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The Cost of Bad Dialogue

A few weeks back I saw a couple pilots on TV which marked one of the first time in years I was actually motivated to see what happened in a television show (I talked about it here). One of those shows, Siberia, I’m still finding pretty entertaining and well done. The other one – Under the Dome – is getting increasingly frustrating to watch. The trouble is this: while the concept of Under the Dome is cool (and it is), the visuals in the show are also very cool (and they are), and the characters are (mostly) interesting, I am losing more and more patience with listening to the characters talk to each other. The dialogue is, in a word, bad.

I’ve been trying to nail down precisely what it is about the dialogue that is so terrible and cringe-worthy. It isn’t just the acting, either (though the sheriff’s deputy is abysmally wooden), though few of the actors on the show are really good enough to overcome the cheeseball nonsense they’re asked to say. The problem is, ultimately, that everybody seems to have a permanent case of Cliche’s Disease. Basically, if there is an obvious and overdone way to express a thought at any given time, the show will use that specific way. I will also call this the “Dingo Ate My Baby Syndrome”. It takes what could otherwise be a perfectly serviceable, dramatic, and interesting scene and renders it foolish and weirdly dull.

Point in case, the lesbian couple. Their lines have exactly one and only one setting, and that setting is “A Dingo Ate My Baby!” They rush

Would you two just Lo-Jack your kid, already? Sheesh.

Would you two just Lo-Jack your kid, already? Sheesh.

into a room and say “Has anyone seen our daughter!” over an over and over and over to the point where you just want to smack them. They have super-serious conversations about the status of their insulin supplies, which is fine. But then they have the exact same conversation again, in the exact same way, with the exact same emotional investment. You can almost see the actors getting tired of it.

It’s like everybody in Chester’s Mill has the same five lines to recite over and over again. Now, in the pilot/second episode, the corny dialogue didn’t bother me as much, primarily because (1) it’s the pilot and the concept was strong – I was going to cut them a little slack and (2) they’re supposed to be in a small town somewhere, so the fact that people sounded hokey seemed authentic. Things should have loosened up a bit from there, but no – we are instead trapped in some kind of weird cliché factory. I keep expecting a Family Guy-esque cut-away where the Kool Aid man and the Giant Chicken make some kind of joke at the show’s expense.

Naturally, having sung the show’s praises early on, this whole turn of events is rather embarrassing for me (and, by the way, Katie: you seem to be more and more right). I am still interested in what happens (God help me), but if we keep heading down this trajectory, this show will hit the ‘unwatchable’ level pretty soon. Too bad.

Blah blah blah blah...God, even Boxleitner looks bored.

Blah blah blah blah…God, even Boxleitner looks bored.

This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. Babylon 5 I have long held up as the prime example of how bad dialogue/writing ruins an otherwise good show. B5 had a really cool plot arc, interesting characters, good visuals, an engaging concept, and so on and so forth, but had the worst dialogue known to man. They didn’t have Cliche’s Disease, oh no, that show suffered from Terminal Exposition Syndrome. Pick any given scene from Babylon 5, and there’s probably a 75% chance that the only thing the characters will talk about are things that just happened (exposition) or things that will probably happen someday (exposition). Nobody talks about what is happening now and, indeed, they prefer to discuss the things that are going to/have happened rather than actually do anything. They took what should have been really interesting and made it one of the most arduous things to watch on television.

So, therefore, even though I still find myself watching the damned thing, I’m rescinding my endorsement of Under the Dome. Granted, I still think the concept is cool, but I don’t think it’s really worth putting up with some woman saying ‘the Dome did something to my BABY’. Sheesh.

My Space Opera Disconnect

...because Toni Morrison or F Scott Fitzgerald never wrote about Space Valkyries leading war androids into battle. Duh.

…because Toni Morrison or F Scott Fitzgerald never wrote about Space Valkyries leading war androids into battle. Duh.

A lot of times, when people learn I write scifi/fantasy, one of the first questions I get is ‘why that genre’. It’s a pretty deeply personal question, though I don’t think most people realize this. Asking somebody why they create a certain kind of art is sort of like asking ‘why’d your brain wind up so weird?’, except cloaked behind more trivial and superficial kinds of curiosity. For a long time, I answered that question with the answer to the question of what I think people really meant to ask, which is ‘what is interesting about scifi/fantasy as a genre’. This is a different question entirely, in that it doesn’t really have anything specific to do with me.

Now, though, I give them what I think is an honest answer: I write scifi/fantasy because the real world is a place I don’t particularly like most of the time. This is not to say I’m a lunatic who only finds joy in his ‘delusions’ (to use the pejorative term), but rather that I have difficulty keeping an even temper and a positive outlook the more I wallow in the present and the real. When I was a kid, my younger brother was diagnosed with a degenerative neurological disorder (Batten Disease, if you’re curious) that slowly killed him over a period of twenty years. During my formative adolescent years, I got to watch my brother and best friend slowly sink into a vegetative state, piece by piece, first losing his eyesight, then his fine motor control, then the ability to walk unassisted, then his ability to speak, and so on and so forth. Slowly. Year by year, month by month. I still have nightmares about it. They are the very worst kind, trust me.

Add to that all the usual horribleness of the real world. War, death, famine, injustice, racism, sexism, violence, and on and on and on. The kind of stuff that ordinarily makes your average teenager upset with the world. You can see now that fanciful alternatives held a certain appeal, yes?

Now, I don’t want to give off the impression that I’ve lived a particularly tough life. I haven’t. I have wonderful parents, a loving family, and, in many ways, luck as smiled on me in most of the ways that count. That said, my heart went through the wringer in a way I desperately hope most of you never experience.

Plot holes or no plot holes, it's perhaps exaggerating to call this series 'high art'.

Plot holes or no plot holes, it’s perhaps exaggerating to call this series ‘high art’.

Enough about me; let’s bring this back to speculative fiction, now. For a long period in my life, I read almost nothing other than space opera. Star Wars, of course, got me started, along with Star Trek and some other things (Babylon 5, Farscape, etc.). Over recent years, however, as I’ve been cultivating myself as a Serious Writer and Professor of Literature, I’ve been eschewing the ‘lighter’ stuff in favor of harder scifi, cyberpunk, and other styles that are more serious, more realistic, and, honestly, more grim. To be perfectly honest, most of these stories are better literature than much of the space opera sub-genre–there’s more interesting work being done about human nature, about what happens to us as a species, about what we need science to do or what we need it to stop doing, etc.. At the same time, though, they are also deeply tied to the real world. To ourselves. To all that ugliness and heavy-duty cynicism we fight with each and every day. It grows tiring after a time.

So, it’s with this running in the back of my mind that I stumbled upon what I think is a really, really cool idea for my own space opera universe. Alien species, improbably fast spaceships, laser beams and blasters, hell, maybe even psychic powers (silly as those are). High art? Maybe not, but who says everything has to be? Further, who says those things that aren’t high art don’t have something worthwhile to say? The challenge becomes, ultimately, to find something to say that all the other space operas haven’t already said (and boy do they ever repeat themselves). I’m in the middle of writing a different novel (urban fantasy) just now, but that doesn’t mean I can’t tinker and develop and tweak and build. I want to see if there’s something cool and interesting I can do in this genre that I leaned upon for all those years. Can I do it?

Well, hell, stay tuned. If I do, you’ll hear about it here.