“I love you. You set my soul on fire. It is not just a little spark—it is a flame, a big, roaring flame. Ah, I can feel it now.”
Gotta love it when Tom says these words in the 1946 Tom and Jerry episode, “Solid Serenade,” all the while failing to notice he is declaring his love to Spike, who has taken the place on the balcony of the beautiful white cat Tom is attempting to woo. That was back in the good ole days when cartoons were violent, when cats where cats and mice were mice.
To deliver such dialogue in anything other than a satirical context, however, is bad writing. Bad dialogue is kinda like a rotten smell in the refrigerator; you may not be able to identify it right away, but you’ll know it when you sniff it. It’ll make you scrunch up your nose and squint. It’ll make you gag.
So much depends on context. A great line of dialogue transposed to a different piece can become odious. Dialogue has to fit the tone of the piece, of the moment, the personality of the speaker. Nevertheless, there are a few general markers of bad dialogue you should avoid. The most obvious is excessive emotion. Unless you are writing a bodice ripper or a soap, avoid “romantic” dialogue or any other kind of dialogue that attempts to convey extreme emotions like anger or hatred.
The first time I remember being wowed by a line of dialogue was in 1980. What makes the dialogue even greater is the fact that it is surrounded by more cheese than a chunk of meat at Taco Bell. Stormtroopers pull the lovers apart from their last kiss, John Williams’s soundtrack swells, Harrison Ford and Billy Dee Williams attempt to act, Chewbacca roars, and a plume of smoke erupts as Han Solo descends into the carbonite freezing chamber. Amidst this festival of schmaltz, the two greatest lines in movie history are uttered:
“I love you.”
What makes these lines so great is how Spartan they are. So much could have gone wrong here—a last-minute profession of love where words like “forever” and “remember” and “always” are said. Han Solo is about—we think—to die, and Princess Leia has never admitted to loving him. And now it’s too late! (We think.) Such chattiness would not only have been cheesy, however, it would have been uncharacteristic. Neither of these characters is the effusive type; that’s the whole problem. Moreover, who has time? You think Stormtroopers are going to pause their busy schedules so you and your beloved can wax romantic? But, most of all, these two lines in this otherwise bad scene are great because they are apt. Despite their flirtatious bickering, these two characters have known for a while that there is something more here than space hormones. All it takes, on Leia’s behalf, is the simple, quick admission. Behind the bare-bones language are volumes of speech, an admission of vulnerability the tough-as-nails princess-warrior finds excruciating to make. Though the natural response, one would think, would have been “I love you, too,” Harrison Ford, whose insight is always apparently better than his acting, purportedly ad-libbed the perfect response. It’s perfect because that’s what she quickly needs to know—that he believes her hasty declaration despite all the refusals that have come before. She already knows he loves her; this is not what she needs to hear. Ah.
To put it more succinctly, convey emotion via circumstance, not via your dialogue. Learn the value of contrast—the higher the emotional charge of your scene, the starker and leaner your dialogue should be. Do the same for other emotions. Unless your character is under sixteen (actually or mentally), avoid lines like “I hate you!” and “I never want to see you again!” Scenes that include such dialogue quickly deteriorate into melodrama.
Not only should you avoid excessive emotion, but also excessive explanation. Do not use dialogue to reveal plot to the extent that it stops making sense. We all know the scene in any random episode of Scooby Doo or in any James Bond film where the culprit—for no apparent reason other than to inform the audience—launches an extended explanatory soliloquy in which he or she reveals their true plan for world domination (involving a laser) or the true reason why Frederick von Whatevermeir had to be eliminated. Why would anyone do this? Especially when it gives Bond a chance to escape and foil the plan? Unless you intend to end the speech with “And I would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids,” avoid the Villain Explanation Method. Find some other way to tell us what we need to know. Same thing goes for characters talking to themselves. If Suzy finds a mysterious key, please don’t have her say, “I wonder if this is the missing key to the attic!” Just write: Suzy wondered if it might be the missing key to the attic.