When Clever Writing isn’t Necessarily Good Writing

Posted by on Mar 6, 2014 in Creative Writing | 1 comment

When Clever Writing isn’t Necessarily Good Writing

I’m not going to mention the show in question simply because I want to avoid potential hate mail from the three people who fall into the colorful Venn Diagram center of “People who read this blog” and “People who love the show I’m about to trash.” I’d heard about this particular show from many friends (well Facebook friends and we all know that’s not really the same thing) who said it was riveting. The show itself has garnered a lot of acclaim, and seems to really be striking a chord with the American populous at the moment. So last week while my kid was asleep, I sat down to watch the pilot to see what all the fuss was about.

And um, it wasn’t good. Not good at all. I mean, given the acting talent and the premise, it was surprisingly awful. I could focus on the directing and the fact that the entire episode seemed like they’d decided to tape the initial read-through, but since this blog focuses on writing, eh, I’ll go that route instead.

I watched the pilot twice just so I could fully examine what I hated about it. Why didn’t it work when it really, really should’ve? It had a great setting, incredible actors, and an interesting plot. A lot of the individual lines were very clever. So why did it suck?

What I realized is that in a lot of ways, it was too savvy for it’s own good. It was desperately trying to be clever. Every single line the main characters spewed was intricately crafted to shout, “Look how bleeping witty I am!” The dialogue never allowed the characters to breathe. They were all but choked to death by their own shrewdness. In the writers’ attempt to have their characters spitting brilliance, they forgot to do the simplest thing of all – make sure that those characters were human.

It’s fine to have smart, witty characters. Smart, witty characters are what keeps an audience coming back for more. But even smart, witty characters don’t have ALL the answers ALL the time.

To illustrate my point, I’m going to make up a half page of dialogue that looks pretty good on the page but is just atrocious in real life. Let’s say these two characters are cops at a crime scene.

Johnson: “I’ll tell you what, Barnes, this is a scene that the devil himself would only peek at through his cloven hooves.”
Barnes: “Well what’s that make us? Demons? Angels? Ghosts?”
Johnson: “Nah. Just a couple hardened vets putting a few more crow’s feet around our tired eyes.”
Barnes: “I’ll tell you what, Johnson, days like today make me wish I was one of those forgettable people out there in the world. One man in that horde of drones just facelessly drifting through a life nobody will remember.”
Johnson: “Just a grave stone. That’s all you get. A few letters and some numbers. Lines arranged in a pattern and carved into a piece of granite. In the end, that’s all you get. If you’re lucky.”
Barnes: “Guys like us don’t get lucky.”
Johnson: “What do we get then?”
Barnes: “Pain, heartbreak, a few ulcers, and if the stars decide to smile in our direction, a bottle of smokey bourbon on Friday night.”
Johnson. “Hell Barnes, maybe you’re right. Maybe we are ghosts.”


In that little snippet, each individual line is (at least moderately) clever. But put together as a whole, that scene is completely ridiculous. Because who the hell has a conversation like that? It’s an exchange of dialogue that’s obviously been scripted. It doesn’t allow the audience to feel like they’re witnessing a real event involving two living, breathing human beings.

Ok, I’m still not going to mention the name of the show that “inspired” this post, but I am going to throw out a line from the pilot that perfectly illustrates my point. (So you can Google it if you really want to know) In the scene, a younger female character has presented an older, very powerful male with some interesting options. As she pesters him about whether they may or may not have mutual interests, he says….

“I’m sorry, I never make such big decisions so long after sunset, and so far from the dawn.”

On initial glance, that line looks incredibly witty. But then you examine further and realize that nobody, not the most pretentious, stuck-up, power hungry snob would ACTUALLY SAY THAT IN REAL LIFE! You might be able to get away with that in a novel, i.e. “he was the type of man who never made big decisions so long after sunset and so far from the dawn,” because people expect that kind of thing in the middle of a great descriptive paragraph. But when it spills from the mouth of a character that’s supposedly involved in a legitimate, true-life situation, it couldn’t sound any dumber. He might as well have said…

“I’m sorry, I never smear jam on my ass so close to story time and so far from trash day.”

They’re both equally ridiculous. Ok, maybe the jam thing was slightly more insane, but not by much.

The point here is that your characters are supposedly real people doing real things. They aren’t just a bullhorn for your brilliance. Let them live.

Let’s reimagine Johnson and Barnes in a scene that’s nowhere near as smart, but infinitely more realistic.

Johnson: “Jesus. What the hell happened in here?”
Barnes: “I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure we’re going to wish it wasn’t our job to find out.”
Johnson: “Know what I hate the most about all this crap?”
Barnes: “Hell… uh…”
Johnson: “The smell.”
Barnes: “You didn’t give me a chance to guess.”
Johnson: “Would you have been right?”
Barnes: “I might’ve been had you given me a chance to think about it.”
Johnson: “I don’t mind the blood and guts. I’ve seen it all by now. But the smell – body’s in the other room and it’s already ruining my lunch.”
Barnes: “Ya know, they make nose plugs.”
Johnson: “I tried that. It’s very hard to lead an investigation that way.”
Barnes: “Yeah, you look way more professional when you pull your shirt over your nose.”
Johnson: (Pulls shirt over his nose) “C’mon, let’s get this over with.”

See, not as clever. But somehow better. Because even though they occasionally say something relatively smart, it’s not overwhelming. The audience isn’t being executed by a constant barrage of unrealistic wit and wisdom.

Anyway, in the end I’m glad I watched that pilot because I was forced to ask myself exactly why I hideously disliked something that was made up of so many good elements. I assume the show gets better from that point on or they wouldn’t still be making it. (Of course they’re still shooting “Two Broke Girls,” so I guess that really doesn’t mean much) But anyway, that’s why clever writing doesn’t always equal good writing.

I’d continue on, but I never write my blogs so long after laundry and so very far from my next beer.

photo credit: arimoore via photopin cc

One Comment

  1. I totally agree with you about the incessant, clever yet somehow stilted dialogue in so many TV shows these days. I accept that at least 90% of all actors are better looking than me. I understand that they are more important to the advancement of society and therefore deserve the obscene amounts of money they make. After all they are not teachers or guidance counselors for heavens sake. I do however object to the attempt to make so many of the characters a cross between Confucius and Jonathan Winters. No one is that consistently clever and smart. Eventually it becomes annoying. Of course if anyone doesn’t recognize both or either of those names then maybe they can get a part on “Two Broke Girls.” Keep up the interesting articles Kevin. Enjoying them a lot.

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