Few directors in the world can aspire to level with the finesse of Quentin Tarantino’s dialogues. What does exactly makes his writing so great? Here are 5 characteristics based on the acclaimed classic Pulp Fiction (1994).
Time flies. It seems like yesterday when I first watched Tarantino’s game-changing ode to mobsters in cheap suits. As of today, we’re already on the verge of his career. At least according to the artist himself, who claimed the tenth flick in his dossier will be his last.
Hordes of fans worldwide fell in love with the bliss of the American director, however, there are many viewers who can’t swim in these waters. Tarantino’s sympathy for low-key characters, violence-loving misfits, and exploration of controversial topics isn’t up in everyone’s alley. And about the last one, numerous film critics claim that his films carry little meaning outside of pure provocation or one cinephile’s love letter to the others out there.
Pulp Fiction (1994) being purposefully meaningless is disputable. The other side of the fence – the ardent fans of Tarantino’s Cannes-winning film – values the depth to the portrayal of America there, and go as far as to say that it defines the modern American nihilism. One critic even went as far as calling it politically correct:
There is no nudity and no violence directed against women … [It] celebrates interracial friendship and cultural diversity; there are strong women and strong black men, and the director swims against the current of class stereotype.
Calling Tarantino politically correct seems like a long stretch, but we’re entitled to our opinions, right?
Back to the topic. One common aspect of all his films – maybe apart from The Hateful Eight (2015) – is the craftmanship of Quentin Tarantino’s writing. Consistently fresh and embedded in modern culture, Tarantino’s dialogues and punchlines are memorable and cool, even though none makes us a tidbit smarter.
In this article, I explain the key characteristics of dialogue writing in Pulp Fiction (1994), and how they turn most trivial conversations into riveting scenes.
And hey, leave a comment on what’s your favorite line from Tarantino’s classic.
#1 The language in Pulp Fiction (1994) describes particular characters and their traits
Only the most talented writers use language to distinguish characters, as well as describe some of their features or reveal their background. A certain accent or slang can point to an origin that can be key to the character’s behavior. While Tarantino does that – to a certain degree which I will explain later in that article – nationalities and origins don’t mean much in Pulp Fiction (1994).
Nevertheless, Tarantino wrote some of these characters in the way that their dialogue feels very unique and perfectly fitting their overall sketch.
My favorite example of the above is Marsellus Wallace played by Ving Rhames.
Marsellus Wallace is the mob boss in Los Angeles. He’s a muscular black man with a deep voice and a stoic, unhurried manner of speech. Judging from his posture, Wallace’s a menacing character – one that makes people tremble at the sight. Tarantino points to that in the first hour of the film too. We only get to see Wallace’s face when he crosses the street minutes before getting smashed by Bruce Willis’ character, Butch Coolidge.
Since we don’t see his physique right away, Tarantino had to create this fear-inducing, mysterious aura around Marsellus Wallace through writing.
How dialogues and monologues of Marsellus Wallace reveal his character traits
Right from the start, in the first scene featuring Butch, Marsellus orders Butch to deliberately lose his next ring fight. The rigged result is obviously his way of making green on the bets. Out of respect for Butch though, Wallace doesn’t simply order but provides a kind of justification – a reasonable way to think about a better option.
Right now you got ability but painful as it may be, ability don’t last and your days are just about over. Now that’s a hard fact of life, but that’s a fact your lucky ass is gonna have to get realistic about.
Like a father to Butch, he then explains the reality of the mob world (“this business is filled to the brim with unrealistic motherfuckers“) and how this one fight is a lock pick to “a good life in the Caribbean“.
The monologue ends with the iconic line “Pride only hurts. It never helps.“, which cements Wallace’s position as a godfather to Butch.
Marsellus Wallace tends to be patronizing and wants to be in control. The manner of speech he uses puts him in an upper position right away. However, the sense of control he strives for is deeper than one based on fear. Wallace wants to be seen as a fatherly figure to Butch.
Even at his lowest – and considering his boss status, that’s fairly the lowest one can imagine – when Wallace confronts Butch for the last time, he does not lose any of his composure. He immediately gets back to the menacing figure and the patronizing tone towards Butch.
Another great example is Mia Wallace.
All of her lines are written in a sarcastic or ironic manner, and thanks to Uma Thurman’s flawless delivery, she’s also a seductive and intriguing character. At the same time, Tarantino aims for a trifler, a character we – the audience – won’t take seriously.
But that never-serious manner of speech is smartly used to cover the cage she’s locked inside. In an indirect way, she tells Vincent about the hardship of being Marsellus’ wife, and how obsessed he’s with her.
#2 Chit-chats that speak volumes about the characters
Tarantino avoids exposition that feels too direct. Instead, he likes to turn seemingly banal conversations into layered constructs, which beautifully complete the visual storytelling. His trademark is writing dialogues about trivialities, which serve as dives into the heads of the characters.
Let’s take a look at a few examples from Pulp Fiction (1994).
The opening scene in the diner
In the opening scene of the film starring a couple of low-key cutthroats, played by Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth, Tarantino throws the audience in medias res. The two discuss their previous heist jobs, and how far from a streak of luck they’ve been recently. In between the lines, we also learn that Roth’s character can be categorized as xenophobic (based on the way he criticizes the stores run by “foreigners“), and he’s also fed up with doing small-time robberies for a living.
Yeah, no more liquor stores. Besides, it ain’t a giggle it used to be. It’s too many foreigners in liquor stores, Vietnamese, Koreans – they don’t speak fucking English.
None of that arrives as a “straightforward confession” though.
Both of the characters are supposed to be plain crooks, but even for them, Tarantino provides some kind of background so that they escape cliches – and most importantly – have their actions explained. This conversation shows that Honey Bunny and Pumpkin aren’t cautious. They lack in planning and strategy, and that they’re likely to slip too.
This perfectly explains the final scene, in which an ad hoc robbery ends almost tragically for them. This is how Tarantino uses foreshadowing too. Although we couldn’t possibly deduct this when watching Pulp Fiction (1994) for the first time, the director hints at their failure in this exact conversation.
The foot massage scene
However, the best example of a chit-chat in Pulp Fiction (1994) that is over-the-top and comedic, but also fosters exposition and provides character background, is the foot massage scene starring Jules and Vincent.
Minutes before executing a few morons, Jules tells his partner Vincent the story of a thug named Antwan who was thrown out of a window after Marsellus Wallace – their boss – learned about one foot massage too much. The two argue whether the foot massage given to your boss’ wife is crossing the border or not, with Jules claiming it’s not a proper reaction, and Vincent saying a foot massage is definitely stepping on the border.
There’s more to this dialogue though.
Although we know little about either of them, Vincent and Jules differ fundamentally. Jules belongs to the old guard, the silverback for whom respect for Mr. Wallace is of utmost importance. Nonetheless, he’s also convinced there are appropriate ways to deal with certain “faults” and sees the reaction to the foot massage as largely excessive. Jules sticks to traditionalism and wants to know the rules of the game don’t change. He’s a surviving type, but also one who sticks to the rulebook above all.
The conversation about the foot massage reveals this distinction between the two mobsters. Vincent claims that any foot massage is obviously erotic, and that Marsellus had at least some grounds to be mad at Antwan.
“Now look, I’ve given a million ladies a million foot massages and they all meant something. We act like they don’t, but they do, and that’s what’s so fuckin’ cool about them. There’s a sensuous thing goin’ on, where you don’t talk about it, but you know it, she knows it.”
However, the way this dialogue is constructed reveals that for Vincent, it’s more of a pick-up-a-fight; a way to tease his partner and probe for information regarding the big boss. Vincent needs to do his research before taking Marsellus’ wife on a not-date, and Antwan being thrown out doesn’t bode well.
As a result, a trivial conversation – and one that seems way too prolonged – provides lots of details about the characters. Not only does it set the two main characters on two sides of the fence, but also reveals that Vincent knows little about Marsellus and finds the whole not-a-date business with Mia Wallace a potential danger.
#3 Accents and slang
An easy way to point to any character’s origin is to give them an accent or have them talk in a particular slang. That happens in Pulp Fiction (1994), though Tarantino’s use of accents is mostly an exotic addition rather than full-fledged storytelling.
First non-American character who appears is Pumpkin, played by Tim Roth. The guy has a slight British accent, although the American covering-up works well. His accent indicates he might be a newcomer to LA, although he uses offensive slang words such as gooks. One could argue that the reason for this accent is more obvious. Tim Roth is a British actor, and that might be his natural accent speaking.
The next foreigner in Pulp Fiction (1994) is Butch’s muse Fabienne, performed by a Portuguese actress Maria de Medeiros. Fabienne’s accent isn’t as strong as French accents go, and these roots don’t account for anything particularly crucial about the character.
The third foreign character who appears in the film is Esmarelda Villalobos, played by Angela Jones. I find this female cab driver particularly creepy in the whole pantheon of weirdos, because of the bizarre flirt that goes on between her and Butch. She’s into some really messy stuff. Nagging the boxer about the nature of “killing a man with bare hands” comes off as haunting and disturbing.
Is there a reason for including so many foreign characters in the mix?
Tarantino enjoys voyages outside of the States, and many of the iconic characters he later on created were not of American descent.
But in Pulp Fiction (1994), the inclusion of a Mexican cab driver, a British robber, and a French sugar-coated muse of a boxer has a purpose. As if to adhere to the film’s title, all the characters form an odd amalgamation which seems to reflect the process of forming the titular pulp. In the blended mix of pop culture, there is space for every possible influence, which will eventually get recycled, processed, and stripped of its original meaning.
Hence, in Pulp Fiction (1994), there’s every possible weirdo, from all directions and of all backgrounds. Furthermore, Tarantino purposefully, almost nonchalantly, rids these characters of their original context and culture. They’re parts of the pulp, and that’s precisely why the director never makes use of their backgrounds. Once thrown into the grinder, their stories become indistinguishable from the rest.
#4 Subliminal messages and layered descriptions
One way to create a sketch of a character is to let her or him talk about the past. Through memories and experiences, characters reveal their thoughts, opinions and could also hint at their behavior in future situations.
It’s a common way to explore the psychology of any character. In Pulp Fiction (1994), that happens only once when Captain Koons hands the golden watch to Butch.
This technique isn’t easy. Unskilled writers can fall prey to over-exposition, and memories often halt the story from moving forward. In Pulp Fiction (1994), Quentin Tarantino rarely has his characters opening up about stressful events. On the contrary, most of his dialogue feels casual and free from sonorous language. None of the characters goes on a philosophical rampage, and as close as we get to pompous dialogues is the final diner scene.
Even when Tarantino builds up to a heartfelt experience of one of the characters – Butch’s gold watch segment – he mocks the ‘Nam veteran cliche. That also says a lot about the film’s writing in general. In Pulp Fiction (1994), seriousness can be found in trivialities, while tear-jerkers and elan give grounds to comedy.
A different kind of a subliminal message can be found in the ingenous diner scene featuring Mia Wallace and Vincent Vega.
The set-up of this scene finds Mia and Vincent in an awkward situation. Vincent, who heard rumors about the ruthlessness of his boss (as well as his wife’s flirtatious behavior), walks through a field of mines. Meanwhile Mia – a seductive trifler who likes to powder her nose a lot – seizes the opportunity to play with the macho accompanying her.
Although the scene’s foreshadowed as a not-a-date-but-so-obviously-a-date, it quickly turns into a sort of display of strength. However, it’s also a phenomenal example of witty dialogue where characters speak volumes about themselves without having to say anything out in the open.
When asked about the foot massage, Mia claims that there’s a difference between being a protective husband and a jealous husband. That way she warns Vincent that Marsellus is a force to be reckoned with. Furthermore, the same scene, later on, reveals another trait of Mia Wallace – she likes to party, and that she gets what she wants (telling Vincent to dance with her). Reading between the lines – if they sleep together, it is entirely her decision, and not his. She’s in charge.
This brilliant scene also reveals Vincent’s problem with authority.
While casually talking about Amsterdam, Mia reveals she goes there once a year to “chill”. Surprised, Vincent responds “oh, I didn’t know that“, as if they’re friends who could potentially meet up and chill together. Mia’s reaction – “why would you” dressed in a pitiful smile – is condescending, sending a clear message about the hierarchy that Vincent tends to forget about.
#5 Last, but not least – the humor
Above all, Pulp Fiction (1994) is just outrageously funny, specifically thanks to its writing. It has been impacting pop culture ever since its release and found its way into many of its modern forms. Because who doesn’t know this meme of John Travolta looking for the intercom?
Tarantino’s writing was sharp as a knife in Pulp Fiction (1994), but the cherry on the top was how smart and hilarious were some of the dialogues, and even the details you notice upon next viewings.
Some of my favorite darkly funny moments in Pulp Fiction (1994) were:
- Pumpkin (Tim Roth) hating on the foreigners in the US while being a foreigner himself.
- “Aw, Man, I shot Marvin in the face…” – The entire car scene starring Marvin, all the way to the arrival to Jimmie’s house and the subsequent arrival of Mr. Wolfe.
- Jules’ transformation and the way he explains his reasons to Pumpkin; “Normally, both your asses would be dead as fucking fried chicken, but you happen to pull this shit while I’m in a transitional period so I don’t wanna kill you, I wanna help you. But I can’t give you this case, it don’t belong to me. Besides, I’ve already been through too much shit this morning over this case to hand it over to your dumb ass.“
- The dark-haired girl living in the junkie house where Vincent buys heroin. The way she observes Mia OD’ing, or rather the complete lack of any human reaction from her.
- Captain Koons’ speech that unexpectedly becomes awkward; “The way your dad looked at it, this watch was your birthright. He’d be damned if any slopes gonna put their greasy yellow hands on his boy’s birthright, so he hid it, in the one place he knew he could hide something: his ass. Five long years, he wore this watch up his ass. Then when he died of dysentery, he gave me the watch. I hid this uncomfortable piece of metal up my ass for two years. Then, after seven years, I was sent home to my family. And now, little man, I give the watch to you.“