“I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.”
– The Lost Continent, Bill Bryson
Or maybe it’s just far enough outside the box to generate a smile:
“Have you seen a lot of women?”
“Wouldn’t say a lot.”
“And what were they like?”
― The Ginger Man, J.P. Donleavy
However, various writing gurus recommend bits of “good” dialogue that many writers don’t particularly appreciate, regardless of high recommendation or lavish praise. Good dialogue is a matter of opinion, and it’s perfectly acceptable for anyone (even critics and academics) to like or dislike a bit of dialogue for valid reason or no reason.
Stercus accidit. – David Hume
Quite simply, dialogue is art and not science. There is no thermometer or other carefully calibrated instrument that you can use to quantify and qualify dialogue as empirically good any more than you can say that Picasso is empirically a better artist than Michelangelo. However, just as there are ways to study fine paintings, there are ways to study dialogue to give you a better feel for relative worth. One such method is to study scripts rather than novels.
Not at all.
The Screenplay Advantage
Everyone who watches plays and movies has found lines of dialogue that impressed them, made them laugh, or made them cry.
Are you crying? There’s no crying! There’s no crying in baseball!
– A League of Their Own, Columbia Pictures, 1992
Consider a few of the advantages of film as a medium for studying dialogue:
Economy of Words and Relevance to Plot (Action) – A script is usually no more than 120 pages. Some directors prefer 80 to 90 pages. There is no room for wasted dialogue. In addition, the camera usually focuses on the speaking actor (which is visually boring) because audiences read lips, so it’s either relevant or cut!
I’ll have what she’s having.
– When Harry Met Sally…, Castle Rock Entertainment, 1989
Interpretation of Emotion – You are not comparing screenplay dialogue to the ‘mind’s eye’ of the reader (you again). You compare it to a filmed interpretation by professional actors whose job IS that emotional interpretation.
Eleanor: What would you have me do? Give out? Give up? Give in?
Henry II: Give me a little peace.
Eleanor: A little? Why so modest? How about eternal peace? Now there’s a thought.
– The Lion in Winter – AVCO Embassy, 1968
Emotion can be strong or weak. – Not everything has to be deep.
Aurora Greenway: Do you have any reaction at all to my telling you I love you?
Garrett Breedlove: I was just inches from a clean getaway.
– Terms of Endearment, Paramount Pictures, 1983
Text and Subtext – Screenplays are some of the finest examples of the use of text and subtext in all of literature, as in this dialogue (text) which very clearly conveyed the subtext, ‘This is ridiculous.’
Seeing as how the V.P. is such a V.I.P., shouldn’t we keep the P.C. on the Q.T.? ’cause if it leaks to the V.C. he could become a M.I.A. and then we’d all be put out on K.P.
– Good Morning Vietnam, Touchstone Pictures, 1987
Characters Literally Given Voice – Professional actors go to great lengths to accurately portray their character. The character’s voice has an additional filter with the director.
Ms. Perky: People perceive you as somewhat…
Kat Stratford: Tempestuous?
Ms. Perky: ‘Heinous bitch’ is the term used most often.
– 10 Things I Hate About You, Touchstone Pictures, 1999
Every available genre is portrayed in film, and there are numerous outlets (including many public libraries) where scripts are available. Comparing the written word to a visualization independent of the writer’s mind offers some very useful insights. So, for the writer who wants to study good dialogue, screenplays are very often As Good As It Gets. (TriStar Pictures, 1997)
Next Up: Killer Quotes