No One Talks About Nothing

So, I saw Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit a couple of weeks ago. Now, there’s a lot that could be said about this movie – for a start, it’s a movie about a Wall Street banker saving the world! – but here’s the thing that stuck with me most. Cargo pants.

You know what I mean. There’s a conversation where Ryan’s girlfriend teases him about how he used to wear cargo pants. Whatever they are. And they both say witty things and look like they’re having great fun, and it’s supposed to make us think they have a really deep relationship…

But it’s really a conversation about nothing. It doesn’t relate to them as people at all. For a conversation that’s supposed to humanise them, it actually turns them into simulacrums of humans, the smiling but formless non-people you see in clothing catalogues. 

You see this kind of conversation quite a lot in movies. Workmates quipping about how bad the coffee is, fighter pilots teasing each other about last night’s date disasters… Conversations that are so generic that they mean nothing.

Real people don’t say “Wasn’t it hilarious when I used to wear cargo pants?”  They talk about that exact pair of pants they had, the ones with the tear in the left knee, the ones they bought in a sale in that boutique in San Diego, the ones they left behind in the hotel and had to drive back and get them,  but the maid had already thrown them away…

You get the idea.  Conversation is specific, detailed, often unlikely and that’s why it convinces us these fictional creations are actual people. So next time you find yourself writing generic conversation, dig in and find the details that will make it real…

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One comment on “No One Talks About Nothing

  1. Joe Belkin says:

    Good points but I think this is best attributed to Tarantino who has a great ear for writing dialogue about nothing but is meaningful and interesting (usually amusing and insightful) … Woody Allen & Whit Stillman are others who can have characters say a lot but but not saying anything. Or Diner, where not much actually happens in the diner. The problem is when you fail, you fail MISERABLY. There are so many Tarantino crime caper wannabe films where they think fast paced dialogue – often crude is by itself all you need but often it rings hollow or God awful AND you immediately hate the artificial characters who come off as d-bags or simply reveal bad acting along with bad dialogue.

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