The Stylistic Linguistics of Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino’s films are popular for many reasons: Their intricate plots; their action and violence; their soundtracks; their numerous allusions and homages to pop-culture; their colorful characters. But the real appeal— and power— of his films can be found in Tarantino’s use of language— his writing style. The intricate plots and the memorable characters are a certainly a big part of that, but the signature of Tarantino’s style is his expertly crafted dialogue. It is through his dialogue that Tarantino not only constructs and reveals his characters, but it is also the mechanism he uses to increase tension, create conflict, and propel the plot.
Tarantino’s dialogue allows his characters to define themselves through their diction, word choices, and cadence. Through their dialogue we glimpse each character’s personality, motives, intelligence, morality, flaws, strengths, beliefs, opinions, and backgrounds. When the characters begin to interact (or clash) with one another, the dialogue comes to life as if a well-choreographed verbal Kung Fu: Declarative strikes, answered with interrogatory blocks, followed-up by imperative counter-punches, and fleet rhetorical footwork and kicks create an agile rhythm and glorious power to these oral battles.
Tarantino’s unique stylistic linguistics take center stage as the dialogue becomes more captivating than his most elaborate action sequence and more engrossing than his (some would—and have said— gratuitous) use of violence. Even in exchanges that may seem to be pointless squabbles between characters actually show the dynamics at play in the scene or story, the differences and similarities between characters, or raise philosophical and moral debates, or provide information that may foreshadow, or segue into flash-forwards or flash-backs that further divulge details about the character or the significance of a situation which they are, or may be, confronted.
By examining the language and structure of the dialogue from a few of Tarantino’s films we can analyze and begin to understand how he creates his unique style. Let’s begin with one of those seemingly meaningless exchanges between two of the main characters from Pulp Fiction:
Want a sausage?
Naw, I don’t eat pork.
Are you Jewish?
I ain’t Jewish, man, I just don’t dig on swine.
They’re filthy animals. I don’t eat filthy animals.
Sausages taste good. Pork chops taste good.
A sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie. I’ll never know ‘cause even if it did, I wouldn’t eat the filthy motherfucker. Pigs sleep and root in shit. That’s a filthy animal. I don’t want to eat nothin’ that ain’t got sense enough to disregard its own feces.
How about dogs? Dogs eat their own feces.
I don't eat dog either.
Yes, but do you consider a dog to be a filthy animal?
I wouldn't go so far as to call a dog filthy, but they're definitely dirty. But a dog's got personality. And personality goes a long way.
So by that rationale, if a pig had a better personality, he'd cease to be a filthy animal?
We'd have to be talkin' 'bout one charmin' motherfuckin' pig. I mean, he'd have to be ten times more charming than that Arnold on Green Acres.
(Pulp Fiction, Jackson and Travolta).
This exchange between JULES and VINCENT serves as an excellent example of the verbal sparring sessions that is typical of Tarantino’s dialogue. You’re sure to notice that Tarantino’s sentence variation choices for the dialogue of his characters in this scene are the simple, and most commonly found, “something is something” sentence pattern. The choice to use simple, short, direct sentences also creates a distinct, quick rhythm to his dialogue. Then he chooses to follow these short sentences with a longer diatribe it offsets the rhythm and emphasizes that character’s dialogue.
Notice how the dialogue consists of quick, back-and-forth between the two characters leading up to JULES fourth line, “a sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie[…]”. This line becomes the climatic point in the first half of this exchange because it offsets the quick back-and-forth by expanding to a longer set of five complete sentences. But notice how this line is structured: Sentence one is short. The second is more complex. The third and fourth sentences are both short. Then the final sentence is another complex sentence. So even within this line there is the short-short-long pace, or beat, to the dialogue. Once this line is over, the short sentences begin again and the pattern is repeated for the second half of the exchange. It is this short-short-complex and short-short-long pattern that allows Tarantino to achieve a rhythmic, almost musical, flow to his sentences, which creates a memorable, yet believable, quality to his dialogue and is one of the essential characteristics of his signature writing-style.
To further demonstrate this sentence flow and how it is indicative of Tarantino’s style let’s observe the pattern in this selection from Reservoir Dogs:
NICE GUY EDDIE
C'mon, throw in a buck!
Uh-uh, I don't tip.
NICE GUY EDDIE
You don't tip?
Nah, I don't believe in it.
NICE GUY EDDIE
You don't believe in tipping?
You know what these chicks make? They make shit.
Don't give me that. She don't make enough money that she can quit.
NICE GUY EDDIE
I don't even know a fucking Jew who'd have the balls to say that. Let me get this straight: you don't ever tip?
I don't tip because society says I have to. All right, if someone deserves a tip, if they really put forth an effort, I'll give them something a little something extra. But this tipping automatically, it's for the birds. As far as I'm concerned, they're just doing their job.”
(Reservoir Dogs, Buscemi, Penn, and Bunker).
Here again we see a dispute between characters and once again the exchange features simple sentences reciprocating between NICE GUY EDDIE and MR. PINK, creating that distinctive tempo to the dialogue, followed by a longer piece by MR. PINK that contains several complex sentences and commands the emphasis.
These first two examples contain the short-short-long pattern and are both contentious interplay between characters; another hallmark of Tarantino’s style. This short-short-long pattern is reversed in many of Tarantino’s pivotal non-belligerent pieces of dialogue between characters. In the following scene from Django Unchained, notice how the reversal of the pattern to a long-short-short pattern affects, not only the cadence, but also the spirit and emphasis of the dialogue:
DR. KING SCHULTZ
Well, Broomhilda was a princess. She was a daughter of Wotan, god of all gods. Anyways, Her father is really mad at her.
What she do?
DR. KING SCHULTZ
I can't exactly remember. She disobeys him in some way. So he puts her on top of the mountain.
Broomhilda's on a mountain?
DR. KING SCHULTZ
It's a German legend, there's always going to be a mountain in there somewhere. And he puts a fire-breathing dragon there to guard the mountain. And he surrounds her in a circle of hellfire. And there, Broomhilda shall remain. Unless a hero arises brave enough to save her.
Does a fella arise?
DR. KING SCHULTZ
Yes, Django, as a matter of fact, he does. A fella named Siegfried.
Does Siegfried save her?
DR. KING SCHULTZ
[Nods] Quiet spectacularly so. He scales the mountain, because he's not afraid of it. He slays the dragon, because he's not afraid of him. And he walks through hellfire... because Broomhilda's worth it.
I know how he feel.”
(Django Unchained, Waltz and Foxx).
See how the reversal of the pattern slowed the beat of the dialogue down, while also creating a less tense conversation between the characters? The emphasis also shifted. Remember in the previous examples the emphasis was placed on the longer, more complex piece of dialogue that followed the shorter back-and-forth. Here the conversation is still driven by DJANGO’s shorter sentences that follow DR. KING SCHULTZ’s more complex sentences, but the emphasis is now on those shorter sentences, especially in DJANGO’s last line, which carries the most emotional weight in the exchange.
Perhaps we can get a better understanding of the minutiae of what sets Tarantino’s style apart by looking closer at the types of words and phrases he uses when describing his characters. The following excerpt from Inglourious Basterds, in which the narrator explicates the backstory of the character, Hugo Stiglitz, is a prime example of Tarantino’s descriptive language:
The reason for Hugo Stiglitz's celebrity among German soldiers is simple. As a German enlisted man, he killed thirteen Gesta po officers. Instead of putting him up against a wall, the High Command decided to send him back to Berlin to be made an example of. Needless to say, once the Basterds heard about him, he never got there.
(Inglourious Basterds, Jackson).
Notice how much vital information Tarantino efficiently communicates in these short, yet vital phrases: “He killed thirteen Gestapo officers” and “Instead of putting him up against a wall, the High Command decided to send him back to Berlin”. Tarantino not only fulfills the promises to the reader/viewer made in his earlier declaration regarding the reason for Stiglitz’s celebrity with these two short phrases, but he also further engages his audience by vividly assembling this distinct character.
Through the prior examples we can see that Tarantino clearly understands how to use sentence pattern to, not only control the pace, rhythm, and mood of his dialogue, but also to control where the emphasis and power of his dialogue is placed. Tarantino’s linguistic skill is not limited to banter-like jousting, or conversational dialogue. He is also able to employ similar patterns to control and deliver his message when a singular character is providing a longer soliloquy, as seen in this well-known example from Pulp Fiction delivered by Samuel L. Jackson as JULES:
Ezekiel 25:17. ‘The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.’
I been saying that shit for years. And if you heard it, that meant your ass. I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was some cold-blooded shit to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some shit this morning made me think twice. See, now I'm thinking, maybe it means you're the evil man, and I'm the righteous man, and Mr. nine-millimeter here, he's the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you're the righteous man and I'm the shepherd and it's the world that's evil and selfish. I'd like that. But that shit ain't the truth. The truth is, you're the weak, and I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm trying, Ringo. I'm trying real hard to be the shepherd.
(Pulp Fiction, Jackson).
After the bible quote, Tarantino once again varies the sentence patterns to develop a rhythm which allows him to hold his audience’s attention throughout the 143 words that follow. Delivered at the end of the film, this piece drives home Tarantino’s message through his subtle the linguistic power of his tone. The simple sentence, “But I’m trying, Ringo.” sets up the emphasis that is placed on the last sentence, “I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd.” This sentence contains the heart of Tarantino’s message for the entire film.
As you may remember from the film, and referred to in the previous passage, JULES had witnessed something earlier that morning. He and his partner, VINCENT were sent by their boss to reclaim some property and kill some men who were doing a job for him. JULES recites the Ezekiel 25:17 passage and they execute the men in the apartment, but another man comes out of hiding and fires his weapon right at JULES and VINCENT. The bullets miss them, they kill the man, and then they see the bullets he fired at them are embedded in the wall directly behind them— they should be dead. Later JULES describes this as “an act of God” a “miracle”. With his life saved, he reevaluates his life and as a result of his new perspective the words of Ezekiel 25:17 have changed their meaning for him. He makes the life changing decision to leave the life of crime behind him. After he quits his partner is killed. JULES is spared because he saw the sign and heeded the warning. Ultimately, and surprisingly, Tarantino’s message in Pulp Fiction is a message of faith.
Controlling the message conveyed to an audience is imperative for any good writer. And writers use many literary devices to accomplish this goal, such as: Cohesion, the way sentences connect with each other, how the text flows, and how they function as a whole; Sentence Rhythm, the regular beat of the language that is used; and Voice, the tone of the writer’s language and the reader’s interpretation of that voice (Kolln & Gray 121). Writer/Director, Quentin Tarantino’s diction, the words he chooses, is precise, purposeful, and intended to provide the connotations and power he desires. His ability to use commas, sentences with end focus, and repetition helps create a rhythm— a harmonious quality— to his captivating lyrics that express his messages with authority. To demonstrate this let’s examine an excerpt from Bill’s monologue to Beatrix about Superman from, Kill Bill: Vol. 2. :
Take my favorite superhero, Superman. Not a great comic book. Not particularly well-drawn. But the mythology…The mythology is not only great, it’s unique.
Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone.
Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman.
(Kill Bill: Vol. 2, Carradine).
Reading this excerpt aloud allows one to hear the rhythm and better sense the cohesive aspects of Tarantino’s diction. Again, Tarantino creates a distinct tempo by using several short, simple sentences, but this time it is followed by one or more complex sentences, measured commas, and words with end focus. Also notice that Tarantino uses repetition of the word, Superman, (which has been bolded in the quotation) to evoke the powerful sentiment of his message in the last stanza. He avoids redundancy and the repetition provides parallelism as all the parts of the sentence are in the same grammatical form (Kolln & Gray). In addition, it adds another source of rhythm with its end focus found in the word, Super-MAN.
Listen to what happens to the Superman stanza when replace the word, Superman, with a one syllable name that lacks end focus:
Clark didn’t become Clark. Clark was born Clark. When Clark wakes up in the morning, he’s Clark.
Despite the short sentences and use of commas that help place emphasis on the word, Clark, The rhythm and cohesion are lost and, unlike the word Superman, the repetition of the word, Clark, does become redundant. The stanza loses its impact by simply replacing the word, Superman, with a less powerful word that lacks end focus. To further demonstrate the importance of the end focus in this stanza we can replace Superman, with Batman, or Spider-man; despite the edited sentences faulty logic, the sentence retains its rhythm and cohesion:
Batman didn’t become Batman. Batman was born Batman. When Batman wakes up in the morning, he’s Batman.
It is also important to note what Tarantino doesn’t do when selecting the words for this stanza in order to achieve the power, and rhythm he desires. For instance, Tarantino doesn’t oversimplify the message by using just one “linking-be”, or “something is something” sentence pattern, i.e., (Superman is Superman.), which may be the most common sentence pattern in language, but would also negate the intended prominence of this stanza (Kolln & Gray).
He also doesn’t refer to Superman by his Kryptonian birth name, Kal-El. Superman is just the moniker given to him by the Earthlings he protects. Tarantino undoubtedly knew using Kal-El would have been technically more accurate, considering the point he is attempting to make: That Beatrix, like Superman, is who she is and any other persona she projects is not the authentic version of herself, but a mere alter-ego.
Tarantino chose to use these words and structures because he understood that the words he chose and how he arranged them were important in conveying and controlling his message to the audience. The choice to use of the iconic word, Superman, not only created the necessary imagery, but also provided the source for the linguistic power of this stanza.
Voice may be the most remarkable characteristic of Tarantino’s writing-style. He never seems to lose his personal voice, even when an actor delivers the words in-character one is still able to hear Tarantino’s own voice in those words. Perhaps this is because what he writes sounds like something he would actually say; this speech delivered by actor, David Carradine as “Bill” could have easily been a transcript of Tarantino’s response to a reporter’s question about superheroes or from a conversation with his friends or fans about comic books, alter-egos, or Superman. Through our analysis of the Superman stanza we can postulate that Tarantino is cognizant, perhaps even diligent, of his word choices as, “one of the consequences of inappropriate word choices is the loss of personal voice” (Kolln & Gray).
Another unlikely passage that retains the voice of Tarantino can be found in the following dialogue from his film, Death Proof:
You carry a gun?
Do you have a license to carry it?
Yeah, when I became a secret service agent, they gave me a license.
Oh, I didn't know you were-- Ok. I didn't say it. Stop looking at me. I didn't say it. God! Did you know Kim carried a gun?
Yes. Yeah. Do I approve? No. Do I know? Yes.
I don't know what futuristic utopia you live in, but in the world I live in, a bitch needs a gun.
You can't get around the fact that people who carry guns, tend to get shot more than people who don't.
And you can't get around the fact that if I go down to the laundry room in my building at midnight enough times, I might get my ass raped!
Don't do your laundry at midnight.
Fuck that! I wanna do my laundry whenever the fuck I want to do my laundry.
There are other things you can carry other than a gun. Pepper spray.
Uh, muthafucka tryin to rape me, I don't want to give him a skin rash. I wanna shut that nigga down!
How about a knife at least?
Yeah, you know what happens to muthafuckas who carry knives…? They get shot! Look, if I ever become a famous actress, I won't carry a gun. I'll hire me a dude dirt nigga and he'll carry the gun, and when shit goes down, I'll sit back and laugh, but until that day, it's wild west muthafucka!”
(Death Proof, Dawson, Thoms, and Winstead).
What’s most interesting about this particular passage is that these are all female characters, yet one can still hear Tarantino’s voice in their dialogue even as they discuss female-centric concerns like being raped. But this leads into another interesting aspect of Tarantino’s use of voice in his screenplays, in this scene the characters are essentially debating gun control, in the previous example from Reservoir Dogs the characters are debating the convention of tipping, in the first selection from Pulp Fiction the characters are debating eating pork, and of course in the Superman monologue from Kill Bill, Bill is expounding his opinions on what makes Superman’s mythology the best of all the superheroes.
In each of these examples we can hear the voice of Tarantino as we read the words, or even when we hear the dialogue delivered by the actors, that was written in his distinct style. Tarantino's dialogue retains his voice so well that as a result we are left wondering if the opinions of his characters who make the most compelling arguments and “win” the linguistic battles are the characters who are most aligned with Tarantino’s actual opinions in these matters.
Tarantino is not just a talented film director, but he is also an expert writer and storyteller. His mastery of the English language allows him to, not only construct memorable characters, but also to compose evocative, rhythmic dialogue. It allows him to control his message, to build conflict and suspense, and to engage his audience. He accomplishes this largely through his word choices, sentence patterns, and punctuation. Language is the true source of power for Tarantino’s films. Dialogue defines his characters, it serves as the catalyst of conflict; it propels the plot. Pop-culture references, sensational action, profanity, and gratuitous violence merely serve as exclamation points in the language of Tarantino.
Death Proof. Writ. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Rosario Dawson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Tracie Thoms. Dimension Films, 2007.
Django Unchained. Writ. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx. Weinstein Company, The. 2012.
Inglourious Basterds. Writ. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Samuel L. Jackson. Miramax, 2009.
Kill Bill: Vol. 2. Writ. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. David Carridine. Miramax, 2004.
Kohn, Martha, and Loretta Gray. Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects. 7th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2013.
Pulp Fiction. Writ. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta. Miramax, 1994.
Pulp Fiction. Writ. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Samuel L. Jackson. Miramax, 1994.
Reservoir Dogs. Writ. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Steve Buscemi, Eddie Bunker, Chris Penn. Miramax. 1992.