Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Writer Will Take Your Questions Now (#31) -- Believable Dialog

Any advice for making dialog sound more believable? 
-- republished from Inside the Lines magazine

When I look back on my earliest attempts at writing fiction, I'm faced with an embarrassing realization -- all of my characters were English majors like me. They all spoke with clean, proper sentence structure and had the vocabulary of an amateur linguist. The sad part is this -- stories that could have been entertaining and interesting were poisoned and ruined by one of the most heinous plagues to infect beginning writers. Flat dialogue.

Put bluntly, my dialogue sucked like an upright Hoover. (And believe me, those beauties can suck up dust and dirt and carpeting like nobody's business.)

So, let’s take a look at how to park that Hoover back in the stairwell closet. In this tutorial we’re going to look at two key ideas of writing dialogue: (1) What dialogue is and does and (2) Using dialogue specifically in comics.

De-Mystifying Dialogue

Dialogue is talking, plain and simple. Without it, stories become long exercises in narration and description. Modern bestsellers can’t live without dialogue, and most pages tend to be full of more of it than any other weapon in the writer’s arsenal. Modern comics depend on it to avoid the clichéd “Meanwhile back at the Round Table” descriptive boxes that a strip like Prince Valiant depended on. And while Prince Valiant may be a really cool strip, you have to admit that reading it is more like reading a nice picture book than reading a comic book.

Okay, so dialogue equals talking, and all that talking has purposes and goals it’s trying to accomplish in your story.

GOOD DIALOGUE REVEALS CHARACTER. Imagine a woman who uses big words when little ones would normally be used. Or how about a man whose speech consists mostly of phrases and idiom, with few complete sentences. Or the woman who says little but "speaks" instead with her gestures (or to a writer, beats). What do those word/sentence choices reveal about the characters? Would you expect the first woman to be a little arrogant or just well-educated? The man to be shallow or perhaps hip? Or the second woman to be shy or perhaps cautious and secretly deep? Even the cadence of speech should reveal bits of characterization. A character who speaks with a sing-song quality of rhythm or "poetic" sounds would have a vastly different personality than one who speaks with direct, choppy sentences with concrete nouns and verbs and few descriptive words.

GOOD DIALOGUE CONTAINS EMOTIONAL IMPACT. Physical and emotional descriptions are a good start for helping readers to view your characters, but they become truly loved or hated or pitied or supported when they step onto the stage and speak. Effective dialogue helps clue in readers as to how they should feel about your characters. A strong lead who speaks little won't typically hold a reader's attention. Likewise, a supporting character who can't shut up may be distracting your reader from the person or people you're actually writing about. On the other hand, if your main character is a chatterbox whom you want readers to view with a little disgust, constant prattling and interrupting will help reinforce the emotional impact you're trying to establish.

GOOD DIALOGUE DRIVES THE STORY. If what your characters say has nothing to do with the theme, tone, or plot of your story, then you need to take a hard look at the dialogue you've written. (Don't go any further until you read that again. It's that important.) This, however, does not mean that your characters should explain the plot like a bad Bond villain. But your characters shouldn't chatter inanely about stuff that has no bearing to what you're trying to accomplish with the story. Even if you let the story shape itself as you write, at some point you must stop and determine the target you've sighted to hit with your story. Having said that, sometimes what the characters choose not to say can be a more effective way of conveying tone and theme and plot than what they choose to say. People tend to talk around things more than talk about them. Just listen to a couple on the verge of a break up if you need proof. They'll talk about anything to avoid addressing the downhill turn in their relationship. (Go read "Hills Like White Elephants" by Hemmingway or "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" by Raymond Carver for classic examples of talking around the real subject.)

GOOD DIALOGUE FLOWS. Often silence can say as much as words. A good dialogue writer realizes that what the characters don't say is sometimes more powerful than what they do say. Also, as in real life, sometimes gestures (or beats) can convey intricacies of communication better than speech. It takes each piece - speech, silence, and gestures - to put into print the illusion of communication between fictional characters. Effective writers listen and watch for the dance of words, silence, and beats. A caveat, however... don't feel the urge to switch to writing poetry at this point, but do learn to listen for the sounds and the cadence of the words and phrases you use. They carry baggage and impact, even on a subconscious level. A sequence of short words with lots of vowels has an entirely different feel than a sequence of mixed-length words with hard consonants. Try rewriting a few speech balloons or narration captions from one of your stories three times and changing the word choices and sentence lengths for each. Listen for the different rhythms and "feels." (Cool, huh?)

GOOD DIALOGUE FOOLS THE READER INTO BELIEVING IT SOUNDS NATURAL. It's a common mistake of beginning writers to transcribe dialogue just like it sounds in real life. But the fact is that real life speech is -- let's face it -- boring. We pause, "uh,” “um," backtrack, miss the point, and correct ourselves more often that we actually "say" anything. Can you imagine line after line of that? Instead, good dialogue gives the illusion of real speech. It's what we might say if we were able to really think and self-edit as quickly as we speak. It accurately portrays the idioms and idiosyncrasies of real speech, but without the verbal speed bumps that would make readers feed your story page by page into the shredder along with Aunt Louise's fruitcake recipe.

GOOD DIALOGUE HIDES ITS OWN MECHANICS. Or let's put that another way. A good dialogue writer gets out of the way and let's the story do its work. As with any craftsman, the goal is to show off a finished piece, not the nails and screws that went into creating the piece.

We've looked at some of the fundamentals of what good dialogue is and does, so let's build on that.

For the purposes of this tutorial, I’d like to propose that dialogue isn’t just two characters talking to each other, but can also include a character talking to himself or herself (thought balloons and internal monologue).

I know what you’re thinking. Trust me. You’re thinking, “Sure, Sean. But what specifically does that mean for me as a comics writer?”

So let’s get to it, shall we? But, let’s get some definitions first, so we’re all using the same terms. These are by no means “official” definitions, but they’ll work for us practical types. The include:

Dialogue—talking


Dangling Dialogue—a bit of dialogue that is captured in a narrative box rather than a balloon and ties a panel to the previous or following scene


Internal Monologue—a person talking to himself or herself, but at the same time directly to the reader


Thought Balloons—puffy balloons, usually when a character is talking to himself or herself, but not directly to the reader

Your Extra Time and Your KISS

No doubt most of us are familiar with the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid), and we’re going to adapt it here. A good comics dialogue writer must remember this key principle—Keep It Short and Strong.

Don’t believe me? Then find the nearest letterer and ask him or her. I bet he or she will tell you that nine times of out ten beginning writers channel their inner Clairmont and have their characters speaking in novel-length expositions better suited for novels or short stories. Okay, the nearest letterer may say it differently, something like “They have their characters say too much, and I run out of room and usually have to tick off the artist by covering up some of the art,” but the idea is the same.

For the record, I’m actually a fan of many of Chris Clairmont’s stories, but you have to admit, the man sure knows how to cram a lot of words into a panel. He can often find ways to make it work because his characters are standing around a conference table or hanging out in a kitchen at the time, not knee-deep in the middle of an epic battle.

This is a good time to remember and practice the proverbial Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In other words, think about your artists and letterers and try their shoes on. If your artist has to draw miniscule scenes in order to fit your characters’ dialogue and internal monologue into the panel, then it’s time to rein it in, cowboy.

Some writers will give you algebraic formulas such as “a splash panel = no more than six balloons or 250 words” or “a typical panel = no more than 35 words,” but I won’t do that here. If you’re not sure how much room your dialogue takes up, reset the font in your word processor and take a look for yourself. (Comics Sans will do for this purpose, at 6-8 point size, though hopefully that’s not what your letterer is using!)  If it goes beyond 2-4 full-page-width lines of text in your average word processor per panel, you’re probably going to give your letterer a headache.

More than One Way to Skin a Cat's Mouth

Repeat after me: There is more than one tool in my dialogue toolbox.

Go back and read that sentence again. Then commit it to memory. Some writers have made names for themselves by avoiding either thought balloons or internal monologue. Some even go so far as to belittle these tools as unsophisticated or passé. But I want to encourage you as a comic book writer to open up your mind to all the tools at your disposal. There’s a valid reason a carpenter needs a hammer, a wrench, and a level—because sometimes a screwdriver alone just won’t do the job. The important thing is to know why you’re using a specific tool.

On the other hand, I’ve seen stories in a submissions pile in which writers have misused their tools—trying to tell a more adult, Vertigo-esque tale but filled with lots of thought balloons or trying to convey a nostalgic feeling but using heavy internal monologue that in no way resembles the stories they’re trying to emulate. In other words, I’ve seen folks hammering at screws and trying to drive a 10 penny nail with the butt end of a screwdriver. Sure, eventually they may get the job done, but it won’t be pretty or efficient.

However, bear in mind that the way you use your dialogue tools can and will determine the tone of your story. For example:

    Lots of thought balloons can make a story feel very Silver Age.
    Using liberal doses of internal monologue can give a story a more literary feel (if used well).
    Lots of short, to-the-point dialogue unfettered by thoughts and internal monologue will help action sequences “move” quickly

Dangle Your Participles… and Your Other Words Too

Don’t be afraid to let your characters’ words jump scenes. Dangling dialogue can be an effective way of bridging from one scene to another, especially if you can find a way to play the words ironically off against the new scene. This is actually a fairly common practice now, and many pros use this technique almost religiously.

If it’s true that the key to keeping a reader engaged is to make sure he or she turns the page, then dangling dialogue is an easy way to force a page turn, especially when you’re in the middle of a scene without lots of kicks, punches, or bullets. Just find that opportune bit of dialogue (something like “But it wasn’t Rick’s baby at all, according to the doctor. She said it must be…”) and let it hang. And with a set up like that, I dare readers not to turn the page to find out what’s about to be said.