I think the general consensus among those writers who teach the craft is that you must read—and read widely—about the craft of writing, particularly those authors who write in your genre. But I think there’s a lot you can learn about writing from other mediums, too. Specifically television. Every other Monday, I’ll bring you takeaways from some of the best television shows out there. These are meant to be specific concepts, themes, techniques, etc., that a writer can learn from the show.
This week we’ll take a look at the second season of Fargo. Potential spoilers follow. In the previous post covering the first season of Fargo, we discussed developing great antagonists for your fiction. In the second season, there are a number of things we can take away. This post will focus specifically on dialogue, the types of ways dialogue can be used in your fiction, and how to apply these lessons from Fargo.
Previous posts of “What Television Can Teach Us About Writing”
February 29: Better Call Saul: A Study in Writing Excellent Characters
March 14: True Detective (Season 1): Creating Mood & Atmosphere in Your Fiction
March 28: Fargo (Season 1): Developing Terrifying Antagonists in Fiction
April 11: House of Cards: Writing a Strong Cast of Characters
April 25: Bloodline: A Study in Creating Conflict & Tension in Fiction
May 9: Wayward Pines: Developing Elements of Suspense in Fiction
May 23: The Office: Perfecting the Details in Your Fiction
June 6: The Path: How to Foreshadow Effectively in Fiction
June 20: House, MD: Crafting Smart and Compelling POVs in Fiction
July 18: Friday Night Lights: Creating a Strong Theme in Fiction
Bonus: 7 Things How I Met Your Mother Can Teach Us About Writing
For those of you who don’t know, Fargo is a black comedy, crime/drama anthology series. The second season takes place in 1979, a prequel to the events that occurred in the first season. It begins with Peggy and Ed Blumquist covering up a hit-and-run accident turned murder of Rye Gerhardt, of the Gerhardt crime family in North Dakota.
At the same time, Minnesota state trooper Lou Solverson (from the first season) and his father-in-law, Sheriff Hank Larsson, investigate three murders at a local diner, all linked to Gerhardt. The Gerhardt family, trying to find the missing Rye, faces territorial issues when a crime syndicate from Kansas City shows up trying to buy out (or overrun) their business. Before long, an all-out war breaks out between the Kansas City syndicate and the Gerhardts, with the local and state police (and the Blumquists) dragged into the matter.
1. Dialogue Furthers the Story and Creates Conflict
When the matriarch of the Gerhardt family, Floyd, finds out that her son Rye is dead, she can barely stand it, demanding to know the grisly details. Dodd Gerhardt decides to spin his brother’s death, rather than reveal that he was gutted by a mild-mannered Minnesota butcher using a garden trowel. He reveals Rye was killed by a butcher, but with a twist:
Floyd: By a butcher?
Rye: That’s his name. Butcher of Luverne. That’s what they call him. Contract man outta… outta Kansas City.
There’s a couple of things going on this line—and it’s so simple! Dodd’s dialogue here is interesting because he knows the truth, and we (the audience) know the truth, but Floyd doesn’t. So now we know that Dodd is willing to manipulate his mother to instigate a war. He’s not actually interested in avenging his brother’s death, or killing Ed Blumquist. Dodd is interested in stopping the Kansas City syndicate. In doing so, there’s also a chance that Dodd will rise to lead the family business.
And you can actually see Dodd’s lie develop as he speaks. There’s the slight pause as he decides that the Butcher is a contract killer out of Kansas City. He builds a narrative with dialogue. By lying, Dodd furthers the central conflict, moving the story along. Imagine the scenario if he admits that Rye was killed by a simple butcher—Floyd would be devastated. She may order her sons to kill Blumquist (which she does anyway), but there could be a loss of focus on the matter with Kansas City.
Apply This Your Fiction
Consider the fact that your dialogue doesn’t need to be straightforward. Characters have agendas. And sometimes those agendas don’t match up. Even simple dialogue can be loaded with major implications to the storyline. One lie can change everything. Think about the ways you can set events in motion using dialogue. Can you have one character manipulate another? Can you reveal information that another character doesn’t know? How about an unreliable character to fool your readers?
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2. Dialogue Reveals Character Depth and Detail
One of the reasons I love Fargo is the quirky dialogue. These characters are unique and interesting, and their dialogue reflects that. Take, for example, Sheriff Larsson. In the first episode, Larsson and Solverson investigate a triple homicide at the local Waffle Hut. While they piece together what happened, Larsson examines one of the bodies—the cook—on the floor and interjects:
That’s Henry Blanton. Got the single-season touchdown record in 10th grade. Thirty-one. Still stands.
First off, the choppy dialogue works here. He remembers facts in bursts, and it’s observational—which is something a cop or detective might do. Second, these facts are totally random and essentially inconsequential to the case—and the story. But that’s okay. As we’ll find out later, Larsson is a weird guy: He tries to invent his own language to improve global communication. (Or was he actually interpreting an alien language? Was he abducted? We do see UFOs in this season.) We get a snippet of his quirkiness in this dialogue, and it serves to help develop his character and break the tension of a gruesome murder scene.
Apply This Your Fiction
An easy way to reveal background and character detail is through smart dialogue. You don’t need to write entire information dumps in your fiction when you can have a smart conversation between characters. Even if a character doesn’t say something directly about himself, the observations that he makes are still significant—they tell your audience something about your character. In this case, we know that Larsson has an eye for detail, a great memory, and he’s a little bit odd.
3. Dialogue Can Surprise and Shock
Let’s look at another character from Fargo, one of the Kansas City operatives. Mike Milligan is a fearsome and intimidating character, and he’s ruthlessly brutal (murdering a hitman that was sent to finish off the Gerhardts), yet still calm and collected (he stares down and warns Sheriff Larsson). This is what he tells Larsson, when he gets pulled over near the state border:
And isn’t that a minor miracle? The state of the world today and the level of conflict and misunderstanding, that two men could stand on a lonely road in winter and talk calmly and rationally, while all around them, people are losing their mind.
You don’t need to see the show to feel the intensity. It’s layered with subtext and intimidation. Larsson knows that Milligan is a bad man (pun intended), and Milligan backs him down with this threat. The tension in this scene is clear, and Milligan’s lines are shocking. It’s the first time in the second season that we really see a villain.
On the flip-side, we see another side of Milligan later in the season. He proves to be just as quirky as every other character. Before shooting up the Gerhardt farmhouse, Milligan recites Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” during a preparation scene. The moment is nonsensical and weird. And it’s oh-so surprising. Who could imagine an intimidating character reciting utter nonsense?
Apply This Your Fiction
Give your readers dialogue that’s haunting. Make them walk away from your story with chills and goosebumps. How do you do that? Deliver the unexpected. If your character is generally calm, give her a fit of rage. The unexpected puts readers on edge, and it twists characterization just a little bit more. Readers won’t be able to predict what’s going to happen, which is all the better. That can build to a stunning ending and shocking moments.
Are you a fan of Fargo? Let us know in the comments, and share anything you’ve learned from the show that can be applied to writing—there’s simply too much to cover in just one post. If you have suggestions for future posts in this same vein, feel free to post those in the comments, too!
Cris Freese is an associate editor for Writer’s Digest Books and the Writer’s Market series. You can follow him on Twitter @crisfreese, where you can laugh at his frustrations as a hopeless Cincinnati sports fan.