Juno offers a masterclass in loving your characters, crafting distinctive dialogue, and leading your audience towards the acceptance of character choices they may not have expected.
Don’t read this if you haven’t watched the film – go watch it, laugh, cry, and return…
Aim for dialogue so distinctive that if you were to hide the names of the characters, the reader would still know who’s talking.
Funny, funny, funny. Diablo Cody has a real ear for teenagers’ dialect, yet also writes convincingly for the older generation.
In addition to specificity, the dialogue rarely spells out the story, yet tells us much about what’s going under the surface of the characters. Great writing, supported of course by great acting. Get the script and read it – there are so many examples of great lines and exchanges – your favourites will be different to mine (or indeed you might completely hate it and disagree with everything I say here, that’s fine too…).
I was tickled by Juno’s often sarcastic dialogue, like “I thought I might, you know, nip it in the bud before it gets worse. Because I heard in health class that pregnancy often results in an infant”. I also enjoyed Bleeker’s more absurdist rebuttal of Juno’s suggestion that he get together with someone else: “Katrina smells of soup, her whole house smells of soup”, and Bren’s dark pragmatism during labour, “Well, honey, doctors are sadists who like to play God and watch lesser people scream”.
Each of these lines is funny, but the type of comedy and the tone is specific to each character.
I also enjoyed many an appalled snort – for example at the inappropriate abortion clinic receptionist’s “My partner uses these every time we have intercourse. They make his balls smell like pie.”
THE WRITER’S VOICE
Don’t let a strong writer’s voice overshadow your characters’ own voices.
Diablo Cody’s darkly humorous voice feels very present throughout the film – in the dialogue and the characters’ individual actions. This is always a tricky one – in lesser hands, a strong writer’s voice can lead to characters simply feeling like shadow versions of the writer (we don’t want all our characters to sound like us, as we’re not that interesting sadly…)
However, here it strengthens the piece because the characters all have distinctive ways of speaking and behaving. The clear voice brings a unity of vision and of the writer’s ‘alternative’ perspective on the world. Remember how Woody Allen’s earlier work had that clear voice running through it, yet still felt refreshingly honest?
You can use what you know about story structure to surprise and engage your audience: write characters who make unexpected but believable character choices.
What makes Juno feel fresher than the usual teen rites of passage film? A pregnant US teen heroine clearly offers relatively new subject matter (pre-Glee…) and the Juno we meet here is an engaging and refreshing character. Crucially, her original choices make the film stand out from more familiar fare.
On the surface, the film follows a straightforward story structure (Juno wants to place her baby in a perfect family and overcomes obstacles to do so). Yet while the story allows her to resolve her relationship with the baby’s father, it doesn’t automatically follow that they will therefore keep their baby (the ending we would expect from a more typical Hollywood structure).
Instead, her new belief in the power and value of ‘imperfect’ love allows her to rethink her attitude towards the newly single mum – she may no longer have a husband and the ‘perfect’ alternative life that Juno had imagined, but she is full of love for Juno’s unborn child.
Thus, Juno’s choice to give her child away (to someone who will clearly care for her) at the end of the film allows Juno to live her teenage life as it could have been pre-pregnancy – hanging with her best friend and starting to explore their love, still kids themselves…
Juno’s apparent ease with a very difficult decision could feel simplistic, incredible even, but her straightforward pragmatism and distinctive vision is illustrated throughout the story. She’s consistent. From what we have seen, we know this is what she has wanted from the beginning. We know she walks her own path. We know she sticks to her guns. As a result, we believe that she will be OK, and it’s all for the best.
Similarly, we believe that the baby’s new mum will be a worthy substitute because her love and desire for motherhood has been illustrated throughout the film.
(Seeing Juno’s letter hanging in the baby’s bedroom also hints that Juno may stay in touch with her child – allowing the audience to have it both ways…)
EMPATHISING WITH DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES
Encourage your audience to engage with a range of perspectives, desires, and ‘flaws’ in the human condition.
All the characters in Juno are drawn with compassion and complexity. We can understand that Juno sparks the composer’s midlife crisis (we may not agree with him, but we understand him), and we can also empathise with his wife’s blind obsession with becoming a mum.
We shift our opinion of the grumpy step-mum who stands up for Juno against the judgemental nurse (Diablo Cody says she particularly wanted to create a non-wicked stepmum character, and does so brilliantly). We warm to the dad who calls his daughter ‘skanky’ and accepts her choice to give away her child. He may be frustrated by her, he may not agree with her choices, but he loves her whatever she does, and that’s a wonderful lesson for Juno, and for us.
Most of all, it’s clear that the writer loves her characters, and that loving your characters allows you to take them, and us, to challenging and original places.
Know your characters’ speech patterns, their ‘lingo’, their beliefs. Know how they will behave when faced with challenging choices. Ensure they are consistent, but not predictable. That they change, but not all at once.
Above all, love your characters, despite or because of their flaws – that compassion will allow you to build complexity, empathy, and an engaging story.
P.S. don’t mistake loving your characters for protecting them, that way lies boring scripts with no conflict and no reason to keep watching. Love and test your characters’ flaws and make the most of their strengths. And hey that’s a good lesson for life too.