Besides the violence his films exude, Quentin Tarantino is known for the unique way he writes dialogue. This is an examination of what makes his writing style special compared with his contemporary peers, and how it works so well.
If you’re watching a Quentin Tarantino film, you’re going to be spending most of your time listening to characters talk, rather than seeing them do something. This is the opposite of most movie-watching experiences. Tarantino drives the plot of his films through the dialogue of his characters, rather than through their actions. He treasures verbal exposition and explanation over visual. It is also a reflection of a more traditional type of storytelling which modern films have mostly diverged from.
Don’t believe me? Watch almost any film before the release of Jaws. Before we had the ability to create realistic special effects, films relied on characters describing what was happening or what had happened. There were no car chases, CGI, or choreographed fight sequences to chew up screen time. Audiences were expected to be a bit more imaginative than they are today.
Luckily, classic movie dialogue is not a lost art. Quentin Tarantino is one filmmaker who still puts emphasis in this type of character interaction. Join us as we explore the writing techniques Tarantino utilizes in his movie scripts, and explain what is it which makes his dialogue so effective.
Any good movie has to have a good hook – something that piques the audience’s interest and makes them want to watch. Tarantino makes sure every scene of dialogue in his films also has a hook. He has to give the audience a reason why they should continue to care about what his characters are saying. To do this, he gives his audience a promise. This promise is a hint that something interesting is going to happen.
In almost all of his dialogue scenes, there is something at stake. The audience doesn’t always know WHAT is at stake, but we pick up on the connotation of something important happening. If we don’t know WHAT is at stake, we are interested in listening to find out for ourselves. If we do know WHAT is at stake, we have an emotional investment and want to see how it turns out.
The bar scene in Inglorious Basterds is a perfect example of this technique. Here we have an undercover covert operation, which right away has intrigue. From the beginning, it doesn’t go as planned. The audience becomes interested to see how the characters get through this. At the very least, Tarantino hints at a bad outcome. From there, it only gets worse.
I thought this place was suppose to
have more French then Germans?
Normally that’s true. The Sgt over
there’s wife, just had a baby. His
commanding officer gave him, and his
mates the night off to celebrate.
We should leave.
No, we should stay. For one drink at
least. I’ve been waiting for you in a
bar, it would look strange if we left
before we had a drink.
She’s right, just be calm, and enjoy
BACK TO THE GERMAN TABLE
The French Barmaid, has taken Bridget’s place in the rousing,
rowdy game. She tells them, her person must be French, or she
won’t know them. Winnetou thinks for a moment, then writes a
name on a card. The Barmaid puts it on her forehead, It says;
The Germans all laugh.
When the Nazi soldier joins the protagonists for a game, the scene becomes extended. Tarantino puts a roadblock in between the audience and a resolution. But since he promised something interesting in the beginning, the audience feels obligated to deal with the roadblock. We sit and wait. The scene becomes very dialogue-heavy, and the suspense builds.
May I join you?
By all means, Major.
The Gestapo Major sits at the table, opposite Lt.Hicox, and
Wicki. The French Barmaid brings over the Majors beer stein.
So that’s the source of your bazaar
accent? Extraordinary. So what are
you doing here Cap’t?
Aside from having a drink with the lovely
Well that pleasure requires no explanation.
I mean in country. Your obviously not
stationed in France, or I’d know who
You know every German in France?
Well, there in lies the problem. We
never claimed to be worth knowing.
All levity aside, what are you doing
Attending Goebbels film premiere as
the frauleins escort.
Your the frauleins escort?
Somebody has to carry the lighter.
Tarantino takes what otherwise may have been a long and monotonous scene, and makes it the highlight of the film. Because the audience is promised something interesting at the beginning, Tarantino is able to feed into our expectations, building them up. We listen closely to the dialogue, eagerly awaiting (or fearing) a slip up. What is going to be the match that lights this barrel of gunpowder? Scenes with characters sitting in chairs talking to each other are almost never this exciting.
With the use of a hook in all of his dialogue scenes, Tarantino keeps his audience engaged, even if the dialogue is not immensely important in the overall scheme of the film. More importantly, with his audience hanging on every word that comes out of his characters’ mouths, it allows him more freedom in other regards. For example…
Using Dialogue as a Tool and Being Able to Disguise It
Reliance on dialogue in a film means the dialogue is responsible for developing characters, establishing the setting, and pushing the plot forward. This can make the dialogue of such a film more of a utility than an aspect of its entertainment. Utilized as more of a tool, dialogue can become dull and boring. It can also erase the suspension of disbelief if the audience sees through the charade. Therefore, it is important to write scenes to allow a film to disguise the more utilitarian purposes of some of its lines.
Tarantino is excellent at this technique. For one, his intelligence as a writer comes through in his characters. They tend to be intelligent and witty. Because of this, the audience never has the opportunity to second guess their words or actions. This makes it easier for Tarantino to sneak in some storytelling mechanics into his characters’ dialogues.
Likewise, since Tarantino delivers a hook in all of his dialogue scenes, audiences are more likely to overlook or accept those lines. One reason for this is that often the audience is trying to figure out what is happening. As a writer, Tarantino is often a step or two ahead of his audience. Instead of rejecting these lines which could otherwise remind us we are watching a film, the audience is more likely to welcome them if they are hungry for details. They are necessary in order for the audience to get to Tarantino’s eventual payoff, which is hinted by the hook.
The opening scene of Hateful Eight is a great example. Through dialogue, Tarantino introduces us to his characters, giving us an overview of their personalities and backgrounds in just a few minutes of conversation.
With this initial conversation between two characters we learn a lot of important details. We learn who Major Warren is, what his employment is, where he has been, and where he is going. The setting is established, in cold, bleak Wyoming. The rural setting means contact between people is not common – which means there is lots of room for unsavory characters to escape the law, and the law to be chasing them. Thus, we have an immediate conflict as Warren seems to be in desperate need of transportation, and the person in position to provide transportation isn’t at first willing to do so. Tarantino also gives us a goal for audiences to look forward to – ‘Minnie’s haberdashery’. The provision of background information continues…
Tarantino’s use of storytelling mechanics is more than just a method to introduce his characters and plot seamlessly to the audience. It is the foundation of his perspective as a filmmaker. Tarantino has often said he views his films as an interpretation of a novel. He develops the plot in much more detail and depth than what ends up on the big screen. In many ways, he chips away at his original idea in order to streamline it for cinema. That is what allows him to decide how to approach each scene of dialogue.
With an understanding of the overall story and the intended result, Tarantino knows what each scene has to accomplish. Many scripts are written as the film production progresses, and so the dialogue decisions are based on what has already transpired. Tarantino essentially does the opposite. He works backwards, figuring out what details the audience needs to know at each step along the way in order to best experience his explosive endings. This allows him to shed unnecessary details and structure his films in a way to maximize audience interest.
Part of the way Tarantino maintains audience interest is also in the way his characters speak to each other. Just as Tarantino’s overarching script is telling a story, his characters often recite little stories of their own. Tarantino’s films therefore become stories within stories. The little stories add context and importance to the overarching big story. Proof in this is the way his characters are often talking about the past or a hypothetical future.
A great example of Tarantino’s storytelling acumen is with the non-linear structure of Pulp Fiction. Telling a story out of order can be very complicated. Without a linear plot to follow, it can be difficult for the audience to understand what is happening. To overcome this problem, the writer has to make sure to first arrange the scenes in such a way to gradually allow the audience to figure out what is happening, and second to make sure they have incentive to do so.
Little conversations like this one below help the audience to connect some of the details. Here, we already know Vincent and Jules are working for Marsellus, but we don’t know much about him. This conversation acts as an introduction, and immediately it builds weight to a later scene where we meet Marsellus for the first time.
Well what then?
He gave her a foot massage.
A foot massage?
Jules nods his head: “Yes.”
Jules nods his head: “Yes.”
What did Marsellus do?
Sent a couple of guys over to his
place. They took him out on the
patio of his apartment, threw his
ass over the balcony.
Here Tarantino quickly and succinctly gives us a background on an important character without having to waste an entire scene or screentime to set him up. Also this exchange establishes the relationships of some of the important characters, Jules and Vincent are on equal footing – perhaps friends.
They are clearly below the status of Marcellus, who they seem to fear. The men they take out are below them. Marcellus must trust them in some regard. Their conversation is very personal and intelligent. Not what we might expect for criminals. Their witty banter fills in some of their motivations. This allows Tarantino to quickly move between scenes because no matter what, these relationships and motivations will remain consistent even when the timeline does not.
A later conversation in a later scene provides further definition on the topic.
VINCENT What do you think about what happened to Antwan? MIA Who's Antwan? VINCENT Tony Rocky Horror. MIA He fell out of a window. VINCENT That's one way to say it. Another way is, he was thrown out. Another was is, he was thrown out by Marsellus. And even another way is, he was thrown out of a window by Marsellus because of you. MIA Is that a fact? VINCENT No it's not, it's just what I heard. MIA Who told you this? VINCENT They. Mia and Vincent smile. MIA They talk a lot, don't they? VINCENT They certainly do. MIA Well don't by shy Vincent, what exactly did they say? Vincent is slow to answer. MIA Let me help you Bashful, did it involve the F-word? VINCENT No. They just said Rocky Horror gave you a foot massage. MIA And...? VINCENT No and, that's it. MIA You heard Marsellus threw Rocky Horror out of a four-story window because he massaged my feet? VINCENT Yeah. MIA And you believed that? VINCENT At the time I was told, it seemed reasonable. MIA Marsellus throwing Tony out of a four story window for giving me a foot massage seemed reasonable? VINCENT No, it seemed excessive. But that doesn't mean it didn't happen. I heard Marsellus is very protective of you. MIA A husband being protective of his wife is one thing. A husband almost killing another man for touching his wife's feet is something else. VINCENT But did it happen? MIA The only thing Antwan ever touched of mine was my hand, when he shook it. I met Anwan once – at my wedding – then never again. The truth is, nobody knows why Marsellus tossed Tony Rocky Horror out of that window except Marsellus and Tony Rocky Horror. But when you scamps get together, you're worse than a sewin' circle.
Finally, our overview of Tarantino’s dialogue would not be complete without giving credit where credit is due. Tarantino is a film lover at heart, and so his films borrow liberally from some of Tarantino’s favorites. Tarantino isn’t necessarily reinventing the wheel with his films. Instead, he takes the elements which work best from many classic films and blends them together into something new.
Tarantino’s ingenuity is therefore not about coming up with new or innovative ideas, but in the re-purposing of old ones. From a writing perspective, this means he doesn’t have to work as hard to convince his audience of the merits of his stories. The characters and premises will already feel familiar. Furthermore, his use of influences from classic films give his own films a timeless quality. In writing, he doesn’t have to rely on being edgy or flashy to make an impact on audiences.