Tuesday, June 19, 2012

LET'S DIALOGUE: How to Write the Way I Write, Part 6

Pretty much everything in "How to Write the Way I Write" so far has been about the technical side of things, because a lot of people want to know how to write comic books, and there aren't a lot of resources out there that explain the nuts and bolts. When approaching dialogue, however, what I have to say is going to get a good bit more subjective.

There are a few technical things I can tell you, but I pretty much already covered the important bits in my last post. That entry ("Captions, Schmaptions") lets you know roughly how big a word balloon can safely get, and how many of them you should have on the page.

One additional bit, however, involves the caveat on the maximum number of word balloons per panel, which was, "Unless they're really small."

Ordinarily, on a page with, say, five panels, one of the panels might be a head shot that looks like this (if you pretend the photo of me making a grumpy face is an illustration).

You can break the maximum-number-of-word-balloons guideline, though—if the balloons are small enough.

I have more to say about putting dialogue balloons on a page, but I'll get to that in a bit. First, back to the subjective stuff.

Don't learn to write comic book dialogue only by reading comic books.

I might get some push-back on this, but I'm serious: you'll be doing yourself a disservice if you try to make your dialogue sound like dialogue you've read in other comic books.

Why? I could go on at some length—and I will—but it boils down to this: if you emulate someone else's style, all you're doing is giving readers a knockoff of something they already have. It's like making a copy of a copy. If you want to differentiate yourself from the crowd, you need to define your own voice, not channel someone else's.

The same principle applies just as solidly to comic book art. I remember reading an interview back in the mid-90's in which a famous comic book artist (I genuinely don't remember who it was—one of the original Image guys, I think) said, "If you want to learn to draw comics, study comics! Figure out how your favorite artists do what they do, so you can do it too!"

Garbage. Malarkey. Horse%$&#. He couldn't have been more off-base.

Because, if you learn to draw the way Jim Lee draws, even if you get really freaking good at it, you're still going to be someone who draws like Jim Lee. And we already have a Jim Lee.

If you set your literary sights extraordinarily high, and decide you want to learn to write dialogue just like Neil Gaiman's, well, maybe you can. But what are you going to be left with? Dialogue that sounds just like Neil Gaiman dialogue. We already have someone who does that (Neil Gaiman), and he's better at it than you are.

Now, I'm not saying you won't ever get hired if you write or draw just like someone else. You can peruse your local comic shop and readily find dozens of examples of working creators who are obviously aping someone else. And hey, if aping somebody's style is what you need to do to put food on the table and buy diapers for your kid, for God's sake, don't be too proud to do it. (If I had been snooty about my work all these years, I would've starved long ago.)

Just make sure that aping someone else is not ALL you can do. Because you might get some work if you can write dialogue exactly like Garth Ennis, but—correct me if I'm wrong here—it is not your ultimate goal to be described as "that writer who sounds just like Garth Ennis."

"Okay, Mr. Know-it-All," you might say, if you're in third grade, "What are you saying I need to do to learn to write dialogue?"

This is advice that you'll find in every single book about writing that's ever been published, but it's there because it's true: listen to people in the real world talk. Listen to the people around you. Listen to the differences in the way your best friend talks to you and in the way he talks to his mother. Listen to speeches from politicians and to conversations between people waiting for a bus and to what your significant other says when he or she is breaking up with you.

Listen. Listen and remember, and write it down. Pay attention, not just to the information someone conveys, but to the specific language they use to convey it. Start noting, mentally, every time you hear someone use a phrase you haven't heard before. (It really struck me when I heard my eight-year-old niece talk about writing notes back and forth with a friend on a whiteboard. She said, "It's my favorite doing at recess!")

Likewise, take note of phrases you hear again and again; sometimes they'll be common, and sometimes they'll only be common to you. (Whenever my Baptist deacon father gets particularly agitated about something, he comes out with, "I'll swear to my time!" I don't think it actually means anything, but it's certainly distinctive.)

If you're going to write solid, convincing dialogue, you need to love the words. Think about them. Turn them over in your head and look at them from every angle. And above all:


Natural dialogue doesn't follow rules. Most people don't use perfect grammar when they're talking. For that matter, most people don't even say things in logical order. I had a screenwriting professor who told the class, "Write down a paragraph's worth of dialogue, but put each sentence on a separate line. Then take a pair of scissors and cut out each sentence. You can drop them on the floor, and in whatever random order they land in, chances are they'll still sound like something someone could say."

Now, I will warn you, that when the switch in your head gets thrown from "non-writer" to "writer," you're going to start looking at the world very differently. Suddenly, as Stephen King puts it, "everything becomes grist for the mill."

It can get sort of ghoulish. Every little thing that happens to you, every day, suddenly becomes potential story fodder. That applies to plots and characters as well—I bet every one of you reading this knows at least one person who would make a terrific, original character—but for the purposes of dialogue, everything you hear from now on has a chance of becoming words spoken in a story. Your mind becomes a recording device, and you find yourself analyzing the language used...

...when you get hired (or fired).
...when you're told that a family member has passed away (or been born).
...when someone tells you he or she loves you (or hates you) for the first time.
...when your doctor delivers some very, very bad (or very, very good) news.

Even as you're going through the emotions and reactions that those situations bring, if you're a writer, there will be a part of your brain that's tucking the experience and the words away and thinking, "Ooh, I can use this..."

Exactly how you use it is where creativity and interpretation comes in.

My friend Mario lived a fascinating life. He saw more, and went through more, in his 35 years than most people do in their entire lives, and if he hadn't lost a battle with cancer he would've gone on to live as much as any ten people combined. You'll probably hear me talk about him again in this blog. I'm actually planning to write a book.

One day Mario related a story to me from his time in the Army, about something that had happened to someone in his company when they were stationed in Korea. It involved an unwise tryst with a local working girl, and resulted in the hapless G.I. contracting an STD that I had never even heard of—an STD so extreme and so communicable that he was never allowed back in the States.

Now, armed with inspiration like that, I could have decided to write a fact-based story about this poor schmuck whose libido turned him into an unwilling ex-pat. But instead I decided to set the story in the future, do a whole sci-fi thing with it, and turn the working girl into an alluring alien.

I told Mario what my plans were, and he said, "Hey now—you can't just go turning everything I say into a story!"

Well, that's where he was wrong. If you're a writer, you can do exactly that. Moreover, you should.

You can take influence and inspiration from tons of different sources; you can be influenced by certain writers, certain movies, certain TV shows. But there are two crucial things to remember:

1) Use the INFLUENCE. Don't copy directly.
2) Take what you use, in whatever way, shape, or form it eventually comes out, from real life.

Also, now that I've started numbering things, here are a few other rules that I live by when writing dialogue.

1) If you're writing a fight scene, the dialogue should be minimal, if there's any at all. Maybe a grunt or an exclamation of pain here and there. When people are fighting, they don't have time to chat. I don't know how many times I've seen a panel—ONE PANEL—of someone like Wolverine in mid-leap, spouting out two or three great big dialogue balloons. In the time it would take him to say all that, the bad guy could've just left.

2) If you've got two or more characters doing something that they know how to do, they are NOT going to spend their time talking about it. Task-related dialogue between two plumbers repairing a sink might involve an occasional "Hand me that wrench." Otherwise, they're going to be talking about the game they saw last night, or the trouble one of them is having with his wife, or which kind of car one of them is thinking about buying for his teenage kid. This applies to anyone and everyone, from hired assassins to cyborg bodyguards to alien prostitutes, and it's something that I realized in an epiphany while watching the opening scene of Pulp Fiction. Jules and Vincent spend about twelve seconds discussing the logistics of the job they're doing, and the rest of the time they talk about things entirely unrelated to recovering briefcases or shooting Frank Whaley.

3) Two characters who know each other will hardly ever call each other by name. Maybe it'll work if one is calling out to the other from a different room, as in, "Hey Mark, what kind of pizza do you want?" But if they're just talking to each other? Again, listen to real conversations. They will NEVER sound like this:

    "Paul, I can't decide what to watch on TV tonight."
    "I know, Chris, there's two different shows I want to see."
    "What do you think we should do, Paul?"
    "Well, Chris, maybe we should play badminton instead of watching TV."

Ugh. Just... ugh. No one talks like that. (Comic book editors are very fond of putting the characters' names into the dialogue, I guess to make sure everyone reading knows who each character is, and it drives me insane.)

OKAY! I mentioned earlier that I'd spend some time on how dialogue balloons get put on a page. This is that part.

When you're writing a comic book, once the art has been done to one stage or another (usually the pencils, before the inker gets the pages), either you or the editor will usually make copies, then go through and draw outlines for the captions and balloons on the pages in roughly the places you want them to go. The marked-up pages are then sent, along with the script, to the LETTERER, who does the final creation and placement of the captions, dialogue, and sound effects.

I'm not going to get into too much about lettering, because lettering is an art form in and of itself, and I don't want to shoot my mouth off about something of which I have limited understanding.

I will say this, though: letterers are the great unsung heroes of comics, and their jobs are usually thankless. Most people only notice the lettering when they find something they don't like about it...but the truth is that good lettering can vastly enhance a comic book.

I have actually done a tiny bit of lettering myself. On the first couple of issues of G.I. Joe Frontline: Icebound I served as the letterer, and I also lettered the seventh issue of Obergeist, which was called The Empty Locket. And let me tell you:


Before I did my (admittedly amateurish) lettering jobs, I didn't think much about how the words were going to be arranged on the page; I just wrote them and thought, "Okay, they'll show up, that's good enough for me." Actually placing the words on the page myself not only instilled in me a deep respect for good letterers, but also affected how I wrote scripts from then on.

Now, I have no idea how to go about lettering with a pen. I used the Adobe Illustrator software, and it's my understanding that most letterers these days do also. So if you don't have Illustrator, and don't have access to it, then this won't do you much good. But if you do...

GO HERE and read everything. Seriously. You'll thank me for it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Okay, this is an old post, with absolutely no comments... So, I just wanted to say an ENORMOUS THANK YOU for this!!!
Really, your information was exactly what I was looking for! O: (about dialogues)
Really really helpful! Thank you! :)