The other night I watched Christopher Nolan’s excellent film, Following, which involves a young writer who follows random people around, initially in order to help him build characters. It’s really not hard to relate. Most of us people-watch and catch snippets of strangers’ conversations. That’s one of the best things about mass transit, other than the transit. I was “followed” once on the subway by whom I would like to think was a fellow writer. The guy slid next to me and started writing in a notepad. He asked me where I was going and what book I was reading and other small talk. My eyes shifted to see him scribbling in his notepad after each response and he was obviously writing more than my cautiously concise answers provided. It was an uncomfortable experience at the time, but he gave me something to write about, and maybe I gave the same to him. (Of course, he was probably making a grocery list for all I know, but I can flatter myself.)
Part of “following” includes observation of the stranger’s speech. It can be useful, but it’s also undependable. If you already have characters in mind, you don’t always meet people who match up with them. Then you have to fake dialogue that sounds real. And that can be tricky. For example, David Mamet is often praised for his realistic dialogue, but upon closer examination, that’s not really the best description. For example, this is a randomly selected excerpt from Heist (the only script of his I could get online for free). Profanity been censored so I can look somewhat professional:
Well, let me add this sweetener. You do the job. You do the job, r’else I turn you over, I drop a f****** dime on you, you’re so hot, I on’y got to dial five digits. How strict is that? How strict is that, you f****** lame?…I’m sorry that I have to speak this way, in front of a woman… were it not for who, I’d waste your f****** a**. You said you’re doin’ the job? Do the job.You’re done with the charade. Save your bold moves for the brilliant players.
Now, most of the “reality” on YouTube is fake, but some of it is good enough to be a resource. And unlike real people, you can pause it, play it back, and write it down immediately. So here’s an excerpt from an argument that was captured over PSN by another player and put on YouTube. Again, expletives have been censored.
Pictures of old f****** girl[friend]s on my computer are not something you need to f****** print out, drag me over, and f****** throw them out of my house. Was that really necessary? No! You enjoy b******* about stupid s***! It’s annoying. That’s why I had…That’s why I wasn’t as upset the second time you broke up with me. That’s why I got over it so fast. I was like, “You know what? What am I missing?”…Yeah, I f***** some chicks. I was single. That’ll happen.
Derek’s monologue doesn’t have that noir touch that Bergman’s has, but it only takes 85 words to create a clear sense of who he is and what’s happening to him. Yes, he is probably a simple lad, but if you didn’t know anything about David Mamet or the title of the screenplay, Bergman and his problems could potentially be just as uncomplicated based on his excerpt. The third and fourth sentences sound especially stylish and they’re also especially confusing. The kicker here is that Mamet knows that. He never intended his dialogue to be anything but stylized. The fact that so many people do find it authentic begs the question: what exactly is realistic dialogue? It’s more than just curse words, that’s for sure. Steve Martin said that the key to writing the way people talk is to “lower your IQ by fifty and start typing!” but that’s too relative. Maybe it’s like any other part of writing; you have to rely on memory and direct or indirect experience. Even Mamet uses his observation of real dialogue before he embellishes it. You could do tons of research, but ultimately, it can’t be done in a vacuum. It all goes back to “following”.