The Two Most Useless Lines of Dialogue in All Literature

by James Scott Bell

The subtitle of my book on dialogue is The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. The converse, of course, is that dialogue can sink a book pretty darn fast, too. Sodden, cliché-ridden talk is like cement shoes on a mafia stoolie. Many a book has been found at the bottom of the East River because the dialogue dragged it down.

Before I get to the two most useless lines in literature, I have a runner-up. This couplet has been used so often it crossed over into the cliché zone around 1986:

“This isn’t about ____. It’s about ___.”

Now, you may have written such an exchange yourself, so I want to make something clear. I bear you no malice or derision. If you feel the absolute need to have a character say such a thing, I shall not throw a flag. I will, however, issue a warning. Clichés flatten the reading experience. Instead of delight, which is what you want to produce, the reader feels cheated. That feeling is usually subconscious, but why even flirt with that?

And by all means do not flirt with, entertain, or otherwise consider the two most useless lines in all literature:

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

I have never read this exchange (or seen it in a movie) except as a shorthand from the author demanding that I care about these people! They love each other, see? You now must love them, too, so that when tragedy befalls them you’ll really, REALLY care, because these are wonderful people who are in love, okay?

Only the effect is the opposite. It comes off as manipulation. It does nothing to make me believe the characters actually do love each other. Words are easy. You need to show me that they do. An action is aces for this, but an original line of dialogue counts as showing me, too.

Now, let’s nuance this a bit. While 98% of the time you don’t need the words “I love you,” there might be a few exceptions. Perhaps a man recovering from a traumatic brain injury, who finally opens his mouth to speak after months of silence, sees his wife at the bedside and utters, “I love you.”

Yeah, might work, though I think you could do better by thinking up some line of dialogue that was meaningful to them both early in the book, as in, “Let’s have chocolate croissants.” I dunno, you’re a writer, make something up. It’s more work than that easy-peasy “I love you,” but work that is worth it to a reader.

This cliché was demolished years ago in a commercial for a certain beer:

Or you can freshen the cliché by putting a spin on it, as Woody Allen does in Annie Hall:

ANNIE: Do you love me?

ALVY: Love is too weak a word for what—I lurve you. You know, I loave you. I luff you, with two F’s. Yes, I have to invent… of course I do. Don’t you think I do?

But for “I love you” followed by “I love you, too,” I cannot think of any exception. Find something else, anything else. The movie Ghost (1980) did it this way:

SAM: I love you, Molly. I’ve always loved you.

MOLLY: Ditto.

That word, Ditto, is not a throwaway, as it becomes a key clue later in the movie.

As I said, readers are cliché resistant. When they see one, it shoots past them without landing, without leaving any mark except a speed bump of dullness. The essence of dullness is predictability. Conversely, when you ditch a cliché for something original, it’s gladdens the reader’s heart.

UPDATE: I just remembered there’s a nuance here also. In my Romeo books, there are a couple of occasions when Mike’s friend and mentor, Ira, says something snarky yet insightful to him, and Mike replies, “I love you, too.” There it has an ironic twist. It’s also outside of the romantic love context which this post is primarily about.

So next time you’re tempted to have a character say “I love you,” and especially “I love you, too,” I want the words of Eliza Doolittle—as portrayed by the great Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady—pounding in your brain:

Inspired Every Morning

by James Scott Bell

“I only write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.” – Peter De Vries

Anyone who’s written for any length of time knows there are times when the writing flows like the Colorado rapids. You whoop it up and enjoy the ride.

Sisyphus, Franz Stuck (1920)

Then there are times when it feels like you’re Sisyphus halfway up the mountain. You grunt and groan. But you keep pushing that boulder, because you know that writing as a vocation or career requires the consistent production of words.

What’s helped me in the Sisyphus times are writing quotes I’ve gathered over the years. I go to my file and read a few until I’m ready, as it were, to roll.

I’ve even contributed a couple of quotes that have found some purchase in cyberspace. The one that seems most widespread is this:

“Write like you’re in love. Edit like you’re in charge.”

There are, however, some writing quotes that are oft shared but were never said…or are misattributed. Two of them have been hung on Ernest Hemingway.

“Write drunk. Edit sober.” Nope, he never said that. Indeed, it would have horrified him. Hemingway was one of the most careful stylists who ever lived. He did his drinking after hours (and too much of it, as it turned out).

The other one is, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

It’s a great quote, but should be attributed to the legendary sports writer, Red Smith. Smith probably got the idea from the novelist Paul Gallico (author most famously of The Poseidon Adventure). This is from Gallico’s 1946 book Confessions of a Story Writer:

It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.

(If you want to deep dive on the various attributions of the quote, go here.)

So how did this blood quote get attributed to Hemingway? I know the answer, for I am a skilled detective!

Actually, I am a Hemingway fan, so one day I decided to watch a TV movie about Hemingway and his third wife, Martha Gellhorn. The film, imaginatively titled Hemingway & Gellhorn, starred Clive Owen as Hemingway and Nicole Kidman as Gellhorn. As I recall, the movie is okay. But I do remember Owen delivering this line: “There’s nothing to writing, Gellhorn. All you do is sit at your typewriter and bleed.”

And there you have it. The script writers thought this quote, which they got from Red Smith, would be a perfect line for their rendition of Papa. And really, it might have been a line for him to utter, but for the fact that Hemingway did virtually all of his drafts in longhand.

Speaking of renditions of Hemingway on film, my favorite is Corey Stoll’s performance in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Allen and Stoll managed to capture Hemingway’s bluster without turning him into a cartoon. I especially love this exchange with Owen Wilson, who is a laid-back writer from our time transported back to the Paris of the 1920s, where Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and others were all tossed together.

Now, back to business. Here are five of my favorite writing quotes:

Remember, almost no writer had it easy when starting out. If they did, everyone would be a bestselling author. The ones who make it are the stubborn, persistent people who develop a thick skin, defy the rejection, and keep the material out there. – Barnaby Conrad

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you. – Ray Bradbury

In a world that encompasses so much pain and fear and cruelty, it is noble to provide a few hours of escape, moments of delight and forgetfulness. – Dean Koontz

Keep working. Keep trying. Keep believing. You still might not make it, but at least you gave it your best shot. If you don’t have calluses on your soul, this isn’t for you. Take up knitting instead. – David Eddings

The first page of a book sells that book. The last page sells your next book. – Mickey Spillane

Your turn! Let’s get inspired. Share a favorite writing quote and why it speaks to you.