Firefly Friday – Dialogue – How Scary is Pain? It’s all in the delivery

This week: dialogue delivery.

Earlier in the week I decided to focus on dialogue, but as I mulled it over, I found I was having a really hard time with this post. The problem is, Joss Whedon is known for his witty dialogue. How could I even capture it in one post?

Well, I can’t. You can take any scene in any episode and study the snappy dialogue.

Then it dawned on me: the point of this writing series is to focus on lessons we hear all the time and illustrate the lesson using an excerpt from Firefly, not to promote how awesome the show is. Pressure off (whew!), I decided to zero in on one interchange, not because it exemplifies Firefly or its witty dialogue (it doesn’t), but because it illustrates a common dialogue lesson.

We often hear the admonishment not to overburden our dialogue exchanges with exclamation points and dialogue tags like “she screamed loudly!”

As a writer, over-relying on such ways to show emotion can weaken your prose. It shows the writer either didn’t trust his/her writing skills enough to properly show emotion, or he/she didn’t trust the reader to pick up on it.

Another reason to refrain from it is that sometimes understatement can be funny or more powerful. To illustrate this, here’s an excerpt from the pilot “Serenity.” Jayne, the crew’s muscle guy, is being asked by the captain to get information out of the spy they just captured. Watch until 7:37 and note Jayne’s delivery. His lines could be delivered very menacingly in typical bad-guy fashion. Instead, he states them very calmly in an off-hand manner, especially the “Pain is scary” line. From the commentary for this episode on the DVD we’re told that the actor playing Jayne, Adam Baldwin, originally delivered these lines in a very scary way and Joss told him to dial it way down.

How different would this scene be if he’d played it over the top? To bring it to the page, which is what we deal with as writers, here’s a transcript. Imagine this is dialogue in a novel:

Mal ripped off Dobson’s gag and stepped back to stand by Jayne. “I’m in a tricky position, I guess you know. Got me a boatload of terribly strange folk making my life a little more interesting than I generally like, chief among them an Alliance mole. Likes to shoot at girls when he’s nervous.” Mal strode back to Dobson. “Now I got to know how close the Alliance is, exactly how much you told them before Wash scrambled your call. So… I’ve given Jayne here the job of finding out.”

Jayne pulled out a big-ass knife. “He was non-specific as to how.”

Mal leaned in to Jayne’s ear and said in a low voice, “Now, you only gotta scare him.”

“Pain is scary…”

“Just do it right.”

Now, let’s get excessive with punctuation and menace to see how differently the scene would be:

Mal ripped off Dobson’s gag and stepped back to stand by Jayne. “I’m in a tricky position, I guess you know. Got me a boatload of terribly strange folk making my life a little more interesting than I generally like, chief among them an Alliance mole. Likes to shoot at girls when he’s nervous.” Mal strode back to Dobson and loomed over him, hands on hips. “Now I got to know how close the Alliance is, exactly how much you told them before Wash scrambled your call! So I’ve given Jayne here the job of finding out!”

Jayne pulled out a big-ass knife and growled, “he was non-specific as to how.” He slapped the knife several times against his palm and grinned wickedly.

Mal leaned in to Jayne’s ear and said in a low voice, “Now, you only gotta scare him.”

“Pain is scary!!”

“Just do it right!”

Do you have any spots in your dialogue that might work better underplayed?

Want to analyze the dialogue further?

Past Firefly Friday Posts

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14 Comments

  1. After reading this, I searched my manuscript for exclamation points–and found nothing.

    There’s not a single one in my book. Hmm… I feel a little bit better.

    Reply
  2. Jayne’s quiet calm sounds scary. Sometimes subtlety packs more of a punch than over-the-top exclamation points. :)

    Reply
  3. I also intend to use the episode OUT OF GAS to teach a class of young writers about how to place those “guns on the wall” in small clues. Whedon’s voice is true, and I see something new every time I watch these.

    Reply
    • That is my fave episode!! And great idea for a class! There’s even foreshadowing in the pilot for that episode, when Kaylee tells Mal they need a new port compression coil. Would you be interested in doing a guest Firefly Friday post on this topic?

      Reply
  4. I love how matter of fact he is through all the ‘interrogation’ too: “I was gonna get me an ear too.” – you just know that a) he would have, and b) it wouldn’t be a big deal for him.

    I like how he seems to take it so personally that the guy’s a poor liar.
    “I can see you’re not an idiot.” “Wish I could say the same, Laurence, but this is disappointing as hell.”
    Again, great establishment of character.

    The scene following this with the Reaver ship though is one of my favourite in the series though – so much tension and infinitely scarier than overwrought dramaticising about how nasty they are.

    Reply
    • Totally! Jayne gets most of the best lines! Re: Reaver scene- I agree, and it’s interesting to see how each one of them deals with it. Morena said at Dragon*Con one year that the needle she pulled out was not to kill herself, but something completely different. She said she had this whole backstory that Joss gave her that never got explored, only hinted at, and she said that if/when she’s absolutely sure there will be no renewal, she will tell us what that needle was really for– she said it blew her mind. She’s such a tease!

      Reply
  5. Just watched the pilot episode after reading these Firefly Friday articles made me want to go through the series again, and I noticed two bits of dialogue so understated that I’ve missed the contrast until now – probably about 6 years since I was first introduced:

    (from imdb)

    Zoë Washburne: As long as we got the goods, I call this a win.
    Mal: [flatly] Right.
    [walking away]
    Mal: We win.
    ………

    Mal: I had a good day.
    Simon: You had the Alliance on you, criminals and savages… Half the people on the ship have been shot or wounded including yourself, and you’re harboring known fugitives.
    Mal: Well, we’re still flying.
    Simon: That’s not much.
    Mal: It’s enough.

    Even if it only registers subconsciously, I think it reveals a lot about Mal’s character that putting Patience in her place and getting the chance to snub the Alliance by hiding two people they want puts him in a good mood, even if three of his crew got shot (to varying degrees of severity, himself included) in the process. Perhaps this is because it reminds him of his glory days fighting with the Independents rather than the day-to-day drudgery of hauling cargo, scavenging leftovers from wrecks and petty crime?

    Reply
    • What you say is so true, and it’s these little subtle details that make the show so brilliant and re-watchable. The character nuance in that first bit of dialogue was echoed in the movie Serenity when River challenges Mal in the beginning and he responds.

      Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: Hey, little one. Understand your part in all this?
      River Tam: Do you?
      Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: It’s what I do, darlin’.
      [River walks away]
      Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: It’s what I do.

      And the look on his face says everything– he’s not too happy about it, but it’s what he does.

      Reply
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