In Writing Natural Dialogue, I discuss a number of focal points to do just that. In this article we’re gonna discuss an important common problem and dive into a more advanced approach of structuring dialogue.
Understanding the difference between conversation and dialogue is key to good writing (especially in comics).
I see a lot of scripts these days where writers try to be uber-stylish and inject their scripts with natural sounding conversation. I call this the Tarantino effect. And it doesn’t work in comics.
I read a mainstream comic, from a well known writer a while back and for a few panels he had the main character repeating “Fuck.” Yeah, if my dog runs off into the woods, I’ll chase after him saying fuck, fuck, fuck. But who wants to read that story? That dialogue is empty, it’s literally, wasted space (as we’ll discuss in a minute).
Storytelling is not reality, it’s hyper-reality, dramatized-reality. Reality with a point you’re trying to express.
The Tarantino effect doesn’t work in comics because, a) actor performances compensate in the movies (see Works in the Movies, Not in Comics), and b) Tarantino has his “A” game on when it comes to subtext and loading up his conversation dialogue with other elements of story. (Off the top of my head, I’d say he primarily showcases character development/personality, but I’ve never really analyzed his work). Whatever his formula, it’s his skillset… a very special talent and the reality is most folks can’t get there without a lot of time and effort honing their craft.
To avoid the Tarantino effect, I strongly suggest you establish yourself as a writer able to deliver solid dialogue before considering developing a conversational style.
So what’s the difference between Conversation and Dialogue and how can we capture the latter and avoid the former? First let’s define them.
Conversation is casual, spur-of-the-moment. The pace may meander. Subtext may be minimal or non-existant. It may have low or no significance.
Dialogue on the other hand is premeditated. It may sound natural, but it’s not natural. Every facet of it WORKS towards an end.
As a writer you always have to know at any given moment what that end is. If you don’t, if you have two or more characters talking and no clear intent in mind, you’ve got conversation—a waste of real-estate and a build toward potentially losing the reader.
Think of your dialogue as soldier about to drop out of Boeing C-17 over enemy territory. The more you know the intent of what you want to convey, the clearer the soldier’s mission.
Each element of story you bring work into the dialogue makes the soldier more combat effective.
You reflect the story theme in your dialogue, you’ve just given your soldier an extra magazine. You pay attention to the pacing, slap on another. Foreshadowing plot, that’s a grenade. Subtext—give that solider a razor-sharp Ka-bar!
Beyond all the elements of story (everything discussed within this site and the books) we can bring to bear in dialogue, beyond the 9 points discussed the Natural Dialogue article, there are a few key more advanced considerations to keep your dialogue out of the realm of conversation:
Whenever people open their mouth, they want something from the other person they’re talking to. Maybe they want that person to confirm what they believe, or agree to do something, maybe they want to hurt them, make them sound foolish, or maybe, they like an audience to hear themselves talk, or just want them to go away.
Everybody in a conversation is in it for a reason.
Know the reasons.
(Coincidentally, talking without a reason often comes across as rambling.)
When you don’t know the reasons, you’re almost guaranteed to capture conversation.
Of course, if all parties agree during a dialogue, it’s gonna be awful boring. Just like a story without conflict is DOA.
Conflict is a linchpin of potent dialogue. Putting people at odds in—how or what they think, and what they want out of a situation—is key to engaging dialogue.
Don’t misinterpret this conflict as everyone needs to be shouting and yelling. Clashing ideas and points of view can often confront each other in the most subtle ways. Still waters run deep. And deep waters are great places to cultivate subtext, stimulate emotion and construct really engaging dialogue.
Personal desires and conflict often lead to manipulation. Where Motivations and Goals are what someone wants, manipulation is how they go about getting it.
Everyone tries to manipulate the people they interact with to some degree, to alter their verbal opponent’s perception of reality to bend to their will. Most folks do this subtly, “Bill still owes me money from two years ago. I’ll never lend him money again. I’d hold onto your money if I was you.”
Suddenly, lending money to Bill sounds like a stupid idea.
Batman wants to stay and analyze the evidence. Robin has seen enough to know the Joker’s responsible and wants to go after him. He could just say, “Screw this, let’s go grab the joker.” But character personalities and emotional states come into play. Robin knows Batman is gonna tell him to shut up… So what does Robin say to manipulate Batman into springing into action?
Maybe he reminds Batman of the stakes involved. Maybe he plays to Batman’s ego of the moment, reminding him Joker got away last time he took his time. Notice, in both these examples, we’ve injected additional story elements into the dialogue (stakes and backstory plot). Rather than using conversation to sound “realistic or natural”, we’re pushing the story forward and giving weight to the narrative.
Of course, some folks have altering peoples’ perception of the world around them down to a science. You’ve probably met a few charismatic fast talkers in your time and been mislead by a untrue lover at some point.
Just remember manipulations aren’t delegated to antagonists, bad guys and con-artists… they may do it better, but everybody does it.
LIES & TRUTHS
Complicating dialogue at ever turn—people lie.
They lie to others, they lie to themselves.
Some lies are obvious, delivered at face-value to mislead. But other lies are much more deceptive and ambiguous. After all, lies and truths are all based on perceptions and perceptions change based on the individual.
Robin hood is hero if you’re a poor peasant in the wood.
He’s a son-of-a-bitch if you’re a noble of the land.
When you know the end of what you want a character to say, when you know their desires, motivations, manipulations they’re capable of—think about whether or not they believe what they’re saying.
Lies can dramatically emphasize or define a character’s personality. They’re the bedfellows of extremely effective subtext and emotion, and open up a lot of dramatic possibility.
A final thing to note about lies, is that we often completely contradict what we say in action. Or to put another way, sometimes our actions reflect the lie we’re telling.
Our hero, GRUG in a fantasy series has saved the love interest, BUTTERCUP and returned her safely to town. Grug starts gathering new weapons.
BUTTERCUP You’re not going back?
GRUG Of course not. Anyway, you’re safe now… get some rest.
Grug sheathes a giant claymore on his back and picks up a long bow.
BUTTERCUP You lying son-of–You’ll be killed!
GRUG The watch won’t be able to hold more than an hour against that many orcs. If they don’t get help, it’ll be open season on every human in the shire.
<Can you spot the other elements injected into this bit of dialogue?>
Going back to the start of the article, remembering that you always want to know what your dialogue is working toward, it’s important to use that to keep the story moving. The primary indicator of this is change (a reveal or turn).
If you open a dialogue, have the characters talk, then close the dialogue with no significant change taking place—the story hasn’t gone anywhere. You’re stuck in the mud, listening to yourself talk.
The more potent you make the change, the more effective the dialogue—and in turn the stronger the narrative drive.
For example, let’s say an intergalactic bounty hunter and his prisoner crash-land on an alien planet. You have 2 pages of them walking through alien terrain towards a police outpost. Across the 2 pages you have them talk about the weather, their preference in sandwiches, their favorite colors. From the beginning of the journey to reaching the outpost, NOTHING’S CHANGED. The words were just there to get some bubbles on the page. You thought for sure your sandwich dialogue would win you an Eisner. Instead you got the Tarantino effect.
In contrast, you could have had them argue about politics, becoming hate-filled enemies by the time they reached the outpost—a distinct change. Or just as easily, bonded them over something putting the bounty hunter in a dilemma of duty vs. Friendship—again, a distinct change.
Anytime you’ve got a reader’s attention the goal is to keep it. One of the fundamental ways to do this is by escalation. The same concept of escalation we use across the scope of the entire story’s pacing and action. You don’t engage the reader by giving them the biggest bang at the beginning, then have everything that follows be a deflationary experience.
If the characters are arguing, have the argument speed up and get more ferocious towards the end.
If the characters are having an intimate moment, don’t say I love you in the first panel, then explain why. Build up and escalate to an emotional climax.
There is a natural, familiar Rhythm to escalating drama. If dialogue is flat, there’s no anticipation and the reader disengages.
When executed correctly, escalating your dialogue will carry the reader, like a wave carrying a surfer. Combined into a last panel hook, escalating dialogue will encourage the page flip, without fail.
Keep these tips at the ready and stay focused on writing dialogue not conversation.
And though this is coming in at the end of the article, I want you to pay close attention. Knowing what your end is at any given moment in dialogue, isn’t only for dialogue. You’ve got to know what your end is at any given point in the script, whether it’s the act, scene or panel level.
Know what you’re trying to say at all times and your writing will always be ahead of the pack. But more importantly you’ll be crafting genuine, entertaining stories.▪
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About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.