How to write a noir insult

October 9, 2019

“If you have to be a nitwit at least don’t go around with a megaphone.”

Dashiell Hammett, The Glass Key

Who doesn’t love the zingy dialogue of classic film noir and hard-boiled novels? Noir is written with a kind of pizazz that doesn’t happen often anymore. Classics like Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and Sweet Smell of Success all hinge on fantastic banter, with a fair smattering of insults.  

But how do you actually write dialogue that punches hard and entertains the reader? Well, it’s not as hard as you think – it only takes a little lateral thinking to write a great noir insult.

First up, study the great noir writers

For the past few years I’ve been keeping a notebook called “The James Ellroy Language Appreciation Book for Klassy Dames.” Every time I read a noir or hard-boiled novel, I take notes on the language and quotes that appeal to me. Everything from snitch funds and prowlers to blue-suits and pineapples. I also write any quotes that stand out; one particular master of the hard-boiled insult was Dashiell Hammett, whose whip-smart dialogue still entertains today. Examples such as:

“Think I ought to go around and tell him I hope my chin didn’t hurt his fist?”

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

“You talk too much with your mouth Jeff. Maybe if you didn’t you’d still have your own teeth.”

Dashiell Hammett, The Glass Key

Or watch the completely over the top trailer for The Maltese Falcon, worth it for the line, “He makes crime a career – and ladies a hobby!”

One of my favourite film noirs of all time is the Sweet Smell of Success, written by Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman, and director Alexander Mackendrick. Watch the trailer for some great examples of dialogue (and also a fabulous noirish voiceover).

The dialogue in Sweet Smell of Success burns like a flaming pitchfork, with lines like:

“I’d hate to take a bite of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”

“Dallas, your mouth is as big as a basket and twice as empty.”

If you haven’t watched the film, check it out ASAP – it’s one of the great noir films. Other authors that know how to write cracking dialogue include James M. Cain, author of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity (pictured at the start of this article), and James Ellroy, author of L.A. Confidential.   

How to write a noir insult

So how do you write a noir insult like these examples? Well, there’s a bit of a formula I keep in mind when I’m writing. Sure it doesn’t work for everything, but once you start thinking this way about dialogue, the fizzers keep coming.

The key to writing a noir insult is to think laterally about two characteristics of the person or thing you’re insulting and join them together using a simile. If you’ve ever played the game Codenames, it’s just like that, linking two remote ideas using a third image.

With the Dashiell Hammett quote at the start, the character is both stupid and loud-mouthed, and the linking idea of the megaphone gives the sentence a new meaning, don’t go announcing your stupidity to the world. Similarly, in the first example from Sweet Smell of Success, Dallas is loud-mouthed and full of hot air, and the basket is the linking idea. Hmm, seems there’s a trend in noir to loud-mouthed jerks… well it’s much harder to have good dialogue with polite introverts (although not impossible).    

I’ll take an example from a short story I had published in Crimson Streets and break it down for you. You can read the original story here.

“She’s got legs as long as a Long Island Iced Tea, and just as much gin in them.”

A Woman Walks In. Crimson Streets

This tells you two things about the woman – she’s attractive and drunk. The lateral thing that links these two characteristics is a Long Island Iced Tea, which is served in a tall glass, and gin is a key component of the cocktail.

Writing exercise

Take a character and write a list of their characteristics or qualities. These could be related to their physical appearance, personality or job.

Once you’ve got several characteristics, see which ones you could join with a linking idea. Brainstorm several images before picking the one which works best.

Then write a sentence of dialogue that links these two things together. The sentence formula below is good to practice with, but try to think of your own constructions:

He’s got [characteristic #1] as [descriptor] as a [linking idea], and [comparative phrase] [characteristic #2].  

And that’s it! Hopefully this has helped you think about dialogue in new ways, so that you can pepper your work with fabulously sassy noir insults.

Share your noir insults with me in the comments below! Promise I won’t be offended…

Photo credit: Promotional still from the 1944 film Double Indemnity, Public Domain from Wikimedia Commons

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