Dialogue, the Good the Bad and the Ugly

Really bad dialogue can make us throw a book across a room. It can break the ‘immersion’ in a book or a movie.

Good dialogue has a natural rhythm depending on the character and their time period. For an exampleof good dialogue that acknowledges its time period but isn’t repressed by it, take a look at the British TV series, Desperate Romantics, based on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

The web contains lots of useful information on writing craft. Here is a post by Matthew Cheney, Mumpsimus, on how to write dialogue, with some useful links.

Here’s another one from the writer’s toolbox there’s this article, on snappy dialogue which covers the basics.

Over here at Suite 101, they discuss ways to short your dialogue and add more emotion with more deliberate dialogue.

And then we have this article from award winning writer, Anne Gracie, about writing romantic comedy. A lot can be learnt from the craft of romance writing. They have to sustain the interest with predominantly the (sexual tension) tension between characters.

It struck me that good screen plays were the perfect example of great dialogue. In a screen play you have to distil the dialogue. It has to be said by a character, so it can’t sound stilted and it has to reveal character because you can’t use introspection.

For instance in Firefly, there’s a scene towards the end of episode 9 (Ariel).

When the crew return to a central world controlled by the Alliance to steal medical supplies, Jayne betrays River and Simon to the Alliance. It all goes wrong and the crew just escape. But Mal, captain of the Firefly knows that it was Jayne who betrayed them. As the ship is taking off he shuts Jayne in the cargo bay airlock, exposed to the elements. (A modern version of walking the plank).

Mal is going to leave him there to die but, as he walks off, Jayne says ‘Don’t tell the others it was me.’ (This is from memory, my son has borrowed Firefly). The subtext is that Jayne regrets what he has done, regrets betraying his friendships. He knows he is going to die, but he doesn’t want his shipmates knowing it was him, who betrayed them. Mal decides to give him a second chance and lets him in.

Mal doesn’t need a paragraph of introspection. We can deduce his thought processes from the context.

That’s what great dialogue is all about. It relies on context, characterisation and subtext.

Silence. In film it can be used really effectively. Silence doesn’t quite have the same impact in a book. If one character asks a question of another character and all they do is look enigmatic, it allows the reader and the character who asked the question to speculate on what is not being said. Not answering a direct question, answers it in another way. Answering with a diversionary answer, tells us a lot about the character. Subtext is really important.

And then there is The Princess Bride. This film contains more quoted dialogue than nay other single film. See quotes here.

My favourite revenge scene would have to be this one. Why? Because of the build up. So once again, it comes down to context and characteristation.

Inigo Montoya: Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.
[Inigo advances on Rugen, but stumbles into the table with sudden pain. Rugen attacks, but Inigo parries and rises to his feet again]
Inigo Montoya: Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.
[Rugen attacks again, Inigo parries more fiercely, gaining strength]
Inigo Montoya: Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya! You killed my father! Prepare to die!
Count Rugen: Stop saying that!
[Rugen attacks, twice. Inigo avoids and wounds Rugen in both shoulders, the same spots where he wounded Inigo. Inigo attacks, bellowing:]
[Inigo corners Count Rugen, knocks his sword aside, and slashes his cheek, giving him a scar just like Inigo’s]
Inigo Montoya: Offer me money.
Count Rugen: Yes!
Inigo Montoya: Power, too, promise me that.
[He slashes his other cheek]
Count Rugen: All that I have and more. Please…
Inigo Montoya: Offer me anything I ask for.
Count Rugen: Anything you want…
[Rugen knocks Inigo’s sword aside and lunges. But Inigo traps his arm and aims his sword at Rugen’s stomach]
Inigo Montoya: I want my father back, you son of a bitch!
[He runs Count Rugen through and shoves him back against the table. Rugen falls to the floor, dead]

So there you have it, context, characterisation and subtext. Easy!

What memorable dialogue have you come across in movies or books?

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