(Ha! I forgot to do spellcheck before I went trigger-happy with the publish button! Sorry if you got that version first.) You know, I think I actually watch more movies than I do read novels, and I’m not sure if that’s exactly a great thing, considering I’m supposed to be a writer (of novels). However, when I’m watching movies now I’m not just in it for the entertainment.
When you start learning to write a novel you also start to look at the world differently because you want to know how great stories come to life and how to write them yourself. You do so more critically and analytically. You begin to ask more questions, smarter questions. Why was that line so particularly witty? How did they get the dialogue to always maintain that sharp quality of wit? Where did they get the idea for that scene? How did the writers figure out how to tie all of these details together so beautifully?
Yesterday I went to the store with my mom and they just so happened to be selling a bunch of (actually) really good movie titles for just $5 each. When I got home I decided to watch Casino Royale, with Daniel Craig playing James Bond, and before I even popped the DVD in I realized just how much I loved that film. Some of it’s ridiculously over the top and unnecessary, like the opening scenes–the part I call “where Bond runs like a black man,” haha (I mean why climb up, only to come back down again?)–but even that was wonderful to watch. I mean, that man Bond was chasing could move. He was a freakin’ monkey!
One reason I love this movie is because, well, it’s got espionage, action and adventure–hello! Best combination in the world! Also, this is the kind of novel I’m working on. (Though, I admit, the espionage bit of my WIP is just as unlikely to happen in real life as in most of Bond’s adventures, but that’s exactly why people watch it, I think, because it is so outlandish. Though, I must say, Casino Royale is considerably more believable than its predecessors–probably because, for one, the gadgets are so much more realistic).
Another reason I like the film is because of the dialogue.
I’ve noticed something happening a lot in espionage fiction. I’ve only read five books in this genre (one a Le Carre that I couldn’t finish because I really found it to be too dense for my taste, and a sixth I got distracted from and must return to soon), but every single one of them seems to excel in the dialogue department. And when I compare them to most fantasy or scif-fi novels I read…well, there really isn’t any comparison.
One of the reasons I think the dialogue in espionage novels is so good in comparison is because characters are able to make rapid-fire and/or offhand remarks referring or alluding to actual historical figures and events: the Cold War, Jesus Christ–“Christ!” is a popular expletive, particularly in Brit lit, that’s often used in the most amusing of ways–World War II, Hitler… Those seem to be the most popular, and one can see why: they are some of the most influential events and persons the world’s ever seen. M does this near the beginning of Casino Royale when she starts talking about how much grief 007 always gives her; she says:
I give him double-O status and he celebrates by shooting up an embassy. Is the man deranged? And where the hell is he? In the old days if an agent did something that embarrassing he’d have a good sense to defect. Christ, I miss the Cold War.
This ability to reference and allude to real-life events lends the espionage genre a certain propensity for richness and nuance that’s hard to duplicate in science fiction and fantasy stories where the setting is a make-believe world, simply for the fact that it allows writers to play with what readers are already familiar with. It’s like telling an inside joke; in order to get the punchline you assume that your audience is already “in the know” and therefore will be able to “get” what you’re talking about. It’s a mighty convenient platform to build on.
When you’re writing fantasy set in a secondary world of your own making, though, you simply don’t have this kind of luxury. Not to the same extent, anyway. So I’ve been wondering how, then, can a writer get this same quality of dialogue when s/he’s starting off with a much more meager shared base of knowledge with his/her readers?
Why Building a History Can Do Your Story a Favor
If you get into deep worldbuilding for your novel and create your own world, there’s always the possibility that you might go overboard with it. Of course. However…if you’re smart about what you choose to develop and what to leave alone, it can most certainly be used to your advantage.
(This would be so much more convenient to write about if I was already published, heh, but I’ll do my best without giving too much away.)
Say you’ve built this world, right, and you’ve come up with some figures who’ve left their mark on history. If they’re dead and long-gone, how do you still manage to bring their influence and characters to life on the page?
For one, just having your characters making mere references to them is enough to bring those figures into existence. In my story there’s a woman who has become notorious for her treachery as a double agent, and I’ll just call her Agent Feruupa for now (I’ve talked about her here before, actually). In everyday speech her name has become synonymous with treason and is even used in part as a noun. “The Feruupa Fiasco,” one of my characters calls her betrayal (only because she actually got caught). Sometimes characters, when they’re speaking about someone treacherous, might even say something like, “She pulled a Feruupa on him.”
If you can build a character, even a dead one, that is unique to your world’s history and represents something larger then introduce them to readers naturally over time and use them in a way that is relevant to the plot and themes of your story…then I think you have a chance at weaving that much more richness and realism into your tale.
That’s my theory, anyway.
One Last Look At Casino Royale’s Dialogue
There’s something else this movie does with its dialogue that I find particularly attractive: subtlety. Sometimes its better not to say precisely what you mean because taking the indirect route may actually have a stronger effect. Take this line, for instance, where M has just had Bond injected with a tracking device. (This is only shown, not explained.) What does he say instead of going for the obvious and just asking, “Is that a tracking device?”
So you can keep an eye on me?
More words, but in the end I think it works so much better because it also reveals some of that wry character we’ve come to love about Bond.
This may seem like a very insignificant thing, but I feel that many times as a writer it is all too easy to take the obvious, easy approach to crafting dialogue. If you ever come across a line you’ve written that just seems too straightforward and bland, consider a more indirect way to say it–and always try to write in character. I think this is a great way to deal with scenes that are meant to be emotionally gripping, tender, or perhaps intimate–like in the middle of a romance. Sometimes even saying nothing at all and opting to describe body language is better than having a character utter what could come across as cheesy or insincere. (Unless, of course, that’s what you are going for.)
Just something to think about!
What tricks have you learned about writing better dialogue?
Personally, I love writing dialogue. That’s really your chance to let much of your characters’ personalities shine through. I also love paying attention to body language and portraying that across the page. Movies have the advantage in that you actually see all of this happening, so to be able to capture some of this in written form is both challenging and fun, I think.
Have you any insights you’d like to share? Also, have you considered any of these techniques before? Do you think they’ve helped you to write better dialogue? Lastly, are there any writers in particular who inspire you by their dialogue? (I’m a big fan of Quentin Tarantino’s lengthier dialogue style, actually, and I hope one day I’ll be able to capture audiences with just as much wit and insight into the human condition as he!)