August 13, 2013

Speech! Speech!

by Gary Fearon, Southern Writers Creative Director

While surfing channels this weekend I came upon an exciting scene that made me stop and watch. A building was on fire, and inside the building was a hostage situation.  The show was a TV action/drama series I'd never seen before but had been meaning to check out, so I stayed with it for a while.

The fire effects were well done (no pun intended) and the tension was immediate and inescapable.  That is, until the fire chief handed his microphone to a negotiator to try to talk the captor into coming out of the inferno. The monologue that followed was unrealistic and awkward as this fellow lit into a long, slow, what-is-the-meaning-of-life soliloquy that would have put Shakespeare to sleep.

More consumed now with the fakery of the dialogue than any action on-screen, I was jarred back to my own reality, in which I soon became aware of something rather interesting: If it had been George Clooney or Anthony Hopkins uttering those same words on a movie screen, it wouldn't have seemed inappropriate at all. Up on the silver screen we're used to big, show-stopping speeches, and we accept them at face value.  Somehow a TV drama doesn't pull off bigger-than-life behavior with quite the same grace.

Which got me thinking about the limitations and liberties of the different mediums and genres we write in.  The characteristics that make each one unique have certain parameters that, when crossed too far, seem inherently unnatural.

We're all familiar with certain "message" episodes of sitcoms we remember fondly.  From Happy Days to Cosby to Rosanne to Full House, you could often see the wheels turning as an episode dealt with some social issue.  There would always be one character who was an expert on the subject and got to step up on their soapbox.  When these sitcoms didn't stick to comedy, we appreciated their attempt to make the world a better place, but it often didn't feel like the right place and time.

One of the longest-running crime dramas still in production is a great show except when one of the detectives tells another cop, "Until we get these drug traffickers off the streets for good, kids will never be safe from the 24% chance that they'll be offered their first fix before the age of 13."

Whether it's a noble effort to be applauded, or a lazy writer's way of seeming more meaningful, we can spot heavy-handed dialogue a mile away, and would do well to avoid giving our readers the same cause for complaint.  Even if we do have a point to make, the heavier the message, the more necessary it is to do it with finesse.  

Develop a talent for gracefully edifying your audience while they think they're just being entertained, and you have a chance to become one of the 2% of authors who will sell more than 500 copies in 2013.

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