by Anita Mae Draper
You could write the most descriptive story but without dialogue, it’s flatter than a straight line on a sheet of paper. Dialogue sets the tone. It can move the story forward or put the reader to sleep. It should create tension, jump-start hearts and spark tears.
The space between the quotation marks is where you can let your imagination run free. This is where you get to use the bad grammar, fragmented sentences and clichés frowned upon everywhere else. And you do it all under the guise of ‘realism’.
Before you can write dialogue however, you need to define your characters. Realism in dialogue comes from accurately portraying your characters’ speech patterns and character traits. For example, you would never hear…
A duke in a regency say, “Git yer butt outta the chair, pronto.”
A modern teenager say, “Perchance you would like to sit elsewhere?”
An 1870 cowboy say, “That chair does wonders for your complexion.”
A toddler say, “Please rise and move away from the chair.”
A young mother say, “Of course you can stand on the chair while you eat.”
Develop your characters and use dialogue to show us another facet of their personality. Pepper their words with colloquialisms to lend authenticity. Drop syllables like ‘h’s to show dialects. Avoid contractions to invoke an aura of aristocracy, wealth and breeding.
Dialogue can turn a B-rated movie into a classic. It can turn a TV show with unknown actors into a seasonal success. And it can turn a high budget movie into a box office flop. In the end, it’s the quality of writing which usually determines how long a show will run. The plot, actors and setting can all change and may or may not have an effect on the show. But if the quality of writing drops, viewers will switch channels faster than it takes to think about why they’re doing it.
Sometimes a person won’t even remember the TV show or movie, but they’ll remember the dialogue and the scene:
- In Gone with the Wind (1939), Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) has had it with Scarlett O’Hara. He knew she was a spoiled brat but he’s just realized she’ll never change. She’s pushed him too far and he just doesn’t care any longer. He goes to leave but at the door, he stops, turns and says, “Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.”
- In Sudden Impact (1983), Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) interrupts a robbery in progress. The bad guy takes a woman hostage and holds a gun to her head. Cool and calm, Harry cocks his pistol and points it at the abductor while saying, "Go ahead. Make my day." Here's the actual 4 minute scene:
- In The Terminator (1984), Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a cyborg who can't get an answer and says, “I’ll be Back.” He goes out, gets his vehicle, and drives back into the building. Literally. This one line was so successful for Mr. Schwarzenegger that they wrote it into the sequel, Terminator 2 (1991).
scene itself is memorable but it’s the well dressed woman sitting across from Sally who makes the scene classic when she says to the waitress, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
- And what about little Carol Anne in Poltergeist (1982)? Everyone is sleeping in the parents’ bed and Carol Anne awakes and goes over to the TV. Things start shooting out of it and when everything settles down, she looks at her parents and in her little girl’s voice sing-song’s “They’re hee-ere.”
- In Always (1989)fire-fighting pilot Al Yackey (John Goodman) is flying low over a forest fire when his plane catches fire. He looks at his instruments, realizes he’s in a life and death situation and says, “My engine’s on fire. Can you believe it? And I was in such a good mood.” I couldn't find the scene alone but it's included on this Always trailer.
Granted, each of the above dialogue lines is special because of the way the actor delivered it. However, the author had to write the inspiring words and attribute them to a character in the first place.
Wikipedia says “In the novel Gone with the Wind, Rhett does not say "Frankly," but simply "My dear, I don't give a damn." The context is also different; he is speaking quietly to Scarlett in a room, not storming dramatically out of the house.” I don’t have a copy of Margaret Mitchell’s book so I can’t confirm the Wikipedia entry. But even if it’s true, the words are still the author’s and were said by the character she created—Rhett Butler.
So what’s your favorite line, either in a book, movie or TV show?