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How To Use Digressions To Create Natural Sounding Dialogue

March 22, 2024
9 min read time

Many aspiring screenwriters struggle to make dialogue sound naturalistic. Often, the dialogue is stilted and doesn’t sound like the way people actually speak (this can be said of a few professional screenwriters as well). Or the dialogue is just perfunctory, and the characters are simply spouting exposition, and, once again, it doesn’t sound like the way people speak. Finally, some writers go out of their way to be snarky or colorful in their dialogue and go a little overboard. They’ll fill their dialogue with all kinds of opinions, anecdotes, and digressions.

A digression is a departure from the main topic of a speech or writing. For example, if your script is about two police detectives investigating a series of murders, and one of the cops starts going off about how his daughter is on TikTok too much or they rant about pineapple being on pizza, it’s a digression from the main plot. This is often done to give some personality to the characters—and the script as a whole—and to make them sound more like real people. Digressions can also help you reveal things about your characters or plot in a less on-the-nose and expository fashion. 

Read More: How to Write Great Dialogue

The Digressive Maestro

Like with many screenwriting techniques, digressions in dialogue can be overdone or come across as indulgent if you don’t hit the mark. Arguably, the master of digressive dialogue is Quentin Tarantino. Taking inspiration from novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard—who would often pepper digressive conversations into his westerns and crime dramas—Tarantino made this a hallmark of his writing from the start of his screenwriting and filmmaking career. 

While Tarantino’s digressive and pop-culture-laden dialogue might appear trivial or even indulgent to some people, it often serves a greater purpose than what’s just on the surface: his digressions make his characters relatable, slyly convey exposition about his characters and plot, and contribute to his worldbuilding

A group of men in suits talking around a table in 'Reservoir Dogs,' How To Use Digressions To Create Natural Sounding Dialogue

Character Relatability

In the first scene of Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs, he immediately establishes his trademark digressive dialogue with a bunch of criminals with aliases having breakfast at a Los Angeles diner (shortly after we’ll discover this is before the film’s big offscreen heist). They’re having a conversation about Madonna in which Mr. Brown offers a humorous theory on what he thinks the song “Like a Virgin” is really about. The others weigh in with their thoughts on his theory and Madonna in general, and the dialogue is loose, naturalistic, and, at times, overlapping. 

What might be lost on modern-day audiences is it that was very common for people to talk about Madonna in the early '90s. At the time, Madonna was a nearly omnipresent figure in pop culture, and everyone had an opinion about her (it would be similar to Taylor Swift today). 

Having the criminals talking about something as every day as Madonna made them seem more relatable, and people could suddenly see themselves in that situation: no doubt they had also sat around a diner or coffee shop and given their two cents on Madonna. Before the bullets and blood fly, we see these guys as real human beings and not just as movie gangsters.

Vincent and Jules’ famous “Royale With Cheese” exchange in Pulp Fiction accomplishes the same thing: the two hitmen are on their way to a job and casually discuss Vincent’s recent trip to Amsterdam. Vincent brings up the little differences he noticed while in this European country, including the menu at McDonald's. This is a conversation anyone could have after a trip abroad: there’s something very universal and relatable about it. 

Once again, this exchange humanizes two hitmen rather than make them stock characters. As a result, we have more emotional investment with them and their story.

Character and Plot Exposition 

In addition to making his characters more relatable, Tarantino’s use of digressive dialogue also conveys exposition in a naturalistic and entertaining fashion.

Let’s examine Vincent and Jules’ “Royale with Cheese” and “foot massage” exchanges in Pulp Fiction (which is one long dialogue exchange split between two locations). The most memorable lines have little to do with the plot, but several important pieces of information are subtly worked into the exchanges: we learn that Vincent just got back in town after being abroad; there’s a familiarity between these two guys, so they’ve worked together. Their boss is an intimidating man named Marsellus Wallace, who had a man thrown out of a window for massaging his wife’s feet. Most importantly, Vincent is tasked to take Mrs. Wallace out on a date.

This sets up the entire “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace's Wife” chapter of the film—giving you all of the necessary information—yet it doesn’t feel like an info dump. It just sounds like a natural part of Vincent's and Jules’ conversation because of how it was written to follow their more trivial dialogue. Imagine if there wasn’t the “Royale With Cheese” exchange beforehand, and they immediately started talking about Marsellus Wallace's wife. Not only would we lose some of the film’s most memorable and entertaining lines, but the information would feel forced upon us.

Going back to the diner at the opening of Reservoir Dogs, Mr. Pink stirs some controversy when he refuses to contribute to the tip. He explains that he never tips on the principal. Mr. White counters that waitresses depend on tips to make a living, which Mr. Pink scoffs at and plays the world’s smallest violin “just for the waitresses.”

While seemingly digressive, this exchange establishes the ethical divide between Mr. White and Mr. Pink: one is empathetic, and the other is just out for himself. These dueling worldviews will factor into the plot and ultimately decide the fate of the characters.

Read More: Tech Tip: Highlight Characters

Worldbuilding 102

In my article “Worldbuilding 101 using the Star Wars Model,” I wrote about how George Lucas fleshed out his fictional universe with a rich, and detailed backstory. Likewise, Tarantino is an expert worldbuilder who creates strong backstories for many of his characters. However, he also utilizes his digressive dialogue to fill in the gaps about the world his characters populate. 

Whether it’s the above “foot massage” exchange in Pulp Fiction revealing the hierarchy and politics of the Marsellus Wallace organization or Hans Landa digressing about the similarities of rats and squirrels in Inglourious Basterds, we don’t just learn who the villains are in Tarantino’s stories: we learn about the worlds they inhabit and the dominating philosophy of those worlds. 

Similarly, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, actor Rick Dalton tells a seemingly digressive anecdote about how he almost landed Steve McQueen’s role in The Great Escape. He’s not just revealing something about his own status but the overall desperation of every working actor in the film industry: landing or not landing a single role can make all the difference.

No matter how random or trivial the information imparted might seem in a Tarantino film, it usually reveals something about the characters, the plot, or the world.

The next time you write dialogue that doesn’t relate directly to the plot, ask yourself the following questions: 

Does the dialogue make your characters more relatable? 

Does the dialogue tell you anything about your characters or foreshadow their fate?

Does the dialogue reveal anything about your world?

Read More: 7 ways to enhance your dialogue and find your voice

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