All powerful writing has an undercurrent of meaning that drives the story forward and connects each part to the next. Sometimes this meaning is readily apparent but at other times it operates as subtext. One way of thinking about this underlying meaning is that its like the rhythm that holds a piece of music together. Sometimes you can hear the rhythm distinctly in the drum beat or rhythm guitar, sometimes all that can be heard is the melody. But even when the beat can’t be heard, the it’s still there holding the music together; without it the melody becomes just a series of random notes played one after another.
Dialogue is no different to the rest of a story, but perhaps highlights the importance of having an underlying meaning more than other parts because it has to be demonstrated through the nature and structure of the speech rather than the author being able to rely on thought or description to bring out what is really going on. Sometimes this will be done by the things that are not said or unexpected gaps or omissions. In the film Good Will Hunting there is a scene when the psychotherapist character played by Robin Williams and the young mathematician played by Matt Damon are have just met. It’s the ‘storming’ part of their relationship, where each person is checking out the other and trying to work out where they stand.
Damon and Williams start talking about the gym and Damon asks what Williams does in the gym, and he says he does free weights. Damon then asks Williams what he ‘benches’ (ie how much he bench presses), and Williams says ‘285. What do you bench?’. Instead of answering, Damon spots a picture in Williams’s office and asks if Williams painted it. The bit that’s missing in this dialogue is obviously Damon’s answer to Williams’s question about what he benches, the implication being that it is less than Williams. It’s a double blow in that he’s not only one down, but he’s one down to a much older man. It is perhaps what provokes him to attack Williams’s painting, which leads to a physical confrontation, which again Williams comes out on top of.
A very famous example of the inner beat of meaning driving a conversation in an unexpected way is in Raymond Carver’s story Are These Actual Miles? The story is about a couple, Leo and Toni, who are down on their luck who have to sell their car. Toni goes out to sell it and ends up going to dinner with the person she sells it to. She phones Leo to tell him where she’s gone.
‘Where are you honey,’ he says slowly, gently.
‘We’re at this restaurant,’ she say, her voice strong, bright.
‘Honey, which restaurant?’ he says. He puts the heel of his hand against his eye and presses.
‘Downtown someplace,’ she says. ‘I think it’s New Jimmy’s. Excuse me,’ she says to someone off the line,’is this the place New Jimmy’s? This is New Jimmy’s, Leo,’ she says to him. ‘Everything is all right, we’re almost finished, then he’s going to bring me home.’
‘Honey?’ he says. He holds the receiver against his ear and rocks back and forth, eyes closed. ‘Honey?’
‘I have to go,’ she says. ‘I wanted to call. Anyway, guess how much?’
‘Honey,’ he says.
‘Six and a quarter,’ she says. ‘I have it in my purse. He said there’s no market for convertibles. I guess we’re born lucky,’ she says and laughs. ‘I told him everything. I think I had to.’
‘Honey,’ Leo says.
‘What?’ she says.
‘Please, honey,’ Leo says.
It is a remarkable passage, where the repeated ‘honey’ turns from a term of endearment tacked on to the end of Leo’s sentences to a stand alone statement that is a desperate cry from the heart. Ostensibly the conversation is about Toni telling Leo where she is and letting him know how the transaction went. But the issue underneath the conversation is about an attractive woman who is out with a richer, more successful man than her partner and her partner’s impotence in the face of the developing situation. So as Toni continues to engage with the apparent subject of the conversation, Leo is responding the underlying meaning of what is going on, so breaking the conversational expectations.
Another master of meaningful dialogue is Quentin Tarantino. One of my favourite pieces of dialogue comes at the end of Pulp Fiction when Vincent is asking Jules why he doesn’t eat meat from pigs.
JULES: They’re filthy animals. I don’t eat filthy animals.
VINCENT: Sausages taste good. Pork chops taste good.
JULES: A sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie. I’ll never know ‘cause even if it did, I wouldn’t eat the filthy motherfucker. Pigs sleep and root in shit. That’s a filthy animal. I don’t wanna eat nothin’ that ain’t got enough sense to disregard its own feces.
VINCENT: How about dogs? Dogs eat their own faces.
JULES: I don’t eat dog either.
VINCENT: Yes, but do you consider a dog to be a filthy animal?
JULES: I wouldn’t go so far as to call a dog filthy, but they’re definitely dirty. But a dog’s got personality. And personality goes a long way.
VINCENT: So by that rationale, if a pig had a better personality, he would cease to be a filthy animal?
JULES: Well, we’d have to be talkin’ ‘bout one charmin’ moutherfuckin’ pig. It’d have to be ten times more charming than old Arnold on Green Acres.
There’s so much about this dialogue that is good, but thing that really got me when I first heard it was the line ‘Yes, but do you consider a dog to be a filthy animal?’. It comes after Jules saying he doesn’t eat dog either, which really should be the end of the argument. Jules has said that he doesn’t eat animals that eat their own shit, Vincent brings up the example of dogs and Jules says he doesn’t eat them either. But Vincent is no longer disputing Jules’ reason for not eating pork, he is raising the debate to something more existential about whether Jules is justified in characterising pigs as filthy because they eat their own shit, and he goes on to show that it is not just the eating shit element it is the lack of character that makes Jules describe them as flfthy.
What the dialogue and the unexpected turn it takes illustrate is that not only do both men have a surprising grasp of philosophy and logic but also the nature of their relationship, which is one based on trust and friendship but with competition and considerable ego thrown in as well. The fact that Vincent finds a way to continue and win the argument, reflects his high self-esteem and his unwillingness to back down particularly in his relationship with Jules. They are like two bison, heads down and charging at each other and neither willing to back down. The lesson to me is that all great dialogue connects with an underlying meaning, and if it doesn’t, if it is just getting you from A to B, it should end up on the cutting room floor.