There are a lot of TV shows I try and just sort of drift away from, because they aren’t doing enough to hold my attention. The latest in this series is Black Lightning, which surprised me, because there are a number of things I like about its characters and its story. But in the end, its dialogue doesn’t have much of a particular element for which I can find no better term than “zing.”
Thanks, brain. “Zing.” That’s a real helpful way of describing it. >_<
Zing is not the same thing as witty banter — though many shows have mistaken the one for the other, and fill their scripts with dialogue that’s absolutely leaden in its attempt to be light. You can have zing in a deadly serious conversation (as Game of Thrones has proved). It’s a cousin, I think, of Mark Twain’s comment about the difference between the right word and the almost-right word being the difference between lightning and a lightning bug: it’s the lightning lines, the ones that leap off the page or the screen, the ones that don’t just get you from Narrative Point A to Narrative Point B but make the journey between them memorable. You see it in The Lion in Winter, which along with Twelve Angry Men made me wonder if this is a quality especially possessed by older stage plays — I haven’t seen enough older stage plays to be sure. At its apex, it’s the feeling that no line has been wasted or allowed to do the bare minimum of work. Think of The Princess Bride, and how many lines from that movie are quotable. It isn’t just because the lines themselves are good; it’s because there’s almost no flab in the script, every word simultaneously developing character and furthering the plot while also being entertaining.
Zing gets my attention, in a TV show or a movie or a book. Without it, my attention wanders a bit; I scrape a general sense of the story out of the mass of words used to tell it, but don’t engage on a moment-to-moment level. With it, I lose track of the world around me because I don’t want to miss anything in the tale. Zing makes me decide, before I’m two scenes into the first episode of a show, that I’ll give the second one a shot. Zing is what makes me plow through thousands of pages of Neal Stephenson making an utter hash of his plot, because he can describe a room in above a tavern on the seventeenth-century London Bridge in such riveting terms that I wind up reading it out loud twice, once to my husband and once to my sister.
I think this is what some people, when teaching the craft of writing, describe as “voice.” I’ve been known to rant about how I find that term completely unhelpful . . . but, well, here I am talking about “zing,” because my alternative is to wave my hands around in the air and make inarticulate noises. That thing. Over there. Do you see?
These days I’m reaching for it more in my own work, especially in one of the things I’m noodling around with right now. A character is hiding in a palace full of baroque decorations and complaining about the discomfort. There’s something jabbing into my back. No. There’s a carving jabbing into my back. No. There’s a gilded carving grinding into my kidney. Better. There’s a gilded figure of the South Wind imprinting itself on my left kidney. Better still.
Doing that for every sentence is exhausting. I have no idea how Stephenson keeps it up, especially while writing books that could double as foundation stones. But I suspect that, like many things in writing, after you’ve pushed at it for a while some parts of it just settle in as habit. I hope so, anyway, because I’m going to keep trying.