This piece of dialogue often returns to me when I think of memorable things I’ve read a character say:
“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
These are the words of Bilbo Baggins from The Fellowship of the Ring (he says them in the book and the movie).
Why It’s Great Dialogue
Bilbo is attempting to describe how he feels as a 111 year old hobbit. His longevity–a result of possessing the ring–is to be admired but his body isn’t necessarily as pristine as it appears, and he wants Gandalf to know that he doesn’t feel so spry anymore. Merely describing himself as “feeling old” would have done the trick and Tolkien could have left it at that, but using an analogy allows for the reader to more specifically understand how old he feels.
The thing is…that this analogy doesn’t particularly show me much of anything. I have no idea what it feels like to be butter that’s been scraped over too much bread. I get the general sense of it, and I can maybe imagine the feeling, but as an analogy, it’s not as crystal clear as you might want.
And yet–this analogy is Bilbo in a nutshell. It doesn’t so much describe what he’s feeling so much as who he is. It’s an analogy that’s born out of a love for food, is somewhat peculiar, charming and humorous, and ultimately seems more clever than it did on first glance. Its ordinary terms (butter and bread) stick in the mind and end up being memorable and remarkable (in the literal sense of being worthy of remarks). In other words–the fact that this analogy is not crystal clear says a great deal about Bilbo.
That ability to be both memorable and perfectly revelatory of character makes this a great example of dialogue.
What We Can Steal From It
This is another example of why it’s worth giving up your analogical/metaphorical rights as the narrator to your characters. Too often we allow the narrator to do most of the analogizing, but this is proof that when you let a character analogize through dialogue the results are far more worthwhile.
Why? Because we can learn a lot about a character by seeing how they draw comparisons between things. You also have a starting point when you are trying to build your analogies: just knowing that Bilbo must think things through with food on the brain throughout his day must have made it easier for Tolkien to devise the simile Bilbo would use to describe how he feels.
So when you’re looking for dialogue that’s more than the banal he said/she said junk of everyday conversation, see if you can get some of your characters to speak through analogy, metaphor and simile. Seeing what they would come up with may surprise you, spice up your dialogue, and offer something memorable for your audience to enjoy.