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Interview: Penny Penniston, Author of ‘Talk the Talk: A Dialogue Workshop for Scriptwriters’

April 10, 2013

tsc-logoBy Erin V.

Last Sunday, I attended a panel led by author/playwright Penny Penniston who wrote ‘Talk the Talk (2010)‘, at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference, which ran April 6th and 7th in downtown Toronto.

Penny Penniston

Penny Penniston

The conference has speakers from film, TV, as well as authors of well known screenwriting books, all talking about the art of storytelling and screenwriting.  After the very informative and entertaining session, I had the opportunity to speak with Penny a bit about her book.  The interview, which touches on some points from the panel, is transcribed below.  Enjoy!

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So first off, what inspired you to write this book?  

I was teaching, and you know it’s funny, every writing book that I ever read written by a professor always more or less starts out the same way, which is they say, ‘I was teaching a class and I couldn’t find a book that explained things exactly the way I wanted to explain them, so I wrote my own,’ and that’s basically what happened here.  I mean part of it was, really, there was surprisingly little out there that was just about dialogue writing, given the fact that it is a fundamental building block of writing a screenplay.  The second part of it was kind of a crime of opportunity because I had been teaching for five years – I had lectures, I had notes, I had exercises, so I had just sort of organically had the stuff of a book.  So it was kind of like, ‘oh let’s see if I could put this together and make some money off of it and try to get it published’, so it’s just a crime of opportunity which has led to some really wonderful things.

talkthetalkT_largeOne thing I really like about your book Talk the Talk is the workshop format – you aren’t just reading a lot of text, it actually is interactive for the person.  What led you to make that format?  

Well, you know, I think that writers learn by writing.  So in the introduction [to the panel] I talked about how it’s like learning to play the piano.  These are all exercises like scales and etudés to kind of get some technique into your muscle memory, so that when you sit down and work on your script all that stuff will be instinctive and all that will come out naturally, in the same way that a trained piano player practices over and over so that they can get to the point where they don’t have to think about it.

And so I think writers only learn that and only get better and only get that fluency by practising over and over again, but all the lecturing and theory in the world doesn’t help you become a better writer.  It gives you some tools to think about your writing as you’re doing it, but only if you’re doing it.  So I think of myself like a piano teacher where I’m just encouraging people to do it again and again – to try to break it down and focus in on very digestible technique things or one little trick, and practice it in a very focused way, so that hopefully then you just have that in your writer’s toolbox.  You know, like here’s an extra brush in my brush set if I’m an artist, or an extra colour in my palette.

Now I was actually going to mention about that from your panel, because I play the piano – I’ve played the piano since I was around three years old – and now it’s at the point where I can sit down and improvise and I don’t really think about it in the same way.  You’re just playing or you’re reading a piece as you’re playing it, and because I write as well, I find that with writing when you get into a flow of something it is very similar, so I liked that analogy.  

Yeah, it’s very useful.  And there was a time probably where, as a piano player, you had to sit and think about every note, everything that you were doing, and you would do it over and over again until you got to the point where you don’t have to think about it.

Exactly.  

But then if you run into a problem, you might go back and go like, ‘slow down, what’s going on, what am I missing, where did I mess up?’  And so it’s something to then fall back on.

Right.  I feel that I approach writing from a couple of different angles.  I’ve also done some improv, so it was interesting to hear what you said about improv lines, and dialogue lines.  What I was going to ask you about is, when you first write you talked about sort of improvising on the page, but when you are going over it again, how do you make sure it still stays natural, but maybe put stuff more into subtext without making it seem that it’s been pushed in that direction?  

Well, I think you’re always going through this tension of imposing structure, but leaving opportunity for surprise, and you’re sort of trying to wrangle a little bit, where you kind of go through with a really critical eye, you pair down, and then the next time you go through you try to be a little bit more spontaneous and you find opportunities to kind of sprinkle in stuff.  You know, it’s a little like frosting a cake, where you kind of have to be very careful to make sure the whole cake’s covered and then you add sprinkles and maybe a daisy… Once you’ve done the structural part of it you can sprinkle in the sort of surprises and things to freshen it up and make it feel spontaneous – make it feel less buttoned down.  You’re always dealing with this conflict between the part of you that needs to be organic and spontaneous, and the part of you that needs to give it structure.  Because if it’s all organic and spontaneous, and it’s no form and structure, then it’s just the banging on the piano.

…and it’s not going to follow the story.  

Right, it’s just noise.  It doesn’t make sense, it’s not something people can follow, you’re putting things in that are not relevant, or distracting, or they take you away, draw energy out of your story… So the structure is like the bones of the building that keep it up, and all the other stuff is like the interior design where you walk around and it’s so pretty and beautiful and interesting to live in, but you need the structure or the building will collapse.

Which is generally why improv skits tend to be fairly short.  

Yes, they tend to be very short and they have a little bit of structure to them, but not as much – they’re not as structured as the way a screenwriter would structure them.

Now referring back to Talk the Talk for a second, in the book you talked about high status and low status – writing different characters and what they want in a scene, and how the same line might be said differently by someone whether they’re playing high or low status for different people.  Where did you come up with that analogy?  

That’s sort of stolen from a writer named Keith Johnstone who’s actually an improv teacher.  He’s a British improv teacher, and he had a wonderful book called Impro, and chapter five is on status, this idea of status.  I mean he uses it to teach improvisation, but I find it very useful for teaching writing – for teaching people how dialogue moves, because it’s basically about how humans interact with each other, which is what dialogue is.  And it gives a very structured way to think about dialogue sort of moment to moment.  Again, you know, not consciously, but when you’re having trouble and trying to dissect what’s going on it’s a useful tool to understand it or to think about.

Or when a character maybe breaks that – the role that they normally play – and why…  

Yeah – certainly when they break the role, why they break the role, and how comfortable they are playing the role, (you know whatever status role they’re playing), how good at it they are… Sometimes people who are really high status, they try to be low status but they can’t, and vice versa, people who are really low status, they try to be high but they just can’t pull it off… So yeah, it adds a whole other dynamic, and the thing I like about it is that it’s a dynamic that can shift line to line, moment to moment – you can keep your script sort of bubbling and moving, with these sort of status interactions, in a way that keeps it very lively I think.

Next up I think I should ask a little bit of background – when did you get into screenwriting, and why?  

I was in high school, and I loved the television show Moonlighting, which was a show with Bruce Willis.  It was sort of a funny, crime-comedy thing, and I thought maybe I could be a writer – I could be a screenwriter.  I went to Northwestern to study film – I was a radio/TV/film major at Northwestern University because I’d decided in high school that I wanted to do that.  But then I decided I didn’t want to move to Los Angeles, and it’s very hard to pursue that if you’re not in L.A. or New York, so I ended up staying in Chicago and working in advertising and kind of came to it, back into it, through playwriting.  You know, I live in Chicago, I work in theatre, that’s sort of primarily what I do – I do a little bit of screenwriting, but I’m a playwright and I teach playwriting.  But, so many of the same rules apply, particularly when it comes to dialogue.

Now one thing with film vs. the stage, is in film you have a lot more with the visuals.  So how do you adjust to make the correct balance between visually telling the story, and through the dialogue of the characters?  

They are different things – in film you have an opportunity to do a lot visually, so that you don’t need the dialogue, and you can use less dialogue, but at the end of the day, dialogue is just another tool to move the story forward.  And when you have a camera, that’s also a tool to move the story forward.  And so it’s just another tool in your toolbox, so when you’re working in film, you just have this extra really powerful tool and you can bring it in whenever you feel it can do a better job, right?  It’s like, ‘what’s better – a screwdriver or a hammer for this moment?  Well, I think the hammer would work, or I think now we want a screwdriver, so it’s going to be dialogue.’  They both serve the same function, they both serve the story, it’s just another thing that you have that you don’t necessarily have on the stage because you don’t have a camera to move around.  But there’s other things that you have on stage.  So you’re just learning how to use these tools, practicing using all these tools, and thinking about the practical implication about using these tools, and some of that is the writing process and some of that is the production process.

That process of what can we show – what do we need to show vs. what can we cover in dialogue, once you know your budget and your director, a lot of that stuff can get rewritten and worked out in that sort of period once you’ve bought the script.  You know, when you’re submitting the script, you’re submitting it to people who are going to read it.  So your job is different – even though you can tell the story visually, you need to tell your story visually but with that trade-off between visuals and dialogue.  You basically just don’t want to repeat yourself.

It also depends on the genre that you’re writing…  

Yeah, the genre that you’re writing it.  And it’s great if as a writer – a studio would love it – if you could figure out a way to make the moment just as exciting without requiring the multi-million dollar special effects, like is there a way to do that?  So if you, the writer, can figure out how to make it dramatic without requiring a bunch of computer graphics or whatever, than all for the good.

So what would you have to say for aspiring screenwriters who maybe are struggling with dialogue in their scripts?  

I would just say… write, and then listen.  You know, you have to keep practicing.  So you write something and then it’s also really helpful I think to find people – even if it’s just actors around a table – people with some sort of acting training just reading it.  When you hear it you can sort of hear when it’s working and hear when it’s not, so write, write over and over again, write some more, then write something else, then get people to read it preferably out loud, and listen to it – how does it sound?  It’s like developing perfect pitch or something, you kind of do it and then you test yourself, and you do it and you test yourself, ‘was that a ‘C’?  No maybe a little flat, no there’s a ‘C” – you keep nudging it until you can hit a ‘C’ perfectly without thinking about it.  You’re trying to build that fluency.  It takes a lot of practice, it takes a lot of work – one of the hard things about, one of the sort of daunting things about screenwriting, is that it seems a lot easier than it is.

Again, because it’s conversation, because it’s dialogue – you know we all use words – because it’s just how people talk, people think, ‘oh it’s not that hard!’  But it’s actually incredibly complicated.  There’s a lot going on – I get driven crazy by the sort of books and things that suggest that it’s easy, you know, ‘write a movie in three hours!,’ and no, it’s really hard.  I think it devalues the writer when you pretend that it’s easier than it is.  It’s very complicated – there’s a lot going on, you’re managing a lot of stuff.  So I think people really need to be aware of that, and embrace that challenge.  You have to like the practicing of it – just like being a musician or whatever, at some point you have to enjoy sitting down at the piano and tinkering with it forever, and if you don’t enjoy that part of it, then you’re just not going to be happy because that’s so much, that’s going to be so much of your time.  I think writers just naturally enjoy that and they have this passion and need to do it that gets fulfilled when they do it, so it just drives them to keep coming back and keep trying.

I’ve taught writing for a long time, and I’ve actually had students that have gone on to have some degree of success and like when I look back at their scripts and I say ‘were they any better or not as good as the other students in my class?’  Well, at the time, when they were undergraduates when I had them, there wasn’t necessarily anything remarkable about them, but the thing that set them apart was that they liked it, they had passion for it, and they had discipline to do it.  They were very determined to keep working at it and to keep getting better and better.  And you know they did, but I couldn’t have told you at 19, 20, 21, who were the good writers and who were the not good writers, the only difference when I had students between the good writers and the not good writers, was that the good ones had more experience.  Sometimes I would have kids that came into my class who were like ‘I’ve been writing scripts since I was 16,’ and so those people would tend to be a little bit better than the people who hadn’t.  But it’s not that the people who hadn’t couldn’t catch up if they put in the work too.  So a lot of it is just how much work you’re willing to put in, and how much you enjoy doing that work.  If you don’t enjoy it, you spend way too much time in your basement at your computer to not like it.

One thing I noticed between dialogue and conversation – and maybe a lot of people don’t notice – is conversation has a lot of fluff that dialogue in a movie can’t have.  It has to be narrowed down, and you’re also condensing the time.  You could have a film that takes place over two weeks while the film’s only two hours.  

Right, well it’s condensing time, and as dialogue in a story it moves from beginning to end, and it changes – you know we’re going to leave this interview and neither you nor I will be fundamentally different people I don’t think, you know it’s been very nice, but I don’t know that I will be fundamentally or profoundly changed, and I don’t think you will either, but in film, characters leave every scene different.  There’s something different about the situation that they’re in, the relationship that they’re having, the balance of forces acting on them – every scene is different.  Dialogue is always moving story – so there’s just a lot more forces at work.  That’s just rare in real life.  I mean, screenwriting is basically like life consummate, where you kind of take life and you distill it down into…

…these moments.  

Yeah, these really pure essences, without a lot of fluff and distraction.  You know you enhance it, that’s sort of how it works.

Maybe as a metaphor to what you might have experienced, but experienced over a longer period of time…  

Yeah, or experienced in a less extreme way.  I’m probably never going to go to the moon like Apollo 13, but by watching that I get to vicariously experience that adventure and I get to find these resonances that kind of resonate with my life in a small way, like overcoming challenges and having hope in the face of what seemed like daunting obstacles, and you know whatever the little lesson of the universal thing in a story is, so yeah I think that’s meaningful.

We’re almost out of time here – so, was there anything else that you wanted to add before we wrapped up?  

I would just say keep writing – you know that’s my general advice to writers.  Keep writing and challenge yourself, make it interesting for yourself, and good luck!

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Thanks to Penny Penniston for taking the time to speak with me today – hope you enjoyed reading this interview, and you can check out her book on Amazon here.

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