Sunday, August 12, 2018

"What" writing partners argue about

Readers always ask if my partner, David Isaacs and I have fights when we’re writing. Sure, but the trick is to never make the fights personal. We can have a heated argument over a story point and then just go to lunch and discuss baseball. If we disagree on a joke pitch we’ve found it’s way easier to just toss it out, come up with something new, not waste a half hour on the argument, and result in someone being unhappy.

That said, we have had one disagreement that has been ongoing for literally decades.

I think characters should say “what?” occasionally when they hear a big piece of information and David thinks it’s unnecessary.

“I want a divorce.”
“What?”

“There’s a tank coming.”
“What?”

David thinks I rely it on too much.

“These apples are good.”
“What?”

Okay, maybe he has a point there. But I contend that people say “what?” in daily conversation way more than they even think they do. And to support my point, if so many people didn’t say it, then the expression would never have evolved to “What the fuck?” I’d like to think that through our scripts I helped coin and popularize that now-treasured phrase.

And I also exercise some discretion.  I never pitch "say what?"

So how have we resolved this sticky matter?

We barter.

David will say, “I’ll give you a ‘what?’ for two ‘so’s’.” Yes, this leads to other arguments (“I have a ‘what’ banked from Thursday.” “No, you used that ‘what’ Monday.” “But we cut that speech.” “It still counts.”), but on the whole this has gotten us through hundreds of scripts. And it’s an example of the kind of stupid shit partners bicker about all day.

And don’t get us started with when to use and when to use --.  The police were once called.

37 comments :

Wally said...

... when someone else interrupts the character

-- when s/he pauses to break the sentence up

Couldn't find any consistency in others' scripts, so I made this rule for myself.

Pat Reeder said...

My wife suffers from hearing loss which was fortunately recently corrected with a new cutting edge hearing aid. But before that, she said, "What?" so often that even though she doesn't say it so much anymore, our Amazon parrot now says, "What?" in her voice after everything I say. Living here would probably drive your partner even crazier than it does me.

slgc said...

My favorite story about an argument between writers was when humorist Dave Barry and thriller writer Ridley Pearson were discussing their Peter and the Starcatchers series. The two of them described an argument where one of them heatedly asserted, "a mermaid would NEVER say such a thing," as if either of them was the ultimate authority on mermaid speech.

Now my husband and I will often interject that phrase into the middle of our own disagreements.

Janet Ybarra said...

It sounds like the two of you developed a healthier relationship than married couples. What? ;)

Do you envision partnering with David further or your relationship essentially retired?

Tom said...

Option+shift+- will get you a real emdash. Argument solved!

J Lee said...

I suppose you could change it up occasionally and have them say the less grammatically descriptive "Huh?" instead of "What?" It doesn't allow for the same "I know what you said, but I can't believe you're saying it" tone in the person reacing's voice, but it would work in certain situations.

E. Yarber said...

You always have to remember that even the most supposedly "naturalistic" dialogue is still incredibly stylized compared to the clumsy way people actually talk to one another. I've listened to conversations where one speaker might take a page or two of scripting just to understand what the other one is trying to explain. Other times a person will repeat themselves verbatim two or three times because they want to keep talking but can't think of anything else. The best one can come to reproducing such verbal hiccups on stage without driving the audience crazy is to throw in an occasional blip on the screen like "What?" or "Huh?" or the infrequent "Wuh?" to keep the characters from sounding too mechanically synched.

Ken Levine said...

David and I still write things together on occasion so we consider the partnership still ongoing.

Janet Ybarra said...

Would any of those things ever be up for public consumption? Would be enjoyable...

Sheila said...

“I want a divorce.” When someone says that to their spouse, the natural reaction is that of shock and the first thing to come out of the mouth would be a confused question.

“What!!!?” or "Why!!!?" would be apt.

Ron Rettig said...

Hey Ken, Off topic but Natalie Wood is never off topic for you. Historic Natalie Wood photos show intersection of two great California scandals. https://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/Long-before-her-untimely-death-Natalie-Wood-had-13130507.php

Peter said...

Tarantino wrote an entire exchange based around "What?" in Pulp Fiction with the memorable scene in which Samuel L Jackson tells the guy who keeps nervously answering 'What?' to every question: "Say 'what' again, I dare you, I double dare you, motherfucker!"

gottacook said...

Regarding "Say what?": Venus (Tim Reid) let loose a quite memorable "Say what!?" once on WKRP. Of course, the context had been properly set up first.

Anonymous said...

1. A mermaid would never say “what aisle are the tampons?”
2. What words, besides those banned by S&P, would you both agree never to use?

Mike Bloodworth said...

Hey Ken. Did you hear about the Vanity F...JUST KIDDING! Thought I'd jump on the band wagon. Regarding today's blog, is the problem the word or the question? That is if you said, "I beg your pardon" would that be better? If one is taken aback by a statement it is a natural reaction to think, "did I just hear that?" And/or "Did I hear that correctly?" I suppose it also depends on the character. Frasier or Niles might say "pardon" or "excuse me?" Where as Bulldog or Roz would say "what?" My personal crutches are "SO," and "BUT," I use these way too much. And Ken, you're smart not to use, "say what?" You're much too white to pull it off.
M.B.

Professor Herb said...

Maybe they say "what" or "huh" more often than in scripts, but there's something else that seems to appear in every program: "I promise." Characters that have no reason to promise anything, make a promise of a particular outcome in a situation where they have too many factors they don't control.

As the late Roger Ebert said of his expectation that every movie car chase would smash into a fruit cart, I now accurately predict someone will soon say "I promise."

I first started noticing this after discussing TV programs with a retired police detective friend. He said that no sane detective would ever tell the victim's family that "I promise to catch the person who killed your husband," or "I promise to find your missing child." I then started to hear it in almost every program where it has even less logic to its use: medical drama (I promise we'll cure her); adventures (I promise no one will get hurt); and even half hour TV comedies.

Why has the impossible prediction of "I promise" become the almost universal phrase of television scripts?

E. Yarber said...

"I promise" is a ham-fisted way of having a character express their goal within the story so later actions will be as clear as possible. Given the increasing brevity of TV episodes, writers often jump (or are pushed) to such cliches in order to get past the set-up of the plot straight to the process of resolving the main issue itself.

blogward said...

Has there ever been, or would there be, a sitcom (or otherwise) character that mumbled badly, to the extent that other characters had to er, keep saying "what?"

It makes me think of an autistic guy I met whose response to "sorry, could you say that again?" was to speak even quieter.

Douglas Trapasso said...

@blogward - Of course, there was Mushmouth, one of the Cosby Kids on "Fat Albert and . . . "

Andrew said...

Perhaps you could try, "What you talkin' 'bout Willis?" It works for me.

Buttermilk Sky said...

In place of "What?" perhaps you could bring back "Excuse me?" or "I beg your pardon?" It would be more fitting for someone like Niles Crane or Charles Emerson Winchester, and a refreshing change for the rest of us. It might even catch on in general conversation. Yes, I'm dreaming.

Janet Ybarra said...

Rather than get caught up on any given word or phrase, I think the overall point is no one wants a script written in proper English because no one really speaks that way.

The key is to develop voices--including vocal tics like "what" or what have you--that sounds natural and distinctive. It's harder than it sounds.

Loosehead said...

You two sound like a married couple!

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Ken, I'd be interested to read your take on this Vanity Fair article, which talks about the development of "mini-writers-rooms" in which multiple scripts for series are fleshed out *before* the pilot is commissioned. VF seems to think the result is more precarious employment for writers.

wg

Loosehead said...

The "English" way is to say something like gracious, or goodness gracious, but my favourite, perfect for (almost) every social situation, is "well bugger me bandy".

Kosmo13 said...

My Grandmother's way of asking someone to repeat / clarify what they just said was: "Come again?"

Steve Lanzi (formerly known as qdpsteve) said...

Great post Ken!

Everyone claims that the biggest problem with MY writing is that I overuse adverbs.

I actually, honestly, literally don't know what they're talking about...

PJ said...

Speaking of how people really talk...I do transcription as a part-time job. It's never scripted, it's just conversations, interviews, etc. We are instructed to leave out nonwords and false starts (um, uh, like, so, you know, and repeating the same phrase over and over) I think people would be amazed at how long they can talk without really saying anything! I watch the timer tick by on the recording for 10-15 seconds sometimes without having to type anything.

In the same vein, I highly recommend anyone who makes a living speaking in front of others to record themselves and see if they have any bad habits or verbal crutches. It can be very enlightening.

Acton Bell said...

The only problem with not reading the comments section is you don’t know when you’re asking something 20 other people have already asked—and Ken has answered in the comments section. For example, after much interest in knowing his opinion of “mini-writers rooms,” he said he would write a post on that subject this week.

Roger Owen Green said...

I say "say again" quite often. But it's not a function of a surprise but rather my wife walking upstairs as she says whatever she was saying.

Jahn Ghalt said...

Let's hope you and Isaacs will soon get another chance to bicker - at length -- and get paid for it.

Dan Reese said...

I’ve noticed the popularity and overuse of “Wait, what?” over the past few years in everything. It’s the stock double-take reaction of the 2010s.
Better than the also overused “Oh HELL no!”

Robert Z said...

“I have a ‘what’ banked from Thursday.”
“No, you used that ‘what’ Monday.”
“But we cut that speech.”
“It still counts.”
"What?"

Fixed that for you.

Andy Rose said...

A few years ago, NPR's media criticism show did a story about how people who are interviewed on NPR sound unusually erudite not necessarily because of their intelligence, but because NPR tends to edit their interviews down to the bare bones and cut out all of the hesitations and repetitive phrases. Unlike TV, a chopped-up sentence in radio is virtually impossible to hear if done properly.

Most major podcasts (the "radio" of the 21st century) do the same thing in their interviews. I recently was listening to one well-regarded podcast where they forgot to make the edit before publishing. You hear the interviewee misidentify the subject of an anecdote, then interrupt himself to correct the mistake. The interview then says, "Why don't you just say that first part again with the right name, and I'll cut it together." Oops.

VincentS said...

Funny you brought this up, Ken, because I've noticed that people tend to say "What?" a lot in TV (not so much in movies, I think) and sometimes it seems like an obvious exposition tool so I side with David Isaacs on this one. But putting "What" aside, those times when you talked baseball during your breaks did you ever settle on who's on first?

Barry said...

This sounds like the disturbing trend in millennial vidcasts these days to edit every pause out of a talking head’s diatribe to the screen, so that it’s full of awkward jump cuts of speech. Intercut, in some cases, with awkward laughing at their own jokes and mugging to the camera. It’s extremely off-putting to the regular viewer although that demographic seem to love it. Olan Rogers is a big user of this device, as are Grace Helbig, Philip DeFranco and other’s.

Justin Piatt said...

Reading through some Wilder/Diamond scripts, they use "--" a LOT. Sometimes they used it in dialogue where a semicolon might normally go, or to indicate a mid-sentence change of thought, or just when someone's being interrupted.

I use it -- too much.