Monday, August 21, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Do characters (excluding professors) speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?

There are three types of sentences writers love but should never use in dialogue (unless the character is a professor or writer): dependent clauses, conditionals, and parallel construction. Let’s tackle those one by one. 

Real people avoid using dependent clauses when they speak, for good reasons:
  • Our minds aren’t quite fast enough to nest clauses on the fly. 
  • We know we’re always about to be interrupted, so we lay out our thoughts one at a time, in case we don’t get to finish. We do this to others, and we know they’ll do it to us, so we speak with the assumption that we’ll be interrupted. We know if we’re interrupted in the middle of a dependent clause, our entire sentence will be meaningless. 
  • Even when we know for certain we won’t be interrupted, such as when we’re giving a speech, it sounds awkward to use dependent clauses. Rather than extemporaneous talk, it sounds like a prepared text. 
Writers are used to seeing their words on a page, where dependent clauses can nest comfortably, which is why we’re often shocked to hear how mealymouthed and wishy-washy our dialogue sounds when spoken out loud.

In the 2004 presidential race, linguists criticized John Kerry for using too many dependent clauses and praised George W. Bush for speaking simply, even though his faux-folksy speech patterns greatly annoyed the American intelligentsia. Kerry also got in trouble for speaking with too many conditionals. When speaking aloud, these sound like prevarication, which is inherently unsympathetic. If you say “If A and B, then C,” that sounds weaselly. If, on the other hand you say, “C! Because A! Because B! C!” then you’ve basically said the same thing but sound more like a leader.

A third sentence structure that works well when written but not when spoken is parallel construction. On one episode of The Blacklist, James Spader is tracking down a killer using a dog hair from a crime scene, and he muses aloud to his henchman, “Dogs are not our whole life, but they do make some lives whole.” Ugh.

It’s a lot of fun to use that sort of parallel construction when you’re writing something down, and it’s fun to read. It creates a bit of additional meaning to take a turn of phrase and then turn it on its head, creating a “compare and contrast” moment and giving your language a little poetic lilt, but people just don’t say that sort of thing out loud.

Once again, we don’t set up elaborate constructions because of the fear that we won’t be able to finish them. In real life, that exchange between Spader and his henchman would have gone something like this:
  • Spader: Dogs are not our whole life, but— 
  • Henchman: —Yes they are. I love my dog. 
  • Spader: I know you do, but— 
  • Henchman: —There’s no 'but' about it. He’s my huggums-wuggums. 
  • Spader: I know, I know. He’s a great dog. That was my whole point, asshole! If you hadn’t interrupted me, I would have said, "But they do make some lives whole. 
  • Henchman: Oh, I see what you were trying to do: "whole life/life whole." That’s cute. You should write greeting cards. 
  • Spader: Go to hell. [Now it can be revealed: When I first submitted my book to Writer’s Digest, it said “Eat a dick.”] 
It’s even worse when characters turn each other’s phrases. On an episode of Agents of SHIELD, the “hacker” character confronts one of her fellow ex-revolutionaries who has betrayed the cause, and they have this exchange:
  • Hacker: You’ve changed. 
  • Ex-revolutionary: Good. 
  • Hacker: I mean, you’re not who you used to be. 
  • Ex-revolutionary: You’re not who I thought you were. 
After that third line, I thought, Why would he rephrase what he just said? Then she said her line, and I just rolled my eyes: Oh, he did it to set up her line. One reason this sort of thing doesn’t work is that people have different syntax. We build our sentences differently. It may be cute to turn someone’s phrase, but it would come out all wrong if we actually tried it because we’re not used to phrasing things that way.

While we’re at it, let’s tackle a similar problem: Never let characters extend each other’s metaphors, either. In real life, when a husband and wife are extremely like-minded, we say they “finish each other’s sentences.” Why is this such a remarkable trait? Because it’s hard to do. But you wouldn’t know that from watching bad action movies, where people do it all the time.

I only saw the trailer of the action movie Faster, but it was all I needed to see. The trailer ends with a moment that’s clearly from the end of the movie, when the revenge-seeker, played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, has caught up to the slimy villain, played by Billy Bob Thornton. Looking defeated, Thornton laments, “I created my own hell.” Johnson looms over him, growling back, “And I’m the demon that crawled up out of it.”

How many things are wrong with this exchange?
  • We’ll overlook the first one—people don’t tend to converse while beating each other up—because that’s a well-established convention of the genre. 
  • But I still can’t accept it when one character extends another character’s metaphor. Sure, I’ll buy that these characters may shout angry things at each other, but they’re not going to listen closely to the other’s figure of speech, accept that metaphor as a good way to sum up the situation, think of a way to twist that metaphor to address their own concerns, and then continue the other person’s sentence, using the same general language and tone. 
When you’re confronting someone about something and he sums up the situation metaphorically, you’re more likely to respond, “No, it’s not like that at all, asshole.” If he's speaking figuratively at a time like that, you’ll be all the more tempted to respond in a more literal fashion, or, perhaps, nonverbally. Alas, there’s only one language we all speak, and that’s chin music.

You only have one brain, so it’s natural to write each line as a continuation of the previous one, using the same language and continuing the same train of thought. But your characters all have different brains, and they have no interest in finishing each other’s sentences—and they couldn’t, even if they wanted to.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. Apatow’s reliance on improv gives the dialogue an astonishing degree of verisimilitude.


YES, only Ash the robot uses dependent clauses.

An Education

YES. Mostly. As with all screenplays written by novelists, there are a few.

The Babadook


Blazing Saddles

YES. Only Hedly does, because he fancies himself a gentlemen.  Bart, being a real gentleman, doesn’t.

Blue Velvet

YES. The sentences are all simple. 

The Bourne Identity

YES. (Even the character whose name is “The Professor”!) 







Donnie Brasco


Do the Right Thing

YES. everyone.

The Farewell


The Fighter




The Fugitive

YES. even the doctors.  

Get Out


Groundhog Day

YES. Sure.

How to Train Your Dragon


In a Lonely Place

YES. Dix is a writer, so he can get away with it.  She refuses to mirror his flowery language.

Iron Man

YES. Even the over-educated ones.

Lady Bird

YES. even the intellectual speaks realistically. 

Raising Arizona





YES. Well, you can add presidents and preacher (people used to being listened to without interruption) to the professor category here.  The other characters speak simply.  

The Shining



YES. Even the novelist / teacher avoids such language.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. …but two of the main characters, Crawford and Lecter, are professors, so they get away with it.

Star Wars


Sunset Boulevard

NO. Joe’s a writer and loves pithy turns of phrase: “an older woman who’s well to do, a younger man who’s not doing too well.”

1 comment:

June said...

Wow, I'm amazed at how detailed these last few weeks of posts are. Thank you so much. Dialogue is the hardest part it seems. My favourite movies - Jeremiah Johnson, Woman of the Dunes, 2001 - have a lot of silence.