Monday, December 08, 2008

The Art of Dialects

I type these words sitting in my favorite leather chair in my favorite mystery cigar store. For the next “Mystery Photo” in the March/April issue of Script Magazine, I snapped a pic of this very chair with a piece of paper (handwritten by me) that says, “MM SITS HERE.”


All the boys are here, too. They’re watching football. I probably shouldn’t say which game. They scream a lot and jump around like monkeys. I know nothing about sports. I do enjoy the cheerleaders, though. Someone usually elbows me when they come on TV.

I come here not only for the great smokes (
San Cristobals today) and the free cognac (Hennessy), which someone always brings every weekend, but also to observe some rather crazy real-life characters. I will happily use them in any story I see fit and never tell them. If I’m lucky, I might hear good dialogue. You see, this is a tough crowd. You gotta keep your wits about you to survive, especially if a “hot chick” is present because every guy will try to outwit each other to prove, I guess, (pardon the expression) who has the bigger dick.

We boys are so dumb, aren’t we?

(Paintings by
Todd White.)

Anyway, no one is safe. There have been some good zingers today. One man tried to give another man grief for drinking a Corona without a lemon. “Hey, if you’re having this just for the lemon, go drink lemonade.” I like this line, but I believe they usually put lime in Coronas, don’t they? I didn’t have the heart to point this out.

A short yet well-built New Yorker (who is quite the player and has a new “hot chick” sitting next to him) was giving grief to a New Englander about his sweater vest because it had noticeable lumps on the shoulders from being on a hanger. “What do you do? Hang that thing in the bathroom closet?” This went on until the New Englander said, “Shouldn’t you be in the North Pole making toys for Santa? Hey, my kid wants a fire truck. While you’re at it, carve your initials on the back, will ya? Initial ‘LF.’ Little Fuck.”

Hehehe… This I have mentally noted.

Of course, I have not gone unscathed. That I’m sitting here writing on my laptop while ignoring a big football game has been ripe for jokes. New Yorker said, “What are you doing? Looking at gay porn?”

I told him I’m okay with gay porn, especially if there are lesbians.

A few jokes and he said, “Yeah? I’m the one sitting here with a chick.”

I said, “So is she.”

Set and match. Now he won’t bother me for about half an hour. I actually love Mr. New Yorker. He’s hilarious. By the end of the night we will hug, as we always do (and truly mean it) despite all the insults, and talk about how we can’t wait to do it again.

We boys are so dumb, aren’t we?

Listening to these guys from different parts of the country throw zingers at each other brings to mind the subject of dialects. I’m a purist. If a character’s from the south, he/she should talk like a southerner. But I wouldn’t write-out pronunciations like, for example, the jailhouse locutions in Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full: “Look, bruvva… I ain’t tryin’ a disrespectchoo… I ain’t tryin’ a sweatchoo, an I ain’t tryin’ a play you. So whatchoo doggin’ me for?”

The key, I believe, is to keep the dialect very light. Of course, many in the industry would disagree, I know, as most prefer generic lines regardless of location so that the widest possible audience can understand the dialogue. Bleh. I’ve heard it said, “Just write the line and let the actors add the dialect.” I’m sorry, but that’s just a ridiculously ignorant thing to say. People do not speak the same sentences with different accents. The actual construction of those sentences in dialogue varies greatly according to the region.

For example, in the south, they wouldn’t say, “Nobody went,” which is a proper sentence. Instead, they might say, “Didn’t nobody go.” Instead of “I only have thirty cents,” they might say, “Ain’t got but thirty cents.” Instead of “That was very nice of you,” they’d say, “That was right nice of you.” Same goes for something pretty: “That’s right pretty, isn’t it?” Instead of “It’s a very big fish,” they might say, “It’s a powerful big fish.” “She cooked a lot of bread” might be spoken as, “She cooked a mess of bread.” Or instead of “I might be able to help you,” they’d say, “I might could help you.”

Of course, in Louisiana, it’s different still. I love how some sentences end with the name of the person they’re talking about. Like, for example, instead of saying, “My uncle always smokes,” they’d say, “He all the time smokes, my uncle.” Of course, how well they speak, depends upon education level, but even educated people like to hang on to flavors of dialect that distinguishes them from others.

How about foreigners? I remember writing in one of my first script reviews on
TriggerStreet about the Irish dialect found in a story about Charles Stewart Parnell, which I really enjoyed:

I think one is first drawn into this story by John Browner's wonderful rendition of the Irish dialect, not to mention the speech and mannerisms characteristic of the late 1800's, no small feat that. You almost can hear the infectious Irish lilt in Parnell's voice. There is peppered throughout this spec the famously characteristic and highly-colored Irish hyperbole, the flowery exaggerations - "It is a good sign that this masquerading knight-errant, this pretended champion of the liberties of every other nation except those of the Irish nation, should be obliged to throw off the mask today..." And there is also a taste of some vivid simile filled with a soulfulness that would typify a sentimental Irishman - "The National Land League is fraying apart like an old blanket." Aye, lad, it'd scald the heart out of ye.

I also loved the etiquette. "And to what, Mrs. O'Shea, do I owe the honor and pleasure of your summons?" "I was hoping, sir, that you might be persuaded to join my husband and me at a small dinner at Thomas's Hotel in two nights time..." "I will most definitely and with great pleasure accede to your wishes." At a time when our loved one would say to us, "Don't be such an ass," Katie would ever so politely say to Parnell, "Pray be not petulant, Sire."

How about Italians trying to speak English? Consider the monolog below. I love the hell out of this monolog. To set it up, a young Italian immigrant nervously paces the floor in a hospital waiting room. He looks at the clock. He looks at his nails. He looks at the nurse. And the man finally gathers up enough courage to speak to her:

My wife, she make the bambino and the doc, he tell me to wait right here. Is all right with you? I no can sit still. Oh! I no afraid, oh, no! Is just I kind of nervous, that’s all. Is not I think anything she happen to my Rosa. She so strong like the horse. She no got no operation – she no sick all her life – you bet my life, no! Say! What’s the most kids born? The boy or the girl? I want the boy. You bet my life! Rosa, she want the girl. Son of a gun! What is she be twin? When is more is all right, too. Oh! Excuse me! Please no mind! Is because this is my first one. Is make me excite. Say! Is lots… what I mean… sometime, something happen… they… they die, no? Sometime… no! My Rosa, she no die! Is no good she die! I go in, nurse! We so happy all the time! Whyfor we want the bambino? Let me go in, nurse! That’s all right! I go in! Help my Rosa! Whyfor she must got all that hurt? She very fine woman! I no let her die! You got to let me in to her, nurse! She hurt! She want me! She need me! …eh! What’s that? You hear that? Is bambino crying! Son-of-a-gun! Is my bambino! Is my kid! Some yell, no? What he is, nurse? Boy or girl? I think is boy! What the difference? Is girl, so we get the boy next time! Oh boy! I’m papa! Here, nurse, have a cigar!


And you know he doesn’t say “cigar,” he says, “sEEgahruh!” But you see, one doesn’t write-out how it’s pronounced. One simply writes “cigar.” Some might object to the above dialect - I love it.

Let’s go back to New York City. Consider this monolog, called, I’m a Type. In a perfect world, this should not be watered down for mainstream consumption. As far as I’m concerned, a good actor should be able pull it off in a way that everyone can understand and enjoy:

He was givin’ me a one-two look with his eyes. “Look-” I say to the casting director. “I’m a type person that’s a type, believe me! You want a college type? So I’m a college type! Look what I can do with my Adams. See? A squeeze and it’s a collegiate hat. I got talent. How do you want I should convince you – show you where I was initiated? You want I should show you where they tattooed the fraternity pin on my chest? Want my report card, maybe? I didn’t save it. So how should I know I’d want to become an actor.” Now he’s smiling. Look how the jerk is smiling. If I had his set of teeth I’d sew up my lips. What are you smiling at, Jerk, if you’ll pardon the expression? What’s funny? What do you see – a guy with two heads? Personally, on him it wouldn’t look bad. “Look-” I say to the guy. “So, you put out a call for collegiate type. All right – that’s me. Ask me questions. Go on! Anything. What do you want I should tell you about college? City College is on 23rd Street. You know something! I can love better than a certain party that his name is Gable. Gimme a football and I’ll make like Frank Merriwell. How’s about trying me out on dancing? Waltzes, foxtrots, anything. I got tempo. Timing! Wait a minute, fella – I’ll make like I’m cheerleader – Gimme a break, will you you? Ricky-Coax, Ricky-Coax! Look – For Christ’s sakes, look – I’m doing a sommersault!”

Hehehe… Both of those monologs come from two books I love:

American Dialects: A Manual for Actors, Directors, and Writers

Foreign Dialects: A Manual for Actors, Directors, and Writers

I’m not a believer in realism in dialogue in screenwriting. What's the point of hearing thoughts we hear every day? I’m a believer in a drama. High drama, if you can achieve it. I'm a believer in heightened realism, in dialogue that has a poetic quality that elevates it above realism, that operates at a theatrical level. It’s like The Godfather. They were able to take ethnic dialect and elevate it to this syntax of opera librettos, which no one else has been able to achieve at that level. I’m also a believer in hearing words that are fresh and different, if possible. It's about fictional words that stir the heart and soul in some fashion. We read these scripts to feel something. We go to the movies to feel.

I love, for example, the opening lines by Booth in Suzan-Lori Parks’
Topdog / Underdog. This, I swear, soars to the heavens on the page and in the theater. (Booth’s practicing a 3-card monte scam.)

Watch me close watch me close now: who-see-thuh-red-card-who-see-thuh-red-card? I-see-thuh-red-card. Thuh-red-card-is-thuh-winner. Pick-thuh-red-card-you-pick-uh-winner. Pick-uh-black-card-you-pick-uh-loser. Theres-thuh-loser, yeah, theres-thuh-black-card, theres-thuh-other-loser-and-theres-thuh-red-card, thuh-winner.
Watch me close watch me close now: 3-Card-throws-thuh-cards-lightning-fast. 3-Card-that’s-me-and-Ima-fast. Watch-me-throw-cause-here-I-go. One-good-pickll-get-you-in, 2-good-picks-and-you-gone-win. See-thuh-red-card-see-thuh-red-card-who-see-thuh-red-card?
Don’t touch my card, man, just point to thuh one you want. You-pick-that-card-you-pick-a-loser, yeah, that-cards-a-loser. You-pick-that-card-that’s-thuh-other-loser. You-pick-that-card-you-pick-a-winner. Follow that card. You gotta chase that card. You-pick-thuh-dark-deuce-that’s-a-loser-other-dark-deuces-thuh-other-loser, red-deuce, thuh-deuce-of-heartsll-win-it-all. Follow thuh red card…

I love when writers break-up the dialogue so that they’re not all complete sentences. Or shift gears mid-thought. I love the opening (and very Chicagoan) lines in David Mamet’s
Glengarry Glen Ross:

Levene: John… John… John. Okay. John. John. Look: (pause) The Glengarry Highland’s leads, you’re sending Roma out. Fine. He’s a good man. We know what he is. He’s fine. All I’m saying, you look at the board, he’s throwing… wait, wait, wait, he’s throwing them away, he’s throwing the leads away. All that I’m saying, that you’re wasting leads. I don’t want to tell you your job. All that I’m saying, things get set, I know they do, you get a certain mindset… A guy gets a reputation. We know how this… all I’m saying, put a closer on the job. There’s more than one man for the… Put a… wait a second, put a proven man out... and you watch, now wait a second – and you watch your dollar volumes… You start closing them for fifty ‘stead of twenty-five

Let me end with this one. How about the funeral in the opening of Kushner’s
Angels in America? Here, Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz speaks “sonorously, with a heavy Eastern European accent, unapologetically consulting a sheet of notes for the family names.”

Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz:
Hello and good morning. I am Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz of the Bronx Home for Aged Hebrews. We are here this morning to pay respects at the passing of Sarah Ironson, devoted wife of Benjamin Ironson, also deceased, loving and caring mother of her sons Morris, Abraham, and Samuel, and her daughters Esther and Rachel; beloved grandmother of Max, Mark, Louis, Lisa, Maria… uh… Lesley, Angela, Doris, Luke and Eric. (Looks more closely at paper) Eric? This is a Jewish name? (Shrugs) Eric. A large and loving family. We assemble that we may mourn collectively this good and righteous woman.
(Looks at coffin)
This woman. I did not know this woman. I cannot accurately describe her attributes, nor do justice to her dimensions. She was… Well, in the Bronx Home of Aged Hebrews are many like this, the old, and to many I speak but not to be frank with this one. She preferred silence. So I do not know her and yet I know her. She was…
(Looks at coffin)
…not a person but a whole kind of person, the ones who crossed the ocean, who brought with us to America the villages of Russia and Lithuania – and how we struggled, and how we fought, for the family, for the Jewish home, so that you would not grow up here, in this strange place, in the melting pot where nothing melted. Descendants of this immigrant woman, you do not grow up in America, you and your children and their children with the goyische names. You do not live in America. No such place exists. Your clay is the clay of some Litvak shtetl, your air the air of the steppes – because she carried the old world on her back across the ocean, in a boat, and she put it down on Grand Concourse Avenue, or in Flatbush, and she worked that earth into your bones, and you pass it to your children, this ancient, ancient culture and home.
(Little pause)
You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not any more exist. But every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this on you cross. Every day. You understand me? In you that journey is.
So… She was the last of the Mohicans, this one was. Pretty soon… all the old will be dead.


marnie said...

Yay! Dialog! Just the issue I'm trying to'd you know? :)

Between this post and your last one (where I hit and read every link) I've had a HAZZAH! I now realize why a character's backstory is so important. It's not just what a character says, it's how they say it and their backstory determines why.

I thought if I asked 50 people the same question, no response would be exactly the same. The words they chose, the way they structured their sentences, their gestures...they'd differ and set them apart from everyone else. So when I'm writing a scene I not only have to figure out what a character would say, but how that specific character would say it and what their reaction would be.

This seems so simple now but for some reason I never realized what people meant when they say "every character sounds the same".

I get it! For once it'll be a good thing that I have so many voices in my head! :)

Joshua James said...

I hate that they don't want regionalisms in dialogue ... One thing I get caught up in, it's common for midwesterners (and some south folk) to ask ... "You wanna come with?"

And invaribly it gets pointed out that I forgot the "us" at the end of the sentence ... I didn't, it sounds more real without it ...

Ah, there are loads like that ...

Matt said...

What an amazing post... I feel smarter than I did before I started reading it.

And those paintings are wonderful!

Ryan said...

Great job!!! This is the exact post I've needed!

terraling said...

Ahhh, the life of a struggling writer.

One problem with your cigar-shop tale, your New Yorker's chick: she's a very weak secondary making-up-the-numbers character, a common flaw among novice writers. Needs a feisty comeback herself, even if it earns her a slap.

Emily Blake said...

A worthy post full of good stuff.


I have major issues with the way the Southern accent is portrayed in most films because people way overdo it, which is why the world thinks Southerners are all complete morons. Well, that and Jerry Springer.

For instance, here you have that people from the South don't say "That was very nice of you," but instead say "That was right nice of you."

The only people I know who say "right nice" or "Powerful big" are old or live in the middle of nowhere. It makes you sound like Lenny from Of Mice and Men or some old timey black man from a movie made in the thirties.

So I would rather see someone write the words and tell us it's in a dialect, letting the actor handle it, than pretending to know how people talk and getting it wrong. I HATE when I read a screenplay and the Southerners all sound like they're missing half their teeth. Many of us can read and everything.

/rant over

crossword said...

Love it. I sure did. :)

Seeing_I said...

And that's why Southerners hate it when New Yorkers write "authentic" dialogue for us to speak.

Mystery Man said...

marnie - It always seems so simple until you try to do it yourself. It's not easy at all.

Joshua - Exactly! I just hate the idea of everyone speaking perfectly, grammatically correct, complete sentences. What world do they live in?

Matt - Thanks, man. My thoughts drifted to plays because films this year, particularly Oscar contenders, are shit.

Ryan - Woo hoo!

Terra - I wish I could say I was making that up. Incidentally, Mr. New Yorker called her "The Keepa" because she actually tolerates his bullshit. She even leaves the seat up.

Emily - I must confess, those quotes came from the "American Dialects" book. The bigger point would be to not get it wrong, as opposed to writing generic lines and letting an actor fix it, no?

Len - Thanks, man.

Seeing_I - I'm neither New Yorker nor Southern. I did spend some time living in the south, but I only remember little things like "Coke" instead of "pop."


Seeing_I said...

I'm Southern, but I did spend some time living in NYC. Given the choice between a Coke and a pop, I'll take a soda!

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