When I was in the sixth grade, I participated in the Wyoming Young Author’s competition. I wrote this short story about these diamond-shaped crystals that had to be found and reassembled into their proper pyramid configuration or bad things would happen. Don’t ask about the hell that would be unleashed, because I really don’t remember. What I do recall is a scene with eight or so people deciding to do something, I have long forgotten what, and for some reason, I thought they all should all verbally agree to go.
You can see that on paper, right? Six secondary character names listed on the page, each followed by “said,” and all saying something to the effect of, “I’m in,” or “me, too.” I was eleven-years-old, mind you. It would be another nine years before I was exposed to truly fantastic dialog, and ten more years before being similarly impressed.
In 1994, Quentin Tarantino released his film “Pulp Fiction,” and with it, the most brilliant approach to dialog my 20-year-old self had ever seen. Jules and Vincent are talking about what a quarter-pound cheeseburger is called in France. A perfectly average conversation for two newly acquainted co-workers to have.
It’s common with new writers to use dialog to dump plot details. I did it when I started. In one cringe-worthy instance, I dumped the same information in at least three conversations. Yes, in real life, people do verbally pass along information…when one or more person in the party doesn’t have the information.
Jules and Vincent know where they’re going. They know what they’re going to do when they get there. The only reason to talk about the job would be to fill in the viewer, and Tarantino intends to show that later. (Tell vs show in action.) Also, they don’t talk about what happened in the apartment when they leave. They were both there. The only reason to talk about it would be to explain to the viewer what happened. Tarantino respects his audience’s intelligence more than that.
In real life, people on the same page talk about other things…their wives, their kids, last night's Fringe episode, where they want to grab lunch, or something that happened while on vacation. That’s what Tarantino does…he reflects the audience by showing his incredible characters in very average situations. In writing them in such a way, he humanizes killers at the same time as he cements their inhumanity. I mean, how does a man get to be so ice cold that he can talk about foot massages on his way to retrieve the holy grail, knowing he’s going to shoot the kid who has it?
I had this conversation with my husband recently. I thought aloud that Jules and Vincent had crossed through the woods to the other side to become average people again in spite of their day job. My husband suggested that they never stopped being average people and perhaps that was Tarantino's point.
Every work by Tarantino has similar gems, and I had begun to wonder if I’d ever see his equal. Turns out I had…years before I saw “Pulp Fiction.”
I read Frank Herbert’s “Dune” in high school. A lot of it was lost on me at the time, but I came away from the book with a deep love of the Bene Gesserit and religious orders. I watched David Lynch’s movie several times growing up, but it was SyFy’s “Children of Dune” that opened my eyes to the importance of dialog delivery.
The children of Paul Muah’Dib by his concubine Chani have been raised by his wife, Princess Irulan Corrino, while rule of the empire has been carried by their aunt, Alia. Irulan is fiercely protective of the children and trusts no one regarding them…not Alia, not their grandmother, no one. In the story, there is a conversation between Irulan and her mother-in-law, a Bene Gesserit reverend mother, Jessica.
In the scene, Irulan and Jessica are sitting in a garden, having a polite conversation. Normally, this type of chit-chat would bring a novel to a screeching halt. It’s boring. It’s annoying to the reader. It’s a conversation that a reader might expect them to have but a mention that it took place would suffice. But Frank Herbert’s matrons are not simply catching up. Jessica never cared for Irulan all that much and the princess knows it. The last thing either might like to do is hang out in the other’s company, which gives the scene added gravitas.
Herbert uses this meeting between the women to do three things: show off the their Bene Gesserit training, show Irulan’s devotion to the children, and convey RM Jessica’s support of Irulan’s position. And he accomplishes all of the above without the women saying much of substance. The spoken conversation is for the benefit of potential eavesdroppers. The actual conversation is being carried out discretely, and simultaneously, in sign language.
I tried to find a video online, but there doesn’t seem to be one. (I thought there was video for everything on YouTube!)
Dialog can’t always be double-speak, innuendo, or smoke screen. That’s just silly. But narration is the place for plot detail. Dialog should flow. It may convey details if it can do so naturally, but it should always build upon the character who is speaking. It should build upon the scene and drive plot not simply by the words, but also through delivery and juxtaposition. “Pulp Fiction” and “Children of Dune” are shining examples.
For more on how great dialog, I recommend Anne Mini’s “Author, Author” site. Actually, I recommend that site for anything at all you ever wanted to know about writing/publishing.