• Stunning visuals
• Bad script
• No character work
• Script okay, but not memorable
• Rich in cinematography, but dialogue poor
The last comment really resonated with me, because I love dialogue. I’ve memorized whole sections of dialogue from movies like The Princess Bride and Moonstruck. Not so with the movies I’ve seen lately. In fact, I can’t think of a single line of dialogue from any of the movies I’ve seen in the last four months. This is not to say that I disliked those films. They were very enjoyable.
As you know, dialogue and characterization go hand in hand. Dialogue can reveal a character’s motives and help move the plot along. Good dialogue can be fraught with tension.
I brought up dialogue, because I’m reminded of some feedback I received on a chapter I’d written, which centers around a family dealing with a crisis. The friend who’d read the chapter mentioned that she wanted to feel worried about the main character, but didn’t. While she complimented the writing, the scene just didn’t have enough tension. I later stumbled upon an article online that helped me realize why that scene was so troublesome.
In all good drama, no one says what they want. . . [D]ialogue (or conversation, depending on what plane of reality you happen to be inhabiting) is all in the subtext, the hidden motivations and secret engines that drive our interactions.
The author went on to talk about Mamet’s screenplay for the movie, Glengarry Glen Ross, a 1992 movie adaptation of Mamet’s award-winning 1984 play. But what really caught my eye in that article (which you can find here), is this quote by Ernest Hemingway (sorry, David Mamet):
If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.
In my scene, the characters said what they meant (i.e., that they were angry or hurt), because I thought directly stating what was going on created tension. But the scene lacked subtext-—those simmering undercurrents that let you know there is more to a scene than meets the eye.
The following excerpt is from “The Light of the World,” a short story by Hemingway.
When he saw us come in the door the bartender looked up and then reached over and put the glass covers on the two free-lunch bowls.
“Give me a beer,” I said. He drew it, cut the top off with the spatula and then held the glass in his hand. I put the nickel on the wood and he slid the beer toward me.
“What’s yours?” he said to Tom.
He drew that beer and cut it off and when he saw the money he pushed the beer across to Tom.
“What’s the matter?” Tom asked.
The bartender didn’t answer him. He just looked over our heads and said, “What’s yours?” to a man who’d come in.
You can infer by the bartender’s actions that he has a low opinion of the narrator (Nick) and Tom. Though the dialogue seems sparse, I felt the tension of this scene, because of what the bartender didn’t say.
If I had written that scene, I probably would have had the bartender show his disdain by saying something mean or sarcastic immediately. But I love the fact that Hemingway didn’t do that. He showed the tip of the iceberg and let the reader infer that there was a lot more going on beneath the surface.
Does every conversation have to be as subtle as the one Hemingway wrote? No. But considering the subtext can make your dialogue memorable.
What was the last movie you saw or book you read that had memorable dialogue or a scene of tension that you thought the author/screenwriter handled well? What engaged you about that dialogue or scene?
Glengarry Glen Ross movie poster from movieposter.com. Subtext image from theatrefolk.com. Dialogue image from clipartkid.com.