How to Kill a Dialog Trick: Overuse It

Don Draper - what?

A Dialogue trick––like “what?” meaning, “Did you REALLY say what I thought you said?”–– is quite respectable, if used sparingly. But beware overusing it to the point where it’s being noticed.

[Note: this post was originally inspired by a YouTube video I came across, a montage of Mad Men's Don Draper reacting with "What?" in scene after scene, when taking umbrage or expressing incredulity. YouTube took it down ("wha-a-at?"), so I mocked up my own visual.]

It’s a fine line that separates the useful, below-the-radar dialogue trick from the annoying cliche.

When do you know you’ve crossed that line? When video montages like the one above start appearing. Who can ever again watch Mad Men without taking conscious note of what they already knew unconsciously, namely, that Don Draper says “what?” way too much. Result: that device is now dead in the water for Mad Men (or should be), and the writers have no one to blame but themselves.

While we’re on the subject, I’d like to make my own Mad Men montage––of Don (and other characters as well) using the slightly stronger variant of “what?”––namely, “Excuse me?”, as in:

“Excuse me?”
“You mean you haven’t heard yet? It’s all over the office.”

Not only do the Mad Men writers work “excuse me?” to death, they also commit the sin of anachronism every time they use it, because, in the mid 1960s, during which the show is set, “excuse me?” meaning “what?” hadn’t happened yet––and I’m old enough to personally vouch for that.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Fran December 18, 2010 at 1:07 am

Yep, and they’d better not say they are “bored of” something, which I recently saw on a British TV movie that was set in the 50s.

2 Bill Henderson December 21, 2010 at 1:47 pm

Actually I’ve heard it most often in my kids’ generation–roughly post-teens and younger. The Brits do have some odd locutions, like “different to.” And they pronounce “shone” as “shahn.” But, hey, regional differences. What bothers me is the overuse of ANY gesture of language. If every character in a narrative is running around saying “excuse me?” when they take exception…well, you’ve got a writing problem.

3 James Thayer January 4, 2011 at 12:50 am

The dialogue device I find most irksome is the dialogue prompt, where the writer tries to break up the dialogue so that it isn’t a monologue (usually a good goal), but ends up with obvious prompts:
“The landlady came by today,” Joe said. “She has increased the rent.”
“Increased the rent?”
“By three hundred dollars a month.”
Sally said, “Three hundred? We can’t afford it.”
“And we’ll have to get our own insurance,” Joe said.
“You heard it right. Our own insurance. I’ve already contacted the agent.”
Sally pulled at an earlobe. “Which agent?”

4 Bill Henderson January 4, 2011 at 5:54 am

True. But you can make it work by giving the prompting character a credible agenda. Usually that calls for a response that does more than just toss back the identical word or phrase. Descriptive silence is another alternative. Sally’s face tightens and her eyes fill with fear as she waits (without speaking) for the big shoe to fall–$300 a month.

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