Thursday, July 2, 2015

Powerful Dialog: Shorter Is Often Sweeter

A popular post from February 2012. 

by Annette Lyon

In the famous movie The Fugitive from the early 90s, Tommy Lee Jones has a fantastic line that people still quote and remember And it's all of three words.

He delivers the line when he's got Harrison Ford's character almost caught, standing at the edge of a water pipe that opens hundreds of feet above a river. Jones's character is simply doing his job to catch an escaped convict.

Ford's character, who was falsely convicted, cries out: "I didn't kill my wife!"

Jones's reply is simple and powerful, and delivered with slow deliberation, almost without emotion from fatigue. "I. Don't. Care."


Not that is effective dialog.

There's more to that line. The story goes that the script originally had several sentences there, a mini speech for Tommy Lee Jones to deliver as to why this isn't personal; he's doing his job, and yada yada.

Jones as an actor had the instinct that shorter is better, to trust the audience to get it. That doing so will be far more effective.

He cut the speech entirely and replaced it with those three words, "I don't care," that communicate more to the audience in three seconds than a three-minute speech could.

Writers could use this as a lesson on how to write good dialog. Pontificating is easy; we writers like to hear ourselves speak (or, er, write). We want to be absolutely sure the reader gets it.

As with so many writing issues, don't stress this too much in your first draft. But when you go through revisions, pay special attention to your dialog and take note of a few things:
  • Can some of the words be cut?
  • Are characters saying more than they need to?
  • Are characters repeating stuff the reader already knows?
  • Worse, are characters repeating what every character present already knows, just for the reader's benefit?
  • Are characters repeating what someone just said to them? (Such as: "What are you doing here?" with the reply, "What do you mean, what am I doing here?")
  • Are they saying something they already said elsewhere (whether in this scene or somewhere else)?
  • MOST IMPORTANT: Is the dialog something we can figure out ourselves?
Trust that your readers are smart. They certainly don't need to have you beating a dead horse.

Or even tapping it with a switch.

This is probably the only situation where "show, not tell" ends up shorter rather than longer. Tight, concise dialog shows character and reveals plot so much better than long, meandering passages.

Or even three sentences that could be cut to three words.

Call this The Fugitive effect. I use it all the time on my own work and when editing clients. It's one of my favorite tools.


Leigh Covington said...

Awesome post and SO TRUE! I love that line! I'm currently cutting away at my MS :) It makes it so much prettier. :)

Weaver said...

I love your example. Now I'm paranoid. I wonder if I need to go back and cut more. *starts to sweat*

Nancy Campbell Allen said...

That is so true. And to take it one step further, I occasionally like to give four lines of quick dialog without any tags to interrupt the flow. I don't go any more than four, because after a while you have a Hemmingway effect where you have to count back up the page to see who is saying what. This works only if there are two people in the scene, though. Otherwise, some sort of tag is usually necessary. IMO. :-)

Awesome post, Annette!

Luisa Perkins said...

This is better than gold.

I remember the whoops in the theater when Tommy Lee delivered that line. AWESOME.

Danielle Paige said...

Very helpful post. Recently I've been struggling with thinking my readers are dumb, this helps give a specific perspective as to how to avoid some of the pitfalls those thoughts cause.

Kelly Leiter said...

This was really helpful! Thank you for sharing it!

antares said...

Good post. Kudos.