George Lucas vs. Aaron Sorkin

I’m back, friends! I spent a week in 65-degree upstate New York where I escaped NYC craziness and worked on my YA-in-progress. Despite a pretty great week, I have to say it’s good to be home. (What can I say, I loves me some craziness. The return to 90-degree humidity, however, is a different story…)

While writing this week, I noticed that I write a lot of dialogue. Or at least more dialogue than narration. This is neither good nor bad in my opinion, but it got me thinking about writing conversations in general. I’m a big dialogue person – old-fashioned Bogie and Bacall banter, I eat it up. But how much does it really matter? For me, it’s the first thing I notice when reading or watching something, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the most important thing I look for. When reading requested material, queries, what-have-you, I usually see one of two extremes when dialogue doesn’t work. I’ll call it the George Lucas vs. Aaron Sorkin problem.

Explanation.

Take George Lucas. Star Wars has proven decade after decade that Lucas’ story of a galaxy far, far away resonates with audiences, regardless of generation. He’s reinvented the franchise yet again with Clone Wars, which is currently being enjoyed by the grandchildren of those who were first shocked over the identity of Luke’s dad. (Don’t worry; I won’t ruin it for you.)

Yet, one thing George Lucas is notoriously guilty of (which he’s even accepted himself) is that he cannot write dialogue. Like, at all. Sure, Han’s “I know” to Leia’s “I love you” was pretty badass, but given the rest of the lackluster attempts at romance, I think this gem was simply the result of Lucas’ inability to convey genuine emotion.

Lucas proves that you don’t need deeply meaningful conversation, witty banter, or even a college-level vocabulary to engage a massive audience. It should come as a surprise to no one that Star Wars is one of my favorite movies, but consider for a minute if it was a novel (and also ignore the many novelizations that already exist). After a few pages of “I’ll be careful”/”You’ll be dead!” exchanges, I think I’d be ready to throw in the towel. Some things just don’t translate to the page with the same effect.

Aaron Sorkin, on the other hand, has the opposite problem. Now, before I explain the “problem” I have with a person whom I consider a master of dialogue, I will state that The West Wing remains one of the greater written shows of all time, and that I’ve loved everything Sorkin has ever written and/or created. With one exception – Studio 60. So, that will be my focus here. Studio 60, to me, represents exactly what not to do as a writer, even if you’re an incredibly gifted writer. 

Sorkin has a philosophy that one should never talk down to one’s audience. This is evident in his writing, and he stated it blatantly in Studio 60. I agree with him to an extent, but in the case of this “missing of the mark,” let’s say, he manages to take his trademark smart, witty, heightened language and turn it into whiny, preachy, condescending monologue. Even in near-perfect shows like Sports Night and The West Wing, Sorkin has been guilty of preaching. Since I usually fell into the choir he was he preaching to, I never really minded, but there were times where even I felt the eye roll-worthiness of some of Bartlett and Leo’s seemingly unrelated anecdotes in reference to world-changing decisions.

With Studio 60, Sorkin took his preaching to a new level. Clearly still pissed at NBC for firing him from The West Wing, he managed to create an entire show of monologues that made fairly accurate points about unfairness, network greed, and censorship, among others. What he forgot to do while making these Obama-level speeches was to develop an actual plot. Stories and characters on television are created through dialogue, which is another thing he forgot to write. Or, at least, forgot to write it well. Hence, the show failed.

Lucas’ ability to create a world in which people want to lose themselves is a testament to his talent as a writer. Whereas Sorkin’s apparent inability to use words for anything other than wit and intellect is a testament to his particular talent. On the page, however, a balance needs to be struck, whether you’re writing commercial or literary fiction. Exceptions are always made, depending on genre and style, but (for me, at least) I like seeing both factors given equal, or near-equal, weight.

How important is dialogue to you, and how do you approach it as writers? Does every word count toward the plot, or do you let your characters speak tangentially, the way people do in real life? Tell me how you balance your story, dialogue, and character development.

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Voice, Balance, & How to Avoid Mary Sues

I’ve been thinking a bit about voice and, more specifically, how do I make mine distinct? I’m taking a break from my role as agent today and giving my semi-annual appearance here as a writer. As some of you might know, I’ve been struggling through my first attempt at fiction. The main characters are based on people in real life, myself being one of them. But I’m finding that as I further develop the plot, my character is changing from its real life roots. Suddenly, I’m not writing “fictional me” anymore; I’m writing someone else completely.

Creative Writing 101 will tell writers to “find their voice.” An author’s voice is a way to personalize their fiction, give it their stamp, and is a way to connect their novels even when they are completely independent from each other. Style, tone, use of language… all of these go into the ever-important “voice.”

Something important for writers to ask themselves is whether their voice and their characters’ voices are two separate entities. Fiction writers base characters on themselves all the time, and (as I mentioned, here) drawing from what you know can often lead to the best ideas. But where is the line between you and them, and how do you keep that balance?

As authors, your writing style comes through in descriptions, narration, themes, and types of characters you create. Those are what readers will associate with you when they recognize your name in bookstores. Once you create your characters and settings, however, you need to switch your focus every time your character says or does anything. Some questions to consider when making this switch:

  • – What type of person is my main character?
  • – Is this how I would react in this situation, or is this how my character would?
  • – Do I use this phrase all the time, or can I allow my character to say it as well?
  • – Given the context and tone of the novel, should my character act this way?
  • – Is my character’s name just my own name spelled backwards?

Not being able to find a balance between your own voice and your characters’ can lead to the unwanted evolution of Mary Sues. If you want to know where the term comes from, feel free to Wiki (fun back story). But, basically, a Mary Sue is a stand-in for the author in a piece of fiction.

Mary Sues are frowned upon and ridiculed by your literary peers, but they are by no means deal-breakers. I can think of two massively popular novels out right now that feature these characters: Twilight and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Mikael Blomkvist is essentially if Stieg Larsson was cast as James Bond (literally) and Bella Swan looks and acts exactly like Stephanie Meyer except omgeveryguywantsher, including the two hottest guys on the planet!

Before you say to yourself, “Yes! NYT Bestseller list, here I come!” remember this: These books are insanely popular because their stories resonated with bajillions of readers, not because these characters were particularly engaging, or even well-crafted. The characters who are memorable and more often discussed from these novels are Edward, Jacob, and Lisbeth – the ones who required more thought from the authors.

Next time you sit down to write, think about your main character. Is he or she just you in a different context? Hopefully you avoid the Mary Sue trap, but if you absolutely can’t, is your story strong enough to back it up?

Joining the Club

Book clubs, once thought of as social gatherings for rich divorcees who needed something else to do besides drink, have been insanely trendy for the past few years. Let’s attribute this to Oprah.

Sadly, I’m about to quit my second book club in a year. The reason I wanted to join a book club in the first place was because in my post-MFA haze, I realized I missed sitting in a group and talking about literary things. But, I wanted the group to be non-publishing, non-literary folks, who will talk about “good vs. bad” rather than “what did you think of this use of symbolism?” Also, since I’m lazy, I wanted these people to live within a five-block radius from me. With these criteria in mind, I thought I found the perfect group last summer, who advertised themselves as “casual, fun readers” in my ‘hood.

At the first meeting, the “leader” pulled out a spiral-bound notebook and demanded we all discuss the items on her numbered list. So much for casual and fun. There was also “token pretentious guy” who kept leading the conversation back to obscure French authors who had absolutely nothing to do with Middlesex. So I left.

I found another book club, and really enjoyed the company this time. Mostly young professionals with a few baby boomers thrown in for good measure. But, alas, I must leave them too. See, I had this cute idea that I’d not only have time to read for fun, but that I’d also have time to meet once a month and talk about it. Oh, idealistic youth!

For writers, book clubs, that is, the right book club, can be incredibly valuable. It really doesn’t matter what you read or what you discuss. To me, being in any environment where ideas are shared can spark other parts of your creativity as well. It’s also a good idea to see how people respond to certain types of books, literary, commercial, and popular fiction alike. These people are your audience, after all.

Are any of you active members of a book club? If so, do you find it’s influenced your writing at all?

What’s Your Genre?

A question to ponder on a Monday…

If your life were a novel, what genre would it be?

I’d like to think of mine as magical realism (hey, I can dream) with a hint Salinger-esque coming of age angst, but it’s probably more “literary chick lit.”

What’s yours?