Writing Excuses Episode 34: What The Dark Knight Did Right

Like all right-thinking people, we loved The Dark Knight–but because we are also writers obsessed with the craft of storytelling, we liked it for very specific, very nerdy reasons. Join us as we take a journey through What The Dark Knight Did Right: strong characters,  excellent dialogue, a layered plot that blended perfectly (and unexpectedly) with the central themes, and more.


Pull out an old piece of writing from the last year or so. Pick a dialogue scene and try to take each piece of dialogue up a half of a notch, evoking a little more character. The outcome or conclusion of the dialogue scene should remain the same.

21 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Episode 34: What The Dark Knight Did Right”

  1. I really enjoyed doing this one. I don’t know how often we can do this “analyze a creative work” kind of podcast, but I think they’re very valuable and can teach us a lot of good stuff. It might be helpful to give this same treatment to a flawed movie: What Hellboy 2 Did Wrong, or something like that.

  2. Does this have any spoilers? I’m one of the 8 people in North America that hasn’t seen this, and I’m incredibly excited about it.

  3. Pointing out what is done wrong is often, in my experience, far less helpful than pointing out what is done right. I could cite examples, but I won’t. I prefer the analyzing of something stellar than the analyzing of something grubby.

    Great podcast, and I think you hit on so many of the things that made me love Dark Knight. Like Brandon said, it was the beautiful precision. Along with some sweet-awesome themes. And great acting.

  4. Great podcast for a great movie! I will get the novelization of The Dark Knight soon and it will be interesting to see how Dennis O’Neill wrote all this in order to evoke a similar atmosphere to the film. Like you guys said, with the great actors performing the scenes and doing the dialogue, I think it’s very hard to create that effect in a book where you can only rely on the writing. But I guess if you build the characters properly and the readers feel with them, then they will do the rest with their own imagination.

    Too bad that you guys didn’t have time to discuss the setting a little bit. I think it’s cool that Nolan creates this realistic world for Batman and let him move outside of Gotham as well.

  5. In linguistics, we generally look at what went wrong to figure out how a process works, but I can see Conyngham’s point. There’s plenty of schlock out there (present Schlocky-goodness excepted, of course :), and I’m not sure how useful it would be to analyze a work with too many flaws. It might be difficult to see how each short-coming affected the over-all quality if the whole thing was bad. Maybe if you took something that had many good elements and almost made a good narrative, but succumbed to one or two tragic deficiencies, that would be more instructive.

    And I agree wholeheartedly with the analysis of Dark Knight. It hit all of the necessary elements for narrative, as well as acting, costume, sound design, and an positively yummy score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard (although the opening sequence was a bit dry). In all: a fantastic cinematic experience.

  6. Ok, as I’m listening I have a few comments. Dan- great mic work, Howard- get up on that mike, Brandon- a little consistency please; you are off then on the mic. That was also my biggest complaint about the WorldCon podcasts.

    I will probably get flayed for this.

  7. Jen – Linguistics is dodgy anyway. :D There are no real rules, and the vague guidelines we set around our psychology are broken so regularly that the only true guideline is clarity. That’s about the only thing I’ve taken away from my classes in English linguistics. Thus, loss of clarity is about the only time analyzing linguistics does any sort of good. (I’m just kidding, of course. Linguistics is fascinating and all that, but I get lost every so often in the tortuous convulution that is currently my English grammar class.)

  8. A question before I download this one: how spoilery is it? I haven’t seen Dark Knight yet and I don’t want to spoil myself too much.

  9. Conyngham: I do have a nitpick about your phrasing, there — if you said just “English”, instead of using the word “linguistics”, I would agree with you however.

    *English*, as in “All those classes people have to take in school to (theoretically) make them speak/write ‘better’ and not split infinitives and etc”, can be as dodgy as you say some of the time, but Linguistics has come a long way in the past century or so, and covers a lot more ground than it used to.

  10. Don’t listen unless you’ve seen the movie. The beginning of the podcast warns you before you get too far.

  11. YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT YET!?! Get out there right now and toss your eight bucks onto the alter of the Dark Knight!
    It MUST be seen!

  12. Conyngham–Well, there’s your problem; you’re taking English linguistics! And, to quote H. Beam Piper, English is nothing more than an attempt by Norman men-at-arms to get dates with Saxon barmaids. Try historical/comparitive–it’s much nicer :)

  13. Holy cow…you spent a whole podcast talking about The Dark Night and YOU DIDN’T TALK ABOUT THE JOKER??? How is that even possible? He carried that movie, by far! Unless, of course, you are planning on another podcast dedicated solely to talking about the joker and what he teaches us about antagonists and how to write them. THAT is the subject of a show in itself–and if you do that, I just might be able to understand. But…dude!

  14. onelowerlight:
    The Joker was obviously the highlight of the movie for most people (myself included), but I think that was mostly an acting thing, and the point of our podcast was to talk about the writing. Anything I can think of to say about the Joker, writing-wise, is pretty much the stuff we already said about the movie in general.

    In fact, in terms of prose, I would recommend that most writers DON’T model their antagonists after the Joker, because we never learn anything about him. He’s a powerful villain with no background or motivation, which works really well in a movie because it can be carried by the acting, but doesn’t work so well in prose for many of the reasons we discussed in our antagonist podcast. His dialogue is intelligent and quirky and awesome, but we already praised the dialogue pretty heavily.

  15. Back to side characters, I was a really big fan of what they did with Rachel Dawes character. It’s too easy to make her a cookie-cutter damsel in distress or worse (heaven forbid) a quirky pretty girl who (surprise!) is smart.

    She was a damsel in distress, but she didn’t get saved. She was smart, but she wasn’t smart enough to figure out what was up. She was really someone who had a very clear moral compass that I bought into and I judged the other characters using her as a sort of benchmark. She grounded the story’s sense of right and wrong and helped us see the real issues more clearly.

    Dan/Howard?Brandon spent a lot of time on the justice/morality themes and arc so I don’t want to be overly repetitive – but her character centered the narrative for me. Even after she was killed off, I felt like we were supposed to see things through her eyes — a sort of “What would Rachel think?” coating.

  16. And once again, as Howard pointed out in the cast, by not bending or breaking any of her own rules, she ended up dead.
    I’m not sure how to take that. Are they implying that if you follow the rules you get run over? It certainly seems like that is the case with the government bailing out those who twisted and broke the rules to their benefit, while those of us who followed the rules are going to have to carry the load.

    I’ll stop and go rant somewhere else.

  17. Don’t forget, one of those big “culmination of theme” moments in the movie was when the Joker turned out to be totally wrong, and was completely surprised by the fact that neither of the ferries blew up the other. That was not part of his plan, and it really shocked him, and it was (for me) a very big moment that said “even while heroes and villains are wrestling with huge questions, normal people are essentially good.” None of the people on the ferries broke any moral codes, and they all lived BECAUSE they didn’t break any moral codes. That was the turning point where normal morality started to win back the day.

  18. The only character who got a significant amount of screentime, survived, and didn’t really come up against the question of ‘Where do I draw the line’ was Alfred. Probably because he’d had the dilemma in the previous movie.

    One of the biggest reasons, to me anyway, that the theme of ‘Will I cross the line when I get to it” worked so well was because we saw all three answers to the question. Gordon said no, Batman started to cross it but turned back once he realized just how much the ultimate price would be, and finally, Harvey shattered his line completely.

  19. Not like I’m expecting anyone to see this, with the amount of time that has passed. But I finally got to see Dark Knight on DVD. Had to wait for it’s release before I could listen to this podcast.

    As much as it is an advantage to have actors who can breathe life into a script, some scripts that would make great films don’t necessarily look good on the printed page.

    Two examples: first, when Eric Idle presented the ‘Nudge-nudge’ script to his fellow Pythons, nobody got it. But once he acted it out it was histerical!

    Second, recently my nephew had the opportunity to do the Abbott & Costello “Who’s On First” routine for a class project. But when he read the script he didn’t get it. Only after hearing Abbott & Costello perform it did he understand it.

    This is why I don’t always understand Hollywood productions where the screenwriter isn’t involved in the production or a director doesn’t consult with the writer. What ends up on the screen is usually mush.

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