13 May 2010

You're Not Going to Like It

Yesterday I was working on a scene in which a character has to tell another character some bad news. The exchange went something like this:

A: What about X and Y? What happened to them?
B: I can tell you that, but you're not going to like it.
A: Please, just tell me.
B: Okay. [And B goes on to tell what he knows]

I finished writing that, sat back, and thought, what the hell? That's terrible. No one says "You're not going to like it" in real life. Where did that come from?

The answer: TV.

Back in the 70s and 80s, if a TV writer needed to put characters in a dangerous situation, nine times out of ten he or she would slip some quicksand into the mix. Need to add an extra level of danger? Throw in a snake with that quicksand. It will make your upside-down rescue all that more impressive.

"You're not going to like it" is the new quicksand. It's a shorthand signal to the audience to gear up for some tension.

But like quicksand, "You're not going to like it" is rarely spotted in the wild. It's not something people say to each other.

Listen, if I'm telling you something you're not going to like, the last thing I'm going to do is flag it for you. If you're going to get mad at me, you're going to have to do it under your own power. Seriously, I've got something not nice to tell you? If it's my fault I might pretend it's okay and hope that you won't blame me. Or if it's someone else's fault, I'll drop it on you like an anvil and let you get mad if you're so inclined. Maybe I'm hoping you'll get mad. Maybe I'm telling you that thing you won't like on purpose, so that you'll be on my side and we can plan our vengeance together.

However it shakes down, I'm not going to tell you what to think.

Bottom line, "You're not going to like it" is bad dialogue. As a writer, you've got to have each character's perspective and personality in mind as you compose. This can be tricky, and it's good if you're making a character say something nasty, and it's great if you're thinking, "Oh man, A is not going to like what B's got to say." But don't make B say that. It's a poor attempt at manipulating the reader.