Sunday, May 15, 2016


By Bonnie Stanard

Lorrie Moore wrote an engaging article about the True Detective television series in the New York Review of Books last year that put me to thinking.

I haven’t watched the series but, according to Moore, the first and second seasons are poles apart. Moore says Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, as law enforcement agents, squabble and drink and have each other’s back to great appeal in season one.

Season two, with different actors, flounders, the dialogue a major problem (lines sounded “as if they’d been Google-translated from Farsi”). According to Moore, “comedy has to have its finger on the pulse of irreverence, something season one understood.”

From Moore’s article, I’ve assembled the following suggestions. The Potent list is from season one and Drivel from season two, though Moore’s wording has been altered.

Potent Dialogue
1. expound like a CEO of a nihilist fortune cookie company (ironic irreverence can hardly be overdone, especially by a character perceived as protecting society or promoting social order)
2. unhinge oracular soliloquies (make soliloquies unpredictable and destabilizing)
3. speak several minds (life is full of contradictions. give characters dialogue with cross purposes)
4. only amble if there’s rich consequences (without a pay-off, wandering and/or “wondering” enters a dead zone)
5. dredge up incarnations (bring up bizarre, outlandish people or events)
6. amuse with faux philosophy (promote unnatural theories or spiritual beliefs)
7. share a secret (bring in subtext, say something that means something else)

Drivel Dialogue
1. go vague or trite (“how are you?” is for the graveyard)
2. attempt to underscore seriousness (hinting at seriousness is adequate)
3. skirt subjects such as race (politically correct is boring)
4. dawdle nonstop about sex (the more talk, the less sensual)
5. sympathize wearily with the devil (sympathize enthusiastically if you must)
6. spout nonsense (you might think your philosophy of life is important, but think again)
7. spiritualize random sequences (if the dog barks three times, your dead sister is trying to talk to you...this is high school stuff)
8. sentimentalize dribble re children, the strength of women (you’re not writing a social tract)
9. summarize or rush to a close (this is tempting when you’ve been at a project and are tired of rewriting)

To sum up, Moore credits Director Nic Pizzolatto’s scripts with knowing “when reality is interesting, when reality is irrelevant, and when reality is no excuse.”

(From Lorrie Moore’s article “Sympathy for the Devil,” New York Review of Books Sept. 24, 2015)


Laura Puccia Valtorta said...

I know this chick. Lorrie Moore went to St. Lawrence University. Everybody there is white and half are rich. I was one of the scholarship kids.

Another thing to remember is -- don't write a lot of dialogue! There lines max per speech, and those lines are centered on the page.

Ginny Padgett said...

I was a devotee of the first season of TRUE DETECTIVE and avidly looked forward to the second. I only got through three episodes of Number Two. It sucked and seemed to be a totally different series. I attribute the difference to plot and casting in addition to dialogue.

Laura Puccia Valtorta said...

Writing good dialogue can make all the difference. Look at The Big Short -- an excellent film because of its dialogue and innovative scenes.