Woah, hey, let’s put down the torches and pitchforks, people. Just let me explain what I mean before you burn me alive.
I don’t mean that we need any more “melon famers” spouted from our characters’ lips, and I don’t mean that every fight should involve a decapitation (though quite a few already do). I’m only talking about the skill with which Quentin Tarantino writes dialogue would be a great skill for burgeoning Fantasy authors to learn.
I’m going to use the movie Pulp Fiction to explain what I mean. In doing so, I’m going to spoil some plot points from the movie. If you haven’t seen Pulp Fiction, I’d suggest you minimize this and go watch it online. I’m sure it’s streaming free somewhere. And I know it’s on Netflix.
Pulp Fiction is a movie Tarantino wrote and directed in the 90’s. It’s the movie he’s most famous for, even more so than Kill Bill and Reservoir Dogs. It’s so iconic that you probably can’t go a month without someone you know making a little allusion to it. But I probably don’t need to tell you that. You likely already know exactly what the movie is. If you’ve watched 10 movies in the last 20 years, this was probably one of them.
The clips I’m going to use are from one of the more famous scenes in the movie (and thus one of the most famous scenes of all time). It’s also what I consider to be one of the greatest scenes in cinema history. These scenes are our introduction to characters Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson).
If you’re familiar with Tarantino, I don’t need to warn you that these clips contain a lot of language and some violence. But there’s your warning anyway. I also apologize for whatever pops up in the related links, but I can’t pick and choose those.
Again, I’ll be using full spoilers in explaining why it’s so good, so if you haven’t seen it yet, WATCH IT. It’s not considered one of the greatest movies of all time for no reason.
Wow. See what I mean? Oh, maybe not, since I haven’t explained myself.
In the first scene alone, Tarantino establishes many things about the characters. He establishes both that Vincent has a history (since he just got back from being overseas, during which time he visited multiple countries, ate at restaurants, and so on) and that he and Jules have a prior partnership (since they chat so easily together, like good friends do). They both express interests outside the plot, some of which never enter into the story.
The second scene starts to introduce plot elements. It alludes to both Marcellus Wallace and his Wife, Mia, who will both become central to the plot later on. But that doesn’t mean it lightens up on characterization. On the contrary; it establishes that Vincent is cynical, practical, and pragmatic, while Jules is somewhat more optimistic, more of a dreamer.
In fact, these first moments establish their character arcs, and their paths throughout the movie. Jules has an eye toward the future, and it is this that will get him out of the life and onto greater things. Meanwhile, Vincent is stuck in the rut he’s in, is relatively happy there, and will die as a consequence.
The third scene pays off what’s been set up. We see Jules and Vincent do their job, and do it well. It shows the other side of them, the side you never, ever want to see.
These clips establish that Vega and Jules are relaxed and in their element. The violence that is about to happen is commonplace for them. So they can banter, talk about the future, and then go into the room and kill everyone there. Afterward, they revert to their easygoing camaraderie, like nothing happened. These are killers, lifelong criminals, who never regret hurting other people. But you like them anyway.
So, to summarize what I’ve just spent the last while jabbering about, these scenes establish character, setting, and plot, give foreshadowing, and take us from opening to the action without having us bored for a single second. More than anything, though, it just plain feels natural. All of it. Every stinking line.
How does this fit into Fantasy, you might ask? Haven’t I just been praising the great and talented Tarantino this whole post?
Think about the most common complaints in Fantasy, particularly in novels. The story starts too slow, the characters feel like they’re born on page 1, and the dialogue is filled with exposition. The foreshadowing is forced, and there’s an inherent black and white morality that makes it hard for you to like a main character who does something bad.
Studying Tarantino, the way that he builds his dialogue, could treat, if not cure, these illnesses in Fantasy novels.
And for those of you thinking, “But, but, Whedon!” Yes. Joss has done some of the best work in the field. Us geeks owe him a lot. But he’s just the beginning.
Not only do we all need to learn at least some of this as Whedon has, but we need to learn to take this skill into novels. We need to learn to develop our dialogue so that it works for us just as hard as our prose does. We need to make dialogue just another tool in our toolbox. We need to be almost as comfortable with dialogue as screenwriters are. And for that, we have to hold ourselves to the standards of screenwriters.
Or in short, we need Tarantino.