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Dialogue: When to Shut up

We have talked before about good and bad dialogue. In summary, bad dialogue is dialogue that is long-winded, generic, tells us nothing, and is fundamentally disposable, meaning the story wouldn’t be any different if it were gone. It teaches us nothing, explores nothing, duels with nothing, and gets us nowhere.


Dialogue we want to keep is always the opposite. It is useful, has layers of meaning, sometimes by things not said between the lines that are said, and is memorable.

Today, we want to also talk about contrasting dialogue: making one character look good by making another character look worse. Just like in real life, you can build yourself up, or you can tear others down—it works the same for characters.


For example, look at Shrek and Donkey from the movie Shrek. Donkey is the comic relief. He has long-winded lines of dialogue and is generally the comic relief even inside an already reasonably light-hearted story. He is made all the more long-winded by his stance next to Shrek, who is stoic and silent most of the time.


Shrek, the strong silent type

More than this, we have talked in the past about making it clear who is speaking, even when you minimize dialogue tags. This remains the case here as well. By having a contrasting pair of characters who are speaking with two very different tones—one long-winded and one quiet and terse—it becomes very obvious who is speaking.


“Can I say something? You was really, really something back there. Incredible. That was really, really great back there. Man, those guards they thought it was all that, then you showed up and bam! They were tripping over themselves like babes in the woods. See that, that really made me feel good to see that….”

When Shrek is finally more verbose, it matters. What he says carries meaning, as opposed to Donkey, who has been jabbering on for minutes now.

“...Listen, little donkey, take a look at me. What am I? Oh, really tall? No, I’m an ogre. You know, grab your torch and pitchforks. Doesn't that bother you?”

“Nope.”

Again, we have a swap. The response is itself short, concise, and meaningful. Donkey could have had a long, rambling response, but he didn’t.

 

Remember, having a character as the strong, silent type can be very meaningful when they speak, especially when paired with a chatterbox. But if you want everyone to come across as important, and their words to have meaning, sometimes we need to look for times to shut them up. Sometimes, less dialogue is more dialogue.

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