True Detective’s Lessons on How Not to Write Dialogue

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.

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