Episode 729: Good Night

“You are forbidden to enter this house! You no longer exist!”

All right, if everyone will take their seats, we can begin today’s class on how not to write scripts.

729 dark shadows nora edward fire

Today’s episode begins with a promising slice of hysterical acting, courtesy of young Nora here, who’s been having visions all day. She was staring into the fire, as young people used to do in the days before television was invented, when she suddenly saw her mother’s face appear in the flames.

What Nora saw was not actually her mother’s face — it was a mannequin head with a blonde wig on — but she hasn’t seen her mother in quite some time, and it’s an understandable mistake. Edward is reassuring her that mannequin heads don’t have feelings, when the maid strolls in.

729 dark shadows nora edward beth

Now, today I’d like to talk about Gordon Russell. He is currently the show’s third best writer out of three, and the following dialogue will help to explain why.

Beth:  Mr. Collins?

Edward:  Yes, what is it?

Beth:  May I speak with you for a moment… alone?

Edward:  Alone? Why?

Beth:  I’m ready to go to the village now. You said you wanted me to deliver a note to Mrs. Fillmore?

Edward:  Oh, yes! I forgot. (He hands her an envelope.) See that she gets this… and if she has any comment, you’ll find me in the study when you return.

Beth:  Yes, Mr. Collins.

Edward:  Oh, Beth — before you go, would you take Nora upstairs and see that she gets to bed?

Beth:  Yes, Mr. Collins.

Edward:  Thank you.

(Edward leaves. Beth takes Nora’s hand.)

Beth:  Shall we go?

Nora:  I guess so.

Beth:  What’s the matter?

Nora:  Nothing.

Beth:  Well, come along, then.

729 dark shadows nora beth upstairs

So there you have it: a perfectly normal, unobjectionable scene, which happens to have four times more dialogue than it needs.

Any scriptwriting teacher will tell you that a screenplay should only have dialogue if it’s absolutely necessary. Dialogue should express a conflict, or exchange information, or illuminate what’s going on with a character.

“Realistic” dialogue that sounds like actual human speech is not the goal; real people are boring. Don’t fill up your scene with redundant small talk that doesn’t do anything, like “Yes, Mr. Collins,” “Thank you,” “What’s the matter,” and “Come along, then.”

729 dark shadows beth edward tray

To show you what I mean, let’s take a look at a similar Edward/Beth scene from a few weeks ago, in an episode written by Sam Hall. Beth is carrying a tray through the foyer as Edward is coming down the stairs. This is how the scene begins:

Edward:  I’ve told you before — when you take food up, please use the back stairs.

Beth:  It’s just easier this way.

Edward:  I am not concerned with ease. When my grandmother was alive, everyone assumed that the tray was for her. But now…

(Edward turns away, and takes a step forward.)

Edward:  Tell me.. has my brother ever asked what happened after he left Collinwood?

Beth:  No.

Edward:  Are you lying?

Beth:  Why would I?

Edward:  Hm. He doesn’t even have the grace to be curious; how typical of him. All right, you may go on with your business.

Beth walks upstairs and Edward walks off to the study, and that’s the end of the scene.

729 dark shadows beth edward step

There’s no “thank you” in that scene, no “good morning” or “goodbye.” They don’t ask “why” or “what’s the matter?” There are only two questions in the scene, and each one communicates an important idea.

Edward is curt with the servants, even the one that he relies on to keep a family secret. When he asks “Has my brother ever asked what happened?” he’s exposing a weakness. It kills him to even ask this question, but he can’t hold it in — it’s that painful for him. Asking “Are you lying?” is even worse, expressing a whole other set of fears and failures. It’s an intense scene.

There’s also the line “I am not concerned with ease,” which says a lot about who Edward is, and sets up the conflict for the next couple of lines. It’s also funny, which never hurts.

729 dark shadows nora edward beth

So let’s go back to the Gordon Russell scene.

Beth:  Mr. Collins?

Edward:  Yes, what is it?

Beth:  May I speak with you for a moment… alone?

Edward:  Alone? Why?

That’s four boring, unnecessary lines in a row. In the Sam Hall scene, they’d already done “I am not concerned with ease” by now.

Also: “Alone? Why?” That’s not the worst line in the scene, but it’s close. The Sam Hall scene made it clear that Edward knows exactly why Beth would want to see him alone. Just the fact that a lady’s maid is speaking to him at all should be his cue that it must be something related to the several secret conspiracies that they share.

And then there’s the actual worst line in the scene:

Beth:  I’m ready to go to the village now. You said you wanted me to deliver a note to Mrs. Fillmore?

Edward:  Oh, yes! I forgot.

“I forgot”? Again, this totally contradicts how Edward is supposed to feel about this situation. It’s also a huge letdown for the audience. These secrets are supposed to be important; having a character say “I forgot” is our signal to stop caring.

And then he says “Thank you” as he walks away, which is ten times less interesting than “All right, you may go on with your business.”

729 dark shadows nora edward tucked

Now, this post may be a bit jarring for regular readers, because in the past, I’ve been blaming Ron Sproat for all of the bad dialogue. In fact, I kind of drove that point into the ground in “The Aristocrats“, a full-on rant about Sproat’s functional dialogue.

But Sproat left the show several months ago, and he was replaced by Violet Welles, an excellent writer who had previously been ghost-writing some of Gordon Russell’s scripts. Now that Sproat is gone and Violet is writing under her own name, it’s become clear that Gordon is weaker than I thought he was.

For another example of purely functional time-killing dialogue, here’s a scene with Edward tucking Nora in for the night. This is never a good idea.

Edward:  You’re getting sleepy now, aren’t you?

Nora:  Yes.

Edward:  That’s good. You’ve had more than your share of excitement for one day for a little girl. Now try to get a good rest, dear.

Nora:  Thank you for sitting with me, father.

Edward:  Good night.

Nora:  Good night, father.

You see? “Good night” scenes are pure suicide, dramatically. Every time a character says “Good night,” it’s a double blow — not only did they just say a boring line, but now the other character is obligated to say “good night” back, which is two boring lines in a row. I know that it’s only four words, but these things add up. This scene also has a “thank you,” a “that’s good,” and the utterly useless question, “You’re getting sleepy now, aren’t you?”

729 dark shadows rachel magda come in

The only thing worse than a “good night” scene is a “come in” scene, with all of the obligatory small talk. But a good writer can make even a “come in” scene work. Here’s another scene from the Sam Hall episode.

(There’s a knock at the door. Magda opens the door, and looks at Rachel.)

Rachel:  Is Mr. Collins in?

Magda:  No.

Rachel:  Well, do you expect him soon?

(Magda doesn’t respond.)

Rachel:  May I wait for him, then? I know he wouldn’t mind.

Magda:  Come in.

And then Magda just stands there and watches as Rachel hangs up her coat, and walks into the drawing room. Rachel indicates the portrait of Josette above the mantelpiece, and says, “We’re supposed to look alike. At least, he says we do.” And that begins the actual scene.

I know that’s an unusual “come in” scene, and you can’t always count on one of the characters being a weird gypsy who doesn’t do small talk. But that’s just one way to get out of a dull scene. They could have started with Rachel already inside, saying, “Are you sure that Mr. Collins will be in soon?” and just gone from there.

Really, the only reason to ever show a character opening a door is if there’s something surprising on the other side. We already know what it looks like when someone opens a door.

729 dark shadows nora beth good night

Anyway, back to today’s episode. Nora has a nightmare, and wakes up screaming, which means we have to have another “good night” scene, four minutes after the last one.

Beth:  Nora, look at me. No one came to the door tonight. You must have been having a dream.

Nora:  A dream?

Beth:  Yes. But it’s all gone now.

Nora:  No! No, it was more than a dream! I know it was! She’s going to come back!

Beth:  Maybe she is. I don’t know. Don’t worry about it. Lie back. You must try and get some sleep. Close your eyes.

Nora:  All right, Beth. Good night.

Beth:  Good night.

So there you go; I rest my case. If a character in your scene needs to give detailed instructions on how to go to sleep, then maybe you’re just not that good of a writer. Thank you, and good night.

Tomorrow: How I Met Your Mother.


Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:

When Beth leaves the drawing room with Nora, the first note of a music cue starts up, and then stops. It starts again once Nora’s gone upstairs.

In Nora’s dream, the camera pulls back a little too quickly to reveal the cloaked figure standing in the graveyard. It looks like Nora doesn’t notice the person right in front of her, and then suddenly she does.

When Quentin enters the foyer through the little door under the stairs, he bumps his head.

After Nora leaves her room, you can hear her running through the studio to the next set. She gets there too early anyway, and you can see her pause a couple times as she’s coming down the stairs, waiting for her cue. She bolts out the door, and then you can hear running to another set. They need to get that girl some quieter shoes.


Behind the Scenes:

Barbara Brownell is the stand-in for Laura today. She’s a cloaked figure standing at the front door during Nora’s dream, and at the end of the episode, her arm reaches into shot to touch Nora’s shoulder.

At the time, Brownell was appearing in the Broadway production of Play It Again, Sam with Jerry Lacy, who just returned to Dark Shadows last week. This is her only Dark Shadows appearance.

Brownell had a very active television career over the last 45 years, including appearances on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Kojak, Police Story, Laverne & Shirley, Hill Street Blues, LA Law, Night Court, Malcolm in the Middle, Mad Men and Grey’s Anatomy.

Tomorrow: How I Met Your Mother.

729 dark shadows nora laura

Dark Shadows episode guide

— Danny Horn

4 thoughts on “Episode 729: Good Night

  1. Even when watching Dark Shadows when I was 10-11-12 I could tell that Gordon Russell wrote clunky dialogue compared to the other writers on the show. I remember also thinking at the time that where he excelled was at writing cool, spooky, monsterrific scenes that relied on visual rather than verbal impact. When Lela Swift directed those Russell-scripted horror scenes, she interpreted them with a visual flair that made such scenes Dark Shadows at best.

    Some of my pre-adolescent observations and conclusions have not held up when I re-view the series as a middle-aged person. Possibly that one won’t either, but I believe the Swift-Russell collabortion produced some of Dark Shadows most impressive supernatural moments.

  2. “Quieter Shoes”, a good name for a rock band.

    I liked that Denise Nickerson did interviews, unlike Henesy or even Kathy Cody. Sharon Smyth was immediately recognizable, and I wanted more.

    Who, amongst the 10,11,12, audience, wouldn’t be fascinated to discover how they turned out?

    Like Sarah, for instance.

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