Just as the 1980s are having a cultural moment right now, the 1990s are an era that continues to live within our creative imagination. In fact, it may just be a matter of time until ‘90s nostalgia overtakes the ‘80s. In some ways the cultural self-awareness that developed during the ‘90s has never left. Watching films from that era will make that abundantly clear.
That said, the era offered much in terms of new attitudes and perspectives (much of it in response to the ‘80s). This was the decade Quentin Tarantino left his mark, right? And what’s more Tarantino than dialogue? He’s certainly a visual director, with many of his visual cues since paying homage to (or, depending your view, ripping off) other films. Tarantino first and foremost popularized a truly snappy form of self-referential dialogue, though.
That’s where we should start when it comes to 1990s dialogue. While we don’t have to adhere 100% to this idea, it’s certainly something that we as writers should be aware of as we craft our ‘90s narratives. Creating an authentic ‘90s voice means creating something a little cool in its cynicism.
The ‘90s were also when The Simpsons became a cultural force, hitting what many would argue its creative peak. Central to the genius behind The Simpsons was a playfully general disdain for cultural institutions of all kinds. There was no end to the cartoon’s parody-seeking reach. So even if you’re looking for a more grounded form of ‘90s story, one less self-aware (or postmodern), this is the playful kind of ‘90s attitude that should probably be reflected in some form. There was a renewed urge to ask questions and demand answers… pretty much about anything.
It’s no wonder that some of the standout film of the ‘90s heavily relied on dialogue. As low budget independent film became more prominent (think Clerks), it was kind of a necessary evil. You had complete control over what your characters said, though you may not have been able to devote many resources to locations or special effects. Though the end of the decade saw a continued evolution of the blockbuster film (including more of an emphasis on remakes), sharper dialogue continued to grow as a factor. It’s helped shape film dialogue since.
A film that perfectly encapsulates everything about ‘90s dialogue from the snappiness to the winking self-awareness is the scene from 1996’s Scream where Randy explains the rules for surviving a horror film (NSFW):
So what we have here is Randy taking a minute or so to go over “rules” for surviving a horror movie… within a horror movie. Everyone, especially Stuart, has some fun at Randy’s expense because he’s the resident horror movie nerd. It’s simultaneously a shout out to horror fans, while also kind of making fun of them (in a lovable way). But it’s also a weird moment that flicks at the fourth wall without breaking it entirely. The entire film has moments like this where the movie teases knowing it’s a movie.
And it’s not exactly the character’s ironic expression of this knowledge that makes it classic ‘90s dialogue. It’s the fact that it’s sort of drawing attention to itself; that the writer has created a situation that brings the audience into the film perhaps in a way that hasn’t been done before. The audience is nudged into questioning and laughing at the conventions horror is built upon because they can identify both with Randy and his peers.
The phrases and terms of the ‘90s demonstrate this self-awareness. Ironic detachment became a trend. As with all art, this had both its positive and negative effects. But it’s certainly something suggestive of the ‘90s; the main challenge is finding a way to make your dialogue sound as authentically ‘90s as possible when it still holds so much influence.
These books will also help aspiring writers to understand the ‘90s in greater depth. The goal isn’t so much to focus on one aspect of the era and double down on it. Instead we’re trying to work out a kind of muscle memory for the time so that when whatever dialogue we use emerges from our characters, it sounds and feels real. We’re not in the business of creating robots here… unless we are, for narrative purposes. But you get my drift.
Ultimately, when it comes to ‘90s dialogue, that level of dispassionate cool is what you’re aiming to be aware of. It’s not exactly easy to undermine, as it sort of insulates itself from attack because it’s so self-aware. But that attitude is a big part of what made the ‘90s the ‘90s and it’s a fundamental tool to creating more authentic decade-based dialogue, for better or worse.
Adam D. Johnson is a New York-based writer and filmmaker with a taste for the weird. When he’s not writing, reading or watching appropriately strange films, he’s usually hanging around odd artists and performers. He also really digs traveling. Connect with him on Instagram