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Get to The Point

Inglourious Basterds
Possibly the best dialogue scene in any movie, ever.

Dialogue must have a point and a purpose. It must teach us something about the world, about the characters, about their emotions, the situation or what will happen next.


Everything about this is bad:

"I can't believe you did that," Mary said angrily.

"What do you mean?" John replied defensively.

"You know exactly what I mean," Mary snapped back.

"I don't understand why you're upset," John said cluelessly.

"Ugh, forget it," Mary muttered, rolling her eyes

John went back to playing with his French fries.

Nothing happens here. The interaction drives no questions, makes no questions, changes no state of being in either character and teaches us as the reader nothing about the players of the story.

 

Let’s compare this to a piece from Winds of Winter. I’m going to intersperse my thoughts in green throughout.


“You could have died,” Arianne told her, when she’d heard the tale. She grabbed Elia by the arm and shook her. “If that torch had gone out you would have been alone in the dark, as good as blind. What did you think that you were doing?”

“I caught two fish,” said Elia Sand.


We learn these characters are in a bad situation, we learn they are willing to take risks, or are not bright enough to see danger. They care about one another or at least have intertwined fates without Arianne having to say “I care about you.” The idea of “what were you thinking,” while its own kind of cliché works here and conveys the same idea.


“You could have died,” said Arianne again. Her words echoed off the cavern walls. “…died… died … died…”


Later, when they had made their back to the surface and her anger had cooled, the princess took the girl aside and sat her down. “Elia, this must end,” she told her. “We are not in Dorne now. You are not with your sisters, and this is not a game. I want your word that you will play the maidservant until we are safely back at Sunspear. I want you meek and mild and obedient. You need to hold your tongue. I’ll hear no more talk of Lady Lance or jousting, no mention of your father or your sisters. The men that I must treat with are sellswords. Today they serve this man who calls himself Jon Connington, but come the morrow they could just as easily serve the Lannisters. All it takes to win a sellsword’s heart is gold, and casterly Rock does not lack for that. If the wrong man should learn who you are, you could be seized and held for ransom–“


“No,” Elia broke in. “You’re the one they’ll want to ransom. You’re the heir to Dorne, I’m just a bastard girl. Your father would give a chest of gold for you. My father’s dead.”

“Dead, but not forgotten,” said Arianne, who had spent half her life wishing Prince Oberyn had been her father. “You are a Sand Snake, and Prince Doran would pay any price to keep you and your sisters safe from harm.” That made the child smile at least.


“Do I have your sworn word? Or must I send you back?”

“I swear.” Elia did not sound happy.

“On your father’s bones.”

“On my father’s bones.”


This is a fantastic brief back and forth. It tells us about the world. We learn the Lannisters will use mercenaries that the group is not trustworthy beyond pay, that the Elia doesn’t want to pretend but will. The tones used are harsh with talk of death handled as a serious but throw away manner. Making her effectively promise multiple times in different ways shows the distrust between them. There is no wasted content.


Dialogue must not waste content or time. I have heard two schools of thought, one of which thinks dialogue should sound natural and another which believes dialogue needs to be a kind of distilled version of reality. In real speech we waste time, say nothing have no meaning and often talk to hear ourselves speak. I lean in the direction that our characters unless we are of course painting that character as the type to waste people’s time to begin with, should have focus.


Every time someone speaks are they defending a point? Giving information? Asking for information? Teaching the reader something indirectly? If the answer to these are no, then the dialogue fails to serve a purpose. It does not get to the point.


Our real world is filled with speech. Go write some of your own. Record (don’t be creepy) the speech of people around you. Study it, see how people interact, and when they go back and forth, when they interrupt and how. See what meaning is transferred when we talk, and then distill it down.


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