In the Writing #4: Why <i>Justified </i>'s Dialogue is Best-in-Television

's characterization has been one of the primary points of praise for the show, and, while acting shouldn't be disregarded, it is through subtext foremost that these characters become so instantly textured.
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In this image released by FX, Timothy Olyphant portrays U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in a scene from "Justified." (AP Photo/FX, Prashant Gupta)
In this image released by FX, Timothy Olyphant portrays U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in a scene from "Justified." (AP Photo/FX, Prashant Gupta)

A recurring discussion of writing and literary technique in television and film.

In The Elements of Screenwriting, Irwin Blacker explains that dialogue should serve four basic functions: move the storyline forward, reveal aspects of character not otherwise seen, present exposition and particulars of past events, and set the tone for the film. While this list may seem straightforward enough, though, dialogue is one of the most deceptively complicated parts to write in any narrative. In "Talk That Walks," John L'Heureux explains:

Young writers often confuse dialogue with conversation, under the assumption that the closer you get to reality, the more convincing you sound. But dialogue is not conversation. Dialogue is a construct; it is artificial; it is much more efficient and believable than real conversation. Just as fiction itself distorts reality in order to achieve a larger truth, so dialogue eliminates all the false starts and irrelevant intrusions of real life in order to reveal character and move the encounter toward a dramatic conclusion.

With the exception of genres that foreground the naturalism and mundanity of real-life interactions as aesthetic (i.e., cinéma vérité and mumblecore), it is often considered wasteful to incorporate this kind of information in dialogue; we can assume that characters generally say "hello" and ask each other how they're doing without needing to see it. This is why it can sound unnatural or boring when characters are overly forthright. In real life, there is also often a dichotomy between what we say and what we mean. Of this phenomenon, Diane Johnson wrote, "In what we think of as bad dialogue, the characters talk directly to each other." Likewise, Robert Stone said, "Characters should say what they say to each other instead of what they mean to say." Whether this gap exists via deception or a lack of self-awareness, in writing, this "what we mean" part is referred to as "subtext."

Based on Elmore Leonard's short story, "Fire in the Hole," Justified follows Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens after returning to work in his Kentucky hometown. A modern-day Western, it is a world populated by men and women on either side of the law, from the wry, tight-lipped Givens to the prevaricating Boyd Crowder, the show's chameleonic charmer of an antagonist. All involved, even those on the periphery, are afforded close attention to core motivations. This characterization has been one of the primary points of praise for the show, and, while acting shouldn't be disregarded, it is through subtext foremost that these characters become so instantly textured.

Take, for the example, the following scene from Season 1. Just prior, Raylan has been asked over the phone by his Aunt Helen -- who viewers will later discover is the woman who raised him -- to bail his father, Arlo, an unrepentant criminal, out of jail. The scene begins with Raylan walking toward Helen in a diner.

Raylan: Why can't you bail him out?

No mincing words here; Raylan opens up with a question brimming with accusation, establishing for viewers the pre-existing tone between himself and his aunt. Leading with this question also indicates his belief that Arlo is Helen's problem, and the fact that he has no desire to help his father (or that he wants Helen to believe that) reveals important aspects of his own relationship with Arlo in the space of a few words.

Helen: Those are the first words out of your mouth?

Helen's retort contextualizes their "tough love" relationship. By sassing him back, she not only retains her pride, she puts him on the defensive. She makes no response about Arlo, deflecting his attack until she has a better sense of his feelings. Throughout the series, we come to see how much a part of Harlan County culture deflection and withholding are; information is as much a commodity as anything tangible, capable of becoming valuable at any moment.

Raylan: I'm sorry, I'll start again. I see you're still smoking.

In Raylan's mind, poor form would equal a victory for Helen, so rather than immediately returning fire, he obliquely acknowledges his brusqueness. But, instead of changing his tune -- as the initial apology might imply -- he digs at her from a more personal direction, indicting her smoking habit, which also exposes his disdain for her continued involvement with things he deems harmful (the subtext here again gesturing to his relationship with his father). But we also see a flicker of tenderness; he might not notice the cigarettes if Helen didn't matter to him, and he certainly wouldn't bother to comment.

Helen: You still piss in your bed?

Ruffled by Raylan's personal attack, Helen volleys back. In an immediate sense, we discover that Helen played a part in raising Raylan, invoking an intimacy with him by asserting parental authority. We also learn something about his childhood that contextualizes how he relates to shame, agency, and fear -- something that still resonates with the man we behold on-screen.

Raylan: No, you see, I gave up my bad habits.

Again, simplicity wins out; Raylan is able to simultaneously communicate his genuine affection for Helen via a son's indirect rebuke, insult Arlo, and escape with his pride, while still allowing the conversation to unfold.

Though the scene is charged with emotional weight, it happens as quick badinage, doing the simultaneous work of characterizing Helen, Raylan, and Arlo (who isn't even present) in the span of seconds and the collective effect is as important as the particulars. Its insinuation of past history without direct pronouncement bears the influence of Hemingway's Iceberg Theory:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg [sic] is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

But brevity is only one form of withholding. Nobel-Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter discussed the idea of two discreet kinds of silence:

There are two silences. One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it. That is its continual reference. The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don't hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place. When true silence falls we are still left with echo, but are nearer nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.

Boyd Crowder often delivers meandering orations, incorporating poetic descriptions and loosely related anecdotes to communicate otherwise simple ideas, creating a perfect foil for Raylan's sly quips, and the jockeying for intellectual superiority between the two leads to some of the most entertaining rhetorical standoffs on television. The following are just a small sampling due to a scarcity of available clips on the web.

In Season 4, the show comments on Boyd's style of speech, when a competing criminal, Nicky Augustine, holds him at gunpoint.

Nicky: I got to ask. Where'd you get all those teeth?

Boyd: Courtesy of the American taxpayer while serving our great nation in Desert Storm.

Nicky: Man, I love the way you talk... using 40 words where four will do. I'm curious. What would you say if I was about to put forty bullets through that beautiful vest of yours?

Boyd: What're you waiting for?

Nicky: Oh, you're cool, huh?

Boyd: I tried to keep it to four words. You'll allow the contraction as one.

Hearkening back to Faulkner's eye for the comedy in danger, these moments of violence are typically undercut by puckish banter. The show simultaneously honors and pokes fun at its Southern Gothic heritage by toying with adages (a form of "old-fashioned" wisdom) in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. In the following scene, a man tethered to his home by an ankle monitor has mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind only his foot:

The repeated punning on "foot" almost feels as if it were pulled from Arrested Development, and it layers itself more deeply is in its symbolism. As noted in the video's description, Raylan is known for his stubbornness, so the very idea of putting a foot down (or anywhere) establishes this playfulness at the level of meta-narrative (solidified further by the episode's title: "Foot Chase"). Notice how repartee and violence are commingled in the following economy of information exchange:

Like its characters, the show takes itself as seriously as it doesn't. Everything is as much in-good-fun as it is life-and-death. In an episode review for TIME, James Poniewozik wrote, "I could have listened to it as a radio drama."

What this quality of dialogue accomplishes -- in addition to the four functions Blacker lays out -- is crafting Harlan County as its own character, a place where wit and strategy are currency, weaponry, and protection in a bleak economic landscape. These spoken exchanges mirror the land itself; the lush Appalachian greenery is a glossy decoy for its hills and hollows, its dive bars and back roads. Like its people, Harlan County's mysteries exist underneath what it presents -- only to be discovered by those dedicated enough to learn the complexities of the terrain. Where we've grown gives us our language, and more than we may realize, that language becomes us. When that language is shared by the lawmen and the lawless, we begin to see that concepts of identity and morality -- how they're created, inherited and shared -- are pretty difficult things to talk about.

Earlier Installments:
In the Writing #1: Parallax in Arrested Development and Five Other Top TV Shows
In the Writing #2: Why Walter White Is the Most Important Character in the History of Television
In the Writing #3: Undermining the Unreliable Narrator in Wilfred

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