You Always Talk About Yourself. (How To “Mad Men” Your Series)

drama, pilots, screenwriting, T.V. writing

You always talk about yourself. That’s what your boyfriend/therapist/mime teacher always says.

And it’s true: everything you say is about you.

“You’re so selfish.” [Translation: I’m so selfish. I hate that quality in myself, but I also love myself. I’m selfish. Loving selfish you is another way to love myself.]

“You should be more careful about the impression you make.” [Translation: I should be more careful about the impression I make. When your choices lie outside my comfort zone, I react with alarm, as if your choices reflect me.]

“You’re young. You can do anything you want.” [Translation: I think I can no longer do anything I want. I feel badly about that, and I think I’m doing you a favor by planting the root of that chain in you.]

“You’re beautiful and free.” [Translation: I’m beautiful and free.]

Write dialogue that reflects the person who speaks. Take “Mad Men” for example. Nuanced and layered, the show’s characters speak to each other as if they were mirrors in which they see themselves.

“Who are you?” says Don when the spark of a new life arouses him — Joy in Palm Springs and Miss Farrell near the beginning of their affair. Who is this exciting, fresh, new life? Can I inhabit it? Who am I? Whoever she claims to be might be who I am, because now I’m with her.

“Who do you think you’re talking to?” says Don to underlings. Whoever they think they’re talking to must be who I am.

When Betty uncovers his web of lies, she asks him “What would you do, if you were me? Would you love you?” This single line sums up the entire series. Every character goes around wondering, asking, finding out what they would do if they were another person — and whether they could love themselves if they were. That’s what advertising is — asking the consumer “What would you do, if you were this other kind of person? Would you (finally) love you (then)?. Every question Don asks is a variation of ‘Would you love you (if you were me)?’ — when he asks ‘who are you?’ — ‘who do you think you’re talking to?’ — he’s always asking ‘would you love you?’

When Betty asks it, she asks it of herself. ‘What would I do, if I were you? Would I love me?’ Because she is Don — when she accuses him of changing his name, he says “People change their names. You did.” Every interaction is a mirror.

How do you “Mad Men” your series? Look for the parallels. The symmetry. If a character does something once, make him do it again, in another form, to himself or another character. Make every interaction a chance for each character to see himself in another — or walk away blind to the reflection in the pool. Write every line of dialogue as a container, a frame, in which to display their image of themselves — what they see when they look in the mirror. Because that’s all we ever do when we see other people: we see ourselves.