What Did You Say? (Dialogue and Stories)

First all, apologies for the delay of this post, it’s been a busy few weeks and I’ve been trying to finish up a book I’m writing! Hopefully I’ll be able to tell you all where and when you can buy it sometime this month! Second of all, I’d like to thank everyone who wrote in with supportive comments about my last post, it’s great to have such a great group of followers that can offer both encouragement and advice! I’m almost glad Mass Effect 3’s ending sucked, otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten to meet all you great people.

Of course I can never be glad for something this awful.

Now onto the main event:

As a rule, good dialogue is essential to a good story. There are exceptions of course, such as Ico or The Road, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule because for every great story told without dialogue, there a hundred failures. The really difficult thing about dialogue is that, when it’s done right, it’s something you don’t even notice: it flows so smoothly and naturally that the average reader or listener doesn’t even appreciate how good it is, and that’s exactly how it’s supposed to work. And yet when dialogue is bad, it’s something that even the most illiterate person in the world could tell you is bad. I know picking on the Star Wars prequels is like beating a dead horse at this point, but honestly it’s a great example of just how bad dialogue can get, and what effect that can have on the story. The romance between Padame and Anakin in the Prequel Trilogy is often cited as being the worst, most awkward romance to ever scar the psyche of movie-watchers. As someone who has also watched the Twilight movies, I can tell you that the dysfunctional and borderline abusive relationship going on in the Twilight series is actually better than the crap that Padame and Anakin spouted in the prequels.

Tell me that the hair didn’t stand up on the back of your neck listening to that. It’s so grating, unnatural and downright hideous that it almost defies belief. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the English language can tell you that the dialogue is awful, even if they can’t specifically say why its awful. But since it’s so easy to say the dialogue is awful, lets look at the specifics of why it’s awful:

First, let’s start with the purpose of dialogue, I know the purpose seems obvious, the character needs to say something. That’s only part of it though, the other function of dialogue is to add depth to your characters. By expressing themselves through speech, they reveal more about who they are and how they think. Do they speak in long winded sentences like a doctor or professor or maybe the character speaks with an almost child like demeanor, with short fragmentary sentences.

A great example of good dialogue in action is in John Steinbeck’s Of Mine and Men. Even without the names next to the dialogue, you can tell which character is speaking. There’s a clear difference between how Lennie and George talk. George is more eloquent (relatively speaking anyway, they all have pretty rough speech) and shows some intelligence despite never having been educated, but he can also be incredibly mean. Lennie however, has some clear cognitive impairment and his dialogue clearly displays that, while also conveying his soft-hearted nature.

If Lennie spoke exactly the same way as George, then both characters would be cheapened as a result. If George used a large vocabulary, then no one would believe he was supposed to be a simpleton, the writing would contradict itself. On the other hand, if Lennie’s dialogue was too stilted or simple, it would run the risk of making it too difficult to read and turning Lennie into a caricature.

And Mugsy from Loony Toons already has that covered.
And Mugsy from Loony Toons already has that covered.

So why does the dialogue for George and Lennie work so flawlessly while the dialogue for Anakin and Padme operates like an alien’s first attempt at emulating human speech?

Well let’s have a quick overview of what we know about Anakin’s character:

  • He was a slave on Tatooine, a desert planet.
  • He has a lot of pent up anger and rage.
  • He’s a gifted Jedi, a society of warrior-philosopher types that value discipline and self-control.

Now let’s look at this dialogue:

“I don’t like sand…it’s coarse and rough and irritating, and it gets everywhere.”

So let’s just take the sentence by itself, if you were just reading this in a book, who would you think is saying that sentence? My first guess would be a child, its short with simple language and even just reading it you can almost hear a child whining like this at the beach. Yet then there’s the word ‘coarse’ in there, which suggests a kind of a higher level vocabulary you wouldn’t find in an average child.   What I certainly wouldn’t guess, is that these words are coming from the mouth of a person who can wield a lightsaber and is becoming the most powerful individual in the universe.

What I think the dialogue is trying to accomplish here (I admit it’s hard to be sure with dialogue this bad) is reinforce Anakin’s childhood trauma of being a slave on some god forsaken desert world. So let me ask you this, if you spent your entire childhood as a slave on a planet that is not only covered in sand, but is also consistently battered by sandstorms and ugly, vicious Sand People, how would you describe your feelings on sand? 

That sentence up there, that’s coming from someone who had a bad day at the beach and got sand in their shorts, not from someone who lived a nightmarish existence on a faraway world. If I were Anakin I would be saying “I hate sand. I loathe sand. The very sight of sand fills me with an existential rage that threatens to consume the universe.”

You bastard! I'll kill you!
You bastard! I’ll kill you!

Hate is a much more appropriate word to use then “I don’t like”, because there is a world of difference between hate and dislike. The word hate speaks to a deep level of revulsion and anger, something that would be perfectly understandable to someone who lived as a slave in the desert. Hate would also show us, the audience, that beneath Anakin’s feigned indifference (forced on him by Jedi training) there is a constant undercurrent of hate and anger: a burning resentment that would eventually lead to Anakin going postal on the Sand People. And while Anakin is also undergoing Jedi training, making it understandable that he’d try to dial back his anger, this would be him speaking on an almost subconscious level, not even aware that the idea of sand is so interwoven with the anger over his past.

Another big issue here is that the dialogue is also trying to be vaguely flirtatious, or at least I assume so because of Anakin’s creepy pawing at her arm throughout the scene. Unfortunately those two goals are incompatible, you can’t have a flirtatious comment about someone’s horrific past. I forget specifically what stage of the relationship their in at this point (ie, whether or not they’ve gotten past Padme’s “It’s forbidden!” crap), but if they want to have an honest relationship about past events than the dialogue would have worked slightly better. Of course then Anakin delves into a creepy speech about softness that makes HannibalLector look positively normal, in some misguided effort to inject some romance into the scene (I don’t have the courage to try and find that on youtube, so if you really want to hear it you’re on your own.)

Anakin: More creepy than a serial killer who eats people.
Anakin: More creepy than a serial killer who eats people.

So let me put my money where my mouth is and tell you what I would’ve written instead:

“I hate sand. It’s rough…and harsh, and it gets everywhere.”

First of all, I hate sand is it’s own sentence. It’s a sharp and an unequivocal statement, he hates sand and that’s all there is to it. I kept rough, but cut out coarse which was just an unnecessary additive to the statement, just padding. Then there’s the much abused ellipse, meant to indicate a pause in thought, as if he’s remembering some previous abuse he suffered on Tatooine. I chose the word harsh to replace irritating, just say the word “harsh” out loud  it almost sounds like sand doesn’t it? It’s grating and rough sounding. Another reason I chose it is because irritating is what I would describe a mosquito bite as, or a fly buzzing around that won’t leave you alone, not something overtly awful, just annoying. Harsh is a word I would associate with something painful, cement is harsh and falling on cement is painful.  Presumably Anakin painful experiences on Tatooine (which I might add we never get to see since all the kids seem to do is podrace) would make him associate sand with pain, rather than mild annoyance.

“But John!” I hear you say, “You kept that creepy ‘it gets everywhere” line, what the hell is wrong with you?”

Well let me explain, in the context of the video clip at the beginning, that line does have a really creepy overtone to it, like he’s suggesting that the sand would get all up in her cleavage or something. However in the context of the scene playing out in my mind, in a version of the prequels that wasn’t terrible, I’m seeing a much different meaning behind those words. Sand is almost representing his past at this point, and like sand, the past is one of those things that is intrinsically difficult to remove yourself from. I know every time I go to the beach, I spend all of the next day finding bits of sand in the car or on the floor, or worst of all, embedded on the insides of my shoes (which explains why I only go once every ten years). The past, similarly, has a way of just tagging along with you wherever you go. I have my fair share of regrets, as I’m sure a lot of us do and it’s not always easy to let go of those.

For Anakin, the past is something always on his mind, I mean look at the situation he’s in. He’s standing next to a gorgeous women in an equally provocative dress, who’s relating to him a story about some fun event in her past involving a beach. What’s the first thing he thinks of? Does he suggest they go to the beach and skinny dip? Nope, the absolute first thing that comes to mind is sand, and with it all the pain and anguish that he’s associated with that environment during his youth.

It could have been a powerful line in a great series of movies instead of an embarrassing line in a series of awful disasters. If only they’d hired me! (Even at age 12  I could have written better dialogue than that!)

This thursday, without fail, my next article will be defending poor Joseph Campbell. I’ve been noticing a trend on several forums I frequent, that Hero with a Thousand Faces is getting the blame for the dull, repetitive trash that make up 90% of movie and TV entertainment, and I’ll be taking this opportunity to tell you why you’re all wrong. So make sure to tune in.


  1. Found this dialogue in Russian. Not so bad actually. I guess it makes sense to watch a localized version of movies sometimes.
    But Anakin realy does sound like a child here, and in general all those Anaking-Padme scenes a little creepy, makes me skip it every time. Still love prequel more, though (yes, I’m a heretic:)

    1. To tell the truth, I still watch the prequels every now and then. It’s a dirty little pleasure I get, because some of the time the movies are actually decent! Glad to have another international reader, I love meeting people from all over the world that enjoy my blog! 🙂

  2. Star Wars prequels are always worth a good laughter 😀
    I think i only saw Ep2/3 once in the cinema, and then never again. And thats so long ago i can only remember the few ridonculous combat scenes with 1001 lightsabers Oo xD
    But i saw the plinkett reviews and it was veeery funny (do you know them? veeery entertaining and informative 😀 http://redlettermedia.com/plinkett/star-wars/star-wars-episode-1-the-phantom-menace/)

    So, i couldnt remember this scene and yeah, it was for the better i didnt ^^ awful, the whole play, but since im also in acting, i know that you cant play any better if the dialogue you have to stick to doesnt feel genuine. There are visions one can have for Anakin, youve demonstrated this very well, but some guys messed this whole prequel up so badly, it even seeped into the dialogue, one of the most fundamental parts of a movie except you are looking at silent movies ^^

    Exposing the sand as a symbol connected to his past would have been great!
    Its connected to so many receptions in literature, is a phenomenon known and experienced by almost everyone, its potencial was enormous to be used as a key to Anakins (hidden) person.
    But Hollywood had chosen to throw all the money into CGI stuff and here we have it: A husk of a movie filled with crap.

    Btw., since we dug deeply into developing characters via dialog, i would be interested why in some pretty successful and famous novels, there are so many dialogues which are…vain, if you ask me Oo
    Just to name a few: The elves (Fantasy, Bernhard Hennen), The swarm (Sci-Fi, Frank Schätzing), The Bat (Thriller, Jo Nesbo).

    I know that not every dialogue must have character development at its focus, it may also serve as a connecting piece, or a description of the fictions world, or just as a device to establish whatever thing in your story. But since my examples are taken from “Pop-Literature”, id like to know why books with so many annoying and boring dialogues have become so popular Oo
    Well, i have a vague picture of the reasons “why”, and i guess there many more aspects than just the quality of dialogue which factor into their success.
    But if i have a look at the classics, like “The never ending story (Michael Ende)”, “Voyage to the moon (Jules Verne)” or good ol’ “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide (Louis Stevenson)” – well, there is no “vain” dialogue Oo
    And although i really loved those “pop-novels” when i read them, i still appreciate the preciseness of these ol’ “masters”. Almost anything in their works contributed to the cohesiveness of the whole piece, reinforced and magnified its vision. Sometimes it feels that the book hit the perfect amount o’ words: Not too many, not too few.

    On the other hand, these classics can be pretty hard to read ^^ sometimes their linguistic excesses are a bit difficult to follow 😀 However, when reading pop literature, sometimes i feel like i have to speed-read that boring um…lets call it “interlude”.

    Its not that i would doom a book just because a few pages of boring dialogue 😀 but i wonder, how is it for the writer to write them? Does he write these lines because he really feels like he has to put them in? Or does he write them because he has to reach the 300pages minimum? Because sometimes i feel like the bookmarket tries to “pump” their books, meaning that many books have really huge letters and big interspace, just to get a bigger spine for their books, which for some reason attracts people – big books, even if they come as a paperback.

    Oh, an just one more question:
    How are the “hannibal movies”? I think it starts with “the silence of the lambs” doesnt it? I never saw them, i wonder how they are since the figure of hannibal is picked up for comparisons so often 😀

    1. Yes I have seen the Plinkett reviews, and they’re absolutely awesome! Hilarious, informative and just downright perfect. That’s why I mostly focused on just a single line of dialogue and not do a whole breakdown of the Prequel’s failings, there’s nothing I could add to Plinkett’s review!

      Yeah, it’s sad how terrible the dialogue is because it makes both actors look like terrible amateurs, but really both Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman are both terrific actors. I mean watch Natalie Portman in Black Swan or Hayden in Life as a House and its hard to believe they’re the same ones who spouted this awful stuff.

      I’ve never read any of the three books you listed, but I’ll try and pick up one or two of them at the library and do a post on their dialogue if you want! 🙂 I think I know what you’re talking about with vain dialogues though, dialogue that seems to be there for no other reason than for the character to spout his encyclopedic knowledge. I’ll definitely pick up one of those books and give you an answer as soon as I can.

      Well personally I’ve never felt the need to “pad” a story with unnecessary dialogue, but then I’ve never actually published a book (yet, soon though!) so maybe its an editorial decision made by the writer’s publishing company? I’ve definitely seen books that have the huge print or add a blank page to the end of every chapter in order to fill out the stock. I don’t know why that happens, I guess the publisher feels a thick book might sell better? I honestly don’t know. You’d think in an era of digital publishing, it wouldn’t be such a big deal as to how thick the book is.

      I can definitely recommend Silence of the Lambs, it’s a great thriller and Hannibal Lector (played by Anthony Hopkins) is an extremely interesting character. He’s more than just a typical slasher-movie type villain, like Freddy Krueger or something, instead he has a very complex personality. He’s highly intelligent, charming, well spoken, has a passion for music and art. Anthony Hopkins does a great job portraying him because while he seems normal on the outside, you can almost sense his predatory nature even when he’s not actively trying to kill people.

      Some of the other Hannibal movies kind of suck unfortunately, there mostly there trying to suck more money out the popular original. The only two I would recommend are the original, Silence of the Lambs, and the prequel, Red Dragon with Edward Norton. Ed Norton plays off great against Anthony Hopkins in that movie, and the story is as tight and exciting as the original. The rest (I think there might be two or three others) you can probably give a miss.

      1. Thanks for the offer to give a small review concerning dialogue on these 😀 The swarm consists of around 1000 pages, The elves around 800+, and Jo Nesbo around 300+.
        The swarm may be the best of these three, but also the longest 😀 And it might be both a good and a bad example for what i meant. You see, the novel isnt just about the plot and the protagonists, theres lots of information on the real world woven in. The author does lots of research for his novels, both in scientific literature and by contacting scientists themselves.
        So, although theres lots of dialogue which actually doesnt much contribute towards picturing a character or expanding on the plot, its still interesting dialogue. Well,however if you should find time to read through this mountain of written word, i think you wont regret it 😉

        The elves might be the best example concerning the point ive spoken of, but its pretty much high fantasy, and not everybody likes that 😉 But its definitely a pretty unique piece, and not another clone from the Wolfgang Hohlbein production line.
        Indeed, i had some of my most intense reading moments with this book, no exaggeration here, i think i was sixteen when i read it, so its more than 7 years past, and still nothing could compete with it in that aspect.

        Jo Nesbo, well, i guess vain dialogue is part of the style 😀 No, seriously, the book is pretty short and therefore there isnt much time for useless brainblurp from the characters. The thing is, the book refuses to dig deeper into its maincharacter, which is, in my opinion, a consequence of its nature as a series (i think we have Sequel 8 with its protagonist “Harry Hole” now…^^).
        Well, i just asked myself why one would establish such a good outlining of the protagonist, if at the end of the day, you refuse to fill it with life? Thats why i felt like the dialogue would have been in vain, because almost everything which was established around the protagonist didnt take any (meaningful) effect on him. As if he was a candle of wax walking through a monsoon “singing in the rain” 😀

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