What is dialogue?
“That’s easy: it’s when your characters talk.”
Fair enough. Technically, there’s nothing wrong with that definition. But let me tell you a story with which there’s also nothing technically wrong:
Two guys are sitting at a bar. One of them asserts a philosophical position. The other disagrees. The first fires back a witty retort. The second counters it with an interesting but logically flawed argument. The first defends his original statement for an equally shaky reason. The second tells the first he’s having none of it. Voices are raised. The first uses an ad hominem. The second insults the first’s mother. Then, in the nick of time, a third guy who’s been listening in from a nearby stool interjects into the conversation, then proceeds to shut it down with a perfectly-placed one-liner that voids both their arguments at once.
That’s a structurally fine story: it’s got a setup, a conflict, rising action, a twist, and a resolution. But it’s pointless, since there’s no effective way to tell it without dialogue. So, using the definition proposed above, let’s add some.
Two guys are sitting at a bar.
“I think the big lump upstairs is a cheesy fish pile.” Says one.
“Nog,” says the other. “Bulb ain’t no bleedin’ engine block.”
“You’re choogling,” spits the first. “Eggs have no place in you.”
I won’t finish that, for your sake. But it has dialogue now, and it’s still (the beginning of) a structurally fine story. But it’s just as pointless as the first version. So, with that in mind…
What is dialogue, really?
Is it possible to come up with a definition that captures its purpose in a narrative? A definition of exactly what you’d need to plug into the one above to make it better? I think it is, and here’s my best shot:
Dialogue is when your character tells part of the story better than you can.
I think this works for all fiction. I also think it’s the indirect answer to a lot of other common dialogue-related questions. When should you use it? Whenever it can tell the next bit more entertainingly than narration or a silent visual sequence. What makes it good? When it does that.
In my opinion, most dialogue fail comes from writers who forget that. Consider the one who gives everyone the same voice as himself, not realizing that the point is to tell the story in a different one. Or the one who creates a world of sesquipedalian verbosity to show off her vocabulary, forgetting that the characters’ job is to take her flowery language and translate it into their own.
And that last part is crucial to remember: perhaps the most important aspect of dialogue is that it belongs completely to the character, and it should reflect their meaning, mood, personality, and background. This is why authors put so much effort into establishing…
In this post, I’m not going to tell you what your characters should say. That’s because the answer to that question is always “the next part of the story,” whether they’re telling it to themselves, another character or the reader directly, that’s what they’re really saying.
How you choose to rephrase it in their words is the basis of what makes your dialogue good or bad.
The first step is to let go of any of your preconceived notions of how people talk, and commit to doing the research you’ll need to get it right. Don’t assume that standard English is best English and all other accents and dialects are doing it wrong. Don’t assume ethnic characters will either talk just like you or in accordance with stereotypes: look up how they actually talk and transcribe it. You can quickly find an example of any dialect on Youtube now, so there’s no excuse for getting this wrong.
“But it’s just a story. Only a few people will notice, and most of them won’t even care.”
That’s not true, though. From the language down to the inflection, the way someone talks can describe their ethnicity, class, level of education, temperament, career, hobbies, subculture, and even what neighborhood they’re from. When your characters all talk like you, the story you’re unwittingly telling is that they all have the same ethnicity, class, background, and manner as you. How boring.
And when you fall back on a stereotype, the story you’re telling is that you don’t care: The character’s just one of those Bongo-Bongo Land people, he’s poor because they’re all poor until they come here and get welfare, he wasn’t educated because they don’t have schools like we do, he’s probably angry all the time because that’s just how they are, and do they even have cities over there?
Both of these can create a weird cognitive dissonance if they clash with your exposition. If you have a character who’s supposed to be an Oxbridge professor, but talks suspiciously like an American amateur author writes, people are going to notice. Or if you tell me a character’s unique, but show that he’s not, which should I believe?
Remember that no matter what’s being said, the way it’s said tells a story in and of itself.
The above statement applies to the hidden meanings behind the words, too. You can use the subtext in a conversation to write yet a third story, separate from both the straightforward one being told by the dialogue and the second one being told by the character’s accent and vocabulary.
Subtext, the true meaning of what your character’s saying, is the hardest dialogue element to describe or tell you how to write.
A lot of it is in using language that reminds the reader of language that would be used in another situation that reflects what the character really wants. Like writing witty banter, a knowledge of clichés, culture-common language, and alternate interpretations for them is vital here. (Much more on that in the “wit” section.)
The archetypal writing tutorial example is the married couple arguing about how they never try anything new… For dinner. Or in their vacation destinations. Or at the movies. Either way, the “joke” is that it sounds like they’re talking about fucking. Another is the shop-worn Freudian description, where a character raves about something using all the adjectives commonly applied to cocks.
However, although the most talked-about kind, sexual subtext is far from the only one. Satirical dialogue often uses the same formula, borrowing political terms and using them in situations where they seem ridiculous. That “does this remind you of anything” method can be used for any number of inner and outer situations.
The second, more nebulous type, is emotional subtext: when it’s a character’s feelings, not their meaning, that aren’t what they seem. This is easier to define, but much harder to write. How, exactly, do you put a note of hesitation into enthusiastic agreement?
But thankfully, in a visual medium like comics, most of that can be expressed through the drawings. If you know how to render the difference between a real smile and a fake one, or one emotion tempered with another, like the specific kind of anger that comes from grief, you can often change a character’s meaning without having to change the actual words in their speech bubble at all.
Making It Sound Like Something a Human Would Say
First of all, read it out loud.
If you take nothing else from this entry, let it be that. And if reading it out loud makes you feel stupid, edit until it doesn’t.
That brings me to my next point: cut without mercy. Modern English is a very efficient language, and our goal in speaking it is usually to state our point as straightforwardly as possible. That’s why we almost always use contractions unless we’re trying to emphasize something. “You can not be serious.” That’s why we use the active voice: “I threw the ball,” not “the ball was thrown by me.” That’s why we rarely use ten-dollar words in normal conversation, unless we’re going out of our way to impress someone.
Another reason for this is that florid language is just impractically hard to come up with on the spot. For example, how many times have you seen someone improvise a fluid monologue in real life? Probably very few, and I’d bet some of them had actually practiced it beforehand and waited months for their chance to finally use it.
So, unless you’re intentionally writing a long-winded character, it never hurts to streamline your lines. (Obviously, if they’re delivering a prepared speech or writing a diary, you can make an exception.) Don’t be afraid of sentence fragments, either. In fact, they’re often far more effective than full sentences. And if you can cut something out completely without breaking the story, do it.
And yes, this rule applies across time periods. A romanticized view of history might lead you to believe everyone in medieval times spoke the Queen’s English, but remember that in reality, only the elite could even read. Unless your fantasy world has a much better education system, I don’t see why it wouldn’t be true there either.
However, note that there is one significant difference between the way people talk in fiction and reality: delivery. Although realistic phrasing is almost always a good thing, realistic delivery is almost universally considered a no-no.
In real life, people… Uh… Trip over words. We interrupt our— Did you hear something? No? Thought I heard something. We toss in filler words and, like… We toss in filler words, then start the sentence all over again instead of picking up where we left off. We make questions out of sentences that shouldn’t be, right? We repeat ourselves. You know how we repeat ourselves? Yeah, we repeat ourselves. We curse involuntarily, which just wouldn’t be fuckin’ appropriate for an all-ages work. Often, we don’t finish
It’s for the best that most characters don’t talk that way, otherwise your dialogue would be an unreadable mess. However, even that has its place: everyone does these things to an extent, but studies show they’re greatly increased—as you might have guessed—by anxiety or distraction. So if you’re writing a character with these traits, realistic delivery is a great way to quickly establish them.
One of the most famous uses of it from another medium, as well as one of my personal favorites, was the Joker’s halting, “uh”-filled manner of speech in the Dark Knight. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but it seemed perfectly suited for someone who was, as he famously said, just making everything up as he went along. Likewise, if using it would show something about one of the character’s other traits, by all means leave it in. If you’re writing a teenager, use all the “like”s you like.
Right after naturalness, the most prized quality of dialogue may be wit. But it’s hard to define what wit is: it’s always a you’ll-know-it-when-you-see-it deal. At its basis, I believe the key is to surprise your readers, but in a way that makes sense when they think about it; that’s why it’s important to leave a “gap” in the joke, so that they’ll feel clever for connecting the dots.
“All men are brothers. Hence war.” —Simon Munnery
A lot of it can also come from subverting or taking apart a common word, phrase, or concept, or from using an alternate meaning of it to jerk the audience in an unexpected direction. In fact, you could get off to a good start just by going through a list of clichés and picking out different ways to interpret their component words.
“My body is a temple: thirteen year old boys become men in it.” —Megan Amram
The same is also true for contextual humor. Look for ways that your characters can subvert, riff on, or misunderstand situations in your story for comic effect.
Finally, you can often make a sentence much more intrinsically funny by replacing an ordinary word with a much more colorful or exaggerated variant. …But not always, so watch for the temptation to overdo it.
That’s as much as I can narrow it down, though. A more specific definition would probably require a book on humor writing. But at least it’s pretty easy to tell what wit is not:
- Alliteration and internal rhyme. These have been extremely popular in comic dialogue lately… But that’s exactly why I suggest you use them sparingly. They’re false wit, a shortcut to making lines sound clever without them having to actually mean anything.
- Swearing. No, not even when “ironically” combined with purple prose.
- Anything taken too far over the top. The law of diminishing returns states that anything done too much first loses its impact, then begins to have the opposite effect that it initially had. One creative putdown is a hilarious surprise: ten stringed into one run-on sentence, not so much.
- The most interesting corollary is that a joke that isn’t funny can become funny just by taking it far enough over the top. It’s also possible to take a joke full circle: start out funny, repeat it until it’s unfunny, then keep going until it’s funny again. But only experienced humor writers should attempt this.
First, formatting. Here’s some advice from Comic Related:
“Steven Forbes turned me on to the following rule of thumb that was supposedly given to Alan Moore by his editors at DC comics. (If it’s good enough for Alan Moore, it’s good enough for you.)
– No more than 35 words per panel.
– No more than 25 words per word balloon or caption.
– No more than 120 words on a page.”
One word balloon contains one concept.
- Something’s been scaring the cats lately. Miffles hid under the bed all morning.
- Plus, I keep hearing these weird rumblings at night.
Punctuation goes a long way towards capturing the nuance of speech. Consider the difference between “Get in here” and “Get. In. Here.”
Not all examples will be that obvious, though. Even subtle differences in punctuation and spacing can affect the way a line comes off. Personally, I feel like “He’s looking at us, don’t make eye contact”, “He’s looking at us: don’t make eye contact”, and “He’s looking at us. Don’t make eye contact” denote three different tones of voice.
A lack of punctuation can either mean franticness—“Oh God I need milk and butter and eggs and sugar Jesus Christ I only have an hour”—or the exact opposite. “But yeah man it’s like whatever dude know what I’m sayin’?”
To show someone trailing off, use ellipses. “Uh, I forgot what I was gonna…”
To show interruption, use an em dash. “If you cut me off one more—“
CAPS INDICATE RAISED VOICES! THIS IS ONE THING WE CAN GET AWAY WITH THAT PROSE AUTHORS CAN’T! BUT IF, LIKE MANY OF US, ALL YOUR DIALOGUE IS IN CAPS, JUST MAKE THE WORDS BIGGER!
all lowercase, on the other hand, is a stylistic gimmick. don’t be a hipster.
Bold and italics to indicate emphasis… Should be used sparingly. After decades of comics writers misguidedly using them to imitate natural speech patterns and emphasis on certain words, they’re kind of played out. You might just want to let the audience imagine how the character would deliver that line instead of trying to dictate it to them.
Next, scene planning:
It’s a much-bemoaned problem that amateur writers will try to capture an entire conversation, documenting every “Good morning, how are you” and “strange weather, right?” And it’s fine to have the characters say that… Off-scene. When storyboarding, think of it as if you’re editing a raw video of the conversation: cut in when your character starts saying something important, then cut out when they’re done.
Avoiding accidental repetition is also critical to preventing your dialogue from sounding goofy. If you’re going to repeat words, phrases or concepts, it has to be intentional. This also goes for too much similarity between the dialogue and the pictures. A picture is worth a thousand words, so if you have a picture say something, then a character say the exact same thing, you’re effectively writing a feature-length article on it, then adding “DID YOU GET THAT? OR WAS IT TOO SUBTLE FOR YOU?”
Finally, I’d like to address the common belief that, contrary to this post’s entire point, dialogue shouldn’t be used to provide plot information. This isn’t accurate. Usually, what people who give this advice really mean is to avoid info dumps and “as you know”s.
“As you know, there’s a bomb hidden somewhere in this building and we have a mere five minutes left to diffuse it!”
But that’s just the most straightforward and hamhanded way to do it. In fact, a huge portion of writing effective dialogue is figuring out how to allude to the story by how the people in it interact with each other, a lot of which is done—like wit—by leaving gaps that the reader can fill in themselves.
“Are the civilians evacuated?”
“How long left?”
“Four minutes, fifty-seven seconds!”
“Has the disposal team located it?”
This tells you much more anyway. Using the same number of words, it not only reveals that there’s a bomb, but that the speakers belong to some sort of (vague) police or military unit, one’s higher-ranking than the other, the building’s already been cleared, and they have backup helping them out, but it’s still not looking good. It also tells a hidden story: they must have been pre-warned by the bomber, because there’s no other way they’d know how long is left on the timer without having found it. Also, I just made that up on the spot, so that’s probably nowhere near how they actually talk, but you get it.
In dialogues between two characters, you can also reveal information in a way that surprises the reader, just by subverting the expected answers to a question or statement.
“What’s your name?”
“For fifty bucks, it’s anything you want it to be.”
I didn’t write this one, and I’ve unfortunately forgotten who did, but it’s a perfect example of storytelling through a simple Q and A. In two lines, they established that these two characters have just met, what one of them (possibly) does for a living, and what they’re (possibly) offering the other. But those “possibly”s are there for a reason, which is to remind you to avoid jumping to the easiest conclusions in your writing. Who knows where you could take the story if you subverted that expectation, too?
How to Do It
I wish I could just do one long section on Paranatural. I’ve already read it, which would have saved me a lot of time finding these other comics, and it has some of the best, funniest writing I’ve seen in a webcomic in a long time. …And he keeps it entirely clean, which takes some serious talent. But unfortunately, I can’t, since I already featured it in Scheduling Part I.
So instead, here are a few shorter spotlights on series that also do it well, based on some suggestions I received from other comic writers. I didn’t have time to read them all in full, but if one particularly interests you, I highly recommend you do.
Jeph Jacques’s dialogue is unremarkable, but that’s exactly what makes it perfect. It avoids attracting attention to itself, getting out of the way of the characters and situations so they can do their thing. And the characters talk like real people, which lends the comic’s “buncha folks doing stuff” premise much more believability.
However, by no means should you think that’s the only way to write it, or even the best. Some comics take the opposite approach, to just as good or even better effect. Take….
…Which is most famous for its text walls. But they’re justified, since this is not so much a comic as a lit fic anthology with pictures. Almost every strip is a full-length story with developed characters and a complete arc, so the amount of detail he goes into is often necessary. I don’t think this style would work for any other comic, and I don’t think any other style would work for this one.
However, it’s not the length of the dialogue I’m interested in, it’s the content. Subnormality is, specifically, an excellent example of how to do monologues right. Winston Rowntreee focuses on the meaning of words, not the show of them, letting him put complicated philosophical points into language that, while long-winded, still sounds like something a layman could conceivably say.
Well, sort of. I’ll admit that he has one major flaw, which is that many of his characters lack their own voices, meaning they often come off as looking like author mouthpieces. But this is by no means a fatal one, especially since he’s a talented enough writer that I’m confident he’s doing this on purpose. And the words themselves are more than enough to make up for it.
But not all dialogue has to be plain, either. Some stands out specifically because it’s weird, like…
Chris Onstad’s writing style is very unusual, but it only serves to immerse the reader in the setting, and he knows how to break the rules with a purpose. He’s constantly tossing in absurdist elements, but that only serves to reinforce the absurd characters and situations. He defies grammar like it ain’t even a thing, but does it in exactly the way a person would when speaking. Even better, each character has a distinct voice with their own brand of slang and phrasings that, without resembling any other kind I know of, are still clearly intelligible through context.
The purpose of dialogue in comics is to tell part of the story better than you could through pictures alone. …Or narration, if your comic has that. Stick to that rule, and you won’t have to worry about wasting it. To make it sound better, edit the hell out of it, then read it out loud. To give your characters a voice, know where they’re from and research how people talk there, then render it in text. To capture part of their character, pick an aspect of their personality you want to express, then find a speech pattern that matches it. And to make your dialogue witty, start practicing by deconstructing or subverting concepts, cliches, or catchphrases your readers will know.
- Gloria Kempton: Write Great Fiction – Dialogue
- Rib Davis: Writing Dialogue for Scripts: Effective Dialogue for Film, TV, Radio and Stage
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