What makes a line of dialogue fabulous?
You know the kind of line I mean: It zips. It sings. It makes you gasp or laugh or gives you goosebumps. It is eminently quotable. If you're feeling self indulgent, it's the page you flip back to or the scene you rewind - over and over and over.
We'd all love to be able to write such lines at will, and yet many, many works of fiction (book, film, and television) are without a single moment of dialogic fabulosity. So I am going to take a close, close look at a few of these lines to try and determine just what it is that makes them stand out.
Today's fabulous dialogue:
"Is it such a difficult choice, between death and being my wife?"
This little gem is said by Guy of Gisborne to Maid Marian in BBC's recent Robin Hood series (season 2, episode 10). For those of you not familiar with the show, here's a recap: Guy, chief henchman of the vile Sheriff of Nottingham, has been in love with Marian since episode 1. Despite her constant rejection, Guy never gives up hope that he will one day, by hook or by crook, make Marian his wife. In this particular episode, the sheriff has mysteriously disappeared, and Prince John has threatened to raze Nottingham to the ground unless the sheriff is safely returned by sunset. Guy, as a loyal servant of Prince John, will be allowed to leave with his family before they burn the town. Thus, he offers marriage to Marian as a way for her to also escape the destruction of Nottingham.
So why is this line SO FABULOUS?
- It's determined by the situation. This line doesn't come out of nowhere. In fact, it's a very literal statement of what's actually going on. Thus, rather than distracting the viewer from the story with its fabulosity, the line instead intensifies the scene.
- It adds humor by juxtaposing two unexpected things. Don't ask me why, but when we humans see two normally disparate things together (like a camel on top of the Eiffel tower) we find it funny. Thus marriage and death, two things which, hopefully, shouldn't be equally undesirable, are made to seem like equal alternatives. Yet simultaneously ...
- It draws on a cultural habit of hyperbolically preferring death to marriage. Many of us have said, or at least know somebody who has at one time or another said, "I'd rather be dead than married to such and so," or "I'd rather be dead than be tied down with a bunch of kids and a spouse." Few people who say this actually mean it. And while we may not be consciously thinking of the last time we heard someone prefer death to marriage, it will strike a subconscious chord of familiarity, and we will find it interesting that here Marian has to LITERALLY choose between death and marriage. She's not just exaggerating to illustrate how much she hates this dude.
- It perfectly illustrates the relationship between the characters. Guy is in love with Marian, and bitter over her constant rejection. Marian is one of those few people who actually WOULD rather die than than get married to this, uh, guy.
- It depicts an agonizing dilemma. Two nasty, nasty choices for Marian.
- It's pithy. I'm not saying a long, wordy line can't ever be fabulous, but the fact is that the longer the string of words, the harder it is to pack a punch. This line is efficient and to the point, which makes it both memorable and effective.
In this case at least, it turns out that fabulous dialogue isn't just born fabulous. Instead it works very hard in different ways and on multiple levels to pack maximum punch into minimal syllables.