LIVING DIALOG

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.

By this point in the movie we know that Delmar is a southerner, and doesn’t appear to be particularly well educated, but he’s a sweet, charming guy. He says, “The preacher said all my sins is washed away . . .” This is how an uneducated southerner in the 1930s might form a sentence. It’s not grammatically correct, but very, very, very few of us speak in grammatically correct English. I know I don’t. That word choice, “all my sins is washed away,” sounds more authentic than, “all of my sins have been forgiven.” The fact that he was just baptized in a river accounts for the specific use of “washed away.” This line of dialog shares the space that character inhabits.

But O Brother Where Art Thou? is also a comedy, and that, at least in part, drives the rest of the line of dialog. Delmar doesn’t just tell us he robbed a grocery store, but states clearly the specific grocery store, chosen because of its particularly funny name, Piggly Wiggly, which is also a real chain of stores. The line would not be as funny if he knocked over an A&P.

The line continues to be authentically colloquial. Delmar didn’t “rob” the store, he knocked it over. That word choice tells us even more about Delmar. He knows his two friends, fellow prison inmates, will know what he means by “knocked over.” And though Delmar is a sweet guy, he’s also inhabited the space occupied by hardened criminals, and picked up their lingo in the process. We don’t necessarily need to know the town in which the Piggly Wiggly was located, especially since Delmar’s in jail in Mississippi, so it must have been somewhere in that state, but adding that last bit of flair to the end really caps it off. It just so happens that particular Piggly Wiggly was located in the funniest-sounding name for a real town in Mississippi the Cohen Brothers figured we would have heard of, Yazoo. Often, humor comes out of unexpected specificity, and this is a great example of that.

That seemed like a pretty simple little throw-away gag line, at first, didn’t it:

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

But when we break it down it reveals all those layers of thought and care that are the mark of an outstanding writer. I know it sounds like a tall order to look at every line of dialog in your writing with this same eye, and sometimes it actually is better to just let a character speak simply, get a clear point across, and move on, but putting this sort of thought and layering into your dialog is worth the considerable extra effort.

And I never told you this whole writing thing was going to be easy.

—Philip Athans

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 the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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4 Responses to LIVING DIALOG

  1. Pingback: WHAT I’M THANKFUL FOR, 2012 | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  2. Pingback: WHAT NOT TO SAY | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  3. Pingback: SOME DIALOG TIPS: WE KNOW WHO HE’S TALKING TO | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  4. Pingback: ARE YOU ATTENDING A CONFERENCE THIS YEAR? | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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