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The Order of Oddfish

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Episode 4 of the Secrets of Story Podcast: Contentious Dialogue!

August 8, 2017

My friend Matt Bird and host a podcast called The Secrets of Story. Matt’s the author of the highly recommended and helpful fiction writing advice book The Secrets of Story: Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers. The book, and our podcast, are based on his storytelling advice blog, of which I’m a longtime fan and contributor.

I usually announce each episode of the podcast on this blog around the time that it drops, but the last few episodes were released when I was in the middle of the frenzy of the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival, so they fell through the cracks. Better late than never, though, so let’s check out Episode 4 of “Secrets of Story” today! You can listen to it on SoundCloud above, or here on iTunes.

It’s actually my favorite episode so far. I think Matt and I hit our stride here!

This episode is mostly about dialogue. Matt and I clash about how contentious dialogue should be. Should characters always be motivated to “get something” out of the other character in the scene, and use tricks and traps to get it, as Matt advises? Is there room for scenes in which characters are honestly trying to understand each other and care for each other, as I argue, or are such scenes by their nature dramatically inert? Are most scenes—is life itself—really about a scramble for dominance? If so, how depressing is that? Are there other models for behavior and storytelling that we can also add into the mix?

To explore Matt’s point, in this episode we reference similar scenes from two different Star Trek movies. In both Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Star Trek: Beyond (2016), there’s a scene near the beginning of the movie in which Bones and Kirk share some alien drink on Kirk’s birthday, and Bones probes Kirk’s discomfort with growing old. (As it happens, Matt and I happened to have recorded this episode on the eve of my own birthday, March 9, which was rather serendipitous.)

Matt and I agree that the Wrath of Khan scene holds up even thirty years later, while last year’s Beyond scene is “truly terrible filmmaking, truly terrible writing, a truly terrible scene,” in Matt’s words (he lays out his objections more fully here). That said, the scenes are so superficially similar—why does the 1982 version work, but the 2016 version doesn’t?

In any case, if you want to see the scenes themselves, here’s the still-effective Wrath of Khan scene:

And the limp, ineffective version of the same scene in Star Trek Beyond:

Perhaps ironically, even though I’m the one advocating for exploring the possibilities of a less contentious model of scenebuilding and dialogue, midway through the episode it gets heated, and I call Matt “an insect” and bark “Have you ever had a friend in your life?” so that’s pretty charming. But it’s fun to listen to, so I guess it proves Matt’s point!

At the end of every episode, either Matt or I “give away” a free story idea. Listen all the way to the end of this episode to hear us discuss my idea of Down and Out in Heaven and Hell, a fantastical comedy that is set in the afterlife about the not-dead not-alive “undocumented workers” who do all the blue-collar labor of keeping the afterlife working.

I hope you enjoy this episode! More episodes to come!