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.