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Scott Lax Blog

Earning Dialogue

Good dialogue in fiction needs to be earned. It can't just be thrown in because the words sound pretty, or impressive, or fancy, or complicated, or "dramatic." For example, here's a bit of dialogue from the movie, "Closer," which was adapted from the play of the same name. (Patrick Marber wrote both; the great Mike Nichols directed the film.) Two of the characters in the film are played by Jude Law (Dan) and Natalie Portman (Alice). Listen to how brutal and blunt this dialogue is, spoken toward the end of the film:

(Spoiler alert.)


Dan comes back down the hall, steals a rose from outside another room. He walks in and offers her the rose.

ALICE: I don’t love you anymore.
DAN: Since when?
ALICE: Now. Just now. I don’t want to lie. Can’t tell the truth, so it’s over.

Only three lines of dialogue. Yet they are, to me, devastating. Why? Because all of their previous actions and dialogue in the movie earned the characters the right to use few words to convey total annihilation of a relationship. Alice doesn't need more words because she sees Dan's callowness, suddenly and starkly; you can see the love (whether it was mature or not) leave her as suddenly as as a vase breaking into a thousand pieces. Dan's shock is understandable; yet because he never really got her in the first place, and perhaps he never really saw her as a real person. Maybe he never really got what it was to love. And maybe none of that is right...still, so much happened before that dialogue that viewers can debate endlessly about what was going on. That's where Marber's art comes in: he's not telling us what to think; rather, he's showing a romance fall apart before our eyes and allowing us to decide what happened.

What matters in this context is that the characters and actors may use simple dialogue because the writer earned it.

Listen to the dialogue that moves you, both in print, on stage and screen. Ask yourself why it moves you. I think you'll find the answer lies in the intricate and extremely hard work the writer put in to the story before that dialogue occurred.

Do that in your own fiction. Allow your characters to earn their dialogue. It's hard work, but I think you'll find that your characters' words will pack more power. Words mean little but for what is behind them. You know the phrase, “talk is cheap.” So is dialogue, unless it's earned. It’s dramatic tension that matters. Dialogue is a medium for expression, not expression in and of itself.  Read More