anything, movies (genre films or otherwise) have even less of an excuse to fall back on speechifying masquerading as depth, since film is a visual medium.

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Yea, that movie was only a good movie from the “I am not doing anything but sitting at home alone on saturday night.” stand point. It was fun, but too flatlined at parts, I prefer “the book of eli”.

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The boyfriend pushed for LEGION because he wanted to see the bit they show in the preview where the old woman scampers up the wall and over the ceiling.

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Too true, too true. I have a chapter that is (thankfully) four or five weeks away on the revision calendar that has a speech in it…about Aristotle, no less. Big ol’ festerin’ heap o’ philosophizin’ about the nature of friendship as expressed in Nicomachean Ethics. Thrills! Chills! Musings about the virtues of friendships that are in concord with reason! Egads.

The thing is, at this point all of that’s a placeholder…I don’t know about you, but the idea that I don’t have to get it right right now was a capital-R Revelation for me. By writing the speechifyin’ I managed to establish what needs to be expressed (thematically, deep in the bones of the tale) and now I have to find a way to get that narrative job done that isn’t laden with The Suck.

For me, so much of writing fiction is not just learning to trust my own instincts, but to follow through when I know it’s not right and do the work to make it right. That way (hopefully), no one will be saying “Couldn’t he have thought of some way to show us that supernatural feeling?”

Fortunately, writing a novel is a more solitary exercise than making a film: no producers, no one to share the writing credits, no actors to tell you that nobody talks like that, who wrote this crap, I’ll be in my trailer. I’d be willing to wager that at least one of the writers involved in Legion knew exactly what wasn’t right and–for the sake of Hollywood comity, and to avoid the dreaded reputational epithet of “difficult”–just moved on when necessary.

We don’t get to do that, though.

Well, we can.

But then we suck.

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Ian! Good to have you back. Thanks for such a great & entertaining comment.

I hear you on the first draft stuff. One of my favorite quotes about writing — & that I found truly liberating — was Ernest Hemingway’s “the first draft of anything is shit”. How the first draft is all about exploring, getting stuff on paper, and understanding that finally helped me ‘get’ how writing is rewriting. The magic, the great stuff, happens through revision, and so no matter what you do or how you experiment — you can always change it — you can try something and if it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t….Cut and paste (and often just cut) is a wonderful thing.

The first draft should be all about speechifying, because often it takes you three pages of writing to find that one great paragraph, that one insight, that one moment that’s truly golden, and it’s an awesome feeling to discover and extract that…

I had that same thought re: LEGION…somewhere there was a writer who knew the script needed at least one more revision, and he or she got shot down or ignored….Shame, because it wasn’t a terrible movie, it just wasn’t a particularly good one — and its problems would have been fairly easy to address in a rewrite.

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:-)

For the first time in my life I experienced a genuine case of Internet overload. Nothing at all against your lovely site and self, but I was reading too much about writing. And publishing. And agents. And so on.

I’m better now.

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Agreed! Plus film is all about the subtext. Speechifying is too on the nose to be very interesting (at least for long).

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The movie may not include your kind of “conflict”, but it seemed to work anyway!

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It was not a terrible movie. It just was not an excellent one. Compare it to something like silence of the lambs in terms of keeping your close attention. We remember movies like silence of the lambs, we will not remember this one.

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