My wife and I have been spending some time watching the TV show Smash, a new series that supposedly chronicles the efforts of an intrepid team of Broadway vets and newcomers to mount a musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. The cast is uniformly very good, the songs are Broadway-catchy, the production values are really lovely, the New York locations are absolutely authentic, and the sets look swell.
Jessica especially loves the song and dance numbers and I... I enjoyed the book on which the series isn't even loosely based, but whose title and basic premise they grabbed so it gets a fleeting credit in the crawl at the end of every show. I'm trying my best to get through it, in the interest of marital harmony. Jess already says I hate too many shows (I refuse to watch Up All Night ever again), while my contention is that life is too short to waste on things that aren't at least above average. This problem will no doubt abate in a month, when baseball season begins, and our television habits go their separate ways.
Like I said earlier, the performers are very good. You get actors like Debra Messing and Anjelica Huston, and you'll get good performances. The songs are by Broadway veterans who wrote, among other things, Hairspray. One of the executive producers is Steven Spielberg. All the elements to make a terrific show are in place.
But my ears hurt after every episode from listening to the dialogue.
I don't brag much about my writing, mostly because I know there are plenty of people who are terrific at what I do, and many of them are indeed better than me in a number of aspects. Some can write plot twists that will curl your hair (something which clearly happened to me at a very early age, possibly in an ABC book; maybe I didn't see the letter Q coming). Others will develop characters who are diverse and real and so compelling you'd pay to read about them sitting around all by themselves doing nothing.
So you can understand that it is very unusual for me to write out loud that my dialogue is well above the norm not just in the mystery field, but in all books. I write killer dialogue. And if you'd like to dispute me on that, it's your right, but you're wrong.
Listening to dialogue that's clunky, that's all exposition, that sounds like a screenwriter telling people what to say, is witnessing a crime against drama. It is the fastest route to taking an audience out of the story and drawing attention to the man, woman, or combination thereof behind the curtain. Bad dialogue is something that can make your head hurt. It can cause dangerous blood pressure levels. It can cause grown people to choke.
It's bad for ya, people.
So when I say that the dialogue on Smash is making it hard for me to get through each episode, you can take me at my word. It's hard to make Anjelica Huston look foolish; you have to go out of your way. Her performance--and those of most of the other cast members--can be best described as "game," because they seem like deer in the headlights, unable to get out of the way of the rush of lousy phrases coming in their direction.
Every week, I hope the sound of the talk will get better. And every week, no matter who wrote the particular episode, it doesn't.
I don't mean to dump on this one show--bad dialogue is all over television, it's all over movies, and yes, it's in plenty of books, including ones that the critics will tell you are "brilliant" or "penetrating," or worst of all, "shattering." (Who would pay to be shattered?) Some great plotters, some genius misdirectors, and some fantastic deep thinkers with important points to make just don't have an ear for dialogue. They can do everything else great, but they can't write two people having a conversation that sounds like two people having a conversation.
That doesn't make these people bad writers. It makes them bad dialogue writers. There's a difference. I'm willing, in some cases, to overlook--or skim past--clunky conversation if the author (or screenwriter) is wonderful at everything else; that's clearly worth the effort. I will bow down to some of the pioneers of the craft. I will faithfully buy their books and watch their TV shows or movies, because I know that I'll get what I want despite the incredibly creaky talk their characters perpetrate. The original Star Trek had some dialogue that makes my skin crawl; I've been a huge fan of the show for 45 years.
But when someone can really write dialogue, I will overlook everything else in favor of it. I love a good conversation, especially when it's in real life. In fiction, it is a delectable treat. I will watch anything Aaron Sorkin decides to write (even Moneyball, which I thought was silly) because I can't wait to hear what his characters have to say. He's got a new HBO show called Newsroom coming sometime this year (HBO can't seem to make up its mind) and I'll tell you now, I'm watching every episode. Even if the stories are awful, the dialogue's going to be great. I'm there for it.
Because the next best thing to having a great conversation is hearing one.