Category Archives: Designing Dialogue

The Four Functions of Good Dialogue

The functions of dialogueMUCH has been written about how dialogue functions in screenplays and novels.

But its role in storytelling is so central that there is always room for more discussion. Here is Dwight V Swain on the subject taken from his book, Film Scriptwriting – a Practical Manual.

The Functions of Dialogue

Dialogue, he informs us, performs four functions: It provides information, reveals emotion, advances the plot and exposes character.

Information: This seems straight forward enough. Tell the audience what they need to know to follow the story. The catch is that the writer should do so without being obvious or slowing down the forward thrust of the tale.

A good example of providing necessary information while maintaining the tension occurs at the start of Inglorious Basterds where a Nazi officer interviews the French farmer concerning the whereabouts of a missing Jewish family in the area – a family that the farmer is secretly sheltering under the very floorboards where the interview is taking place!

Emotion: Whenever possible, dialogue should also reveal emotion. Failure to do so makes for boring lines. In the above mentioned example, each line uttered by the Nazi officer in the scene serves to heighten the stakes for the farmer and his family since discovering the Jews under the floorboards will surely lead to everyone’s execution.

Plot: Additionally dialogue should advance the plot, but it should do so surreptitiously so that it does not expose its purpose. Initially, it seems that the Nazi officer is merely questioning the French farmer and will leave at the end of the interview. But as the questioning continues it becomes clear that the Nazi already has the answers and is merely prolonging the process to the torment of the farmer and his family.

Character: Lastly, dialogue should characterise the speaker and the person to whom it is directed. The Nazi officer, seems, at first, to be cultured and polite. The interview initially seems more of a conversation between friends than an interrogation. The farmer, although reticent, is encouraged to participate in the exchanges. But the niceties are only superficial – part of the cat-and-mouse game that the german is playing with the farmer. This characterises him as a sadistic tormentor and the farmer and his family as helpless, passive victims.

Working in unison, then, these functions make for effective and engrossing dialogue – a boon to any storytelling toolkit.

Summary

Good dialogue performs four functions – it provides information, exposes emotion, advances the plot and reveals character.

Action, Description and Dialogue

Man in silhouetteBlending action, description and dialogue together is a good way of sprinkling interest and variety in your scenes, providing it’s done well. Dialogue, at its best, not only reveals character and conveys information efficiently, it injects pace and rhythm into your story too.

But too much dialogue can distance the reader from the physical environment of the scene.

Too often we break up dialogue by injecting trivial or inconsequential action and description. Characters casually leaning, smiling, drawing on cigarettes, without a deeper motive, lowers the quality of our writing.

Done well, however, significant action and description can spruce up any scene. In The Thomas Crown Affair a chess game between Faye Dunaway, the insurance investigator, and the criminal, Steve McQueen, bristles with sexual tension and innuendo. The phallic nature of the chess pieces and the sensual way they are being touched, supported by the array of fertile glances, underpins the laconic dialogue admirably.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the climactic scene of the story, had to be handled sensitively since it brought together so many elements, including a startling revelation from the backstory which helps to explain much of the protagonist’s behaviour. References to the eye of the storm winking shut, the stars disappearing, and the parents being still like old photographs in an album, add to the undercurrent of meaning of the story. Here’s an example from the text:

The storm is picking up now and I struggle to hear the words spilling from his mouth. I look up at the sky. The eye is moving away, winking shut. The stars are a thin dotted line. Soon, they too will be gone.
“Time to leave, Ben,” Miranda pleads, pointing in the direction of the house through the throng of trees.
“Will you come with me?” I ask.
“Not this time.”
“Not ever,” Fanos says. “But you can start again. Find a happier time and place. Isn’t that what your theories talk about? The existence of the paths you wished you’d taken? All you’ve got to do is want it hard enough.”
I glance at my mother and my father. They stand holding hands silently, as if suddenly struck mute. Their eyes are upon me, searching for a clue to my true feelings. Their bodies are perfectly still, like the figures in black and white photographs in an old album are still.

Interspersing your dialogue with telling action and description that reveals character and deepens the meaning of your scenes is an essential skill in any writer’s toolkit.

Summary

Blend action, description and dialogue together to vary interest and deepen your scenes.

The Art of Great Dialogue

Girls holding hearts in front of mouths“Writing great dialogue is an art in and of itself. For a film scriptwriter, it’s a vital skill,” writes Dwight V. Swain in his book, Film Scriptwriting.

Few would doubt the validity of his comment with regard to film, but should a novelist regard compelling dialogue as being equally important?

Yes, of course.

Novels no longer dominate the story market in the way they did a few decades ago – they have to compete with the deluge of new and exciting products, such as films and games, for the attention of their readers. Additionally, audio-visual products influence what consumers have come to expect from their entertainment – faster pace, higher stakes, and yes, authentic and gripping dialogue.

The crafting of compelling dialogue is the subject of countless of books and courses, but here is a short checklist on what great dialogue should accomplish:

Dialogue should provide information necessary for the understanding of the story.
Dialogue should reveal emotion.
Dialogue should advance the plot.
Dialogue should characterise both the speaker and the person to whom it is spoken.

Here is an example from my novelette, The Nostalgia of Time Travel:

Physicist Benjamin Vlahos’s wife, Mitanda, has been dead for thirty years, when she appears to him during the worst storm to ever hit the north east coast of Australia, and tries to persuade him to move on with his life.

Miranda: “Take the handkerchief from your pocket and place it back inside the box. Close the lid and never open it again.”
Benjamin: “Why?”
Miranda: “You know why.”
Benjamin: “I don’t know how to move on.”
Miranda: “You do. You must.”
Benjamin: “What about the math? What about the answers I seek?”
Miranda: “You already know the answers to the most important questions. The rest is gossamer wafting in the wind.
Benjamin: “Is it?”
Miranda: “Finish the story. Finish it in the way you want to.”
Benjamin: “It’s too difficult. I don’t have an ending.”
Miranda: “Do you still believe that? After all these years?”
Benjamin: “I believe in the math.”

Analysing the dialogue in The Nostalgia of Time Travel we discover that this is a story about a man stuck in the past. Benjamin is too tortured and tormented to move on with his life. Miranda defines the central beat in the plot: “Finish the story. Finish it in the way you want to.” This is the only way that Benjamin will end the years of stasis.

Benjamin, then, is characterised as a man steeped in regret, unsure of himself, unwilling to live his life. Miranda, on the other hand, is calmly confident, gently encouraging. The dialogue has to convey all of this.

Importantly, emotion, character, and plot are communicated sub-textually, rather than through on-the-nose dialogue. For example, when Miranda asks Benjamin to put the handkerchief in the box and never open the lid again, he asks, “Why?” Her reply comes indirectly: “You know why.” The reader knows the answer to the question from a previous context, so a direct answer is unnecessary.

Summary

Great dialogue performs several functions simultaneously.

Enrich your Scenes with Counterpoint

Woman playing celloIn my classes on storytelling I often talk about spring-loading scenes with seemingly contradictory cues to increase interest through tension.

This does not only encourage the viewer or reader to pay closer attention to the words and actions of the characters, it alerts her to what might be going on under the surface.

Additionally, when the release does finally come, usually at the end of the scene, it has been properly foreshadowed.

Here’s an example:

Imagine an army media-relations Major trying to get out of a dangerous assignment at the war front by threatening to badmouth a General to the media about military losses under his command.

The bad way to write this scene it is to have an exchange of raised voices and angry gestures with one party winning the argument at the end.

The better way is how the screenwriters handled it in Edge of Tomorrow.

In the scene, Major Cage does indeed threaten to ruin General Brigham, but he does this in a calm, almost polite way. Brigham’s response is equally calm and collected.

In the beginning, Cage seemingly holds the advantage. Brigham is sitting down while Cage stands, holding the higher ground, always an advantage in scenes of conflict. He seems to be swaying Brigham with his reasoning.

But the advantage surreptitiously swings over to Brigham when he stands up, towering over the more diminutive Cage, and paces calmly towards him, causing Cage to back up.

Although Cage remains under the impression that Brigham is going along with his suggestion, he betrays his nervousness when he backs up against a chair and is startled.

This small incident reveals the inherent tension in the scene and precedes Brigham issuing orders to have Cage stripped of his rank and dumped at the training camp prior to dropping him into the war zone.

No arm-waving. No raised voices. Just well-written action that moves in counterpoint to the threatening import of the dialogue.

Summary

Add tension and interest to your scenes by having the action play out in counterpoint to a threat being delivered through dialogue.

Image: Usfpasj
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

Talking the Story

Writer

Trish Nicholson

Today I have the honour and privilage to host a special post by a truly erudite and inspiring writer: Trish Nicholson.

Trish writes narrative nonfiction and short stories, some of which have won international competitions and are analysed in her latest book Inside Stories for Writers and Readers. She is also a social anthropologist and author of travelogues. Trish lives in New Zealand. You can follow her on Twitter @TrishaNicholson and visit her tree house on her website at http://trishnicholsonswordsinthetreehouse.com

Take it away Trish…

Trish: Thank you Stavros. I’d like to start with the idea that although film and the short story may each employ different strengths to tell a particular tale, what they share is greater than their differences.

“Short story and film are expressions of the same art, the art of telling a story by a series of subtly implied gestures, swift shots, moments of suggestion…”(H .E. Bates).

Dialogue is especially significant in this respect. By eavesdropping on what they say, readers and viewers hear characters’ desires and intentions directly from the source. Crafted with care, verbal exchanges demonstrate character traits, emotional states, relationships with twists of deceit, manipulation and asymmetry, and they reveal facts and motivations that push the plot.

‘Talk’ that achieves none of these is idle chatter that clutters the story and slows the pace.

In Inside Stories for Writers and Readers, I unpick dialogue in a couple of stories, explaining the role of each spoken phrase. The following excerpt shows how much can be conveyed through a few lines of dialogue within a 100-word micro-fiction. In this story, a couple sit at a table in a train-station café. A tramp occupies the same table and lifts his T-shirt to scratch flea bites.

“Let’s move,” you hiss.

We learn the character being quoted is probably intolerant of tramps. A tag had to be used because no one has spoken up to that point and there are three people at the table, but the ‘hiss’ not only tells us how the words were delivered, but that the narrator seems to have a negative attitude towards the comment, or the speaker – to use ‘whisper’ instead, would have given a whole different meaning and character hint.

“There’s still an hour,” I say.

It is unlikely that the tramp would have spoken this, so the tag is not necessary in that sense, but it provides the symmetry of ‘you said/I said’ to point up the rejoinder that deliberately ignores the subtext of the other speaker as to the reason for moving: there is underlying tension here.

We’re starting over: going on a second honeymoon – to Torquay.

This suggests problems in the past but the inner voice of the narrator is optimistic, and gives vital plot information – where they are going and why.

“You’re always so obtuse.” I feel your spittle spatter my face.

The choice of ‘obtuse’, while apt anyway, was made especially for its spittle-delivering qualities. The use of ‘always’, like ‘never’, is argumentative and again indicates a history of conflict. The spittle comment is not needed as a speech tag, but it up-grades the speaker’s anger and paints a visual picture of the scene.

You get the Brighton train.

The narrator’s inner dialogue describes an important action in the plot, and the one word “Brighton” tells us there will be no second honeymoon (the significance of “Torquay” earlier). [The Last Train].

Summary

Dialogue helps us to create vivid scenes; to emulate the immediacy of film by revealing crucial aspects of our stories directly through the words and actions of characters.

Stavros: Once again, I want to extend a special thank you to Trish Nicholson for agreeing to share with us her considerable knowledge of the craft of writing.

Trish: It’s been my pleasure Stavros.

Writing is Rewriting IV

Dialogues gentlemen talking across a tableThe famous screenwriter William Goldman once said: “A good writer is not someone who knows how to write—but to rewrite.” In this forth post of our five-part series, drawn from Raymond G Frensham’s book, Screenwriting, we turn our attention to dialogue.

The Art of Dialogue

Good dialogue is never just about relaying essential information—moving the plot forward by fostering the outer journey. It’s also about the inner journey of the characters; its about revealing the reasons why characters act and say the things they do—the subtext that reveals their motivation.

In reviewing your characters’ dialogue look out for the following problems:

1. Are your scenes flat and listless? Are they governed by dialogue that lacks pace, spark? Try injecting emotion, humour—yes, even in drama, a prediction, a challenge, or replace it with silences in which we are shown rather than told things.

2. Is the dialogue in a scene interchangeable between characters? Could I take a phrase from one character and put it in the mouth of another without anyone noticing? If so, your cast and the way they speak, their viewpoint, background, and values, are not unique. Could you imagine interchanging the dialogue of Bart, Homer, or Marge Simpson? Of course not! That’s because these characters are strongly and uniquely defined. Re-examine your own character biographies and ensure that your characters are individuals driven by their own goals. Each character should have his own way of speaking that simultaneously reflects both his inner and outer journeys.

3. Are the major dialogue exchanges in your story governed by contrasting values, conflicts and innuendo? If not, they ought to be.

4. Does your dialogue ramble? Does it meander, seem unnecessarily “talky”? Cull unnecessary dialogue and pare down what remains to the bone. Good dialogue is sharp and precise and moves the plot forward while revealing the reasons for the views and actions it expresses, through subtext. (Please consult this blog for additional posts on subtext in which I provide specific techniques for creating vibrant, interesting dialogue that bristles with verisimilitude).

5. Try not to express plot and intent through direct on-the-nose dialogue. The cinema is not the place to showcase your skill as a soliloquy writer. Can you reveal plot through subtext rather than through direct statement? If you can, do so without hesitation. “I saw your girlfriend kissing a toy boy in the kitchen at your birthday party,” is better than “I’m sorry to hear that you and Marcy aren’t getting along lately.”

Summary

Writing good dialogue requires a good ear and an understanding of the medium you’re working in. Listed above are some of the pitfalls to avoid when rewriting dialogue during the forth draft of your story.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

How to Write Better Dialogue

Dialogue

Great dialogue sparkles. It imbues a script or novel with a sense of authenticity and character. It injects pace, interest, and relevance. Great dialogue draws the reader or audience into the story and holds them there, delivering meaning on various levels. In this post I discuss some of the techniques used by writers to create effective dialogue—primarily the cover-up as an aspect of subtext.

Subtext and the Cover-Up

Subtext is the meaning that lies beneath the obvious — it is the connotation that springs from the denotation offered by the surface layer. Cover-ups make us wonder what and why information is being withheld, which spikes our interest. Cover-ups in dialogue take many forms, one of which is deflection. Deflection, in turn, may come as a question, a change in subject, action that is incongruous with dialogue, a counter attack, a threat, a joke, silence. Here are some examples:

1. Answer a question with a question

“Have you ever taken money that didn’t belong to you?”
“Do you honestly believe I would ever do that?”

2. A change of subject

“Got the money I lent you?”
“I saw your wife at the supermarket today…talking to some young buck.”

3. Action that is incongruous with dialogue

He slapped her hard across the mouth so that the blood ran down her chin.
“I so love the taste of blood in the morning!” she responded.

4. Counter attack

“You seem nervous.”
“So do you.”

5. A threat

“I’m sorry honey. Don’t wait up for me tonight. Working late at the office again.”
“Mind if I pop in and say hi, anyway?”

6. A joke

“I’m sorry Jim. I never meant to screw your girlfriend. It just happened.”
“That makes us even, then!”

7. Silence

“Are you having an affair, Matthew?”
Matthew looked at his wife for a long while but said nothing. At last he got up and fixed himself a stiff scotch.

In each case, a question or statement is deflected or defused by an unexpected response. The response itself implies deeper layers of meaning which enrich the exchange. This is the most important aspect of subtext.

Summary

Subtext is an indispensable part of dialogue and comes in many forms. The seven examples provided above illustrate some of the ways to enliven and enrich dialogue in your stories.

What is Subtext?

Subtext, in writing, refers to the treasure that lies buried below the surface of a story — its inner meaning. If the “text” is concerned with surface detail — that which can be seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted, the “subtext” carries that which is implied, hinted at, or intuited through depth, subtlety, and resonance. Subtext, in the wider sense of the word, operates across different categories such as genre, symbolism, setting, character, vocation, and dialogue, since all are able to transmit hidden or interior meaning. In this post, we shall be focusing on subtext in dialogue.

Saying One Thing and Meaning Several

In dialogue, subtext arises whenever a character lies, hides something, seduces, plots, is merely polite, or is simply unaware of the deeper implications of what is being said. The common denominator is that additional information is presented in a subtle way. Inevitably, subtext acts as a kind of foreshadowing, awaiting for that aha-moment to reveal its true meaning (usually, around a turning point). In Basic Instinct, crime writer Catherine Trumell (Sharon Stone) is interrogated by detectives about the murder of Johnny Boz, a retired rock-star. Her subtext, which targets Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), bristles with veiled threats and sexual innuendo:

NICK: What’s your new book about?
CATHERINE: A Detective. He falls for the wrong woman.

The implication is that her new book is about her and Nick.

NICK: What happens to him?
CATHERINE: She kills him.

This contains a veiled threat and a warning, but also a lure in its hint of a possible sexual liaison (“He falls for the wrong woman”). Later in the interrogation:

NICK: You like playing games, don’t you?
CATHERINE: I have a degree in psych. It goes with the turf. Games are fun.

Catherine not only invites Nick to engage in a-cat-and-mouse game over who killed Johnny Boz, she also engages in a kind of foreplay prior to having sex. Because the audience, like Nick, is aware of the deeper meaning in this (Catherine is already a suspect), the dialogue serves to foreshadow the pay-off in which Catherine, after having made love to Nick, reaches for the murder weapon beneath her bed, only to hesitate and make love to him again, instead. The suggestion is that Nick too will be killed when she’s had her fill of him.

Summary

Subtext in dialogue occurs when characters hide something, lie, seduce, plot, are merely being polite, or are unaware of the deeper meaning of what is being said. Its function is to create depth and resonance in the story, as well as to serve foreshadowing.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, leave a comment and let’s get chatting on the subject.

Five Ways to Increase Tension and Anticipation through Dialogue

Scarab, The Level, and how to harness the power of anticipation in dialogue.

As promised, here are some essential techniques for creating anticipation in your stories, culled from classes I teach on screenwriting. Although there are many more techniques for achieving this, I discuss five that I use over and over again in my own work, and in my novels such as Scarab and The Level: 1. Questions that are left hanging or are only partially answered. 2. Reputation that causes interest. 3. Countdown.  4. Warnings. and 5. Hope of possible escape out of a bad situation.

On The Level

In my previous novel, Scarab, I tapped into the prevailing mystery associated with the Sphinx of Giza in order to create an overall sense of anticipation and intrigue in the story. In my forthcoming novel, The Level, I create anticipation and anxiety by focusing on the ability of dialogue to increase tension.

In The Level, the protagonist, Sam Code, wakes up in a pitch-black room strapped to a chair. He can’t remember who he is or how he got here. A woman dressed in a black burka approaches him carrying a paraffin lamp and warns him that he needs to get out of his current predicament before the power comes back on. She also tells him that he has to get off the island where he is being held, before dawn, or he’ll be killed. The dialogue between them is cryptic, full of suspense, and keeps us guessing as to how it will all end. Here’s an excerpt from the second chapter:

“I can’t come with you. You do understand that?” she said.

“Why not?” Sam asked, somewhat taken aback.

She hesitated. “I’m sorry Sam. I can’t answer that question. But I can tell you there’s a generator that’ll start up in ten minutes. The power and lights will come on. You can’t be in this chair when that happens.”

“Just tell me what the hell’s going on!”

“What you need to know right now is that the power will stay on for an hour. You must find your way out of this facility before the lights go out again. There are many doors to many rooms. Many dead ends. And there are a lot of people with terrifying skills who’ll be looking for you. If they find you they will kill you. But if you manage to escape, head North. You’ll come to a small harbor about a day’s walk from here. There’ll be a boat. Get on it and leave this island. What happens after that depends on you.”

“Why? Why would anyone want to kill me? What’s so special about me?” Sam sounded more anxious than ever.

“The truth is that you are very special Sam,” she said. “You just don’t realize it yet.”

“Then explain it to me,” he pleaded.

Ashanti hesitated yet again, as if weighing up the reasons for keeping the information from him against the consequences to herself for telling him.
“You have something they want,” she said at last.

“What?” Sam pressed her.

“A key.”

“A key to what?”

“A key to a very special door.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You will.” Ashanti leant over and kissed him on the cheek.

Creating Anticipation through Dialogue

Here’s how each technique works:

1. Questions that are left hanging or are only partially answered: Almost everything that Sam asks Ashanti is only partially answered or sidetracked: “I can’t answer that question”, or, “You have something they want”. This causes Sam to exclaim, “I don’t understand”. Unanswered questions create a sense of intrigue and anxiety in the reader. We, like Sam, want answers to these questions, and so we keep reading in an effort to find them.

2. Reputation that causes interest: “And there are a lot of people with terrifying skills who will be looking for you.” This causes us to worry about Sam and wonder about the sorts of skills his hunters possess.

3. Countdown: “But I can tell you there’s a generator that’ll start up in ten minutes. The power and lights will come on. You can’t be in this chair when it does.” This sets up a time limit during which something has to happen. Although we don’t know the details, we believe Sam to be in imminent danger.

4. Warnings: “If they find you they will kill you”. We are left in no doubt as to the outcome, and because we like Sam, we worry about him and keep turning the pages to see if he’ll survive.

5. Hope of possible escape from a bad situation: “But if you manage to escape, head North. You’ll come to a small harbor about a day’s walk from here. There’ll be a boat. Get on it and leave this island.” The search for the answer to this question drives the entire story. Will Sam manage to get to the boat and escape from the island or will he be found and be killed?

In Conclusion

These, then, are five simple but powerful techniques for injecting anticipation into your dialogue, changing otherwise static scenes into exciting page turners. If you’ve enjoyed this article, and have any questions or requests that you wish to be covered in a future blog, please leave a comment by clicking on the “comment” text at the end of this or any other entry, and let’s get chatting!

The Craft of Dialogue

In this series of articles I’ll be exploring some essential writing techniques that I’ve garnered over the years. Some, have migrated over from screenwriting, but they are applicable, with a little modification, to the novel or short story.

Today’s topic is how to add resonance and depth to your story through metaphor in dialogue.

In film, as in the novel, dialogue provides a plethora of opportunities for hooking the reader into the story early, developing character, and developing plot. One of the ways to deepen the reading experience, to create a sense of resonance in your writing, is through the use of metaphor. Metaphors may appear in several forms – as visual, olfactory, and auditory objects. In this blog we shall be touching on their use in dialogue.

Make Metaphors Unobtrusive

The first thing to say is that a metaphor shouldn’t draw attention to itself as a literary device, since that would snap your reader out of the immersive experience you are trying to create. What it should do, other than embellish character, is quietly seed or explain some previous and/or future moment in your story. This could take the form of foreshadowing the “reveal” — the moment in which some previously unexplained or hidden motive or event is shown for what it truly is. Structuring reveals is an indispensable part of creating momentum in your stories, but that is the subject of a future blog.

Allow Metaphors to Stitch your Story Together

The cardinal rule in writing is, as we’ve often heard,  “show, don’t tell.” I would rephrase this to read: in showing, rather than telling, it is preferable to reveal the hidden truth in your story in a measured and purposeful way — in the case of dialogue, through a series of related but widely interspersed metaphors. Dialogue is a prime candidate for metaphor since, metaphor, by its very nature, carries more meaning than ordinary language. Additionally, metaphor in dialogue is less obtrusive than in a descriptive block, since it can fly under the radar as part of a character’s speech idiom. Metaphors, once fully unpacked by the reader or audience, act as invisible threads, stitching your characters and story together into a seamless whole.

Metaphors in Chinatown

There is a wonderful bit of dialogue in Chinatown between Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) and Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) in which Gittes notices a black spot in the green part of Evelyn’s eye, prompting her to remark, “Oh, that…it’s a flaw in the iris…”. This admission of a flaw, of course, is about much more than the structure of her iris. Like a fracture in a beautiful diamond, Evelyn’s secret is not visible at first glance. The idea of a flawed diamond with its added capacity for diverting light fits snugly into the idea of flawed moral and physical perception. It points to how easy it is to miss the truth even when it is in plain sight; how easy it is to camouflage from one’s self, and others, a shameful secret in one’s life.

Yet, the “flaw” as a metaphor for imperfection or sin, which may lie at the heart of the beautiful and the rich, also points at the heart of the plot. In Chinatown, it finds expression in one of the greatest lines in movie history, when Evelyn admits to Gittes that Katherine is both her sister and her daughter. This is something that we have failed to spot, just as Gittes failed to see that the gardener’s remark to him earlier — “Bad for glass” — was not referring to the broken eyeglasses at the bottom of the pond at the Mulwray home, but to the fact that saltwater is bad for the lawn. Had Jake allowed for the Chinese tendency (a linguistic flaw?) to pronounce “l” for “r” — “glass” instead of “grass” — he might have understood that Hollis Mulwray, Noah Cross’ former partner, had been drowned in this very pond, at the bequest of Cross, and his body dumped near a storm-drain pipe to make it look like an accident. It is only when the characters and the audience come to see the truth for what it really is (Gittes “seeing” that Noah Cross has instigated the murder and that he has fathered Katherine by sleeping with his own daughter, Evelyn), that the story can reach its dark and somber conclusion: that the rich and powerful are forever hidden from the law’s ability to bring them to justice.

In Summary

Strategically placed metaphors add depth and resonance to your story, yet should never draw attention to themselves as literary devices. In Chinatown, the failure to see the truth is hinted at through metaphorical objects such as cracked eyeglasses, a flawed iris, as well as in dialogue – in Evelyn’s mentioning of the flaw in her eye, and in Gittes mistaking “grass” for “glass”. As metaphors, they seed and explain actions and events as part of a well-structured reveal. Used well, metaphors enrich character and help stitch the various parts of a story into a seamless whole.

In my next blog, I will be discussing the many ways in which dialogue can help to build anticipation and tension.

See you then!