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.
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.
Come back next month when we look at the specifics of how to make your dialogue work more effectively in comics storytelling.