I don’t want to arse drop (I do) but this old sofa on which mine is planted has seen many more illustrious posteriors in its day, including that of the original Dumbledore, the late great Richard Harris, back when he was getting my father arrested outside the Britannia pub in Kensington.
And the reason I’m thinking of him and his arse now, in particular, is because of a half-arsed theory I’ve been half-formulating (and half-shooting-down) which is this:
Movie dialogue is more memorable than dialogue in novels.
I posited this in the Twitter #WritingCommunity a few weeks ago and have had some fascinating discussion, as well as plenty of suggestions for novel dialogue that does (or at least appears to) feel every bit as sharp as movie dialogue.
But let’s start at the beginning, because you never know, it may resonate with someone. I was reviewing an exchange between two characters in my first Chasing Mercury novel, The Borodino Sacrifice. It was dialogue that I wanted to be both throwaway and yet cleverly emblematic of the whole book. Cutting out the tags and so on, it was this:
“You don’t send people into action without telling them what you’re planning on doing.”
“Don’t be naive, Bill. That’s exactly what you do.”
Leaving aside the fact that I’ve just realised how heavily influenced by The Godfather that is, I knew it wasn’t quite what I wanted. What I want, as Michael Corleone would say, is a line like Yul Brynner’s in The Magnificent Seven: “I’ve been offered a lot for my work, but never everything.” Or like Bogart’s in Casablanca: “I remember every detail. The Germans wore grey. You wore blue.” Or like Errol Flynn’s in The Adventures of Robin Hood (to the accusation “You speak treason!”): “Fluently.” Or, yes, like: “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” In other words lines that seem to sum up the characters and the story in one, and a lot less ponderously than that overwritten speech in Taken, when you just know the baddie would have hung up on him halfway through...
And then there’s the kind of dialogue that you’d put on the poster: “Houston, we have a problem.” “With great power comes great responsibility.” “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Etc., etc., etc... (This is not a post about movie taglines.)
So... that was when I got to wondering: Hey, how come I can’t immediately come up with a comparable example of a memorable line from a novel, that is dialogue not narrative...? Because all that “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, all that “Call me Ishmael”, all that “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, and yes, all that “Reader, I married him”... you remember it as speech, because a great author was addressing you personally, but it ain’t dialogue, none of it. You can’t have “It is a truth universally acknowledged...”; you’ll have to make do with “I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine”. And sure, that last one is pretty good anyway, but couldn’t it have been tightened up a bit? Isn’t it the case that a lot of these really good authors seem to spend more time getting the key narrative moments snappy or emblematic than they do their characters’ dialogue...?
Which brings me, possibly by way of “A fire,” he cried, “in the name of human charity! A room and a fire!”, to Dumbledore the Grey (and yes, we’ll come onto him as well...). You see, talking to my youngest, I’ve discovered that some of the Harry Potter quotes that are attributed to the books (and an awful lot of those from The Lord of the Rings) are actually the somewhat snappier ones from the films.
A case in point. Here’s one you could put on a poster:
“It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to your enemies. But a great deal more to stand up to your friends.”
We all remember that, from book and film, eh? Except in the book, what Dumbledore says is:
"It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”
I don’t know, it’s a subtle difference but that seems a little bit... flabbier.
And as for those times when your memory (and the Internet) tells you it’s from the book but it’s not, how about:
“Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”
Nope, not in the book.
“A boy’s best friend is his mother.”
Nope. Frequently attributed to Robert Bloch (who can certainly have “All of us go a little crazy at times”, so credit where credit’s due) but actually from Joseph Stefano’s Psycho screenplay.
Now, clearly there are plenty of great, quotable lines of dialogue in novels, including the one above. Khan knew it when he spent most of that movie quoting Ahab (whereas Kirk and Spock fell into the aforementioned trap of quoting narrative from A Tale of Two Cities). Gatsby, Gollum and Sherlock Holmes have very distinctive voices that spring to mind. And in 1984, O’Brien’s “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever” is such a perfect poster line I swear I’ve seen it used by the Conservative Party recently. I definitely quote Alice’s “Curiousier and curiouser!” regularly in my everyday life (or variations thereof); I bow to the suggestion of the opening of Charlotte’s Web “Where’s Papa going with that axe?”; and I can’t argue with “Get busy living or get busy dying.”
Other great examples? Atticus Finch saying: “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” Don Corleone (of course) saying: “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” (Although in the movie Brando mumbles “I’m gonna make him an offer..”) Then there’s the English Patient’s “All I ever wanted was a world without maps,” lots of The Little Prince, a lot more of Alice, a large helping of Terry Pratchett, and I’m certainly not going to attempt to argue with Catch-22 (“That’s some catch...”).
Meanwhile, as others have pointed out, if you want viral dialogue, there’s the likes of the Bible and The Hitchhiker’s Guide... But the former isn’t a novel, whatever some people might say, and the latter, well, it was a radio series first, which means it was constructed as dialogue right from the start. I think that’s outside the remit of this debate, so that’s adieu, adieu, adieu to Shakespeare too.
But now that I’ve thrown out the great monologues, I will pause here to consider other, shorter bits of internal dialogue. Like when Clarice Starling sees Hannibal Lecter in the book and says/thinks to herself: He's a cemetery mink. He lives down in a ribcage in the dry leaves of a heart.
No. I can’t allow it here. But it’s f**king brilliant and I’ve never forgotten it.
So anyway, I’ve basically disproved my own argument haven’t it? There’s plenty of cracking dialogue in novels, and just because the narrative offers us a great deal more, that doesn’t mean the dialogue isn’t just as good, does it, Dumbledore?
I still don’t know. There’s something about the movie lines (the good ones at least). Maybe, as one contributor to the thread pointed out, it’s what the actors are bringing to them. Or, as someone else suggested, it’s because movies are a common experience – we share that moment differently from how we share what we read. And/or, as I tend to think, the screenwriters have often made the lines work that little bit harder, because they don’t have the luxury of supporting narrative, not in the same way as novelists.
Which may or may not be a lesson, but was certainly fun thinking about. Thanks to all.
P.S. One further thought. Twitter can help. For example, using the weekly #1linewed prompt and getting an extract from my WIP(s) down to 280 characters often means tightening up some dialogue that I was previously happy with. Plus you get to read other people’s better efforts.
I've been writing for as long as I can remember (I think my first letter was a P). I got a degree writing about other people's writing and ever since then I've earned a living writing commercially, one way or another. But I never stopped writing and refining my own stuff. I just didn't do anything with it, until now.