Now I know dialogue can expose the plot or characterise the character or develop the subtext. That is all very true and very well, but what I love about dialogue is the way it can, in a few broad brushstrokes, just immediately dump you in a specific place and time. Dialogue can make you feel and see a place within the marrow of your bones.
I realised this the other day when a quite ordinary and commonplace little dialogue hit me with the force of poetry. It made me smile with the intimate knowledge of knowing exactly where I was, in more senses than one. It went something like this:
“How’s it going?”
“Yeah, getting there.”
“Good on ye.”
This may seem like a totally inane and uninteresting exchange, yet it carries the essence of a situation that would need a picture (or a thousand words) to describe – the tradesman looking up from a job to greet a client, the subdued anxiety in the question regarding a complicated project, the assurance that there is progress despite a few difficulties and then the client’s relief and encouragement, all soaked in honest Australian accents.
Dialogue may be the part of movies we remember the best, because we can quote it. Think of these famous lines from movies:
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” (Gone with the Wind)
“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” (Wizard of Oz)
“Go ahead, make my day.” (Sudden Impact)
“I’ll have what she’s having.” (When Harry Met Sally)
“Elementary, my dear Watson.” (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes)
Interestingly, more than half of these quotes are from films based on books, but that may be a personal bias. (You can ask Google for the most famous movie quotes to get the bigger picture.) Not all book-based movie quotes stay faithful to their origins, either.
Coming back to dialogue and how they show a story, I did a random search through my book shelves and came across these examples.
“Hannes,” I used to say. “That is a sin. The Lord is looking at you.”
“That’s all right,” Hannes replied. “The Lord knows that this is the Boer War, and in war-time he will always forgive a little foolishness like this, especially as the English are so many.”
From “The Rooinek” by Herman Charles Bosman
“Something like the caves at Elephanta?”
“Oh no, not at all; at Elephanta there are sculptures of Siva and Parvati. There are no sculptures at Marabar.”
“They are immensely holy, no doubt,” said Aziz.
“Oh no, oh no.”
“Still, they are ornamental in some way.”
“Well, why are they so famous? We all talk of the famous Marabar Caves. Perhaps that is our empty brag.”
From A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
“Do you think there is a second key to that little hut not far from John’s Well, where the pheasants are reared?” she said.
“There may be. Why?”
“I happened to find it today – and I’d never seen it before. I think it’s a darling place. I could sit there sometimes, couldn’t I?”
From Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
“My lord, do you mean that you want no harm to come to Mr de Worde, or that you want no harm to come to Mr de Worde?”
“Did you wink at me, Drumknott?”
“Drumknott, I believe it is the right of every citizen of Ankh-Morpork to walk the streets unmolested.”
“Good gods, sir! Is it?”
From The Truth by Terry Pratchett
To me these bites of dialogue are like movie trailers, giving a tiny glimpse of a world just waiting to be explored. Go on then, see the whole story at a bookstore near you!