Juno: Dialogue and Characters

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The dialogue from “Juno” effectively reveals a great deal about all four characters involved.

In this week’s lecture, we learned the importance of “Be(ing) attuned to your characters’ backgrounds, their education, their states of mind.” The dialogue in this scene was successful in doing all of that. Having the four meet like this was a genius way to get all four personalities on screen simultaneously and reveal their motivations and insecurities all at once. Also, “the dialogue here is effective because of the way it moves back and forth between mundane exchanges.”

Juno’s dialogue relays her nervous energy as well as her youth and intelligence. While we see her intelligence through some sarcastic and witty references like “fluoridated water” and “sea biscuit,” the way Juno repeats Gerta Rouse’s name in “an exaggerated German accent” shows her adolescent way of speaking and acting without thinking about repercussions (much like how she wound up pregnant). Also, the fact that Juno refers to her unborn child as “it” shows she isn’t yet attached or perhaps she’s trying not to be. When she tells Vanessa, “You’re lucky it’s not you” it shows she clearly has no comprehension of what this woman must have felt wanting so badly to conceive a child. Her youth shows through again here because she’s not trying to hurt Vanessa’s feelings, but rather she simply doesn’t think before she speaks.

Her father Mac uses sarcasm to deal with a very emotionally challenging situation. His teenage daughter is knocked up and about to give up his only grandchild. This is difficult for him on so many levels, including having to see his daughter suffer. But he wants what is best for both his child and grandchild. His dialogue reveal’s a lower education level than his daughter who he must have pushed to excel in school. Still, his dialogue shows that he is indeed smart. He comes across as an older, more mature version of Juno. In contrast to Juno’s flippant speak-before-she-thinks type comments, he replies more thoughtfully and tries to show his family has manners with things like “We’re fine. Thank you.”

Mark starts off by describing himself as “the husband.” That seems like an innocent comment but like we learned in this week’s lecture what people do not say is just as important as what they say. Later in this scene when Mark says “Vanessa has wanted a child since we got married” he may not realize that he is implying that it was just Vanessa wanting the baby and not him. When Juno asks Mark if he’s looking forward to being a dad and he nonchalantly replies, “sure, why not” that shows that he’s not taking the matter seriously and that he and his wife are not on the same page. All of this foreshadows the unraveling of their relationship. When Mark replies to Juno’s “kickin’ it old school comment” with “technically that would be kickin’ it Old Testament” it shows he is able to easily bring himself down to an adolescent level to relate to Juno. At this point it seems endearing but later in the scene and even more so later in the film we learn that he can’t help it since he hasn’t quite grown up enough himself to deal with having a child. When Mark follows Juno upstairs, their one-on-one dialogue heightens this feeling. He reveals his fear of being perceived as “paranoid yuppies” and then counters Juno’s “klepto” comment with “I don’t get a klepto vibe from you. Evil genius? Maybe. Arsonist? Wouldn’t rule it out.” He doesn’t speak to her like a man who is about to adopt her child. He speaks in an almost flirtatious or competitive tone instead, like someone trying to be on her same level or who’s not ready to let go of his own childhood and grow up just yet.

Vanessa comes across as well educated, overly formal, a little uptight and concerned. It is obvious that she wants this baby and she’s afraid to somehow mess up the opportunity. She works hard to impress Juno and Mac and make them feel at home. She thinks of everything. “I’ll get drinks… I’ve got Pellegrino, Vitamin Water…” shows her desire to put the baby’s health first as well as portray her and Mark as healthy and suitable potential parents. Throughout the scene, she tries to keep everyone on topic and focus on the baby and Juno’s health. In a way, this makes Vanessa seem cold and even obsessed with motherhood. This may make the viewer dislike her here but later it allows us to look back and value the fact that she puts the baby first when we see that this quality is what makes her a good mother.

Chinatown: The Slapping Scene

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Chinatown (the slapping scene):

The scene where Jake continuously slaps Mrs. Mulwray in the face is an unexpected conflict that contributes a great deal to Chinatown’s overall narrative arc by revealing new and hidden qualities of the characters and of the story itself while significantly advancing the plot.

Slapping Mrs. Mulwray shows Jake’s growing frustration. He came across as such a cool, collected, calculated and even reasonable guy up to this point but he was tired of getting the run around and certainly lost his cool completely. There was no other time in the film that he lost it like this (the scene in the barbershop gave a glimpse into the possibility of it but even then he managed to pull it together).  On one hand, it shows a very personal attachment he must have had to Mrs. Mulwray since that level of frustration can only come from a deeper connection. On another hand, it shows that he’s capable of hitting a woman, that he has limits and that he’s not perfect, and it reveals he’s willing to go to the extreme to get to the truth.

For Mrs. Mulwray, it showed her at her weakest. She came across as so strong and pulled together prior to this moment where she completely breaks and her secret flies out into the open. She seems utterly exhausted, too, as though she’s been working so hard to keep her secrets hidden for so long and to keep her stories straight in her own head. In addition, it showed a deeper quality we hadn’t seen before—the quality of an abused woman. By not standing up for herself in this scene and just letting this man slap her like that, it was clear that she had the unfortunate mentality of a person who had lived a life of abuse and may have even grown to believe she deserved it. 

Both characters reach their breaking points in this scene. Also, they start to show qualities that seem opposite to the characters we were introduced to at the start of the film. But this is another thing that makes the story so great. The characters are clearly multidimensional. It’s not that they suddenly changed personalities here, but rather it showed that they have inner demons which they worked hard to hide from the world in addition to having weaknesses and the ability to change and grow through stress and circumstance.

Breaking the characters like this advances the plot in several ways. The obvious one is that now Mrs. Mulwray’s secret is out in the open and something must happen next because of it. But also, it shakes the viewer up and potentially alters our perspective. For example, seeing Jake get physical with Mrs. Mulwray caused me to question him as a man and reconsider his likeability. I think that’s a natural reaction to watching a man slap a woman in the face like that. It also made me feel sorry for Mrs. Mulwray in an uncomfortable way because it was clear to me that she had deeper rooted issues than had been revealed.  But most dynamically, this scene changed the game. If you weren’t awake or already paying close enough attention up till now, you certainly woke up and started focusing. It was almost like Jake slapped Mrs. Mulwray, himself and the viewer in the face all at once.

I believe this scene was one of the most dramatic and successful scenes in the movie. Personally I didn’t expect it. While it caught me off guard in the moment, in retrospect it really worked. It shook me up but then everything about the narrative and the characters started coming together and the entire story started making sense.

Hey! What’s “Up”?

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Up is a very charming story with characters who are lovable, engaging and honest and a plot and pace which keep our attention. We are drawn in through memories and emotions and then swept away on a journey with our protagonist, a grumpy old man named Carl. And much like many non-animated films starring grumpy old men (and women), we learn early on that Carl didn’t start out that way and it takes an adventure, a cute kid (and a dog) to help fix it.

Right from the start, Docter, Peterson and McCarthy establish characters who grab our attention and pull us effortlessly into their story. In the first 25 pages, in addition to our protagonist Carl (our adventurous kid/responsible adult/crabby old man protagonist), we also meet energetic/enthusiastic Ellie (Carl’s lost love), Charles Muntz (the childhood idol), Russell (the kid who reminds our protagonist of himself as a kid and who adds tension and gives Carl someone to love) and the construction workers, real estate developer, police and nursing home agents (the bad guys).

Even though the characters are animated and adorable, they have been given realistic qualities and real life problems. While destruction and cartoons have been cohabitating forever, it’s unusual to have a married couple in an animated film experience such dramatic and heartbreaking real life situations (i.e., trouble conceiving, miscarriage, money problems, growing old, forgotten dreams, sickness/loss/death). By giving the characters human qualities and real life experiences and feelings, we as viewers empathize with them just like they were real people and we come to understand why our protagonist became this grumpy old man. This is effective because once empathy has been achieved we become locked in and invested.

In this week’s lecture, we learned the importance of actions over dialogue: “Not just dialogue, but also your characters’ actions: think of the volumes of information that can be conveyed by a glare, a question that is met with silence, or a character simply watching another character’s actions.” In Up, action (past and present) weaves the setting. “Each scene should contain only the absolutely essential information (so as not to distract from the overall plot and theme).” In the first 25 pages, we are given a lot of information in a short period of time, but it’s done well and all of it is critical to the story. Simple actions like Ellie pushing Carl onto the beam show how much he needed her “pushing him.” And in the moment when Carl touches Ellie’s handprint on the mailbox and smiles, he doesn’t need to say anything to show us how much he loves and misses her.

Just like a real person mourning the death of a spouse, Carl loses his spirit and zest for life. He was, at one time, in love with life, adventure and he had a charismatic woman to share his life. They shared their dreams but then they grew up and life got in the way. When Ellie died, their dreams fueled by her energy died with her and Carl is left mourning her loss and the loss of those dreams. It is easy to understand why he fights so hard to keep his home from being torn down by developers; it’s all he has left and his memories of Ellie are tied up in the house especially since it’s the one tangible thing they achieved together. By the time we get to Plot Point 1 and Carl makes the decision to launch the balloons and fly away with the house, we want him to learn to live again and we are ready to float away with him.  

At times, the pace and fluidity of the dialogue kept things moving (i.e., Ellie’s rapid fire dialogue) and at other times removing the dialogue altogether slowed things down and forced us to pay close attention to the actions and details. Even though we were given a lot of information in the setup, the elements were easily digestible and critical to the story. Giving the details and emotions efficiently allows the story to get to the point—or the adventure—faster. This is especially effective when we consider that animated films are watched by both children and adults. The kids may be watching primarily for the excitement and effects but this film gives adults everything they need, too, with a relevant and captivating story full of drama and emotion.

The writers also utilized parallels to set up the story and bring the characters to life. For example, we have physical, mental and emotional parallels between Carl and his childhood idol Charles Muntz and between Carl and Russell. It was like meeting three generations. After all Carl had been through in the first 25 pages of the script, we want him to go on that big adventure he’d promised Ellie and to succeed where his childhood idol failed. We also want him to take Russell (the son he and Ellie never had) with him so he doesn’t eventually wind up on the same path.  

Props also play a huge role in helping us get to know the characters and advancing the plot. Seemingly simple things like the ties showing the passage of time or the torn adventure badge and the missing scout merit badge showing a failed attempt at a goal and, of course, the balloons and the house itself were so symbolic to the ups and downs of Carl and Ellie’s life. And perhaps the most important prop is Ellie’s adventure book which showed Ellie and Carl’s hopes and dreams and we see Carl looking at it with regret for what wasn’t yet accomplished.

The beauty of Up is that everyone can relate to this story. We have all experienced some sort of loss in our lives and it is easy to imagine failing at a dream or feeling left behind, lost, lonely and stuck. Through charming characters, realistic situations and some savvy storytelling techniques, the writers bring Up’s characters to life and make us believe that anything is possible.

Traditional Writing Workshops: Pros and Cons

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The traditional workshop has its pros and cons but it is successful, partially, in that it brings writers together and provides an opportunity for them to focus on their craft, learn from their peers and potentially improve. For one, writers need a place to retreat and be with other writers because no one understands writers like other writers. And much like writers need to continuously read and write in order to grow, we also need to continuously reflect, share our work, brainstorm ideas and be mentored. Workshops provide an opportunity for all of this.

Francois Camoin says: “The workshop may take place in the same classroom as the literature course, but what goes on there is a scandal, an affront to the English department. Imagine a class in which the teacher is, for the most part, silent… Most of all it contradicts the metaphysics of literary study, which asserts that there is a place outside of texts where the scholar, the critic, can stand, and, like Aristotle’s God, comment without being commented on… every day, I walk into a workshop and deal with living writers who are full of as many intentions as anyone can stand, and then some. The Law of the Workshop, which does not allow them to speak, is both necessary and terrible.”

Camoin’s words support the need for the traditional workshop while pointing out challenges. I agree with him and I would even add that, in some ways, the parts which are most challenging are also the parts which are most necessary. For example, the concept of putting the writer in a bubble where he or she must listen without responding has deep rooted flaws, including misinterpretation from both sides. However, if the writer being critiqued was permitted to exist outside the bubble, nothing would get accomplished because writers would constantly be interrupting, explaining or defending their work and the critics might hold back or feel stifled.

I’ve participated in workshops and have had both positive and negative experiences. I once had to listen to someone who clearly hadn’t thoroughly read my submission. She missed a key detail in the first paragraph and kept going on and on about how I’d left it out. If I could speak, I could have clarified (maybe even pointed to the sentence) and she could have saved her breath and perhaps moved on to something else. Another time, a fellow writer continuously asked me questions—not rhetorical questions but questions requiring answers—and I felt compelled to answer but couldn’t. I’ve also witnessed people simply agreeing with someone else’s comments rather than adding anything worthwhile of their own. Don’t get me wrong; my experiences weren’t all bad. There have been plenty of times when I’ve received invaluable lessons from the feedback provided (whether meant for me or someone else) or a new way of looking at something or the answer to a specific problem. In one particularly successful workshop, the teacher asked that we swap notes at the end and give the physically marked-up pages back to the subject. I liked that a lot because I found there was often far more written down than verbalized during the critiques. Another teacher would, at the end, summarize everything said, provide additional feedback and allow the class the opportunity to ask her and each other questions about what was said. This helped clarify misunderstandings and promoted discussion.

The traditional workshop is certainly not without its challenges. One of the biggest in my opinion is the bubble in its current state, mainly because it makes the assumption that the person giving the feedback is correct. Plus if the writer can’t speak, then he or she cannot ask questions, clarify, defend, explain or even provide context. Another issue is the need-to-change mentality. Camoin says, “In the workshop there is no outside; we speak and everything changes.” So many writers get feedback and then run home and change everything based on what they were told in the workshop. Sometimes they even re-submit the changes as if they are trying to please the class. This is a big mistake. Processing feedback, much like working on a revision, requires much thought, time and digestion. Other issues include discrimination, caddy competitiveness, people not doing the work and others doing the work but simply not “getting it.”

Solving some of the problems would obviously make for better workshops. For example, the bubble could be tweaked to allow some level of interaction. Minimally, the writer could have the opportunity to step outside of it and respond when the critique is complete. Also, the teacher could play a more active role. Teachers have far too much experience, value and insight to simply serve as moderators. Finally, rather than have everyone in the workshop read everyone else’s work, students could be able to choose who and what they read and evaluate. I like how the online classes work in that most teachers require students to select and provide feedback to just three other students (with the exception that one be the person with the least amount of critiques). It’s too much for a student to read everything, provide feedback to everyone and also write. There’s not enough time; and creativity requires time, energy and focus. Additionally, reducing the load would enable writers to focus on the areas in which they excel and that would benefit both parties. For example, the quality of review and feedback between a romance writer and a horror writer may not be quite as beneficial as romance writer to romance writer or horror writer to horror writer. Perhaps workshops could be broken down by genre for increased benefit.

While it is not possible to eliminate every issue, such as discrimination and people not doing the work, addressing issues which can be solved, brainstorming solutions and admitting that other issues may in fact exist will help the workshop and its participants evolve.

Works Cited

            Camoin, Francois. “The Workshop and Its Discontents.” Colors of a Different Horse. Bishop, Wendy and Ostrom, Hans. National University. 3-7.

Do you want to communicate or do you want to build a funhouse?

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“If you want to communicate, use the telephone.” – Richard Hugo (What Our Speech Disrupts, p43).

“If you want to build a funhouse, a set of working blueprints would prove useful.” –Francois Camoin (What Our Speech Disrupts, p43)

While I understand the point Hugo is making, I disagree with it. Creative writing may not be as direct as a 9-1-1 call but it’s still a way of sending a message. We write to express ourselves and to communicate our thoughts, dreams, rhythms and words to ourselves and to others. Some of us write letters, lists and emails to express ourselves while others write poetry, short stories, screenplays, novels… A genre is a medium just like a telephone. As Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” In other words, how we choose to say (or write in this case) something is just as important as what we say.

On the flip side, I absolutely agree with Camoin. This goes back to the theory that writing cannot be taught. I believe there’s truth to the notion that talent is born but I also believe that if a person has talent, then he or she can learn skills and through repetition, study, mentoring and trial and error, that talent can become something more substantial. Like Camoin says, we need “blueprints” or some sort of instruction to get there. It’s not always as simple as taking pen to paper. I believe that talent plus skill (plus hard work, determination and some luck) is the blueprint for success.

To show how I processed these two quotes together (and why I think Haake shared them on the same page), I’ll share a personal story about my own writing journey. When I quit my day job in 2007 and set out to write my first novel, I sat down and simply started writing. I’ve always loved to write but I didn’t know the first thing about writing a novel. Four months later, I had an almost 400 page manuscript. The problem was it wasn’t very good by anyone’s standards (except my mother’s). However, it still received positive and constructive feedback from agents and editors, I believe, because it made sense. It wasn’t “good” but it was well-written and the story I was trying to tell had potential. Contrary to Hugo’s point, my message was all over the place but it was still a valid message. It needed work (still does) but, to Camoin’s point, I needed to learn technique and how to make my message make sense as a novel.

Regarding the traditional writing workshop, I’m suspicious but I’m willing to acquire knowledge any way I can get it. I take classes hoping the teachers will know far more than I know on the topic being taught. Personally I don’t think it matters if a creative writing teacher relinquishes authority or not. As students, we should be critical thinkers. Critical thinkers know that teachers aren’t all knowing and/or omnipotent.

A Creative Writing Activity

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Activity and Justification—Valerie Zane

Activity:

Part One: Taking no longer than five minutes and keeping your words to under a page in length, write your autobiography. Part Two: Next, using the same time and length limits as in Part One, write your biography from a parent or parental figure’s point of view.

The narrative can be fact or fiction and written in any genre or style of choice. Let your imagination lead the way. Be as descriptive and creative as possible while paying close attention to narrative and voice.

Justification:

The purpose of this exercise is to inspire creativity and flex writing muscles while focusing on narrative and voice and keeping to a tight deadline and length limits. 

I like this exercise because it forces the writer to step in and then out of his or her own head and immediately into someone else’s head but on the same topic. The students can approach this exercise in any way they wish—serious or comedic, fact or fiction, essay or poetry, for a few examples. Any way it is approached, the exercise will stretch the creative muscles much like a 10 minute warm-up loosens the legs before a long run.

Also, by focusing on voice and narrative from both the student’s own and someone else’s point of view, but someone close and familiar like a parent or parental figure, it allows the student to get deep quickly and in a short period of time and space. In the first part, the student tells his or her own story. In the second part, he or she tells basically that same story but from someone else’s point of view. The most important aspect of both parts is the narrative itself, including actions, descriptions and voice.  

In the lecture this week, we learned “Another thing that a master craftsperson shares is perspective. This is not only helping students see subjects from new angles, but also guiding them to useful ways of thinking about skills, tools, or processes. It is a way to encourage productive ideas and discourage unproductive ones.”  In many ways, this is an exercise in perspective. By telling a story from two different perspectives, the students are able to explore their creativity and thoroughly inspect and play around with these unique perspectives. It will be interesting to see the difference between what students will write about themselves versus what they think their parents would write.

Finally, much like King uses his close personal relationships, memories and experiences to weave his stories, this exercise allows the student to do the same. By getting personal, so to speak, in a similar way and also from someone else’s (in this case, a parent’s) point of view, while under tight time and length constraints, it gives the writer the freedom to be creative without being self-conscious.

Traditional Writing Workshops and “Stephen King – On Writing”

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The traditional model of teaching creative writing may work for the majority but there will always be exceptions, due to personality, skill level and work ethic differences. I think it’s been so successful over the years primarily because of its simplicity. Get a bunch of writers together in one place to study, review each other’s work and share information, tricks-of-the-trade and experiences, and you’re bound to get interesting and thoughtful feedback and opinions.

I have had both positive and not-so-positive experiences with traditional writing workshops. While I’ve gotten a lot of good out of them, I do not believe they stack up to the “ideal.” Personally, I found it challenging to read and review so many other writers while also focusing on my own writing. In one particular workshop I participated in, students would need to review 120+ pages of text each week. This made it challenging for everyone, I think, to get their own creative juices flowing since we were spending so much time reading and critiquing each other. Also, it became clear rather quickly that not everyone was reading (or thoroughly reading) everyone else’s work. The time and energy involved, added to the fact that everyone has different interests and work ethics, made it tempting for some to simply agree with what someone else in the circle may have said. I think the element of group think in these traditional workshops can be challenging to overcome. For that reason, I believe one-on-one feedback, blind feedback or even online workshops can be more valuable to a writer’s growth because the group think mentality is eliminated and students needn’t worry about what others in the circle say, think or how they react nonverbally. In a nutshell, people tend to be more open and honest when others aren’t watching.

I found King’s book useful. I thought it was interesting, for one, to get an honest sneak peek into the mind of another writer, especially one with King’s level of success. He shared some crazy stories from his childhood (Eula-Beulah, p19-21, will stay with me forever) and also gave unique insight into critical writing elements (i.e., theme, p200, pacing, p220, research, p227). Although the book felt, at times, more like an autobiography than a memoir on craft (King himself made that note on p17), King’s storytelling caused me to realize that I should use my own memories for inspiration, as well.