Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Daisies' Dialogue Delights

When critique time rolls around for we new writers, our characters' dialogue is often one of the first things to get pummeled. Stodgy, samey, bland and boring -- do any of these descriptors sound familiar? They do to me. The oft-suggested antidote is to mimic everyday talk. (Children's novelist N.D. Wilson has suggested strategic eavesdropping in public places.) But a particular episode of ABC's Pushing Daisies -- a police procedural cut with macabre fantasy and screwball comedy of a sort that would make P.G. Wodehouse proud -- reminded me that realism needn't necessarily be the goal.

The episode in question, "Robbing Hood," involves Ned (a piemaker whose ability to raise the dead for sixty seconds with a mere tap of his finger comes in handy when trying to solve murders) trying to trap a thief. He and his assistant Olive hatch a plan to swoop down on the ne'er-do-well when he breaks into a particular empty house. Or one that he thinks is empty. In actuality, it's occupied by the shut-in Charles sisters -- curmudgeonly, one-eyed Lily and tenderhearted, optimistic Vivian. Listen (or, rather, read) what the writers do with the dialogue.

(An editorial note: Since I said as recently as yesterday that ISLF aims to be a family-friendly blog, I feel compelled to mention that there are a couple of mild profanities on the horizon. Apologies.)

The scene begins with Ned switching off one-by-one the lights in the living room where Lily, Vivian and Olive are sitting:

Lily: You must be out of your damn minds! There is no way in Tinkerbell's tiny buttcheeks that you are going to roll out the welcome mat on my front porch for a bunch of thieves!

Ned: We know it's an imposition --

Lily: An imposition is ordering clams at a kosher deli! Robbers nowadays are multi-hyphenate hoodlums! They don't just rob. Oh, no. They strip you naked, lather you in lard, slide you into the walls and leave you there. Then they rob you.

Ned: When you put it like that --

Lily: Why don't I just get a shovel and start digging my shallow grave now?

Vivian: I find a dash of danger titillating.

Lily: You've certainly made that clear.

Vivian: I assume that's a passive-aggressive insult directed at my daring sashays at true romance. [pause] I choose to ignore it.

Lily: You've ignored every other danger sign on the road to abject heartbreak.

Olive: I find that interjecting at precisely the right moment often defuses conflict. Wouldn't you agree?

Vivian: Lily Charles, you're jealous! It's simply slays you that a man as tender and as viscerally masculine as Dwight chose me over you.

Olive: Missed it by that much.

Lily: I'm not jealous. I'm worried about you. Damn it, I love you. I don't what to see this fetish you have for raffish men hurt you the way it has in the past.

Ned: On the topic of Dwight --

Lily: Keep out of this!

[Ned turns out the final light.]

Lily: Is my patch on the wrong eye or did it suddenly get very dark in here?

Olive: Is it dark? I didn't even notice. They say that extreme photosensitivity is a sign of rabies. Or a hangover. Or a delicate optical nerve condition --

Lily: Or a bunch of part-time PIs trying to hoodwink a hoodlum by pretending my house is vacant -- wait a minute! We're being robbed tonight!

Vivian: Ooh, I just got a shiver!
Without getting too technical, what do you notice here? Well, the dialogue is witty, silly, metaphorical, convoluted, alliterative, a little ribald and stuffed with unconventional vocabulary. It's everything that ordinary speech isn't and yet it still delights. Perhaps interesting should be our goal rather than strict realism. After all, the only bad thing about Daisies' dialogue is that there won't be more of it. ABC cancelled the show last year near the end of the second season.

(Picture: CC 2006 by


B. Nagel said...

I skipped reading this to comment. Did you catch "The Unusuals" on ABC? You should. Definitely.

Lots of fun stuff happens. The dispatcher gives commentary during interludes, the captain has a spacesuit in his office, the uber-religious detective has a secret past under a different name. And mustaches. You can't have a cop show without mustaches. Now I'll go back and read the post.

Loren Eaton said...

No, I haven't, although it looked screwball from the commercials, which I like. Thinking about getting Netflicks. Maybe I'll watch it online.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I've always felt that Joss Whedon is the master of stylized dialog which nonetheless builds convincing and well-rounded characters.

Though a lot of the pleasure of both, I'm sure, comes from the fantasy that we actually thought quickly enough to talk like this. Joss has actually gone on record as saying that his characters talked like he would, if he actually said all the witty things he thought of five minutes after a conversation.

Interestingly, a certain amount of convention is assumed in literary works. A general in LeGuinn's The Word for World is Forest consistently speaks in ways that, if overheard at a gas station, would sound like normal (if not incredibly erudite) speech. Compared to all the well-spoken characters in the story, he comes across as a blundering militaristic idiot--simply because his dialog doesn't have the standard conventional features that make literary dialog interesting (or at least easily readable.)

Sometimes, then, unrealistic conventional language reads as much more realistic than the words people speak in the real world.

Loren Eaton said...

I really need to familiarize myself with Whedon a little more. I've watched a little bit of Buffy and a single episode of Firefly and that's it.

It's an odd continuum between "super-realistic" and "super-stylized" talk. They both seem to work if they're well-executed and the characters don't sound as if they're delivering the author's thoughts for him.

B. Nagel said...

Speaking of screwball and Whedon and dialogue, you really should find 45 minutes to watch Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog on Hulu. It just won a Hugo. It's superhero musical fun for the whole family.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Oh, I have. It gets better the more you watch it.

Also, the DVD contains a sung cast-and-director commentary.

Yes, you heard that right. It announces itself as Commentary! The Musical.

Loren Eaton said...


I was wondering what that widget on your blog was for! I'll have to check it out. Is it a semi-permanent entry on Hulu or do we expect it to disappear soon?

Loren Eaton said...


Back when I worked at The Magazine, someone had just published a book on The Lord of the Rings. One of the guys got the idea to dub the famous Gollum versus Smeagol scene so that the scrawny little guy was offering up editorial comments on the book. Hilarious.

B. Nagel said...

It's been up for at least six months on Hulu. It's also on iTunes and available as a DVD which CR evidently owns (jealous). I expect it to stick around, especially since they'll be getting a bit more traffic due to the Hugos. Well, I hope the Hugos still have an influence.

ollwen said...

I never got a taste for Whedon's particular brand of corn/snark in dialogue. It's witty, but it usually added enough tongue in cheek that I couldn't take the genre he was in seriously.

I remember watching some Gilmore Girls over my sister's shoulder, and noting how incredibly fast and smart the dialogue was. It wasn't believable, but it was entertaining.

I only knew a hand full of people in the Theater Dept. in college who were that quick, and that not consistently.

Loren Eaton said...

Great dialogue is really hard to write, but so wonderful when everything works.

I've never watched much of Whedon. However, B. and CR have tasked me with perusing Dr. Horrible during my little break.