Thursday, August 23, 2007

Question of the Week

Last summer I was fortunate enough to attend a conference about arts ministries. In that conference, I participated in a breakout session entitled "Writing Realistic Dialogue." The instructor, an accomplished writer and actor, gave us this assignment to complete before arriving at the conference:

Write the first 15-20 lines of the following scenario.

SCENARIO: In 2005, Jane, an interior designer, did a remodel for a wealthy friend, who paid her an extra $5000 on the side, and told her to consider it a tip. The wealthy friend did not report it to the IRS, and Jane is wondering if she should report it on her tax returns. She and her husband John fought about it last night (she doesn't want to report it, but he thinks she should) and the fight ended by John telling her he would live with her decision but he had to know first thing the next morning.

The scene takes place that next morning.

In those first 15-20 lines, make sure you include the following:

1. The basic exposition: Your audience doesn't know anything about
Jane and John or their situation.

2. Jane's decision: Jane needs to reveal her decision to report the
money or not, depending on which way you want to go.

I'm used to writing happy endings. When writing sketches for our church services, we usually keep things light and funny. It makes for an easier transition into the sermon for our pastor and it makes the congregation laugh. So when I saw this assignment, I followed my traditional formula and came up with this:

(Jane enters with John sitting at the breakfast table reading the paper.)

Jane: Morning

John: Morning (without looking up from paper)

Jane: (awkward silence as she gets a cup of coffee and sits down slowly. Softly says) John, I’ve made a decision.

John: (Puts down paper and looks up expecting bad news) And?

Jane: (clearly rehearsed) Ok first, tips are common in interior design. I talked to several other designers and none of them report tips. Second, Sharon isn’t reporting it on her taxes so if I do she might get audited. I don’t want to get our friend in trouble just for being generous. Third, because she gave me $5,000, it would be taxed as a bonus which is 50%. All of my hard work and Uncle Sam gets half. Fourth, we need…

John: (interrupts, annoyed) Jane! We talked about all of this last night. I told you I’d live with your decision, just tell me what it is already.

Jane: (calmly) Sure you’ll live with my decision. But I want you to agree. It shouldn’t be all on me.

John: You said it yourself. It’s your money so it’s your decision.

Jane: If it’s my decision, why are you mad?

John: (angrily) I’m not mad.

Jane: Huh, could’ve fooled me.

John: (sighs) I’m not mad. (Jane raises her eyebrows) I’m not. I’m just… I’m frustrated. Look, I know it’s a hard decision. Lots of people don’t report tips. And you worked hard for that money. It just doesn’t feel very honest to take the money under the table.

Jane: I know. That’s why decided to report it.

John: What?

Jane: I’m reporting the $5000 on our taxes. It’s the right thing to do.

John: Why didn’t you tell me that 5 minutes ago?

Jane: I would have but you interrupted me. This worked out better anyway. You were making it such a black and white decision. I needed you to see the gray. To see why this was a hard call.

John: But in the end, I was right.

Jane: In the end, I made the decision that I could live with.

John: Yeah but I was right.

Jane: It was my call.

John: But I was right.

Jane: For crying out loud. Is that all you care about?

John: Hey, I don’t get to hear it that often. Come on. Say it.

Jane: Fine. You were right. (John gives her a big hug.) Right about marrying me.

I know, I know...ahhhhhhh. Isn't that adorable? After a day at this inspirational conference, I wasn't feeling quite as confident in the script. I felt that it was realistic but just a bit too tidy. So, on the spur of the moment about 10 minutes before this breakout session, I grabbed my laptop and hammered out this second version:

(Jane enters with John sitting at the breakfast table reading the paper.)

Jane: Morning

John: Morning (without looking up from paper)

Jane: (awkward silence as she gets a cup of coffee and sits down slowly. Softly says) John, I’ve made a decision.

John: (Puts down paper and looks up expecting bad news) And?

Jane: And I’m sticking with my decision.

John: Fine (puts paper back up)

Jane: Fine.

John: (after a long pause, drops the paper down) No, it’s not fine.

Jane: Hey, you said it was my decision. I’ve decided not to report the $5,000 on our taxes.

John: But Jane; it’s wrong and you know it.

Jane: No, l don’t know it so don’t tell me what to think.

John: C’mon. Sharon gave you the money and told you to consider it a tip. Not a gift, a tip. You’re supposed to report tips, they’re just another form of income.

Jane: Look, I’ve asked a lot of other interior designers and they don’t report tips so why should I?

John: Um, let’s see. Because it’s the right thing to do? Because it’s the honest thing to do? Because it’s the law?!

Jane: Please, we’re not going to get audited. Sharon isn’t reporting it. In fact, if I report it and she doesn’t then she could get audited. I’m not going to punish our friend for being generous.

John: You’ve obviously made up your mind and nothing I’m going to say is going to change it.

Jane: Stop making this so black and white. You’re blowing this whole thing out of proportion. I mean you act like I’m stealing or something.

John: (stands up) You know what Jane, you’re right. You’re not stealing. You’re just lying…again. (leaves the room)

I like that it leaves the audience guessing and that it layers in a sub-plot. Parts still seem a little contrived but it's hard to communicate the exposition without it feeling forced.

Ultimately the class volunteered their scripts to be read in class for the instructor to critique. Because I didn't have a hard copy of either script, I wasn't able to volunteer. But I was very interested to see the various approaches to the same scene. Some were very light and superficial, too much in fact. Most were quite good. The instructor particularly favored one involving a description of what was being prepared for breakfast. It was a good lesson in the art of painting a picture with words. I tend to get to the point in my writing and may forget the many virtues of setting the scene. The point is, I learned a great deal from this little class. Both from my own experience with 2 versions of the same scene and from other's approaches.

For a myriad of reasons, the writing opportunities I have enjoyed with my church are slowing up if not disappearing. This was a very important ministry to me personally. It helped me get involved in a new church. It helped me find my voice artistically. And it helped me reach people for Christ. I don't want to lose that. So if any of you need something written, I'm your girl. Seriously, you never know when you might need a script. I've written and produced two small pieces for work. Heck, even if you just want to be entertained, give me a scene description and I'll throw something together. I'm looking for ways to keep this writing muscle in shape!

Which brings me to the question of the week:

Which version of this scene do you prefer? Why?
I'm not looking for glowing praise (thought I wouldn't stop you if you truly felt the need). I'm truly interested in which version you find more interesting. Or if you have another idea for the scene, I'd love to hear that too.


Anonymous August 23, 2007 at 1:19 PM  

Initially I really liked the first one, it was cute and light and that's they way I like things. But, after reading both of them again I do like the second one best because it keeps the audience guessing which is always more fun in a movie or play. By the way, I really do enjoy reading your writings on here.

Sarah W

The Tucson Gang August 23, 2007 at 2:57 PM  

I like the 2nd one, just for the thought provoking's not the "do the right thing" version, which makes it much more interesting and can lead the story to Chapter 2. The first one is just too tidy, predictable - like when the guy gets the girl and lives happily ever after...boring. :-)

Anonymous August 24, 2007 at 11:38 AM  

While I think both fit the assignment very well, I liked the second one better. During the first one I found myself mad at John. He said it was her decision but clearly wasn't going to support Jane unless she sided with him, and then when she did, he gloated! To me, the second one had more depth. There was obviously some other tensions in the relationship which gave more meaning to the conflict.
Nice job, Lori!

Anonymous August 24, 2007 at 1:59 PM  

I liked both of them. Both senario's pull you in. I was happy reading the first one, it is nice when things end nicely. As I was reading the second one I could feel tense and I was hopeing it wouldn't end badly. Thats what kept me reading. Your an excellent writer! I always enjoy reading what you write.

By the way, can you let me know ahead of time when your book or movie script comes out? I would love to read it :)


Jennifer August 24, 2007 at 3:27 PM  

Okay, you already got my opinion on the way home from the conference, but thought I'd post it here too. I like the second one. Life is never tidy and you know how much I LOVE having a sketch end wrapped in a pretty bow!

I so appreciate the gift God has given you and I'm continuing to pray for opportunities for you to use it to glorify Him. He will provide the way for you to use your gifts...He's cool that way!

Anonymous August 24, 2007 at 3:32 PM  

I liked the second one, as the first one was too much like a sitcom for me. Life's conflicts, even the "minor" ones, are rarely solved in 30 minutes (minus 8 minutes of commercials). The second one felt more real. I certainly spend my fair share of time enjoying mindless entertainment (America's Next Top Model, anyone?), but I tend to value a no-bullshit approach to human interaction in writing. I also think it takes more courage to leave that scene open, rather than tying it up into a neat little package at the end. I've noticed that closure exists in life, but it isn't quick and dirty...and even that which we think is closed, opens up again sometimes.

That's my two-cents!
Cousin Sara

Lori August 24, 2007 at 3:42 PM  

Thanks so much for your comments. It has been really eye opening. Both in terms of what "realistic dialogue" means and that people don't always prefer the light/cute pieces. I started a script last year for a sketch based on the adultress woman from John 8. I think I'll clean it up and post it for you guys to give feedback on. And like I said, if you have any ideas for scenes, I'd love to see what I can come up with!

Anonymous August 24, 2007 at 8:59 PM  

First, Sara you sound way too much like a psychologist :) Oh wait you are one! Lori, everyone pretty much said my opinion. I like the happy ending of the first one but honestly the second one is not only more realistic but also pulls you in. You are a great writer. Can't wait to read more. Beth

Anonymous August 28, 2007 at 10:02 PM  

Accuse me of being a psychologist, eh? You just wait until our next family gathering when I make us sit in a circle, hold hands and sing while I strum the guitar and burn incense...I'm also a hippie, don't you forget it :) Keep writing Lori, I love reading it!

Anonymous August 28, 2007 at 10:03 PM  

uh, yeah, that last one was me, Cousin Sara...hippie psychologist, yes, technology maven, not so much.

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