Week before last, in my continuing education class Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, I showed the class this quote from the movie O Brother Where Art Thou?:

“The preacher said all my sins is washed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.”

This was intended as an example of a brilliantly vivid, perfectly-crafted line of dialog. If you haven’t seen the movie, shame on you, but here’s the clip:

Here’s why I think this is an example of a brilliantly vivid, perfectly-crafted line of dialog . . .

Try that same line, stripped of personality, with just the basic facts:

“All of my sins have been forgiven, including the crime I committed that got me thrown in jail.”

We know from the very first shot of the movie that this character, Delmar, has escaped from a prison work farm with his two compatriots. It’s not until this scene, later in the movie, that we learn why, exactly, he was in prison in the first place. He robbed a grocery store. Ultimately, this is the purpose of this line of dialog—and yes, every line of dialog in your writing, be it a novel, a short story, or, like this example, a screenplay, has to have a purpose. Everything your characters do or say has to be there to help move your story forward, to reveal more about your characters, their situation and circumstances, and the world in which they live.

So now we know that Delmar robbed a grocery store, and that he believes he’s been forgiven. Ah, wait . . . this line of dialog actually has two reasons for being there. It tells us not only why Delmar was in prison, it speaks to his desire for redemption, for forgiveness.

So that’s why this line is in the movie, which is good. But what makes this one of my all time favorite lines of dialog in any media, and why I brought it up as an example is how that information is conveyed, and what more that tells us about Delmar, his circumstances, and the world and time he inhabits…

Read the rest in…

Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.


—Philip Athans


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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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6 Responses to LIVING DIALOG

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