Dialogue is a cornerstone of comic scripting. As such when it’s off point, a book can quickly fall apart. So how exactly do you write natural sounding dialogue and for that matter what is natural dialogue?
The easiest way to define natural dialogue is to look at what it’s not…
Unnatural dialogue is clunky, uses “poor” word choices, lacks rhythm, is often on the nose, is actual “conversation” and overall doesn’t reflect the character’s personality.
So how do we steer our dialogue away from that crap, towards legitimate natural dialogue?
There are some other articles here discussing characters and dialogue;
Character Trifecta / Creating Characters That Stand The Test of Time / On the Nose
Beyond those, here are some additional tips to get you on track (listed in what I would rate as, order of importance):
#1) KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS.
Take a second and think to your favorite comic, video game or movie characters of all time. You know the guy’s you’ve read, played and watched a million times.
Think you could knock out a page of dialogue from that guy pretty well?
I bet you just said “Hell yeah!”
Because those characters are ingrained in your brain. You know them like the back of your hand. Better than your hand. And knowing who’s talking is the first key to writing natural dialogue for them.
When you don’t really know the character your scripting, there’s a good chance the dialogue will come out sounding wooden, off or unnatural.
If you haven’t read it yet, go check out my article, “Sending your characters out for coffee.” That’s a really good way to get to know your characters.
Another way, is to write up a little dossier on them before you get to scripting. It’s time consuming, but in the long run it will pay off. Have fun with it. Let the character define who they are. Write down anything and everything you can think of about them.
A character dossier should note dialect, type of slang they speak in or any other language mannerisms the character makes use of.
When you’ve got your big list, narrow it down to a short list of the most important ones and keep that close by while you write your script.
Within a short time you should know the character well enough that you won’t need the lists anymore and at that point, I’d put money that your dialogue is rolling out a lot more natural and with far more ease.
On a side note, character dossiers are valuable when you put down a project for a few months or longer. When you jump back into it, it’s exponentially easier if you have everything about the character recorded in one place rather than having to read through ALL your notes for a refresher.
#2) DISTINCT VOICE
Knowing your characters well enough to write them is an important step, but if your characters aren’t distinct and don’t have their own unique voice in the first place, it won’t matter how well you know them.
I see this all the time in modern t.v. shows, every character has some unique superficial, surface character traits, but underneath they all have the same sarcastic sense of humor. It’s because the writer can only write in one style, very similar to how some artists can only draw in one style.
Being able to recognize characters for their own voice and having the diversity of ability to capture that voice, is critical to writing natural sounding dialogue.
Interesting enough I realized today two shows I love, the Original Star Trek series and the old Dungeons and Dragons cartoon, really have a unique cast of character voices. Get a friend to send you a few lines from either show, I’d bet money you’d match the character with the line 9 times outta 10.
It’s also worth noting here that to capture a character’s voice in a line authentically and naturally means the line should always come across unexpected, yet once you hear it, you say to yourself, “of course, what else could he have said, that’s just classic him.”
If the line was predicted by the reader, or left the reader feeling like the character could have responded another way, you’re doing it wrong.
#3) SUBTEXT – YOUR SECOND SCRIPT
Dialogue arrives at two levels.
First the surface level, the actual words that appear in the bubbles/captions of your pages. Then the second, unseen deeper subtext level.
The subtext script is the REAL MEANING behind the words the reader reads.
“Good dialogue” is subtext revealed through personality.
On the nose dialogue, is a tell-tale sign of weak (unnatural) writing. On the nose dialogue is dialogue without subtext.
Dialogue without subtext is weak and unnatural because we humans rarely say exactly what we mean and feel—children do that—adults are far too complex.
We filter our thoughts and feelings. We wear many masks and have a multitude of facets to our personality, some (perhaps the more interesting ones) we aren’t too proud of.
We speak in metaphor, simile, use puns, humor, symbolism, reference past events and experiences.
We lie and misdirect, whether it’s to our friends when our intention is benevolent or to our enemies to gain advantage.
We hide our true desires, intentions and goals.
We speak differently to those who know us well, from strangers.
Our emotions themselves speak without words. Sometimes completely contradictory to the words coming out of our mouths.
When there is no subtext to dialogue, OR the subtext is clashing with the reader’s perception of the character or situation… the dialogue comes across as unnatural.
#4) KEEP THINGS SHORT
The only people in the natural world who talk for long stretches at a time are politicians and people trying to sell you something.
When people speak naturally to each other, they aren’t spitting out a rehearsed script—they are making it up in the moment, as they go—and here’s the important part—they’re usually looking for reactions, adjusting they’re speech (or at least how they’re saying it) based on those reactions.
When you go to tell somebody some bad news… you watch their expression: if their eyes go wide and they look like they’re about to pass out, you might stop, jump ahead and assure them everything is ok. If they’re taking it well, you might just get it all right out there in the open.
The point is, people don’t generally talk in long sweeping narratives. That feels unnatural.
As I mention in the Working Writer’s Guide to Comics and Graphic Novels, going off on long tangents of dialogue kills the synergy with the art. It doesn’t matter how good your writing is, a comic is ART + WRITING.
When you diverge from one solely for the other, the gravitational pull of the book weakens. (Yes all books have gravitational fields, shut up.)
A good comic panel has no more than an “Initial comment, reaction and conclusion” and less is usually better.
Always keep things brief.
Always allow the art to stay in pace (or catch up if it needs to) with the dialogue.
On a final note of length, when you find yourself filling a panel with excessive dialogue/narration it almost always means you’re telling not showing. More plainly put, it means you’re not using the artistic visuals of the panel efficiently.
#5) AVOID EXPOSITION HEAVY DIALOGUE
In line with #4 directly above, anytime you start to give an exposition dump in dialogue it begins to feel unnatural.
If I were to reminisce with a friend about an old bar we used to go to in the East Village, I wouldn’t break down thirty things about a specific night at the bar… I’d mention one or two things, like drinking a pint of whiskey out of a bartender’s boot (dude, seriously, I never did that) or shooting pool after hours while everybody else went home.
Even if I was trying to explain something to someone, to teach them verbally, it’s not natural to become a newscaster or encyclopedia. Natural dialogue is always the abridged version.
If you’re forced to do an exposition dump in dialogue, break it up. Get the highlights in and let the reader put the rest together himself. Folks are smarter than you think, they’ll follow along just fine.
#6) MAKE DIALOGUE EUPHONIC
This one’s complex, runs a wide gamut and is more open to personal interpretation then some of the other tips.
Euphonic means pleasing to the ear. So to make dialogue euphonic means we are considering how it sounds when read aloud.
This includes, rhythm, duration, tempo, meter, melody and more. Aspects beyond the scope of this article, other than to say natural sounding dialogue pays attention to these elements—manipulating them for desired effect.
Reading up on poetry and basic music theory will make your dialogue come across more naturally.
More often than not, you want an energetic rhythm that snaps. One that moves or carries the reader through the narrative.
But pay attention to character emotions.
Most comic writer have no problem adding exclamation points and flagging bits of dialogue for bold or display type, but this is only scratching the surface.
Emotion directly affects THE WAY people speak and if you don’t capture that in your dialogue, you’ve just stepped off the train in “unnaturalville”.
When you’re incredibly angry, do you start throwing around five syllable words?
Do you go into long winded rants?
Or do you string together barely comprehensible curse words?
When you’re fall over giddy because Marvel just tapped you to reboot Ghostrider, do you speak in fast bursts or do you spit out flowery metaphors about how amazing life and the future is?
#7) GO FISHING–PUT THE HOOK AND BAIT AT THE END OF THE LINE
Anytime there is a reaction based on a character’s dialogue (which is pretty much every time), get the key point—the catalyst of the reaction—as close as you can to the end of the line.
1 Detective Joe I saw you with him last night. You’re a slut. The two of you sharing a plate of spaghetti. Dancing all close, in that strapless dress. That long car ride home, I wasn’t born yesterday.
Jane slaps detective Joe so hard his contacts fly out.
1 Detective Joe I saw you with him last night. The two of you sharing a plate of spaghetti. Dancing all close, in that strapless dress. That long car ride home, I wasn’t born yesterday. You’re a slut.
Jane slaps detective Joe so hard his contacts fly out.
Which version moves faster, seems more natural in your mind’s eye?
Most likely the second because the hook or weight of the line is at the end. In the first version, the weight is in the center of the dialogue and the reader has to work through the other lines distancing the weight from the reaction.
Remember back to tip #3–communication between people is about action and reactions. When someone says something that prompts a reaction, we don’t sit there waiting for them to finish, we interrupt–we talk over them–we get up and walk away. It’s natural to respond close to the weight or catalyst of the dialogue.
Two important times to keep this tip in mind is when you’re putting down dialogue on the last panel for a page flip. And when you’re putting down the last dialogue in a scene.
In both instances you want to keep the important part of the lead out (the Bait) as close as possible to the end. Again, this makes for a smoother transition to the next panel or scene.
#8) CHARACTERS OFF PANEL LOSE SUBTEXT
Lots of subtext (not all of it) comes from a character’s emotion as they deliver a line. For this reason, anytime a character is speaking from off panel, we lose a lot of subtext.
If you can’t see the character delivering the line, we simply don’t know how they’re delivering it—we lose the immediate context.
Now, I personally LOVE having people talk off panel. Why? Because it’s very natural… it means the characters are moving, doing something (or separated from each other).
Go to a construction site and watch guys talk while they work, they don’t stop every five seconds to have a two minute conversation, they talk with their backs to each other, they talk through walls, scream up shaftways.
Or go shoot pool with someone at the bar. You don’t only have conversation standing in front of the guy you’re playing, looking him in the eye. You’ll talk while you bend down to shoot with your focus on the ball. You’ll talk when you turn to grab your drink off a ledge, etc…
Reality is in constant motion.
Just remember whenever a character is off panel, you’ve got to compensate for the loss of subtext. Don’t use lines of dialogue that are open to interpretation or ambiguous in nature.
#9) TAGLINES, TRADEMARK SAYINGS AND REPETITION
With enormous variety of cultures, social standings and upbringings people speak in drastically different manners. And of course personality adds an infinite number of possibilities to speech patterns, personal taglines and trademark sayings.
When characters of different origins and upbringings all talk similarly, this comes across as unnatural.
Take a second and think back through your life, know anyone who always used to say hello or start a conversation in a unique way?
I knew a guy who would always grab you by the arm and start almost every conversation with “Check it…” Hell, when I was younger I went through a few years where I started every text with “meow meow.” (I don’t even like cats.)
Now, characters in fiction usually have a more distinct flavorful line…
“I’ll be back.”
“Go ahead, make my day.”
“Snakes… I hate snakes.”
Of course, you can’t flood the bulk of your dialogue with taglines and trademarks. But these little unique showcases of personality (if not overdone) can make dialogue more natural sounding.
They act as a repeated enforcement of the character’s personality, a tuning fork of sorts that will help you stay in the tune with the character as you write the rest of their lines…
These tagline/trademark lines have the same effect on readers keeping them in tune to the character and can easily be exploited to enforce a specific theme, story arc, plot point, tone or other story element.
Anytime you can get dialogue (or anything in a script for that matter) to do double duty, go for it.
I think I discuss “conversation versus dialogue” elsewhere on the site, I’ll have to double check that. I’ve got some more on dialogue, making it work for the narrative as opposed to “writing naturally”, but that will have to wait for another installment. Until then, write passionately! ▪
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.
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