West Bank Story, a “Quickie Review” of the short film by Ari Sandel

by James Gilmore

Movie poster for West Bank Story, an Oscar-winning short film by Ari Sandel, on Minimalist Reviews.

It’s West Side Story…in the Middle East!  West Bank Story is must-see for musical lovers and anyone looking for a good laugh on the very serious matter of Israeli-Palestinian tension.  Ari Sandel reconstructs Israeli-Palestinian relations in a microcosm by using two restaurants, one Israeli, and one Palestinian, who clash as a pair of star-crossed lovers work to briadge the gap between their bitter rivalry.  In the end, Israelis and Palestinians end up being more alike than different and it is the customers who come first—i.e., the people, not the conflict.

Rating:  5 / 5

Babbitt, a literary novel by Sinclair Lewis

by James Gilmore

Book cover for Babbit, a literary novel by Sinclair Lewis, on Minimalist Reviews.

Babbit by Sinclair Lewis is an all-but-forgotten literary masterpiece which espouses the hollowness of blind conformism.  At the surface, the novel appears to be about a successful businessman entering (and surviving) a mid-life crisis.  But more accurately, Babbitt is about a man whose identity only exists by means of his compromising conformity to everyone else.  He struggles between being the person everyone thinks he should be and what he really wants for his own life, although he has become so entrenched in the conformist society that he cannot escape.  In this he discovers that he is weak and pathetic, a living cliché, a human example of meaningless and futility.

Babbitt is a true character piece which explores every facet of the completely repressed individual in a society of demanding conformity.  The text remains engrossing despite constantly straddling the line between thoroughness and repetitiveness.  Unfortunately, reading the novel can be arduous due to its very slow story development.

Babbitt was internationally successful at the time it was published while domestically the novel’s brazen but accurate depictions and accusations of America offended or mystified many readers.  Every student of American literature should study Sinclair’s Babbitt.

Rating:  5 / 5

The 10 Commandments of Writing Good Dialogue

Writing good dialogue is an art unto itself and is arguably more difficult than writing description or narrative action.  For some writers dialogue flows naturally from their fingertips.  But for the rest of us who are not so wonderfully gifted dialogue comes at a price, and only after a great deal of conscious effort and banging our heads against the wall.  To make things a little easier, we have assembled an annotated list of the most important things to remember when writing dialogue in your next screenplay, stageplay or novel.

  1. Thou shalt write dialogue with PURPOSE.  Good dialogue either reveals character or advances the plot in every line.  Great dialogue does both.  Dialogue which serves neither purpose has no place in your story at all and should be cut.  Want to see a film with great dialogue?  Watch Casablanca.

  2. Thou shalt write dialogue based on character TACTICS.  Why does a character bother to say anything at all?  Because (s)he wants something.  But a character can’t just want something without employing a specific tactic to pursue that desire.  Therefore dialogue is determined by a character employing a tactic to achieve a specific goal.  A tactic is motivated by what the character wants right at that moment and how he is willing to achieve it.  Either the tactic succeeds and a new desire is born or, as is more often the case, the tactic fails and the character must use a new tactic or give up.  Read some tactical dialogue in just about any stageplay script or the popular novel The Hunger Games.

  3. Thou shalt write dialogue NATURALLY, NOT ACTUALLY.  That is, write dialogue so that it sounds natural but is not in fact actual conversation.  Dialogue is no more real speech than a movie is real life.  Unlike actual conversation, dialogue is carefully and consciously sculpted to achieve a deliberate purpose.  When writing dialogue, skip or briefly summarize the less useful parts of conversation such as greetings and meaningless exchanges so as to get to the real meat of the conflict as soon as possible.  Avoid hedges and fences which slow the pace of dialogue (such as “Well,” or “Look,” and “You know,” or “, you know” as well as frivolous insertion of character names and other weakening qualifiers.  Even conversational writers like David Mamet in Oleanna still only approximate actual conversation.

  4. Thou shalt write dialogue using both TEXT and SUBTEXT.  Dialogue has two parts: the readily visible text on the page (that which is being said) and the hidden subtext(that which is not being said).  Why do you need both?  Because subtext without text is not dialogue while text without subtext is dull (Krull is a great example).  The audience may even feel like something is missing because people seldom say what they mean in real conversation, instead skirting around the issue at heart by means of various tactics.  Use subtext to deepen your story, to convey exposition and to avoid on-the-nose dialogue (saying exactly what is meant).  A good rule of thumb is to never say what you can otherwise imply.

  5. Thou shalt write dialogue that is UNIQUE AND APPROPRIATE TO CHARACTER.  Every character should be recognizable by their dialogue without having to read the character names on every line (your brain tends to skip over character names anyway).  The emotions and tactics of the character should be reflected in his or her dialogue as well.  And while a character’s dialogue must be distinct, don’t forget that it must sound natural, so don’t give your character lines that no one would ever say, especially your character.  No one would ever mistake dialogue spoken by the character Sawyer in the TV show Lost for any other character on the show.  Try reading your dialogue out loud to spot awkward lines.  Better yet, get together with a few friends (or actors, or both) to read and talk through trouble spots.

  6. Thou shalt write dialogue using COMPRESSION.  Compression means that you pack the most amount of punch into the least amount possible by means of subtext and implication.  To compress your dialogue, hunt down redundant beats and lobotomize them.  Redundant beats are repetitious and will come across to the audience as boring and annoying.  Combine or cut any beat that repeats what another already conveys.  Remember: It is better to write simply than to simply write.  Excellent examples of highly compressed dialogue can be seen on the TV show Lost.

  7. Thou shalt NOT write dialogue as a REPLACEMENT.  Dialogue is not a replacement for action, visuals, or character.  At its most basic level, dialogue is essentially telling.  Don’t tell the audience what you can show them.  The infamous sword-and-sandal epic Cleopatra substitutes a final sea battle with dialogue—but only because they ran out of money to film it.

  8. Thou shalt write AS LITTLE DIALOGUE AS POSSIBLE.  Dialogue is the primary means of conveying story in a stageplay, while film uses visual storytelling and novels use descriptive narrative.  But just because all three forms use dialogue doesn’t mean you should write dialogue until you can write no more.  Many inexperienced storytellers tend to use dialogue to over-explain elements of character and plot that should have been illustrated some other way.  Bloated dialogue also has a tendency to slow pacing and bore the reader unnecessarily.  As in writing description and revealing plot, only explain the minimum amount required to understand the story in order to draw in your audience.  Never explain everything.  Don’t spell out the obvious things although you may have to shed light on the things that aren’t.  The more you explain to the audience, the more passive and less emotionally connected they become to the story.  The more mental legwork the audience must do to connect implied dots the more emotional attached to your story and characters the audience becomes.  Also avoid bogging down the story with frequent long speeches, monologues or soapboxing (preachiness or unnecessary exposition).

  9. Thou shalt write dialogue FREE OF CLICHÉS.  Avoid all clichés like the plague (a cliché in itself).  Clichés stick out like a sore thumb (another cliché) and each instance pulls the audience out of immersion of your story’s world.  And that’s bad for business.  Want to hear clichéd dialogue?  Watch any straight-to-DVD film sequel.  For the opposite, watch Silence of the Lambs and pay careful attention to the uniqueness and density of the lines.
  10. Thou shalt write dialogue that is APPROPRIATE TO GENRE AND CONTEXT.  Comedy dialogue should be funny but shouldn’t go out of its way to tell a joke—the dialogue still must move the story forward.  Action and Thriller dialogue should be terse, compact and minimal.  Emotional dialogue should be heartfelt and not trite.  Never write dialogue which does not fit the tone of the story, the scene or the character.  TalladegaNights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby illustrates how story-driven jokes can be both funny and heartfelt.

Shadows and Fog, a film by Woody Allen

by James Gilmore

“It’s been a strange night,” says the protagonist in Woody Allen’s film, Shadows and Fog (1991).  And a strange night it is.

This surreal tragicomedy features the bumbling Kleinman (Woody Allen) adrift and directionless in the “shadows and fog” of life in an existence where everyone else seems to know exactly where they are going and where death is a nameless killer ever lurking in the shadows.  Kleinman is invisible, a ghost in a world of flesh and a story of coincidence.

Movie poster for Woody Allen's film Shadows and Fog 1991 on Minimalist Reviews.A cursory glance reveals a clumsy film which is episodic, disconnected, strange and star-studded with actors like a pathetic publicity stunt.  However, a much closer inspection is required in order to uncover the gold hidden beneath this deceptively layered film.

Shadows and Fog is an 85-minute metaphor for life in the macroscopic sense.  Every scene is a sampling of some form of human existence, a circus filled with “theories and questions” which masks the true meaning of humanity.

Ominously looming over the film’s rich qualities are a number of detractors.  The film feels coarse and drifting, like the filmmaker wasn’t satisfied with the end product but resigned not to fix it (or wasn’t sure how).  Scenes of maladroit exposition and dialogue appear too far into the story to justify their inclusion and are all too often coupled with less-than-desirable acting and blocky line deliveries.  The episodic nature of the story serves to confuse more often than engross.  The end result is a film whose pacing ebbs and flags and whose quality is uneven.

To sum up with a paraphrase from the magician (played by Kenneth Mars): “People need illusions, like they need air.”  Cinephiles and Woody Allen fans delight, all others take flight.

Rating:  3 / 5

Writing Exercise: The Être Challenge

Why: It is common among writers (especially young writers) to overuse “to be” (être*) verbs. By eliminating forms of être verbs you strengthen the impact of your writing by making it more efficient and more powerful.

Purpose: Avoid overuse of “to be” verbs.

Challenge: Write one page about a character wherein you describe him/her/it. However, you may only use the infinitive être verb (“to be”) in any form once per paragraph. This includes any and all conjugations of the verb as well as helping verbs.

Alternative Forms:

  1. DIALOGUE. Write a one-page monologue in the voice of a character observing the same rules.
  2. ACTION: Write a one-page action scene or sequence with no dialogue observing the same rules.
  3. POETRY: Write a half-page in any meter desired observing the same rules except instead of once per paragraph, allow the être verb only once per stanza or once every 10 lines.

*Être is the infinitive form of the verb “to be” in French.