Great dialogue doesn’t have to be flighty and fancy. Sure, it’s great to come up with fantastic one-liners, like Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore‘s
I love the smell of napalm in the morning.
or Don Corelone’s
I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.
But often the most powerful lines come not from brilliant syntax and linguistic gymnastics, but from context.
Take Eli Gold’s words in the the final episode of season 5 of The Good Wife:
Why is everything so difficult?
Because we know Eli, we’ve seen him struggling, we know almost everything he does is self-less and to help other people, so when he says these words we really empathize with him. We feel his angst. We know what he means. It resonates with us and we connect with him.
Not only that, the line is delivered with such gravitas by actor Alan Cumming – who exerts 100% energy, passion and emotion into every moment – that we really feel the weight of the world on his shoulders as he forces out these simple yet truthful, painful words.
So, when writing your script, don’t think all of your dialogue has to sing with florid extravagance or every line has to equal the genius of Colonel Kilgore or Don Corleone.
I forget which writer said ‘the lines you love the most are the ones you need to cut.’ But this is often true.
Sure, we all want to write the brilliant one-liner that will speak to a generation or a culture and there’s nothing wrong that. I do it myself and hate to let them go. Unfortunately sometimes we have to ‘kill our darlings.’
But rest assured, it’s been proven over and over again that in the greatest drama the simplest lines are often the most powerful.
Context is all.