Dialogue, more than the words characters spit out

In an effort to improve my overall writing, I’ve been doing what every good writing book will tell you–I’ve been reading. And reading. And when I thought I would take a break, I’d crack open another book. Some of it’s been fiction, others have been writing advice. Recently, I read through some of James Scott Bell’s works on the craft. His tips in How to Write Dazzling Dialogue are great, and they’ve helped me catch on to analyzing dialogue in what I’m reading, watching, and writing.

Which is why I’m blown away by Netflix’s Jessica Jones series again. The show is brilliant in so many ways, but the tight dialogue does so much heavy lifting. It carries you forward, makes you care, and provides the actors with fantastic opportunities to play their scenes.

I want to break down a scene here. This is in the third episode (AKA It’s Called Whiskey), and while still moving the action forward, it also provides exposition for us. At this point, we’ve got a pretty good impression of the current way Jessica is–the angry, traumatized woman who is struggling through her day to day, through a case dealing with her former abuser. What we don’t know is much about her past–It’s something Jessica hates talking about, but she and Trish have history, which the writers used to give us details about both their lives.

[After Trish takes off her shirt to reveal bruises covering her arms and shoulders. They head into Trish’s bedroom.]

Jessica: Who’s doing that to you? Is your mom back?

Trish: Just calm down, will you?

Jessica: Okay, is this why you have the video surveillance and the steel-reinforced door?

Trish: And bulletproof windows, a safe room. I made some upgrades.

Jessica: You–What you made is a fortress. Trish, what you afraid of?

[They head into Trish’s training room]

Trish: Not much, anymore. Except clowns. But that’s just common sense.

Jessica: You turned my room into a gym.

Trish: I needed a place to train.

Jessica: By “training,” you mean getting beaten purple.

Trish: [seizes Jessica and easily tosses her to the ground] No one touches me anymore unless I want them to. I let you fight my battles for too long. When you left–

Jessica: [rubbing her sore shoulder] You became a ninja?

Trish: Krav Maga. More brutal.

Jessica: Can you back off? You’re scaring me a little.

Trish: [grinning] I’ll make sandwiches.

This dialogue takes about a minute and a half of the show time. But look at the sheer amount of information here, even without the full visual to go along with it. From Jessica’s initial concerns, we see that she cares deeply about Trish’s well-being, something Jessica hasn’t shown a whole lot of and especially not in such an overt fashion. So far, Jessica has been as mysterious as possible with the other people she talks to, but with Trish, she’s asking the questions and deliberately engaging her when she typically shies away from too much talking.

We learn that Trish was a victim too, and that her mother may or may not be completely out of her life. They talk about their setting, which provides us more details about Trish. She’s confident in her security upgrades and these extra measures are what help her feel safe. In previous scenes, it’s established that she’s a radio talk show host. While we could guess that she’s worried about stalker fans that mean her harm, Jessica’s reveal about Trish’s mother shows us that Trish fears more than the average celebrity problems.

Also of note is the fact that Trish and Jessica aren’t just good friends, they’re former roommates. And this dialogue tells us that Jessica leaving the apartment was a transformation event for Trish. And Trish feels the need to prove her new abilities to Jessica–which we see when she tells Jessica the full details of the upgrades and shows her not just the training room, but some of that training. There’s a need to prove she’s okay if something happens to Jessica.

The fact that Jessica doesn’t know all these details about Trish’s life is another sign. When she needed help, Trish was someone she reached out to, but we can gather from the lack of knowledge that it’s been a while since they’ve talked frequently. Yet, their closeness is obvious. Even though Jessica’s worried, Trish is joking and open. By the end of the scene, Jessica’s initial fears for Trish’s safety are put to rest and they move on to have lunch together. They may have been out of each other’s lives for a while, but they’re obviously falling right back into their tight bond.

And there’s another layer here too. The show’s theme–victims, primarily women, overcoming trauma–comes into play. Jessica has built herself a mental fortress. She lives in a shitty apartment and says shitty things to people instead of showing that she does, in fact, give a damn about what happens to them. Trish has done the opposite, building a physical fortress while maintaining her faith in the general good intentions of other people. They’re both leading isolated lives in response to their fears. Their friendship, shown even in this short scene, is part of what gets them through this.

If you haven’t seen Jessica Jones, I highly recommend it for the dialogue and the amazing storytelling. Take just one episode and comb through it a few times. Every scene is tight with a dedicated purpose to telling a griping story. I know I plan on rewatching a few more time to catch all the great details of craft.