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“The C Version”

The C Version

Cynthia’s Column, Feb. 2008

I mentioned in last month’s column on writing funny, the concept of the A, B and C choices.  I saw a film recently that is a brilliant example of an entire script written with C choices.  Juno, by Diablo Cody (Not the name she was born with, but seriously if you could make up your own name, how badass is Diablo Cody?  You wish you’d thought of it first, I know.) is written in a completely fresh voice with a deadpan, pregnant 16-year-old girl named for Zeus’s wife, spouting out original line after funny surprising line.  Let me use one of her scenes to show an example of the A, B, C choices as an approach to dialogue.

The A Version of a Juno Scene.  (Not the version in the movie.)  Juno, finding out she is pregnant, calls her best friend Leah on the phone to deliver the bad news.

JUNO:  I’m pregnant.

LEAH: What?

JUNO:  Yeah.

LEAH:  You’re probably just bloated.  Did you eat a big lunch?

JUNO:  I took the test three times.  I’m definitely pregnant and you don’t seem very upset about it.

LEAH:  Are you serious?  This is for real?

JUNO:  Yes.

LEAH:  Oh my God!

JUNO:  That’s more the response I was expecting.

The B Version:  A little more interesting than the first, most obvious, on-the-nose version above, but still in the realm of the ordinary.

JUNO:  I’m freaking out.

LEAH:  Juno?

JUNO:  No it’s the Cookie Monster.  Need any cookies?

LEAH:  No thanks.  I’m fat enough.

JUNO:  I’m going to be fatter.  I’m pregnant.

LEAH:  What?  Honest to God?

JUNO:  Yeah.  I’m freaking out here.

LEAH:  You’re probably just bloated.  Did you do the midnight popcorn binge again?

JUNO:  No.  It’s not salt.  I took three pregnancy tests.  And you’re acting awfully casual about it.

LEAH:  Is this for real?

JUNO:  Yeah.  For real, for real.

LEAH:  Oh my God.  Oh shit.

JUNO:  That is the minimum required reaction of a best friend.

And finally, The C Version by Ms. Diablo Cody of the scene from the script of Juno:

Juno calls her best friend Leah on her plastic hamburger phone.

JUNO:  I’m a suicide risk.

LEAH:  Juno?

JUNO:  No, it’s Morgan Freeman.  Do you have any bones that need collecting?

LEAH:  Only the ones in my pants.

JUNO:  I’m pregnant.

LEAH:  What?  Honest to blog?

JUNO:  Yeah, yeah.  It’s bleekers.

LEAH:  It’s probably just a food baby.  Did you have a big lunch?

JUNO:  No.  This is not a food baby, all right?  I’ve taken like three pregnancy tests and I am for shiz up the spout.

LEAH:  How did you even generate enough pee for three pregnancy tests?

JUNO:  I drank like ten tons of Sunny D.  Anyway, dude, I’m telling you I’m pregnant and you’re acting shockingly cavalier.

LEAH:  Is this for real?  I mean for real for real?

JUNO:  Unfortunately, yes.

LEAH:  Oh my God.  Oh shit!  Phuket, Thailand.

JUNO:  Thanks.  That was kind of the emotion I was searching for on the first take.

This is why the first draft is never the draft to go out with.  You have to write down the basic ideas.  Then elaborate.  Play around.  Get creative with it.  Get to the C choice.  And go no further out.  Seriously.  Beyond “for shiz” and “bleekers” they won’t understand you.

And it’s not just dialogue that benefits from going for the C choice.  It can take three drafts to get to the hamburger phone.

This is also a good system for de-cliché-ing your work.  If you proof your pages and find a “without a pot to piss in” or “bone chilling cold” or his “stomach was tied up in knots” just flip it one or two steps off center.  Make it “without a Dr. Pepper can to pee in” or “teeth shattering cold” or “his stomach was slow dancing with a boa constrictor.”  That last one sounded a little too Raymond Chandler, but you get the idea.

For more on this kind of work, get hold of a copy of Your First Novel by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb.  Laura is particularly brilliant at this.

When Russell Crowe showed up in L.A. Confidential, The Insider and Gladiator a lot of male movie stars (not to name any  names, but guys like Tom Cruise) suddenly looked like bad actors because the acting bar for leading men got raised.  When Diablo Cody showed up this winter, the bar got raised on sharp, hip young dialogue and characters.  And for this we are grateful and inspired.  Cody’s work challenges us to be better, sharper, more original writers.

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