True Detective’s Lessons on How Not to Write Dialogue Lincoln Michel June 30, 2015 Essays 34 Comments True Detective, last year’s most talked about show—as well as one of TV’s most literary series—is back on the air. The new season ditches the unique combination of Southern Gothic setting, Lovecraftian horror overtones, and McConaughey-drawled nihilist speeches for a more straight-forward LA noir plot. The results have been disappointing, with critical takes ranging from tepid hopefulness to declaring it “the embarrassing television show we deserve.” (Here are my own thoughts on the new season.) Even among fans of the new season, the most common complaint is the dialogue, while alternates between dull and accidentally ridiculous. While the existential monologues of Rust Cohle last season were sometimes critiqued for being pretentious, they were at least memorable and original. (They were also tempered by Woody Harrelson playing the straight man. This season, every character spouts dark and serious dialogue.) Rolling Stone described the dialogue this year as “sound[ing] cribbed from a video game cut scene.” Although the dialogue problems weaken the TV show, they do provide some good examples of what not to do when writing. Not to pick on the show too much, but since I had already transcribed some of the dialogue for my review, I thought I might turn my review cuts into some craft thoughts. These are classic lessons, which are often illustrated by examples of successful writing. But it can also be useful to see when writing fails—even in highly popular TV shows. ** minor spoilers for the aired episodes ahead ** If You Are Going to Sound “Deep” or “Hard,” Be Original True Detective’s second season follows in the hardboiled vein of Raymond Chandler, but you wouldn’t know that from the dialogue. Instead of resembling Chandler’s gritty wit, most lines feel cut and pasted from episodes of CSI and forgotten gangster flicks: “I’m no good on the sidelines.” “I welcome judgment.” “Everybody gets touched.” “Nobody muscles me.” “I don’t distinguish between good and bad habits.” “Sometimes not everybody’s always on the same side. Fine. It’s business. But this. No. Fuck that. Some things don’t stand.” Most of these examples are—at least in context—weighty lines meant to have real emotional impact, or to show how deep, dark, or tough the characters are. However, lines that we’ve heard elsewhere a thousand times are ineffectual, especially with characters we’ve just met. (An additional problem is that every True Detective character talks in the same serious, faux-gangster way. The above lines are all from different characters, but you’d never be able to tell them apart from the script.) If You Are Going to Be Original, Make Sense Despite the above, True Detective does throw a few wacky curveball lines every episode. However, unlike the Ligotti-inspired memorable lines of season one, this season’s “time is a flat circle”-isms frequently just don’t make any sense. In episode one, officer Antigone Bezzerides’s (Rachel McAdams) sister Athena accuses her of being too uptight and sexually-repressed, then says, “When you walk, it’s like erasers clapping!” That’s original, but what on earth does it mean? Clouds of chalk fly out of her butt? Her feet are like schoolchildren being punished? (I’ve seen online commenters speculate this is a cocaine reference, but it’s unclear how that would relate to “walking” or being uptight.) In the opening scene of episode two, Vince Vaughn’s gangster-trying-to-turn-straight character says, “It feels like everything is paper-maché.” Then he launches into a story about how his father locked him in a dark basement where rats ate his fingers. He closes the story by reiterating that everything “is paper maché.” So everything is paper maché because it is fragile and easily torn apart… I guess? But what does that have to do with being locked in a room you can’t escape from? As Christopher Orr at The Atlantic said: “I didn’t think the monologue’s central metaphor—comparing the decaying ceiling to imprisonment in the dark—even made sense. I mean, if that basement was ‘paper maché,’ six-year-old Frank could’ve just clawed his way out, right?” Later in the same episode Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) and Bezzerides have this exchange: Ray: “You know that expression about flies and honey?” Ani: “The fuck do I want with a bunch of flies?” Ray: “You don’t have any flies, you can’t fly fish.” Without thinking about it, this makes sense in the context of police work—you might need to be nice to get some informants and info in order to catch your crooks. But the logic breaks down between the three lines as they become a mixed metaphor…unless Colin Farrell’s character is under the delusion that fly fishermen use actual living flies. I could go on, but you get the point. Bottom line: your metaphors should actually make sense. Every time a metaphor breaks down, the reader gets taken out of the story. Characters Should Respond to Each Other One of the oddest things about the new season of True Detective is how frequently the characters seem to be engaged in separate conversations. Here’s another Farrell/McAdams exchange during a car ride: Ray: “You pull off that e-cig. Not a lot of people do.” Ani: “This place gets a day-today influx of 70 thousand people, right? Where do they live?” Ray: “I tried once. It felt like it was smoking me. A real cigarette wouldn’t make you feel like that.” Obviously there are times when this makes sense (showing how one character doesn’t listen, a post-modern talk on the breakdown of contemporary communication, etc.), but as a general rule characters should seem like they are able to hear one another. Every Line Should Be Doing Work Kurt Vonnegut once said, “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.” I think that’s a little narrow, as sentences can also add atmosphere, world-build, or do other things. But certainly in good writing every line should do something. This is especially true in the tighter narrative economy of a TV episode screenplay. My biggest personal gripe with True Detective is not the stock dialogue or even the nonsense dialogue, it’s the amount of functionless lines. A good example is the long break up scene between Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) and his girlfriend in episode two. It goes on for some time—she thinks he is distant, he doesn’t want to talk—but here is how it ends: Emily: “I can’t do this anymore. I tried.” Paul: “It’s work. It’s a good thing, Em.” Emily: “No. You barely talk. I don’t know your family. You don’t want to know mine. Who are you?” Paul: “Oh fuck off! Who the fuck am I supposed to be?” Emily: “I don’t know who you are supposed to be–” Paul: “Jesus Christ!” Emily: “Yeah, fuck off! God, whatever happened to you I can’t fix it.” Paul: “There’s nothing wrong with me. I’ll call you this weekend.” Emily: “Don’t. I don’t want to hear from you, Paul. You can’t give me more than this. You’re not… you’re not right. Sometimes I’m with you and I can tell that…” Paul: “Fuck it. I gotta go.” Emily: “Don’t come back.” Paul: “That’s on you, not me.” Emily: “I can’t see you again, Paul. You hurt me seeing you.” Paul: “You’re doing this. This isn’t me doing this. This isn’t me.” We already know Paul is damaged and Emily doesn’t like how distant he is from their previous scene. Nothing above actually tells us anything new or unique about the characters. Reading for plot, the entire conversation could be clipped to just: “Don’t come back.” “That’s on you, not me.” Everything else is basically just noise. It should be rewritten to convey something more. None of the above is to say that True Detective is a horrible show. The acting is strong, the visuals are often arresting, and the plot seems like it is finally kicking into gear. It’s quite possible that the strong elements will make up for the lackluster dialogue by the end. I’ll keep watching. But when working on my next project, I’ll also try to avoid doing any of the above. And remember, never do anything out of hunger… not even writing. Or something. 34 Responses Duh June 30, 2015 Of course it’s bad. It was bad last year, too, but last year they had two brilliant actors who could pull off the garbage writing. Imagine any other actors out there ion those parts and you’ll see that season 1 was just as bad as season 2. Reply Ronald Keeperman July 1, 2015 I enjoyed binge watching the first season, the soundtrack, cinematography, acting, and southern gothic characters and scenery kept me interested. The dialogue was intriguing. The first two episodes of season two are unenjoyable for all of the same reasons I’ve listed above. Reply Axauv August 11, 2015 Agree about the idiotic writing- but also doesn’t it bother people that all these characters harbor only misery rage and disgust? It’s so dark it’s a farce. This is a great example of over editing and a complete lack of perspective. Reply John Decker June 30, 2015 Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach write petty criticism. Reply Lincoln Michel July 1, 2015 Where do those who get cranky in internet comments rank 😉 Reply N July 1, 2015 Lol got em! randomname August 30, 2015 Brilliant. Great analysis btw. Derek Cummings December 30, 2015 Nice one! Reply D Trump June 30, 2015 The quote “When you walk, it’s like erasers clapping!” could allude to the fact that she is so sexually-repressed that her female member is too dry or something like that. That’s what it sounds like and seems at least a bit logical. I also think you were a bit unfair with the dialogue in the long break up scene between Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) and his girlfriend in episode two. It’s also trying to allude to the fact that he is not only aloof but mysterious and lost. She, nor he, knows who he is. Reply mike July 1, 2015 The “erasers clapping” line is a dumb stretch at originality, but it means this: she stomps around everywhere because she’s unhappy and doesn’t have her shit in order. The stomping creates clouds of dust like erasers clapping. There. Reply Lincoln Michel July 1, 2015 I think that’s probably what the show intended, but the fact that several commentators here thought it meant her vagina shoots dust out because she is sexually repressed and some critics I read thought it was a cocaine reference shows that it was, at the very least, not clear. Reply Alby Rasmutaz July 1, 2015 I read the line as the “sexually repressed, dry as a bone” version, which made sense to me in the context of the scene, but you’re absolutely right Lincoln; the fact that there is so much ambiguity surrounding it, highlights the fact that it doesn’t quite work. pat July 8, 2015 I like it when conversations in shows are not perfectly clear since conversations in life are not always perfectly clear. Shows today have made characters that are less and less like real people and more and more like robots. Every line of dialogue is perfect for every situation in almost every show. Helen Malarky July 1, 2015 Blackboard erasers: her vagina is dusty from lack of use Papier mache: he wonders if he died in the basement, and if everything *since* is therefore not real and ergo ‘papier mache’. Ray and the ecig: he’s a paid off (‘touched’) double agent, he’s obfuscating any real attempt at dialogue and making it clear the solution of the investigation is irrelevant. Paul’s extended farewell: they don’t want to break up, but the situation has become untenable, they’re in terrible pain. Paul’s horrendous childhood (indicate by the incest heavy implications of the scene with his mother) have made it impossible for him to take emotional responsibility. EP 1 was clunky, but noir is about cliché, that’s part of its appeal. The writing in EP 2 was great. The scenes you’ve chosen to critique were, for me, some of the best. Reply Lincoln Michel July 1, 2015 Saying her vagina is dusty… kind of makes sense, but does the line mean her vagina makes really loud clapping noises like erasers when she walks? That’s not how human anatomy works. The fact that the internet was speculating about it (do a twitter search for “erasers clapping”) and everyone coming up with different ideas makes it at the very least a horribly unclear line that pulls the audience out of the work. The papier mache line is initiated by Vaughn seeing water marks on the ceiling and how everything seems flimsy. I wouldn’t say noir is about cliche. Genre is about using a set of tropes, but ideally, for me at least, in a new way. But to each their own. Reply jon July 2, 2015 Not so much a ‘horribly unclear’ line as much as a horribly misinterpreted one by the horribly clueless. alien July 8, 2015 Obviously, every character must be in absolute command of their metaphors at all times.. Just like IRL! Or perhaps, flawed execution of dialogue is something that happens in the real world, and this moment was meant to expose her as being.. gasp.. human. Luis July 1, 2015 I watched episode two with a group of friends and we just started laughing when one of those overwrought gangster movie lines came along. I do want to add that there were some clunky exposition lines that were really egregious. The worst one that comes to mind is when Paul calls his mother “Ma” and she scolds him about it. There are so many ways that beat could have been hit without having to do that. Reply jon July 1, 2015 Could it be that some readers are overthinking the ‘erasers clapping’ metaphor? When classrooms had blackboards, chalk, and erasers, the erasers would be cleaned of residual chalk by taking an eraser in each hand and, with gusto, clapping them together. The resulting sound was not unlike the sound of a slapping, fwapping, somewhat flatfooted, footfall. Perhaps the writer(s) merely intended a literal description with no innuendo intended or implied. Reply James Roberts July 6, 2015 As to the disparate conversations…I’m not saying that Pizzolatto pulled this off with the same grace, but Mamet did this a lot and it works well. I’ve seen this happen in real life, too, where two people or a group of people are all talking over each other, not listening, or one person is trying to change the topic and says something unrelated to something else being said, while the original speaker ignores that and keeps going. Seemed, to me, to be indicative of the divide between the two characters and their opposing motivations and sides. Reply alien July 8, 2015 exactly.. amen Reply Sam July 8, 2015 I don’t like editing an entire scene down to two lines even if the characters are repeating themselves. Sometimes it is good to see a relationship explode. If they said see ya, good bye that would be to quick. The audience needs to get into and feel the moment and that might mean a little repetition. Plus, if you listen to the way people talk, they repeat themselves all the time, especially in heated arguments like that. That feels more realistic. Focusing too much on making every line mean something or zing or add to characterization or w/e makes me feel like a scene could lose its style or substance. Idk what I’m getting at, I guess that you don’t want to destroy your style or voice by over editing something just because you could say it in fewer lines. (even though I get you don’t want to repeat over and over etc) Reply Lincoln Michel July 8, 2015 Oh to clarify I wasn’t arguing the scene should only be two lines. That would indeed be too brief. I was saying those are the only two lines that actual advance the plot. The other lines should be edited to actual provide more character details or insights, not deleted (IMHO) Reply Jaime July 9, 2015 Generally, some good observations here…after taking in some of the more “poignant, dramatic” moments, I’m left with the feeling of…”Wait, what did I just miss?”. The ~5 minute (felt longer, might’ve been shorter) show-opening “paper mache” monologue being a prime example…didn’t deliver the goods, ate up a shit ton of screen time, anticlimactic, limp conclusion…Vince struggled to even maintain appropriate gravitas throughout (looked like he was laughing at the dialog as he read it), and I’m sure they just said ‘fuck it’ at a certain point and went with the 40th take. Oh, and FFS…incredulous that there’s really debate over the “erasers clapping” line. Was probably one of the brighter moments, and is quite clearly, given the context of Ani’s “Stop being a whore!” speech to her sis, referring to Ani’s dry-as-a-chalky-desert female bits. Anyhow, good read. Thanks… Reply Yaga Dillon (@YagaDillon) July 10, 2015 Oh, I so disagree with so many of these… >An additional problem is that every True Detective character talks in the same serious, faux-gangster way. The above lines are all from different characters, but you’d never be able to tell them apart from the script. Yeah, so that’s a consistent world… just tangential to our own. If you have character quirks – this character only speaks in third person, that character only speaks with sesquipedalians – that’s like a Japanese RPG. >Bottom line: your metaphors should actually make sense. Every time a metaphor breaks down, the reader gets taken out of the story. As evidenced in the thread, for a lot of people, the metaphors actually do make sense. That one’s on intersubjectivity – any new thing won’t be immediately obvious to everyone. I learned what “to redpill someone” means on Reddit only last week or so (it means the exact opposite of what I had thought it would, too.) > as a general rule characters should seem like they are able to hear one another. Not if their not being to connect with each other is the point, though. (I’m very subjective on this one – people cross-talking is a favourite of mine.) >We already know Paul is damaged and Emily doesn’t like how distant he is from their previous scene. Nothing above actually tells us anything new or unique about the characters. Oh, for f*ck’s sake, no, and this is the one I have the most beef with. This supposed ‘noise’ tells us that Paul is *heavily* damaged (she didn’t even meet his family); that she tries to reach to him, and he pushes her away; and, most saliently, that Paul has problems with *expectations* (Paul: “Oh fuck off! Who the fuck am I supposed to be?”). That – is – revealing character. Reply Lincoln Michel July 10, 2015 To each their own of course, but I’m not sure what you mean by consistent world. A world can be consistent without everyone speaking in exactly the same way. I love classic hardboiled novels, but in a Raymond Chandler story the isolated upperclass patriarch, the low-level mob muscle, the femme fatale and the grizzled detective don’t all speak identically. I think it’s quite possible to have different characters from wildly different backgrounds speak differently without it seeming like “Japanese RPG quirks.” Most novels and good TV shows manage it. People debating different meanings of a metaphor would actually seem to show the metaphor doesn’t make sense, but I was actually talking about the metaphors tracking properly not whether you could derive meaning from them. To paraphrase George Orwell, a metaphor is useful to call up a visual image that makes the point clearer for the reader. It’s possible to have dead metaphors where the “meaning” is clear even though the image is lost or confused (ie, people thinking that “toe the line” is actually “tow the line”) Also, literally every scene with Paul is about how he is damaged (in mostly vague and unspecified, thus for me uninteresting ways), so guess I can’t agree that we need yet another long scene of vague and unspecified dialogue about how he is damaged. Reply Tipsday: Writerly Goodness found on the interwebz, July 5-11, 2015 | Writerly Goodness July 14, 2015 […] True Detective teaches how NOT to write dialogue. Electric Lit. […] Reply Walker July 17, 2015 I liked this article, good analysis of some key lines that also struck me as off, or at least clumsy, and there are a lot of them so far. Though I do like the fly fishing line and thought it was a clever twist on a common phrase. The mixed metaphor you suggest is a pretty narrow reading of the dialogue. I don’t believe Ray thinks fishermen fish with live flies any more than he’s suggesting they put hooks through people to catch the killer. Ani’s rebuttal is clever in and of itself; She’s the one suggesting a mixed metaphor. If being nice is honey and people are flies and flies are annoying, worthless and gross then what’s the value of being nicer? Ray’s counter is great because it both agrees with her assessment of people as flies and reminds her their value isn’t from any intrinsic quality, but is instead in their utility to a greater purpose. Don’t use honey because you like flies, catch flies because we’re goin’ fishin’! i.e. Yup, people are the worst, but if you’re not so abrasive it’s easier to gather assets that could break this case. Reply Jack August 3, 2015 I always thought season 1 was proof that great acting can save mediocre writing. And while season one had a couple moments, it was actually pretty cliche from top to bottom. Try imagining someone else in those two lead roles, delivering that idiotic dialog, and you’ll see what I mean. Reply Ken Robbins August 5, 2015 Actually, I disagree with all the negative comments. This is my favorite TV show so far this year. I love the characters and the dialogue. It’s great to see Rachael McAdams in a serious role for a change (Vince Vaughn also). I like the fact that she never smiles, and is basically angry. I consider the acting, editing, camera angles, etc to all be brilliant. The only episode left is the season finale, and I will be sad to see it finished. I tell you, I for one am thoroughly enjoying the heck out of this mini-series. I think it will win lots of awards. Lets see who’s right. Reply Axauv August 11, 2015 Except no one smiles, and everyone is angry. Even the bit parts and extras, the show is utterly ridiculous and the finale was the worst episode of the bunch lol Reply Symbar | Melbourne SEO Copywriter – What True Detective taught us about ‘show don’t tell’ October 30, 2015 […] Ani’s petulant, aggressive response tells us she’s brash, petulant and aggressive. But, as ElectricLiterature writes, the writing could be working harder to show […] Reply Tarah December 31, 2015 I agree that scene with Frank Semyon talking about the rats in the basement is one of the worst-written scenes in the history of TV. But I’m kind of disappointed in how little appreciation season 2 gets, or that it’s become fashionable to hate on it for super simple reasons. Most people I’ve talked to who report on season 2 as boring or terrible complain about the dialogue but didn’t even manage to finish the season. So they can’t appreciate its balls-to-the-wall-give-no-shits noir, or its ending, which teaches the pride and destruction at the center of the male heart. While season 1 is a great study in brute masculinity via Woody Harrelson, who is an excellent actor–better than all three of season 2’s leads combined–the women of season 1 are just collateral. They are furniture. In season 2, there are women with hearts, with desires. They are seen reacting, protecting, filled with a strange hope. And while these men lose themselves to pride and heroics, tearing their worlds apart, it’s the women who must stay behind, form new alliances, move forward, and knit the pieces back together on their own. Season 2 is no more clumsy or self-serious than season 1. I mean it operates without the free tension of a frame device, and the ending avoids the essential failure of the first, which was to try and reunite its characters in a syrupy bromance. THAT, to me, is boring. I really can’t figure out why people hate season 2 so much. Reply Street January 17, 2016 Sometimes lines are simply there to enhance the subtext. I’d say in TD subtext is everything. Ib this situation you don’t want original exciting dialog, just like you wouldn’t play hard hitting top hits as a background music soundtrack. Reply Leave a Reply Cancel Reply Your email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email.