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