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Notes on dialogue: It’s not just what you say

Updated: Nov 9, 2023

“I'm just one stomach flu away from my goal weight.”

This line, spoken by Emily Blunt in the film “The Devil Wears Prada” (screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna and Lauren Weisberger) is one of many great laughs in a very funny movie. And while it’s unsporting, perhaps, to dissect a joke, for our purposes, it’s worth a look to see just why it works.

First and foremost, it’s grounded in a well-realized character. Played by Emily Blunt in her breakout role, the line captures the right mixture of desperation and ambition to land a big laugh. It’s as if the entire film and Blunt’s character is set up for this moment: just how much suffering is anyone willing to undergo to fit in at Paris fashion week?

Naturally, Blunt would be lost without a good script upon which she could build such a memorable character. When we first meet Emily, she’s clearly impatient, non-plussed, and withering when she takes one good look at the mildly disheveled Andrea, played by Anne Hathaway. “Great,” she says, “human resources certainly has an odd sense of humor,” which she follows with a mirthless laugh. The battle lines are drawn; there will be marked conflict between the striving, devout Emily, and the naturally beautiful, but apathetic Andrea.

Hathaway, by this time a firmly established star, already has the audience’s sympathy. We understand she views this job as temporary, a steppingstone to something more important, more suited to her exalted view of herself and her talents. Blunt, on the other hand, was a relative newcomer in Hollywood, and we have no ready-made association. We can drill into her subtext: she resents Hathaway’s lack of interest as well as her assured, nonchalant beauty. She’s devoted her life to fashion and some stuck-up newcomer is not going to mess up her chances of rising in the ranks at this hallowed magazine. She’s taken one step up in the pecking order and she’s going to make the most of it.

So let’s put the line in context:

Emily: Andrea, my God! You look so chic.

Andy: Oh, thanks. You look so thin.

Emily: Really? It's for Paris, I'm on this new diet. Well, I don't eat anything and when I feel like I'm about to faint I eat a cube of cheese. I'm just one stomach flu away from my goal weight.

There are actually two jokes built into this exchange. First, the ridiculous diet she’s put herself on, allowing herself one cube of cheese if she feels faint. The topper “I’m just one stomach flu away from my goal weight,” brings in the big laugh. And it’s effective because of what she isn’t saying, as much as what she’s saying.

The writers have established a desperate, even ruthless character. And although we’ve had little, if any, backstory for Emily, we understand what and where she’s coming from. A lesser writer might even have her say something to that effect, e.g., “I might not be a fashion model but I’m damned if I don’t fit into a sample size 2 by fashion week.”

Good dialogue, derived from a keenly observed character, relies on three levels of thought, or spheres of character (as discussed by Robert McKee in his great book, Dialogue). The first is the said, which is what appears on the surface: “I’m just one stomach flu away from my goal weight.” Just below that is the unsaid, the thoughts, feelings, or inner world of the character. Frequently, these are the lines of dialogue that appear in your first draft, when you’re plowing ahead to tell your story. In this case, Emily might have said: “The fashion world forces me to live an anorexic life, but I want my career more than my health. Perpetual hunger is a price I’m happy to pay.”

And beneath that is the unsayable, the unconscious motivation, the trauma of life that the character dare not say, e.g., “If I can’t do this, I’ll have to go home and live with my parents in the same shitty house I grew up in and I’ll never be able to show my face in public again.”

Now too often we’re happy to stop when we figure out what our characters are feeling. We’re okay with having them say just exactly what they think and feel. We call this “writing on the nose,” settling on the obvious, telling the audience what they, too, should think and feel. But if we truly know our characters, down to their bones, we know we can’t be satisfied with “good enough,” we want the words to reflect the unsaid and the unsayable.

A psychotherapist friend told me that they’re not just listening to what their patients are saying, but what they’re not saying. They’re looking for a roadmap that will help them navigate the terrain of their clients’ problems. Writers are in their own way, psychotherapists for their characters. They are providing the material that allows the actor to delve below the surface, to find just the right nuance for each line.

Let’s go back to “The Devil Wears Prada.” The much feared and admired publisher, Miranda Priestly, in one of Meryl Streep’s most astounding performances, has a lot to say, and she often says it (her monologue on cerulean blue is a classic). But just as often, she utters two words to express everything she thinks, feels, and means. “That’s all,” she says, and it’s either to dismiss, to cut off the conversation, or to illustrate the pure banality of the conversation itself. Streep finds just the right inflection each time, discovering anew the music and intention behind this simple statement.

Now, we’re not all lucky enough to have Meryl Streep or Emily Blunt read our lines, but we can aspire to writing that would make them eager to play our characters. We can understand our characters, understanding their physiology, sociology, and psychology. We can get to know what makes them tic. The real goal is to know them so well that you don’t have to have them say anything about their background, their upbringing, or their belief system. Only they would say what you’re having them say, and only in the way you’re having them say it.

That’s all.

Doug Moser

Douglas Moser is a Connecticut-based author and director. Memoir pieces published in Echo, Peculiar, and the Good Men Project and in the book Dating & Sex: The Theory of Mutual Self-Destruction, Volume 1. His short story Boxing Day was recently published in the Martian Chronicles magazine. The winner of the Connecticut Critics' Circle award for A Christmas Carol, for its premiere at the Westport Country Playhouse. He made his opera debut directing the groundbreaking folk opera, Patience & Sarah at Lincoln Center. Before COVID hit he directed Spinning at Long Wharf Theatre. Other projects throughout New York, and regionally, Fairfield, and Stamford. Moser's novel, James & Jim, a comic thriller, was workshopped at the Writers Hotel. He is also developing a YA novel, Pussy Boy, developed at Westport Writers’ Workshop and Yale Summer Writers’ Program. His short film Glacier Bay, received numerous awards on the festival circuit.

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