“How are you, today?”
“Fine. And you?”
Yep, that’s real conversation. Be still my heart; get me off the edge of my seat… Or realistically, please pass the antidepressants.
Studying Good Dialogue
Here, we’re already running into problems.
What constitutes good dialogue?
A careful review of the opinions in the 187 million Google results for writing dialogue (mentioned in Part 1) is out of the question unless reincarnation for several lifetimes is guaranteed. However, let’s ignore this difficulty and settle for a much more plebian definition:
Good Dialogue – def. #1: Dialogue that holds the reader’s attention and does not disturb their willing suspension of disbelief.
Thank you for a memorable afternoon. Usually one must go to a bowling alley to meet a woman of your stature. – Arthur, Orion Pictures, 1981
Now that we know what we’re looking for, where do we find dialogue that meets this criteria in order to study it? One obvious choice should be classic literature.
Rare in a Medium
Google dialogue in classic literature and you’ll get about half the results that searching dialogue in movies produces. In addition, the literature search offers a mishmash of lists, articles, writing instruction, definitions—and oh yes, the occasional example of dialogue in classic literature.
Considering the immense volume of world literature, there are very few lines of dialogue from classic literature, and almost none from contemporary literature, that have impacted our social consciousness. That may sound a little harsh, but…
- “I forgot,’ Lennie said softly. ‘I tried not to forget. Honest to God I did, George.”
- “I dare do all that may become a man…”
- “I’ll be back.”
(Sources listed at the end of this post.)
Most people can only identify the source of #3, which is not a book but a screenplay (hit movie). Is this sad?
Most readers are not studying literature; they’re looking for a good read.
In addition, note that classic literature was almost always the popular literature of its day. You can find excellent examples of good dialogue in today’s popular books almost everywhere, however very little of it is going to be praised for its literary merit, or has any hope of becoming the classic literature studied by future generations. Generally, a book does not become a classic until its appeal spans multiple generations and the academic community decides to take a closer look.
“I hear you don’t write any more,” he says…
“Not true,” I inform him. “You should see the margins of my student papers.”
“Not the same as writing a book though, right?”
“Almost identical,” I assure him. “Both go largely unread.”
― Straight Man, Richard Russo
Critics and academics have the time to be impressed or look down their noses. Writers on the other hand should study dialogue for useful ideas while writing their own original work with original dialogue—and hopefully, with appropriate touches of humor.
“Don’t call me stupid.”
“Oh, right! To call you stupid would be an insult to stupid people! I’ve known sheep that could outwit you. I’ve worn dresses with higher IQs. But you think you’re an intellectual, don’t you, ape?”
“Apes don’t read philosophy.”
“Yes they do, Otto. They just don’t understand it. Now let me correct you on a couple of things, OK? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not ‘Every man for himself.’ And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked ’em up.”
– A Fish Called Wanda, Metro Goldwyn-Mayer, 1988
In Part 3, we’ll look at why studying dialogue from screenplays can be more productive.
1. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck.
2. Macbeth, William Shakespeare.
3. The Terminator, Pacific Western, 1984