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Monday, July 20, 2015

Kicking "Great" Dialogue up to "Killer" Dialogue (with Interstellar)



I'll start off by being honest. This post can't decide if it wants to be an Interstellar post about dialogue, or a dialogue post with Interstellar as examples. In a lot of ways, there's not much difference. But basically, I'm going to talk about strategies you can use to help kick your dialogue up.

Similar to my What I Learned about Writing Action Scenes post and my 15+ Tactics for Writing Humor post, I've been . . . unsatisfied with the information available on writing killer dialogue. I read a couple of books on it and writing tips, but you know, I'm obsessive, and I wanted more.

Most of the dialogue tips I've read have been either on the grammatical basics of how to write dialogue, or really about how not to write dialogue. They might go through how to punctuate dialogue, and then talk about what not to do. They talk about bad dialogue.

Yeah, well, what about beyond all that stuff?


This is something that has been on my mind clear back when I first began my blog. You'll see that one of my first posts is about how characters don't say what they really feel.

All these things are helpful and necessary for writing good and even great dialogue.

But what about writing killer dialogue? What is it? And how do you find it?

So over the last few years, I've been trying to develop an eye for dialogue. I think I'm starting to get somewhere. I'm starting to recognize mediocre dialogue better, and what I call shrug-the-shoulder dialogue, and I'm becoming more conscious of little tricks writers use to create great dialogue.

Today, I'm going to talk about the little tricks for great dialogue that I noticed in Interstellar.

First, here are the posts I've done in the past that relate to dialogue:

(Don't) Tell Me How You Really Feel
What You See is What You Get
What You Need to Know Most About Character Voice
What Else You Need to Know Most About Character Voice
Actions vs. Words: the Loud and the Quiet
Melodrama: What it is, How it Works, and How to Get Rid of it
How to Write What's Not Written (Subtext)

And then there are some other posts that touch on it too.

Surely there are more important things about dialogue to nail down first before getting into the stuff of this post. This post is not the root of dialogue. It's tricks to consider once you've got the foundation down. So here we go.

(Mini) Context Shifts


I've been on a context-shift kick with fiction lately. I love, love, love, a good context shift in a story. Interstellar had a great one smack dab at the midpoint: When we discover that Dr. Brand never intended Plan A to work, he starts quoting Dylan Thomas's poem again, and with the new information, the context of the poem shifts in shocking and disturbing new ways. The words "Do not go gentle into that good night" suddenly carry a different meaning. Instead of being a poem of hope, it becomes one of resilience and desperation. The words haven't changed, but the context has.



A context shift usually happens when new information enters the story that changes our understanding of what is going on. It can also happen when a character reacts to information a certain way. Their reaction gives us a new context to view things through. But, I noticed that in Interstellar, the writers put in mini-context shifts in the actual dialogue. And I loved it.

Let's look at an example, a conversation that, in my opinion, is the best conversation in the whole movie because of all the dynamics in it. It's the conversation between Cooper and Murph when Cooper tells her goodbye. First, just read the thing. It's a well-crafted conversation, especially if you can remember the emotion and motivations Cooper and Murph bring into it. I'd post a video of it, but I couldn't find one that had the whole scene.

Cooper's motivation: to get Murph to feel okay about him leaving into space, to make her feel somewhat comfortable with the idea.
Murph's motivation: to get Cooper to stay.

Cooper: After your mom came along, she said something to me that I never quite understood. She said, "Now we're just here to be memories for our kids." I think I understand now what she meant. Once you're a parent, you're the ghost of your children's future.
Murph: You said ghosts didn't exist.
Cooper: That's right, Murph. Look at me. I can't be your ghost right now. I need to exist. They chose me. Murph, They chose me. You saw it. You're the one who led me to them.
Murph: That's exactly why you can't go. I figured out the message. One word. Know what it is?
Cooper (disbelieving): Murph . . .
Murph: Stay. It says "stay," Dad.
Cooper: Murph . . .
Murph: You don't believe me. . . . Look at the books! It says "stay." Why? You're not listening! It says "stay"!
(Cooper hugs Murph as she cries)
Cooper: Murph, I'm coming back.
Murph: When?
(Cooper pulls out his watch and another and shows them to her)
Cooper: One for you and one for me. When I'm up there in hypersleep, or traveling near the speed of light, or near a black hole, time's going to change for me. And it's going to run more slowly. Now, when I get back, we're going to compare.
Murph (intrigued): Time will run differently for us?
Cooper (optimistic): Yeah. I mean, by the time I get back, we might even be the same age. You and me? What? Imagine that!
(Murph looks at him in sad realization)
Cooper: Awe, Murph . . .
Murph (sad then angry): You have no idea when you're coming back. . . . No idea at all!
(Murph throws the watch and pulls the covers over herself and lays in bed.)
Cooper: Come on. Don't make me leave like this Murph. Don't make me leave like this Murph. Hey. I love you, forever. Do you hear me? I love you forever, and I'm coming back. I'm coming back.



K, now, let's look at the context shifts.

Cooper: After your mom came along, she said something to me that I never quite understood. She said, "Now we're just here to be memories for our kids." I think I understand now what she meant. Once you're a parent, you're the ghost of your children's future.
Murph: You said ghosts didn't exist.

Context shift: Cooper is talking about a metaphorical ghost, but Murph's response shifts the context to a literal ghost (the one in her room), and by doing that, in her anger, she's able to throw what Cooper said earlier about ghosts in his face.

Cooper: That's right, Murph. Look at me. I can't be your ghost right now. I need to exist.

Context shift: Instead of becoming a victim to Murph's tactics, Cooper seizes the new context, and shifts it again to the metaphorical, building on his own previous words for his benefit. "That's right . . . . I need to exist."

Cooper: They chose me. Murph, They chose me. You saw it. You're the one who led me to them.

Side note: Notice how Cooper keeps trying to put Murph and himself on the same side, so they aren't aimed against each other.

Murph: That's exactly why you can't go.

Note: And here, Murph seizes what Cooper is trying to persuade her with, and uses it for her own argument, similar to what Cooper did with the ghost thing.

Murph: I figured out the message. One word. Know what it is?
Cooper: Murph . . .
Murph: Stay. It says "stay," Dad.
Cooper: Murph . . .

Context shift: Murph is adamant, but Cooper is disbelieving. His reaction shifts the context of what Murph is saying. She's just a child saying whatever she can to get her Dad to stay. Cooper's reaction leads us to believe she's making it up.

 Murph: You don't believe me. . . . Look at the books! It says "stay." Why? You're not listening! It says "stay"!

Context shift: Murph realizing what Cooper thinks, acknowledging it (seizing it) and then becoming more adamant lets her take control of the context. We suddenly realize there is something more behind her words. And yes, Cooper needs to listen.

(Cooper hugs Murph as she cries)

Note: Because of the last context shift, Murph's crying has a deeper meaning, a deeper undercurrent now. It's not just that her dad is leaving and she's sad; she's crying because he doesn't believe her, he doesn't take her seriously, and she can't change that no matter how adamant she is. To him, she's just a kid making stuff up. It's a cry of losing her chance to convince and save him.

Cooper: Murph, I'm coming back.
Murph: When?
(Cooper pulls out his watch and another and shows them to her)
Cooper: One for you and one for me. When I'm up there in hypersleep, or traveling near the speed of light, or near a black hole, time's going to change for me. And it's going to run more slowly. Now, when I get back, we're going to compare.
Murph (intrigued): Time will run differently for us?
Cooper (optimistic): Yeah. I mean, by the time I get back, we might even be the same age. You and me? What? Imagine that!
(Murph looks at him in sad realization)
Cooper: Awe, Murph . . .

Context shift: Cooper says this cool fact about them being the same age when gets back. He's trying to make this cool to Murph. The way he says it, it's like he's giving her some kind of treat any kid would like. But it shifts when Murph looks at him in realization. To her, this is worse than she imagined. The context of what Cooper says shifts. He's not giving her a treat. He's made it a nightmare.

Murph (sad then angry): You have no idea when you're coming back. . . . No idea at all!
(Murph throws the watch and pulls the covers over herself and lays in bed.)
Cooper: Come on. Don't make me leave like this Murph. Don't make me leave like this Murph. Hey. I love you, forever. Do you hear me? I love you forever, and I'm coming back. I'm coming back.

Note: Once again, notice the pairing of opposite emotions to make each one stronger (that I talked about in this post). Sad and anger right next to each other in Murph's line, and then her actions. Anger in throwing the watch. Sadness in hiding herself in the covers.

And there you go, several shifts in one conversation. The way Cooper and Murph seize one another's words and change the context of them makes great dialogue. You can create mini-context shifts in your dialogue too.


Character Circuitry 


In the last example, Cooper and Murph create circuitry in their conversation by taking, responding, and building off one another's words. You can't take their lines and rearrange them, because each exchange is building off the other. They have circuitry.

I know that some people might read that and go "Duh! Of course they respond to one another. It's a conversation!"

Responding is one thing, but building off it for a stronger, more interesting, more entertaining effect is another. It's like I talked about in my Trigun posts, humor post, and relationship posts. You want the characters to actually work off each other, not just respond. For example:

Just responding:
Cooper: After your mom came along, she said something to me that I never quite understood. She said, "Now we're just here to be memories for our kids." I think I understand now what she meant. Once you're a parent, you're the ghost of your children's future.
Murph: Dad, don't go.
Cooper: I have to, Murph.
Murph: The books say "stay," Dad.
Cooper: I've got to go.

Building:
Cooper: After your mom came along, she said something to me that I never quite understood. She said, "Now we're just here to be memories for our kids." I think I understand now what she meant. Once you're a parent, you're the ghost of your children's future.
Murph: You said ghosts didn't exist.
Cooper: That's right, Murph. Look at me. I can't be your ghost right now. I need to exist. They chose me. Murph, They chose me. You saw it. You're the one who led me to them.
Murph: That's exactly why you can't go. I figured out the message. One word. Know what it is?

By having the characters building on what the other said, we get stronger circuitry.




Here is a good example of circuitry:

Cooper: It's hard leaving everyone. Friends, family.
Amelia: We're going to be spending a lot of time together.
Cooper: We should learn to talk. (builds)
Amelia: And when not to. Just being honest. (builds)
Cooper: I don't think you need to be that honest. Hey Tars, what's your honesty parameter? (builds)
Tars: 90%
Cooper: 90%?
Tars: Absolute honesty is not always the most diplomatic nor the safest form of communication with emotional beings.
Cooper: Okay, 90% it is, Dr. Brand. (builds)

We have two characters with views that oppose each other. Cooper wants to talk. Amelia doesn't. Amelia is brutally honest. And Cooper isn't. They create circuitry in their dialogue, which is more pleasing to the viewer than having them simply respond. Cooper and Amelia are building off each other, not just reacting or acknowledging each other.

Usually characters that build off each other for the most interesting effect foil each other somewhere.


Bring Back Old Lines


Like all writing rules, taking them the extreme is overkill, so this is one in particular you don't want to do with everything. Just one, two, or three things. But audiences love it when we bring back old lines. Here is the follow up to my last example. This happens when Cooper is detaching himself to go into the black hole.

Case: Ranger 2, prepare to detach.
Amelia: Cooper, Cooper, no, what are you doing?
Cooper: Newton's third law, you got to leave something behind.
Amelia: You told me we had enough resources for both of us.
Cooper: We agreed. 90%.

Seeing the 90% honesty topic come back just makes the dialogue buzz with more impact.




Likewise, earlier in the show, one of the robots says that because he's a robot, he technically doesn't need to be asked to do anything. He has to obey. Then near the end we get this:

Amelia: Cooper, you can't ask TARS to do this for us.
Cooper: He's a robot, so you don't have to ask him to do anything.
Amelia: Cooper, you asshole!
Cooper: Sorry, you broke up a little bit there.

It happens beautifully in Harry and the Order of the Phoenix, where Harry's punishment is to write lines ("I must not tell lies") during his detention with Umbridge. At the end of the movie, the centaurs attack Umbridge.





It's satisfying and we laugh. It's like an inside joke we're in on.

The trick here is not to overdo it. Bringing back the same line will work a few times by itself, but after that, you probably need to find a way to evolve the joke or one-up it or what have you, so it's not like the audience is getting a repeat of the same thing over and over again. That can get annoying, so handle with care. You can create an inside joke without getting annoying by giving variations--changing the line up a bit. The Harry Potter example is only going to work once or twice, because the line itself can't change, only the context it's said in can. Other lines can be tweaked along with context to keep an impact.

Notice, too, that the examples are satisfying often because of the context shift that happened with them, and because they build on what came before.


One Step Ahead


Witty dialogue has a buzz to it too. I noticed in Interstellar that the writers created wit by having the characters be one step ahead of the audience or another character.



Cooper: Honesty, new setting. Ninety-five percent.
TARS: Confirmed. Additional customization?
Cooper: Humor: Seventy-five percent.
TARS: Confirmed. Auto self destruct T minus, ten, nine...
Cooper: Let's make that sixty-percent.
TARS: Sixty percent confirmed. Knock, knock.
Cooper: You want fifty-five?

In this example, Cooper is one step ahead of the audience. "Knock, knock" isn't a type of joke being told by a robot with 60% humor. The fact Tars is telling a knock knock joke is the joke. Tars is being a smart aleck, saying, "Hey look, my humor level has been dumbed down so much, I'm doing stupid knock knock jokes!" The Nolans are making a joke via a joke. But we don't know this until Cooper's response gives us the context. "You want fifty-five" clues us into the real joke and we laugh. Cooper is one step ahead.

Here is another example:

Cooper: You're ruling my kid out for college now? The kid's 15.
Principal: Tom's score simply isn't high enough.
Cooper: What's your waistline? 32? 33 inseam?
Principal: I'm not sure I see where you are getting at.
Cooper: You're telling me it takes two numbers to measure your own ass and only one to measure my son's future?

Again, Cooper gives the feeling that he's ahead one step. He's ahead of the character and the audience.

Okay, one more, which also brings in the 90% inside joke thing nicely again.

Cooper: Dr. Brand and Edmunds, they close?
TARS: I wouldn't know.
Cooper: Is that ninety percent wouldn't know or ten percent wouldn't know?
TARS: I also have a discretion setting, Cooper.
Cooper: Oh. But not a poker-face, slick.

So Cooper comes across as one step ahead again. And of course, what he says is funny because Tars doesn't even have a face. He's expressionless. So Cooper comes across as smart too.


Quotable



When the movie Avatar came out, I was listening to a professional writer talk about it. He mentioned that the dialogue in it wasn't very good. He said that for example "There was not one quotable line in that whole movie."

My first reaction was disbelief. There had to be a quotable line somewhere. So I racked my mind.

I had nothing.

I could not think of a single good line. I couldn't remember anyone who'd seen it quoting lines. The only thing that came to mind was "unobtainium," a term that my brother and I still laugh about.

While I'm sure that there are fans who would be able to quote some lines. this writer had a point. There weren't any lines that begged to be quoted.

Obviously not every line needs to be quotable, but there should at least be a few that beg to be quoted, either silently or when people are talking about the story with friends. It's even better if someone can quote a line seemingly out of the blue, and others can get it ("Use the force").

So when writing dialogue, you might want to ask yourself: Do I have any lines that are quotable?

Like I mentioned earlier, there are quotable lines that people quote with their friends, and then there are the quotable lines that people quote in their minds--the kind of things you might find on a wall plaque. In short a quotable line is something that sticks in the mind of the audience after the moment.

So how do you do that?

The line has to be pleasing to the audience in some way. It might be in the language itself--the way it's said is pleasurable. Or, it might be the tone or the context in which it's said. But it's got to have that little buzz to make it sticky.

Then, of course, we have the content that's being said. Usually quotable lines have one of two types of content:

  •  The concept is significant in some way. These kinds of quotes are often wise.

"It is our choices that show who we truly are, far more than our abilities." --Dumbledore

Or they might capture a complex idea in a simple way.

"You don't get to choose if you get hurt in this world . . . but you have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices" --John Green

Or explain a relateable experience very accurately.

"I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once." --John Green

They ring of truth.

  • The concept is entertaining in some way. Usually that means it's funny.

"Tina, you fat lard, come get some DINNER!" --Napolean Dynamite

"I've got a jar of dirt! I've got a jar of dirt! And guess what's inside it!" --Jack Sparrow




The line doesn't have to be revolutionary. Just something said well enough that it sticks in people's minds.

Dr. Brand: We're never meant to save the world. We're meant to leave it.

Dr. Brand: The last people to starve will be the first people to suffocate.

Are these lines mind-blowing? No. But they stick in the mind because they are written in a pleasurable way. They have a beat and contrast that makes them interesting. Compare those to these less quotable versions I made up that say the same things:

Dr. Brand: We have to leave Earth because we can't save it.

Dr. Brand: First, people will die of starvation, but then they will suffocate to death because there won't be enough oxygen left.

It's like what Bilbo says in Fellowship of the Ring:

"I don't know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve." --Bilbo Baggins

The concept isn't amazing, but it's entertaining and pleasing in the way it's said.

The first Dr. Brand quote I gave had enough of a buzz that the filmmakers were smart and put it in the movie trailers. It was the kind of line that would stick in people's mind after the trailer was over, so it gave an extra boost in advertising.

One of the lines in Interstellar that often replays in my mind is one said by Tars. I thought it was funny, coming from a robot, when robots usually don't have sarcasm. And he says it when they first get to the Endurance.

Tars: Everybody good. Plenty of slaves for my robot colony.

So remember, when you want to write quotable lines,

Pleasing to the ear + content entertaining in some way

Or

Pleasing to the ear + content significant in some way

Even if the concept isn't earth-moving, finding a way to make it more entertaining and said in a more pleasing way will help give your dialogue some spark.


Say a lot in a Few Words


Often great dialogue says a lot in a few words.

Cooper: Once you're a parent, you're the ghost of your children's future.
Murph: You said ghosts didn't exist.
Cooper: That's right, Murph. . . . I can't be your ghost right now. I need to exist.

In his last line, Cooper says a lot of what he feels in a few words. He wants to be a good dad, but he also yearns to feel like he exists, doing what he says he feels he was "born to do." We learn a lot about Cooper in those few lines. We learn a lot about his deepest feelings. So great dialogue reveals character.

The concept itself is complex. It's a big idea packaged in a few sentences. The writers could have spent lines and lines getting across what Cooper feels ande conveying this idea, this adult struggle that some parents feel: wanting to be a great parent, but yearning to achieve other dreams. But instead, they said it in a few lines here and there, and they packed a punch.

Sometimes the biggest ideas are most powerful when said in few words. Like some of the lines I mentioned in the "quotable" section.

Here's another segment that I think conveys a lot in a few lines, both in concept and in revealing character.




Cooper: Brand. My daughter is ten years old. Couldn't teach her Einstein's theories before I left.
Brand: Couldn't you have told her you were going to save the world?
Cooper: No. When you become a parent one thing becomes really clear. And that's that you wanna make sure your children feel safe, and it rules out telling a ten-year-old that the world's endin'.

We learn a lot about both Brand and Cooper and the dialogue exchange conveys a big idea.

Subtext


I already did a gigantic post all about subtext, breaking it down and explaining how to use it: How to Write What's Not Written (Subtext). So I'm not going to repeat myself. But great dialogue often has subtext. What the characters say (and don't say), and the way they do (or don't), can give the dialogue nice complexity.

In Interstellar, I love the subtext Dr. Mann brings to the movie. The lines alone don't do it justice because the way Matt Damon delivers them contains subtext too. We see as well as hear his reluctance and hesitancy, but just enough of it. It's noticeable enough when you look for it, but it's not overbearing so that the subtext is obvious. Subtext takes careful balance and control. 

When working with subtext, describing the way things are said and how the character is behaving are often key to cluing the reader into what's not on the page. But even though we don't get to see Matt Damon saying this, notice how his hesitancy is conveyed, and how he seems to (almost) contradict himself (which is how subtext usually works).




Romilly: I'm gonna need TARS to remove and adapt some components from KIPP. 
Dr. Mann: Well, I don't wanna disturb his archival functions. 
Romilly: Well, I'll supervise. 
Dr. Mann: Alright. 
Cooper: Dr. Mann, we need to find three secure sites. One for Brand's lab and two for habitat. And once those modules have landed, you don't wanna move 'em. 
Dr. Mann: Well I can take you to the probes sites, but I don't think this...these conditions are gonna hold. I think we should wait. 
Cooper: CASE is headed back down with the rest of the distillery equipment. I'd really like to secure those sites by nightfall. 
Dr. Mann: Well, these squalls do usually blow over. 

Notice all the "well"s. Here they convey his uncertainty. Then, he goes from saying they shouldn't go out in this kind of weather to saying "Well, these squalls do usually blow over."

Again, if you want to learm about writing subtext, check out my other post.


Foreshadow


Foreshadowing is another device that I love. Foreshadowing gives a story re-read value--often because the context has shifted for you as the audience when you re-read the story. Foreshadowing can make dialogue significant and give it that buzz I talked about earlier.

For Interstellar, I love that this is one of the first lines of the movie:

Murph: Dad? I thought you were the ghost.

Awesome foreshadowing.



So, those are some techniques to keep in mind when you want to kick up your dialogue. There are other things Interstellar did well with dialogue too, like explaining complex science in ways that 1) the audience could understand 2) still sounded natural and in character and 3) didn't slow pacing. Now that takes skill. I also loved watching the lies the characters said and dissecting why they lied like that. Dr. Brand lies about Plan A, Cooper lies about his goodbye with Murph going well, and Murph lies to Amelia about Dr. Brand dying peacefully and painlessly. So having your characters lie can make your dialogue more interesting, too.

Next time your dialogue needs a bit of a punch to it, check out this list.

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