Tag Archives: Dialogue

13Oct/20

Craft: Brent Larson – Subtext in Dialogue

Since I’m a screenwriter, and movies offer more in shared experiences than comics, I ask you to consider this scene from Pulp Fiction

JULES (Samuel L. Jackson) and VINCENT (John Travolta) drive down an LA street. Both wear identical black suits.

VINCENT: Where are we going?

JULES: To find this guy who stole our boss’s briefcase, which has something weird and glowy in it.

VINCENT. You think we’ll have to kill this guy?

They pull up to an apartment building. They get out and open the trunk, where they have an assortment of weaponry.

JULES: Probably.

VINCENT: How many guys you think are up there?

JULES: Four, maybe five? But I’m not worried. Life is meaningless. I just try to plus it up by being dramatic.

VINCENT: Aw, don’t be so gloomy. I enjoy life, especially when I’m taking drugs. 

JULES: Yeah, I guess. You know, we go back a long way, don’t we? I enjoy our friendship, mother blankity-blank.

They walk into an apartment, surprising several young guys lounging about.

VINCENT: Don’t be afraid, we’re not here to kill you… haha, kidding! We’re both psychotic!

If Quentin Tarantino had written that, he’d be running a Payless Shoe Source in Bakersfield and we would never know his name. His masterful ability to craft dialogue definitely applies to comics. I’ve tried to incorporate several principles into my comic Kayless, but I’ll expound on just one because it’s such a pitfall in my own writing… using subtext and avoiding the information dump. 

For those who haven’t seen Pulp Fiction, in their actual opening conversation, Jules and Vincent talk about, in order, drug laws in Amsterdam, how Europe is different from the US, the Royale with cheese, their boss’s wife, and what a TV pilot is. After they burst into the apartment, they discuss burger joints and Jules’s favorite Bible verse. All the information I wrote into the example is covered, it’s just barely said in the dialogue. Meanwhile, the audience is asking, Who are these guys? What do they feel about this horrific act? How is Jules fundamentally different from Vincent? All these questions are answered in a conversation that seems inordinately centered on nothing.

Movies, and comics, are a visual medium. That means we have an entire palette of information presentation apart from words. Facial expressions, postures, and random actions all communicate something. If a man tells his wife, “My mom wants to visit this weekend,” and his wife says “Oh, good,” and starts cleaning the silver candlesticks, this says a lot – her mother-in-law stresses her out, makes her feel inadequate, is maybe nitpicky. And the dialogue, albeit brief, complements this. She doesn’t feel free to tell her husband how she feels, which then tells us something about him, too. Maybe he’s oblivious or compares her to his mom. So many things you can use as a writer, all of which would have been stifled if, instead, she’d said, “Oh, great! Not again!”

Upcoming cover to Kayless #3: Thomas Hedglen, Ryan Brooner, Mickey Clausen

Here’s a personal example. In the upcoming Kayless #3, Scott visits his father in prison. They talk about Scott’s military record, why his dad is in prison, and how he feels about it. That’s the information side of things. But what’s really going on is a battle for power. Scott’s dad has kept him under his thumb his whole life, and Scott desperately wishes to tell him he can’t control him anymore. Comic real estate is smaller than a movie, so I had to be choosy with my words and move things quickly, but that didn’t mean the conversation had to be info-heavy. I’ll let you read it and tell me if I succeeded. 

Whenever I write dialogue, I then go back and check if it’s solely conveying information. If so, I look for ways to rewrite it as subtext, or present other visual elements to communicate what’s needed. Writers are often obsessed with their own cleverness, and I am no exception (neither, I suspect, is Tarantino). If I detect any of those self-serving impulses in my dialogue, I rework it so it sounds organic to my characters. Ultimately, I want my readers to think my characters are clever, not me. I’m always happy to share the credit.