Why should you learn dialogue techniques?
One of the most important skills any writer needs in his or her toolbox is dialogue. Characters and critical parts of the plot are usually revealed by dialogue. However, the poor use of dialogue can be counter-effective and lead the readers to become bored or take the oomph from the story. So here is the first set of dialogue techniques that have proven to be effective over the years to make your good story great. Do not be one of those writers who believe there is nothing left for them to learn, or learning itself will kill their creative sense. Writing is like anything else in life; it takes talent to start, passion to persevere, and knowledge to become a professional. However, let me remind you that all the techniques and tips and tricks cannot create a genuine writer; only you can. Don’t use the techniques and forget about your voice.
We will look at twelve different techniques writers use to write dialogue. And now for the Dialogue Techniques:
An interior monologue is one that the audience hears, but the other characters do not. In this example from Andy Richter Controls The Universe, Andy suspects his girlfriend of being anti-Semitic, but has a sure-fire way of telling whether his girlfriend is or not:
ANDY: Would you like a bagel or the geschnitzel-lebensraum-torte?
GIRLFRIEND: Oh, I’ll have the bagel.
ANDY: (We hear his thoughts) Great! She picked the bagel.
GIRLFRIEND: Isn’t it amazing how cheap Jews are – they won’t even put a center in the bagel.
Most novels use a form of interior monologue in which the character speaks in their natural voice. In films and plays, this can also be used as a form of narration. In the following example from Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, we hear the thoughts of Huck. Huck is drifting down the Mississippi with runaway slave Jim. He had decided that the proper thing to do is to return the slave to his owner and had written a letter to the owner, but he has grown to like Jim:
HUCK: I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now, and then I happened to look around, and see that paper. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was trembling because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knew it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”- and tore it up.
The faux pas is used a lot in comedy, but it can also be used to good effect in drama. In French it means literally “false step”, and usually involves telling a character something that you did not know would offend them, but it does. In this scene, from Real Genius written by Neal Israel and Pat Proft, Chris is ogling a beautiful girl at a party:
CHRIS KNIGHT: Have you ever seen a body like this before in your life?
MAN: She happens to be my daughter.
CHRIS KNIGHT: Oh. Then I guess you have.
There’s an old joke that goes something like this:
MAN: How’s your girlfriend?
FRIEND: Oh, she’s not my girlfriend anymore.
MAN: That’s probably for the best. You know she was a real slut who had sex with every guy she ever met.
FRIEND: She’s my wife now.
Richard Curtis used a variation of that gag in Four Weddings And Funeral, to considerable comic effect despite the antiquity of its roots. The truth is, a well-constructed gag from the 1600’s can still bring down the house today, and will until human nature changes.
The Faux Pas can also be used in dramatic situations where a character doesn’t seem to care that he is saying the wrong thing. It can be very illuminating about the inner workings of the character, as here from Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt written by Gordon McDonell & Thornton Wilder:
UNCLE CHARLIE: (Visiting a bank) Hello, Joe. Can you stop embezzling a minute and give me your attention?
JOE: Oh, uh, Charles, we don’t joke about such things here.
UNCLE CHARLIE: Aw, what’s a little shortage in the books at the end of the month? Any good bank clerk can cover up a little shortage. Isn’t that right, Charlie?
YOUNG CHARLIE: Uncle Charlie, you’re awful. Everyone can hear you.
There’s something both sinister and telling about the light-hearted way Uncle Charlie uses this as humor.
Combining the sinister and the comedic in this sample from Grosse Pointe Blank by Tom Jankiewicz:
DEBI NEWBERRY: You’re a psychopath.
MARTIN BLANK: No, no. Psychopaths kill for no reason. I kill for money. It’s a job… That didn’t come out right.
The sudden reversal occurs when a character makes a 180 degree turn in the middle of a thought process. It can be very effective, especially when there is a character who “doth protest too much”. We all remember the famous “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” sketch by Monty Python when the obnoxious Palin keeps trying to pry into JONES’ sex life:
TERRY JONES: I say… are you implying something?
MICHAEL PALIN: No, no, no, no, no, no. (Beat) Yes.
But it can also be used dramatically, as here from A Few Good Men written by Aaron Sorkin:
WHITAKER: Can I ask you a question?
JO: Of course, Captain.
WHITAKER: Are you here to bust anyone’s ass?
JO: Absolutely not, sir! No. Not at all. (Beat) Only if necessary.
Often fear makes people prone to sudden reversals. Here, Bonnie and Clyde (written by David Newman & Robert Benton) have picked up a young couple (Eugene and Velma) in the middle of the Barrow gang’s notorious killing spree. The young couple are terrified of them:
BONNIE: Look, don’t be scared, folks. In ain’t like you was the law. You’re just folks like us.
EUGENE: (agreeing over-enthusiastically) Yeah, yeah, that’s the truth.
CLYDE: I expect you been readin’ about us.
From A Life Less Ordinary by John Hodge, here is an amusingly sudden reversal that shows how a point of view can change according to the situation:
ROBERT: Are you taking me to a hospital? Because I don’t want to die in a hospital.
CELINE: I’m not going to take you to a hospital.
ROBERT: What? What do you mean you’re not taking me to a hospital? I demand to be taken to a hospital!
There is a prejudice against monologues today, especially in movies, but they can be extremely effective if used properly. They differ from soliloquies in that they are delivered to someone, not to oneself. Here is a great example from Bull Durham (written by Ron Shelton) in which a character played by Susan Sarandon expounds upon her attitude towards baseball. This is not just idle talk, it is the emotional underpinning to much of the drama that will follow:
SARANDON: I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshiped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance: There are a hundred and eight beads in a Catholic rosary and there are a hundred and eight stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there’s no guilt in baseball. And it’s never boring. Which makes it like sex. There’s never been a ballplayer slept with me who didn’t have the best year of his career. Making love is like hitting a baseball. You’ve just got to relax and concentrate. Besides I’d never sleep with a player hitting under .250, not unless he had a lot of RBI’s and was a great glove man up the middle. You see there’s a certain amount of life wisdom I give these boys. I can expand their minds. Sometimes when I’ve got a ballplayer alone I’ll just read Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman to him. And the guys are so sweet they always stay and listen. Of course a guy will listen to anything if he thinks it’s foreplay.
And who can forget the memorable monologue by Robert Shaw in Jaws, written by Peter Benchley? This speech not only told a great story, but also told us a lot about the motive of the fisherman whose driving hatred of the big fish propelled much of the latter part of the story (taking a page from Moby Dick):
QUINT: Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. It was comin’ back, from the island of Tinian Delady; just delivered the bomb, the Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. Didn’t see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. Thirteen footer. You know how you know that when you’re in the water, Chief? You tell by lookin’ from the dorsal to the tail. Well, we didn’t know. `Cos our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn’t even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, chief, the sharks come cruisin’. So we formed ourselves into tight groups. You know it’s… kinda like `ol squares in battle like you see on a calendar, like the battle of Waterloo. And the idea was, the man nearest the shark he’d start poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’ and sometimes the shark would go away… sometimes he wouldn’t go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he’s got… lifeless eyes, black eyes… like a doll’s eye. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin’ and the ocean turns red and in spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’ they all come in and rip you to pieces. Y’know by the end of that first dawn, we lost a hundred men! I don’t know how many sharks, maybe a thousand! I don’t know how many men, they averaged six an hour. On Thursday mornin’ chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player, Bos’ns Mate. I thought he was asleep, reached over to wake him up. Bobbed up and down in the water, just like a kinda top. Up ended. Well… he’d been bitten in half below the waist. Noon the fifth day, Mr. Hooper, a Lockheed Ventura saw us, he swung in low and he saw us. He was a young pilot, a lot younger than Mr. Hooper, anyway he saw us and come in low. And three hours later a big fat PBY comes down and starts to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened? Waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again. So, eleven hundred men went in the water, three hundred and sixteen men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29, 1945. Anyway, we delivered the bomb.
Quite a mouthful, but there’s not a wasted word.
Sometimes people even talk to an imaginary person, or, as in this next case, to God. Here the embittered Salieri is talking to a crucifix, insanely jealous over Mozart’s musical gifts:
ANTONIO SALIERI: [Addressing a crucifix] From now on we are enemies, you and I. Because you choose for your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me only the ability to recognize the incarnation. Because you are unjust, unfair, unkind I will block you, I swear it. I will hinder and harm your creature on Earth as far as I am able. I will ruin your incarnation.
TRYING TO HELP, BUT FAILING
This can be a very effective technique, as the more the person tries to help, the more damage is being done. It is a much more subtle way of creating conflict than direct attack. In this example from Almost Famous by Cameron Crowe, Elaine is a controlling mother worried about her teenage son William who is a journalist on a rock tour. Here she calls the band’s hotel, but gets a female groupie instead:
ELAINE MILLER: [on phone] May I speak with William, please?
GROUPIE: [on phone] He’s not here. I think he’s in the bar with the band. They just got back from the radio station. Is this Maryann with the pot? … Hello?
ELAINE MILLER: No, this isn’t Maryann with the pot. This is Elaine. His mother. Could you please give him a message? Could you tell him to call home immediately? And could you also tell him — I KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON.
GROUPIE: All right. But I’m just going to say this, and I’m going to stand by it: you should be really proud of him. ‘Cause I know guys, and I’ll bet you do too. And he respects women, and he likes women, and let’s just pause and appreciate a man like that. You created him out of thin air, and you raised him right, and we’re all looking out for him. He’s doing a great job, and don’t worry — he’s still a virgin. And that’s more than I’ve ever said to my own parents, so there you go. (Beat) This is the maid speaking, by the way.
As Sapphire realizes the damage she is doing, she decides that the best thing to do is claim anonymity. Probably a wise move.
Or you could try talking a depressed friend out of suicide by saying:
FRIEND: If you think nobody cares if you’re alive, try missing a couple of car payments.
From Way Out West written by Charles Rogers & James Parrott:
ROSINA: Is it true that my dear, dear daddy is dead?
STAN LAUREL: I hope so. They buried him.
WARNING TOO LATE
This is a popular technique these days, judging by the fact that it is used in quite a few ads for movies. It is not a pure dialogue technique since it usually requires a visual gag to complete it.
Here is one example from Dickie Roberts Child Star written by Fred Wolf & David Spade. David Spade plays a former child star who rents a family to recreate his youth. Here he plays on the lawn with a water slide:
DAVID SPADE: (eagerly) That’s a Slip-and-Slide!
(he leaps onto the slide)
KID: It needs water!
(SPADE skids to a painful stop on the dry slide which has ripped the hairs off his chest).
A very similar routine is used in Uptown Girls written by Julia Dahl & Mo Ogrodnick. Brittany Murphy has to look after the spoiled young Dakota Fanning. Here she’s had enough and storms out of the room:
BRITTANY MURPHY: I’m leaving!
(She dramatically pushes the door open)
DAKOTA FANNING: Swinging door!
(The door swings back and hits her in the face.)
Juxtaposition is a technique in which two sentences or thoughts, which by themselves sound quite normal, are put together in such a way that they contrast with each other in funny and witty ways.
Here in Cabin In The Cotton written by Paul Green, Bette Davis is brushing off an ardent suitor:
BETTE DAVIS: (Southern accent) I’d love to kiss you, but I just washed my hair.
Bette Davis said this was her favorite line in any of her movies.
Playwright Joe Orton’s dialogue is full of glorious juxtaposition, as here from his play What The Butler Saw:
RANCE: (to DR. PRENTICE) She may mean “Yes” when she says No”. It’s elementary feminine psychology. (to GERALDINE) Was your mother aware of your love for your father?
GERALDINE: I lived in a normal family. I had no love for my father.
The lines “I lived in a normal family. I had no love for my father” shows the way juxtaposition works. In another Orton example, Mrs. Prentice has had an affair with a page boy at a nearby hotel, and is trying to explain it away as rape:
MRS. PRENTICE: The boy wanted to rape me.
DR. RANCE: Did he succeed?
MRS. PRENTICE: No.
DR. RANCE: The service in these hotels is dreadful.
And of course, this classic line from Dr. Strangelove, written by Peter George & Stanley Kubrick. Peter Sellers, as the president of the United States, tries to stop a dispute between his staff:
PRESIDENT MERKIN MUFFLEY: Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room.
Or this from Stage Door written by Edna Ferber & Morrie Ryskind:
GAIL PATRICK: May I come in?
GINGER ROGERS: Oh, sure, I guess you’ll be safe. The exterminators won’t be here ’til tomorrow.
In this example from Star Trek – Deep Space Nine, written by Bradley Thompson & David Weddle, O’Brien is worrying about his baby who has been crying a lot more than is normal:
O’BRIEN: What are you telling me, my baby’s just — sad?
BASHIR: Perhaps he’s become prematurely aware of life’s existential isolation.
O’BRIEN: You’re sure it’s not a rash?
Putting two disparate emotions together can also provide an interesting effect, as here from All About Eve by Joseph L. Mankiewicz:
ADDISON DE WITT: You’re maudlin and full of self-pity. You’re magnificent!
Putting old and new images together can also provide an ironic comment. Here is an example from The X-Files by Jeffrey Bell:
SCULLY: You know, on the old mariners’ maps, the cartographers would designate uncharted territory by writing “here be monsters.”
MULDER: I’ve got a map of New York City just like that.
And here from Witness For The Prosecution written by Agatha Christie & Larry Marais:
CHARLES LAUGHTON: If I’d known how much you talked, I’d never have come out of my coma.
From Heaven Can Wait by Leslie Bush-Fekete & Samson Raphaelson:
DON: I fell asleep without realizing it. When I was awakened, there were my relatives, saying nothing but the kindest things about me. Then I knew I was dead.
From Bye Bye Birdie written by Michael Stewart & Irving Becher:
DORIS: Randolph, your father’s warned you. If you make another bomb, you’ll get spanked.
There is a form of Juxtaposition where two different conversations seem to be running against each other. The realistic talk about interrogation in the following scene sounds like it belongs in a cop show, but they are talking about cats:
RALPH: So, what do we do if we actually catch one?
WARREN: We interrogate ’em. Find out where their meeting place is, what they know about this statue.
RALPH: OK. Do you speak to them in cat or do they speak English like Mr. Ed?
WARREN: After twenty years, I can tell by their reactions whether the answer is yes or no.
RALPH: And what have you found out?
WARREN: Well, I think I’ve been asking the wrong questions.
From Teenage Catgirls In Heat written by Scott Perry & Grace Smith.
Putting two very different sentences together here is an example from Laura written by Vera Caspary & Jay Dratler:
WALDO LYDECKER: I’m not kind, I’m vicious. It’s the secret of my charm.
From Harper written by Ross Macdonald & William Goldman:
LAUREN BACALL: I don’t want to kill my husband, I want to outlive him. Isn’t that a terrible thing to say?
PAUL NEWMAN: People in love say the darndest things.
From The Truman Show written by Andrew Nichol:
TRUMAN BURBANK: Somebody help me, I’m being spontaneous!
From Ed Wood, written by Rudolph Grey & Scott Alexander:
BELA LUGOSI: This is the most uncomfortable coffin I’ve ever been in!
From Angel Heart, written by William Hjortsberg & Alan Parker:
LOUIS CYPHER: Are you an atheist?
JOHNNY ANGEL: Yeah. I’m from Brooklyn.
From The Importance Of Being Earnest, written by Oscar Wilde:
GWENDOLYN: I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.
And from the internet, this was listed under “things you would love to say at work but can’t”:
WORKER: Chaos, panic and disorder — my work here is done.
It is also possible to put two elements together such as here using “wet and “dry”:
MAE WEST: Let’s get out of these wet clothes and into a dry Martini.
This technique reflects life in that people do not always respond the way you expect, and that can be both realistic and funny. Here is a sample from Prelude To A Kiss by Craig Lucas.
PETER: My father does not seem too fond of me, either. I don’t know if he ever was, so one night I say I’m going to go to the movies and instead I go to Europe.
RITA: What movie?
PETER: The Wild Bunch, I think.
This question is particularly amusing because Peter did not even see the movie, but instead went to Europe. However this shows the quirky nature of Rita’s character, and makes her a much more interesting person..
This quote is from The Dirty Dozen written by E. M. Nathanson & Nunnally Johnson. The Dirty Dozen are a group of ne’er-do-well soldiers and ex-cons, and here they are getting their instruction from their commander:
LEE MARVIN: Kill every officer in sight.
CHARLES BRONSON: Ours or theirs?
This is a little different from the Climactic Speech, since it tends to be much shorter. It is a phrase or expression that lingers in the memory and usually defines both the character and the movie. This kind of line is often impossible to write deliberately, since it is hard to predict the public’s reaction. Who would have thought that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s line in The Terminator: “I’ll be back” would be considered a defining phrase for both his character and the movie, and yet it has entered the lexicon of commonly used phrases. You may ask why “I’ll be back” is a defining phrase and not a Catchphrase? Mainly because it defines the relentless determination of a futuristic droid to keep on coming at you, whereas “Hasta la vista, baby” doesn’t define anything (most people probably don’t even know what it means).
We can be pretty sure that Shakespeare had no idea that the phrase “To be or not to be, that is the question” would have become such a popular line with the public. But the reason that it sticks in the memory so indelibly is that it defines the central issue of the character and the play. And perhaps it does even more than that. Scholars have put forward the theory that Shakespeare’s work marked a complete change in the way stories were told. Before Shakespeare, it is said, all stories were about man’s relationship with the Gods or the Fates. The Gods were seen as these powerful arbitrary beings, and any time man got above himself and thought he was on the same level as the Gods (defined by the Greeks as hubris), then the Gods would strike him down and put him in his place (called nemesis after the Goddess of retribution). In Shakespeare’s work, especially in the play Hamlet, he wrote about man’s relationship to his inner self, not the Gods or the Fates. This was revolutionary at the time, and “to be or not to be” was the defining phrase of that revolution and perhaps the beginnings of a whole change of thinking, which some have argued led to the modern practice of psychoanalysis and even secular humanism. Such is the power of words.
A true “defining phrase” piece of dialogue was delivered by Marlon Brando as a stevedore fighting the mob on New York’s waterfront in On The Waterfront written by M. Johnson & B. Schulberg. Here he talks to his brother played by Rod Steiger:
BRANDO: I coulda been a contender.
Sometimes we forget the rest of the speech which was “I coulda been somebody. Instead of a bum… Which is what I am.” But the line “I coulda been a contender” is quoted by people who probably have no idea from which movie it even came. This perhaps is how you can tell what a true “defining phrase” piece of dialogue is – that it has become detached from its original source material and entered common speech. If you can achieve such a defining phrase in your story, then you are on your way to creating a hit.
I’m sure you can remember where this one came from:
Al Pacino: My father made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Luca Brasi held a gun to his head, and my father assured him that either his brains or his signature would be on the contract.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL KILGORE: I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells of… victory!
It’s a phrase that perfectly defines the madness and duality of the Vietnam war.
The quotes are from The Godfather by Mario Puzo and Apocalypse Now by Joseph Conrad and F. F. Coppola respectively.
This next sample sends shivers down the necks of many men:
ALEX FORREST: I’m not going to be ignored.
ALEX, of course, is a woman (Glenn Close) and it’s from Fatal Attraction, written by James Dearden & Nicholas Meyer, and you can see how well that simple line defined the plot.
And finally this from Schindler’s List by Thomas Kineally & Steve Zaillian:
BEN KINGSLEY: The list is life…
This is a moment when a character makes a comment on something, that is often an ironic or amusing sidebar to the main action of the scene. In the movie Arthur written by Steve Gordon, Arthur (Dudley Moore) is being lectured by his future father-in-law in a room where a big moosehead is on the wall. During the lecture Arthur keeps glancing at the moosehead, and then says:
ARTHUR: Where’s the rest of this moose?
A comment which, of course, drives his prospective father-in-law crazy.
Commentary can often be a charming way of showing self-awareness in a character, such as in the following quote from Loot by Joe Orton.
HAL: Bury her naked? My own mum? It’s a Freudian nightmare.
Commentary can be used to show that somebody really isn’t listening, or, as in the following scene from Ira Levin’s Deathtrap, to make ironic comments on the action. Here Sidney tries to jimmy open a desk drawer with a stiletto knife.
SIDNEY: Come on, you bastard! Goddamned Old-World craftsmanship…
This kind of commentary works best when it is carefully set up.In this case, the craftsmanship of the desk has been mentioned earlier in the play. If something is well known, then it doesn’t need to be set up, as here with the oft-trashed state of New Jersey (from The Long Kiss Goodnight by Shane Black):
CHARLEY: Easy, sport. I got myself out of Beirut once, I think I can get out of New Jersey.
MITCH: Yeah, well don’t be so sure. Others have tried and failed. The entire population, in fact.
From My Favorite Spy written by Edmund Hartmann & Jack Sher, where Bob Hope throws out one of his classic commentaries:
BOB HOPE: Remember, you guys, your salaries are paid by the taxpayers, and I may be one some day.
From The West Wing by Aaron Sorkin:
JOSH LYMAN: Victory is mine, victory is mine! Great day in the morning people, victory is mine! Donna, bring me the finest muffins and bagels in the land!
DONNA MOSS: (to herself) This is going to be an unbearable day.
From Hope And Glory by John Boorman, an English kid has just witnessed a German bomb destroy his school.
KID: (looking to the sky) Thank you, Adolf.
This next example is from Casablanca, written by Julius & Philip Epstein & H. Koch. In this scene, Ferrari (Sidney Greenstreet) is the owner of the rival Blue Parrot café in Casablanca and wants Rick’s (Humphrey Bogart) café:
FERRARI: (to RICK) I would like to buy your café.
RICK: It’s not for sale.
FERRARI: You haven’t heard my offer.
RICK: It’s not for sale at any price.
(FERRARI looks at SAM the piano player)
FERRARI: What do you want for Sam?
RICK: I don’t buy or sell human beings.
FERRARI: Too bad. That’s Casablanca’s leading commodity.
As you can see, there’s a cynical commentary in Ferrari’s last line.
Here, the Joker is one of Batman’s most dangerous antagonists.
THE JOKER: This town deserves a better class of criminal – and I intend to give it to them.
Embedded in this quote, is a commentary on the Joker’s attitude towards the people of Gotham City.
These are usually terrible, but you can have fun with just how bad they are. In this example from Real Genius, written by Neal Israel and Pat Proft, Chris is trying to hit on Susan:
CHRIS KNIGHT: So, if there’s anything I can do for you, or, more to the point, to you, you just let me know.
SUSAN: Can you hammer a six-inch spike through a board with your penis?
CHRIS KNIGHT: Not right now.
SUSAN: A girl’s gotta have her standards.
And then she walks out, which is what Chris’ line deserved. However, a good pick-up line (from a story point of view) can be a corny pick-up line if the characters are in the typical “cute meet” situation that Hollywood is so fond of. Since the two lovers are traditionally supposed to dislike each other when they first meet, a bad line can do some useful damage.
Sometimes the writer can play against the stereotypes by deliberately not using the obvious pick-up line, as shown here from L.A. Confidential written by James Elroy & Brian Helgeland and set in the 1930’s:
LYNN BRACKEN: You’re the first man in five years who didn’t tell me I look like Veronica Lake inside of a minute.
There are many clichés in the world of the pick-up, and there is much mileage to have from turning one around, as shown here.
GUY ON THE MAKE: Is it hot in here, or is it just you
This is a technique where a person compares himself or some element of his life with something completely different, often inanimate. This example is from About A Boy written by Nick Hornby & Peter Hedges. In this scene Will is talking about his life as a confirmed bachelor:
WILL: The thing is that a person’s life is like a TV show. I was the star of The Will Show and The Will Show is not an ensemble drama.
In this next sample a bored office worker from Clockwatchers, written by Jill & Karen Sprecher, ponders her life as she compares herself to a photocopy:
IRIS CHAPMAN: Everything is temporary. Everything begins and ends and begins again. When I look ahead, I imagine infinite possible futures repeated like countless photocopies, a thousand blank pages, and in each one I see myself, never hiding, never sitting silently, and never just waiting and waiting and watching the world go by.
The following quote from The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje, uses a very direct image during an interrogation of the patient by a British officer to see if he is German:
BRITISH OFFICER: Then you were married?
THE PATIENT: I think so. Although I believe that to be true of a number of Germans. Look… (makes a small gap with his fingers) I have this much lung… The rest of my organs are packing up — what could it possibly matter if I were Tutankhamen? I’m a bit of toast, my friend — butter me and slip a poached egg on top.
From Desperado written by Robert Rodriguez:
EL MARIACHI: It’s strange how pulling a trigger is easier than playing the guitar. Destroying something is easier than creating something.
And this from Elvis Mitchell:
ELVIS: In Hollywood a screenplay is a fire hydrant – it’s going to be pissed on by a lot of dogs.
From Run Lola Run by Tom Tykwer:
HERR SCHUSTER: A football is round, a game lasts 90 minutes. That’s for sure. Anything else is merely hypothetical. Off we go!
From Random Hearts written by Warren Alder & D. Ponicsan:
KAY CHANDLER: You know those drugstore kits that tell you when you’re pregnant? They should have one that tells you when you’re sane.
In Larry McMurtry & Peter Bogdonavitch’s Texasville, a character compares the fickle nature of life to a game show:
JACY: Game shows are what life’s really like. You win things that look great at the time but turn out to be junk, and you lose things you might want to keep forever… just because you’re unlucky.
And from Two Weeks Notice written by Marc Lawrence:
GEORGE: I own the hotel and live there. So you can pretty much say that my life is like Monopoly.
You can also use dramatic comparison to show your attitude towards other people’s choices, as here from Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. In this scene, Thomas More has just been betrayed by Cromwell who has been offered in return a position of power in Wales:
THOMAS MORE: (to Cromwell). It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… but for Wales…
In this next sample, from The Third Man, written by Graham Greene, cynical Harry Lime compares his ethics with that of a government:
ORSON WELLES (As Harry Lime): In these days, old man, nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t, so why should we? They talk of the people and the proletariat, and I talk of the mugs. It’s the same thing. They have their five-year plans and so do I.
In this Sylvester Stallone movie Lock Up by Richard Smith & Jeb Stuart, Stallone is only six months away from freedom, but a warden obsessed with revenge wants to take his future away.
WARDEN: This is hell, and I’m going to give you the guided tour.
This nicely mixes up the soft image of a tourists guided tour with the hard image of hell.
Now that we have reached the end of the post, I would like to remind you that there will be new techniques to learn every week from Writer’s Toolbox weekly series, so stay tuned.