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This month's theme: Movies
 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Patter or Spatter: Film Dialogue and Its Effects

Dialogue has two jobs in fiction: advance the plot and reveal character. At least that's what I tell my writing students. It's even more important on screen: it's where we get half of our information about what's going on. We get the other half from what the characters do, along with the other action on screen.

In a book, we follow the story by what the characters do and say, but we also have narrative. That's all the bits with no quotation marks around them, but maybe nobody is actually doing anything at the moment. (Narrative also has a broader definition of the telling of the events of an entire story in a particular order, but we have to call the stuff that isn't dialogue something, now don't we?)

Dialogue can have a third job: to knock you off your pins.

In Hamlet's soliloquy, Shakespeare lets us inside the protagonist's head as he (spoiler) contemplates suicide. It's a monologue instead of dialogue, because one character is speaking aloud. It's a method that worked back then as a device to let the audience know a character's thoughts and emotions. He has to say something. If he simply paced the stage and stroked his chin in silence for five minutes, the audience would have cried "Yoicks!" in unison and wandered off looking for a Christopher Marlowe play.

File under dialogue that today would be a voiceover.

(Actual potential spoiler if you haven't seen the third season of Fargo.) In the recent iteration of Fargo on the FX network, Ewan McGregor plays the Stussy brothers, Emmet and Ray. To clarify, they're brothers, but not twins, even though they're played by the same actor. Emmet has always done something to hurt Ray throughout their lives, until he accidentally kills him in a fight. As Emmet confesses to the crime, he says with abject sadness, "I'd been killing him for 30 years. That's just when he fell."

File under dialogue that punches you in the chest.

Then we have His Girl Friday from 1940, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. They play a newspaper editor and a reporter respectively, and Grant is trying to keep Russell, his ex-wife, from marrying a milquetoast (Ralph Bellamy). The best thing about the movie is the rapid-fire dialogue, mostly between Grant and Russell. That's just the way the director wanted it, even going so far as to give the actors special instructions. Instead of waiting for the last word of the previous line to be their cue, Hawks told them to start their lines two or three words before the final word. The result leaves both the actors and the audience breathless.

File under dialogue that needs a speed control.

Samuel L. Jackson's most famous speech is arguably his quoting of Ezekiel 25:17 in Pulp Fiction. "The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you." There is more, both before and after this passage, but it contains language not fit for a family publication. You need to see the way he delivers it and not the way you just played it in your head. Look it up on YouTube and tremble.

File under dialogue that should leave a blood trail.

If you're a word lover, think of your favorite movie or TV show, and I'll bet there's a great speech in there somewhere.


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Jay Speyerer is a writer and speaker who gives presentations on business communications so relentlessly that audiences simply break down and agree to do whatever he says.

 

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