I watched a scene of mine being shot Sunday* (over and over and over), and it was fun to see the actors feel their way through the delivery of the lines, emphasizing a different word here or there and thus creating a nuanced character. Each character had his own subtext built into the dialog, which made it easier (I think) for the actors to be spot on. (Of course, they were very good actors, which didn't hurt one bit.) One of the things which will bug me in a book is when every character sounds the same (or very similar), as if they all had the same background, upbringing, life experiences, economic situations, etc. When this happens, it's more a reflection of the author than the characters, and it's a shame, because the author is missing out on a critical tool to develop characters which stand out from the crowd. When I read a book, I should have a pretty good idea of which character is speaking based on their delivery and subtext. Maybe not 100% of the time, but generally, this should be the goal.

Now, I come from the screenwriting world, and a script is primarily dialog, with enough action lines (basic connective tissue) to hold the story together. More often than not, the story relies heavily on the dialog and how the actors or director (or all) interpret the dialog, and since it's doing the heavy lifting, it's got to do more than just inform. There needs to be subtext built in (what is this character not saying? What do they really want? Attitude? Hidden agenda? etc.) and nuanced delivery and word choices (indicative of the character's upbringing, culture, education, status regarding money or society or with their peers, etc.)

Let's look at this memorable exchange from Aaron Sorkin's A FEW GOOD MEN (Jessep=Jack Nicholson's Colonel and Kaffee=Tom Cruise's lawyer):

                                  JESSEP
                      You want answers?

                                  KAFFEE
                      I think I'm entitled to them.

                                  JESSEP
                      You want answers?!

                                  KAFFEE
                      I want the truth.

                                  JESSEP
                      You can't handle the truth!

              And nobody moves.

                                  JESSEP
                               (continuing)
                      Son, we live in a world that has walls.
                      And those walls have to be guarded by men
                      with guns.  Who's gonna do it? You?  You,
                      Lt.  Weinberg?  I have a greater
                      responsibility than you can possibly
                      fathom.  You weep for Santiago and you
                      curse the marines.  You have that luxury.
                      You have the luxury of not knowing what I
                      know: That Santiago's death, while tragic,
                      probably saved lives.  And my existence,
                      while grotesque and incomprehensible to
                      you, saves lives.

 

 





There's a lot of subtext going on in that rant of Jessep's and you know a great deal about the kind of man he is. Nowhere does Sorkin explain that Jessep has made it up high enough on the ladder that he thinks he's God, untouchable, and right, no matter how much he dips into a gray area. He feels justified in making whatever choices he wants to make, in running things the way he wants to run them, and that arrogance expands to include lying in court under oath… and then that arrogance even extends to telling off the gnat of an idealistic attorney just to "win" — even when he's inciminating himself because he does not believe he can be judged, here.

Now, Sorkin is the master of great dialog, giving each character his or her unique inflection, delivery, outlook on life, etc. That's one of the greatest tools to make a character stand out. I hope I've done that with the current book, and it's the goal to continuously improve.

What are some of your favorite movie lines?

*(I can't tell you what it was for, yet. That will come later, but it's for a small idea I had. Apologies.)

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