Summary of this month’s movie:
Here come the spoilers! In 1954, six strangers are invited to a dinner party at a secluded mansion. They are met by the butler, Wadsworth, who gives each of them a pseudonym, with none of them knowing or being addressed by their real names - Colonel Mustard, Mrs. White, Mrs. Peacock, Mr. Green, Professor Plum, and Miss Scarlet. During dinner, a seventh guest, Mr. Boddy, arrives. Afterwards, Wadsworth reveals the real reason they are there: Mr. Boddy has been blackmailing the other guests for some time now. The group is here to confront him and turn him over to the police.
Mr. Boddy, however, reminds them that if he is arrested, their secrets will be exposed. He then gives each of the other guests different weapons as a gift, suggesting that one of them kill Wadsworth instead to avoid exposure. When he turns out the lights, a gunshot rings out, and when the lights are turned back on, they find Mr. Boddy apparently dead. Later, the cook is found stabbed with the dagger, and Mr. Boddy's body disappears, only to be rediscovered dead again but with new injuries from the candlestick.
The group splits into pairs and search the house to make sure no one else is there. While they are searching, a stranded motorist, a police officer, and a singing telegram girl show up at the mansion and are killed, along with the maid, Yvette. Wadsworth and the others regroup, and he reveals he knows who the murderer is. He proceeds to recreate the events of the night so far as to explain how the murders occurred. He reveals that the other five people who died with Mr. Boddy were his accomplices, who gave him vital information about the different guests.
We then are treated to multiple endings that show various guests as the killer. The final ending is “the way it really happened” and shows that each guest killed one person, except for Mr. Green who is an undercover FBI agent and has them all arrested. Jeni, what did you think about the movie?
Jeni: Okay, so, listeners, Carly has been trying to get me to do an episode on this movie for a long time, and we are both so excited to finally be doing it. This movie has been one of my favorites since I was a kid. As I’ve said here before, I grew up on murder mysteries, and the genre really has a special place in my heart. There’s definitely a sense of nostalgia for me in rewatching it, but when I watched it this time for the podcast, it was the first time I’ve ever really thought about the storytelling elements. I think that happens a lot when it’s a story we know well. The characters are all so fun, and the cast is amazing. I remember thinking how glamorous Madeline Kahn is as Mrs. White was when I was a kid, but I think I’m much more Mrs. Peacock now that I’m actually an adult. But that speech from Mrs. White -- the “flames...flames on the side of my face…” quote has always stuck with me. I used that as a reaction gif on a pretty regular basis. And Tim Curry is, of course, the best because he’s always the best in everything. He really makes this movie for me. The deadpan sarcasm is wonderful, and I could never get enough. The balance of physical, verbal, and situational humor is the best. It’s just an amazing parody of those closed-room murder mysteries. We get to see a lot of the elements of any mystery, which we discussed in our episode about Knives Out earlier this year. But because it’s a comedy, those are turned on their head a bit. The best part, obviously, is the alternate endings. Other movies have an alternate ending, but I’ve never seen another one that shows the audience all the ways the movie could have ended. It’s so fun and zany and brilliant. I’m just gonna say it--I think this is the best board game-turned-film out there. What about you?
Carly: Umm agreed. I honestly can’t believe what a high quality movie they made off of a board game. I feel like it could’ve gone so wrong so easily if everything hadn’t been perfect. The cast is impeccable and the writing is on point. I also love the multiple endings, and it was only today that I learned that in the theatrical release, audiences would be shown only one of the three endings. I’ve always watched it on video, so I never knew! I think that’s so fun… and I would be so sad to not get all the endings. The physical comedy is so strong in this movie too. The choreographer of all the action was really well thought out. Especially in the various endings when Tim Curry is running around recreating the various murders. I’m tired just thinking about it. He runs back and forth and does impeccable impressions while speed talking and conveying tons of information. It’s just amazing. So Jeni, what did the movie do well that writers can use in their own work?
Jeni: There are so many elements in this movie that are so good that it’s honestly hard to pick. But I think what really makes this movie is the dialogue. The writers crafted some really clever dialogue in this movie, and it’s so good because it works on multiple levels. But this movie relies heavily on the dialogue, both for a lot of the jokes and for the story itself. It’s really the main way we receive information, and it’s revealed in layers as we get to know the characters better. Sometimes it’s over-the-top, and sometimes it’s subtle. So for example, as a kid, there was a lot about this movie that went over my head, but I could still enjoy the antics. Now, though, even a million years later--I mean, it is 35 years old!--most of the jokes still hold up, and the movie itself is still a cult favorite.
Carly: I could quote this movie for the whole podcast, but I won’t. Unless you want me to... ? But in all seriousness, every time I watch this movie I pick up on a new innuendo or pun or bit of sarcasm that I missed. I feel like this whole movie is the basis for all my humor. But exactly, this movie doesn’t use a lot of visual scenes to depict action, it is all talking (and Tim Curry reenacting scenes while talking). We learn all the information through clever remarks and perfectly delivered lines. One reason the dialogue is so good is that it is so fast. You can rewatch the movie a million times and still notice something new. They speak quickly and concisely and humorously. We learn so much about them through the dialogue delivery and jokes. And it’s just so good, I’ll stop gushing now.
Jeni: One of the functions of dialogue is that it lets the characters explain important information in their own words and imbue it with their emotions. This allows for some amount of showing instead of telling because we see it through the lens of the character’s experience. But be careful because it’s still possible to have “telly” (in other words: exposition heavy) dialogue. Good dialogue is condensed and focuses on the most important elements, allowing the reader or viewer to fill in the blanks from the context. That’s not to say that there isn’t a time and place for a good campfire scene where characters tell each other about their backgrounds, but most dialogue needs to be short and sweet. That’s one of the best things about the dialogue in this movie, like Carly mentioned. It’s so fast, and it really allows the characters to play off of each other a lot. Wadsworth almost has the function of a narrator. He is the one who gives us the information that fills in a lot of blanks and reveals when each character is lying or hiding something, and that spurs them to come clean. In your writing, trust your reader to fill in some gaps in dialogue, and only give them the highlights when a character speaks, especially if the character is telling another character something the reader already knows (like summarizing something that happened in a previous scene when the characters weren’t together). Then use the back-and-forth of a conversation to get characters to give the necessary information so you don’t end up with a lot of page-long monologues by one character. Consider what elements you want to have the most impact in dialogue, just like we’ve said in previous podcasts about other episodes. It’s all about knowing how you want to affect the reader so you can do that with intention.
Carly: What really brings dialogue to life is what it tells us about a character. I’m not talking about the information we learn from what they say, but what we learn by how they say it.Each character needs their own voice. We talk a lot about voice in a previous episode, so I’ll keep it short. Voice is basically personality. Who is your character and what in their past has shaped who they are? Everyone is made up of different experiences and all those experiences color who they are and how they act. How does your character speak that is different from another character? What personality traits come through in their dialogue? Yes, their backstory shapes how they react in a situation, but it also subtly shapes the way in which they speak. Let’s take Mrs. White versus Mrs. Peacock. Mrs. White is defensive and quiet. She only speaks when others address her, she only has outbursts during high-emotion moments. However Mrs. Peacock is flibbertigibbet. She talks and talks and talks, jumping from one topic to the next. She talks so much that a lot of important information gets buried beneath layers of dialogue. She can talk so much that she reveals herself accidentally because her words get ahead of her brain. Mrs. White is the silent character with a dark secret, that she killed her husband in a jealous rage whereas Mrs. Peacock is a politician’s wife that is used to making small talk and entertaining guests at events. When you watch a movie for voice, think about how those characters respond differently to the same stimuli. You can even try writing a short story from two different character’s perspectives to really flesh out how they are distinct and what in their past makes them respond differently. When questioned by the other characters Mrs. Peacock rambles and gets tongue-tied, while Mrs. White snaps back until her anger slowly builds and she calmly (but passionately) discusses how her jealousy turn to flames on the side of her face.
Jeni: Right, and it also needs to reveal details about the character--their backstory, their desires and motivations, their wounds, their reactions. How characters talk to one another is a huge indication of their relationships as well. For example, Carly and I know each other really well so I can be way more sarcastic with her than I am with someone I barely know. We see that in this movie as well. All the backstory is revealed through dialogue. As I said above, Wadsworth kind of functions as the narrator and prods the other characters to spill their secrets. What is fun about how this is handled in the movie is that it’s done in waves. We find out small secrets first and then dig deeper into the characters’ backstories and motivations. This makes sense, if you think about it. Generally people wait to reveal their deepest secrets until they’ve known someone a while. Or at least, so I’ve been told. I may or may not be the kind of person who awkwardly dumps all of my innermost thoughts on someone I’ve just met. Anyhoo. The viewer or reader needs to earn that in the same way someone we meet in real life does. So in your writing you want to layer how the characters reveal themselves as well. Show us through little clues. This can be slang and dialect, it can be in the words they choose as their reactions, and it can be the actual information they tell us. I want to pause here to talk about physical beats, reactions, and dialogue tags too. We can’t exactly see those in a movie, but you want to use these to simulate all the nonverbal communication we would get if we were to see these characters in person. Use this not only to keep the reader oriented with who is speaking but also to deepen the emotions being conveyed in the dialogue itself.
Carly: Next, you need to give info that furthers the plot. We want dialogue that keeps the story moving and is relevant to the plot. You don’t want a bit of dialogue that goes nowhere and doesn’t keep us engaged. Remember that plot is conflict so you need tension and conflict in your dialogue. What does this mean? Subtext! Even when your characters are having a happy conversation, what can you layer in to show that there is more going on than is apparent? What is the conflict of the scene and how can that be an undercurrent to the conversation? Insert a couple of words that flavor the conversation and show that your plot is still moving forward and that there is more information to learn here than meets the eye. One example would be all the innuendos about Ms. Scarlett’s business and how she knows some of the other characters. Yes, sexual innuendos provide comedy in this movie, but they also lay out Ms. Scarlett’s history and involvement in the various skullduggeries of the characters. We learn a lot about the characters and the blackmail plot through subtext in the sexual innuendos throughout the movie. Taking small moments that could be an off-hand joke and threading them with importance and meaning slowly build tension and conflict in a scene. We as an audience slowly learn bits of information that heighten our tension and start to put the pieces together in regards to the plot. Basically, thread your dialogue with hints that build tension and conflict in subtle ways. You don’t want to give the whole game away in a block of text, but you want to start giving pieces that the reader can use to build the whole picture.
Jeni: Lastly, it has to feel natural. Consider the time and location, the characters’ personalities and relationships--all of that. But ultimately, dialogue has to read like people really talk. If it doesn’t, the reader or viewer won’t buy into it. Dialogue that feels too stilted or formal will pull a reader out of a story faster than almost anything else. Now, keep in mind, yes, some characters will speak in a more formal way, and this needs to match their backstories, demeanors, and reactions. But most of the time, you want the dialogue to be … well, conversational. This can be a tricky balance though. You don’t want it to go too far into being so conversational that it bores the reader. Consider how much everyday conversation you actually need to include. For example, we don’t need to see the characters say hello, ask how their day has been, ask after their families, etc., in every single scene. Keep it focused on what fits the criteria we’ve discussed here, and limit the amount of dialogue you use to transition into and out of the conversations.
Jeni: This month our query is for a young adult contemporary fantasy novel, and this story sounds fabulous! What are your thoughts on the query?
Carly: First of all, this story really does sound amazing. It is all about friendship and familial love, set in a dark and gritty fantasy world: which is right up my alley. Like, please can I read this??? But that being said, the query needs some work. There isn’t enough consistency tying together the different pieces of the plot. We learn that one character is chasing another, and suddenly they are teaming up to achieve their individual goals. But what causes them to team up? How do they reconcile their differences to move forward together? What is the opposition they are up against and how does it get in their way? We need explanations that are tying the pieces together in a cohesive line.
Jeni: The bit of worldbuilding at the beginning feels like you’re sort of setting the stage, but then I didn’t see how it really connected to what you tell us about the main characters. I think you’d be better off splitting up that information and giving it to us where it’s relevant so you can focus more on the characters and stakes. And then the last paragraph of the summary is too vague. Give us more specific information here. What are two or three obstacles that these characters will have to overcome in order to resolve the main plot? What do they really want, and what are they going to have to sacrifice to get it? What happens if they don’t?