Writing Great Dialogue Hooks

Unforgiven contains great dialogue hooks

The film Unforgiven contains some great dialogue hooks

Great dialogue is such an important part of successful storytelling that its study fills countless of books.

In this article I want to touch on one technical aspect of great dialogue – what Dwight V. Swain calls dialogue continuity.

(See Film Scriptwriting – A Practical Manual).

Swain suggests that in order to have dialogue hang together it needs to contain a dialogue hook. That is, each speech needs to acknowledge the one preceding it in some direct or indirect way.

There are several ways to achieve this. Below are two of the most common – repetition and question/answer:

Two Technical Keys to Great Dialogue

In Unforgiven, William Munny, a hired killer, is told that his old friend, Ned Logan, whom he talked into joining him for a contract job to take revenge on some cowboys for the beating and scarring of a prostitute, has been killed by the Sheriff, Little Bill, and his men. This, despite the fact that Ned had withdrawn from the contract earlier without having harmed anyone. The news is a major turning point in the story.

Prostitute: Ned? He’s dead.
Munny: What do you mean he’s dead? He went south yesterday, he ain’t dead.
Prostitute: They killed him. I thought you knew that.
Munny: Nobody killed Ned. He didn’t kill anyone. He went south yesterday. Why would anybody kill Ned? Who killed him?

This question and answer structure, as well as the repetition of the word ‘dead’ and ‘killed’, not only links the dialogue between the two characters, it bridges the second and third acts of the film. Munny’s shock and disbelief turns into unrelenting revenge with dire consequences for the perpetrators.

In Independence Day the President of the United States questions an alien who is speaking through a surrogate.

President: Can there be a peace between us?
Alien: Peace? No peace.
President: What is it you want us to do?
Alien: Die. Die.

There are other ways to link dialogue – pregnant pauses, misdirection, change of subject, subtext, but in all cases the important thing to remember is that each piece of effective dialogue should, at the very least, hook tightly into the next. Question/answer and repetition of specific words are two of the most common ways to achieve this.

Summary

Question/answer and repetition are two simple but powerful techniques to help you write great dialogue hooks for your novels and screenplays.

4 thoughts on “Writing Great Dialogue Hooks

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    Great post very relevant. I find that great dialogue defines character and philosophy. In the wolf of wall street the anti hero Jordan Belfort has a line that defines the law of the world within the film ” money talk’s , bullshit takes the bus.”

    In the climax of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill vol 2 , the antagonist uses cultural references to define the hero who wants to kill him.
    “Peter Parker wasn’t born Spider-man , he became Spider-man , just as Bruce Wayne wasn’t born Batman , he became Batman. Then their’s Superman. He wasn’t born Clark Kent , he was born Superman. No matter how hard he tries to be Clark Kent he will always be Superman. Then there’s you – Beatrix Kiddo. No matter how much weight you would have gain or Barbecue you would have ate , you would still be Beatrix Kiddo. It gives the audiences a starting point that makes it easier to understand the tension in the scene.

    Reply
    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Well observed, Gerhard. And yes, dialogue is one of the easiest way, if not always the only way, to define characters and their philosophy.

      Reply
  2. Stephen Marcus Finn

    Thanks for this, Stavros. So often, in daily social chatter (and I think especially among the really old), there is no listening to, or no interest in, what the other person is saying, so the dialogue is incredibly disjointed; very funny for those listening to the double monologues (apart from duologues), which could be used (I’m sure it has many times) for humorous effect in films. I was amused by Munny’s saying that his mate had “gone south”, with its ambiguity of failing or disappearing, his not accepting at first that it’s a permanent disappearance. There was a film made in the early 60s called “Sammy Going South”, which has the opposite meaning, referring as it does to a youngster whose parents are killed in Egypt and he has to make his own way south to his aunt in Durban – “going south” meaning not only the physical journey but finding life. (But now I’m getting way off the topic.)

    Reply
    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Thanks, Stephen. Yes, going south does have that connotation, which may or may not have been intentional on the part of the writers. Still, it does add a further resonance, does it not?

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *