Friday, June 22, 2012

Putting em-PHA-sis on the right syl-LAB-le: How to Write the Way I Write, Part 7

This is a follow-up entry, which I'm writing thanks to the esteemed John Nadeau. John wrote to me after I posted the last entry and asked a couple of good questions about indicating where the emphasis goes in dialogue (and why I hadn't addressed that).

I didn't address it because it slipped my mind. So!

When you're writing comic book dialogue, you'll need to emphasize certain words, more so than you would if you were writing prose. In prose, you have the advantage of all those great words on the page that are not dialogue, and you can have a passage such as this:
Donald closed the door quietly behind him, the gun steady in his hand. His eyes never left mine. "Step away from her. Now." His voice came out so icy it brought chill bumps to my skin.
The words "Step away from her. Now." don't need to be emphasized in any particular way, because the rest of the paragraph lets you know how they were spoken. You don't get that luxury in comic books, though, so you have to use other methods to convey finer nuances of meaning.

You can do this in any number of ways.

You could put in a special bit in the panel description that looks like this:

NOTE TO LETTERER: please use a "cold" font for Donald's dialogue in this panel.
NOTE TO LETTERER: please draw icicles hanging off Donald's dialogue balloon here.

You could rely on the art team to convey how icy-calm and dangerous Donald is, through his body language and facial expression, and leave the dialogue unaccented.

But the most common way, and the way I would do it, would be to emphasize some of the words.

The most traditional and, in general, most fool-proof way to indicate an emphasized word in a script is to underline it. Underlining is better than using bold or italics, because a hurried eye is less likely to skim over an underlined word than it is a word that's bolded or italicized. Plus, if you want to indicate degrees of emphasis, sometimes you want to use a combination. So if I were writing this as a comic book script, Donald's dialogue would end up looking like this:

Or maybe like this:

(Putting the dialogue on two lines like that lets the letterer know that you want two dialogue balloons, with "Now" in a balloon of its own.)

If, on the other hand, Donald came into the room with his gun and just completely lost his %&$#, he might have raised his voice. I use two general methods to convey that. The first is one of those underline-italics-bold combos I mentioned:

I'll even throw in some capitalization if things are getting really heated:

Doing it this way, I can probably expect to see all of the dialogue bolded, with "away" and "Now" in a bit larger size font than the rest of the words.

The other way is to use DIALOGUE DIRECTION. This is something that you put right after the name of the character, in PARENTHESES, that indicates something to the letterer. It might look like this:

Dialogue direction gives some leeway to the letterer. It'll be up to him or her to decide how to indicate that Donald is shouting; he might use an interesting font, or make the words larger than usual, or he might use a "jagged" word balloon. The words "Step away from her!" might end up looking something like this:
Dialogue direction can also be very handy if you're using narrative captions, and they're invaluable if you've got people talking who aren't in the current panel. For example:

By indicating this difference, you're letting the letterer know in a concise way that he needs to have two different kinds of captions here. Usually this is achieved by picking different fill colors for the captions - gray for the narration and blue for the dialogue, for example - but if the comic is black and white, then the letterer would probably design the borders of the caption boxes themselves so that one is visually distinct from the other.

Here's what the script looked like for that panel up there at the top of the column, from Bloodhound #2.

Looking at it now, I think it would have worked just fine if I hadn't emphasized any of the words in Clevenger's last bit of dialogue. It's obvious that he's big and imposing, and it's obvious that Tim is scared to death, and if it read, "...ask Agent Bell over there what I did to get us out of the middle of a prison riot yesterday," unaccented, it would do the job I intended it to do.

But the first two lines need the emphasis where it's placed. You can practically hear the contempt in Clev's voice when he says the words "Tim" and "collar." Likewise, Clev wants Tim to understand that, if he so chose, nothing could prevent him from doing Tim great bodily harm, and the emphasis on the words "stop" and "permanent" drive that home.

Here's another example from the same issue, with a bonus sound effect thrown in:

This is the script for those two panels:

I broke one of my own rules here, by using just italics to indicate emphasis. This is actually part of why I'm telling you to use underline first and foremost -- the letterer made those words look exactly the same as he would have if I had underlined them, and underlining is the more commonly accepted, "go-to" standard in the industry.

This is also a good example of how to use dialogue direction to indicate that a voice is coming from inside something else. Here it's coming from inside the car; I could have used the same direction back at Seaver's place, so that the line "I never regretted what I done that night." could have come right out of the cottage. All it would have taken is this:

I have a general rule about emphasis in dialogue, which is that if it's not necessary to convey the meaning you want, you shouldn't use it. "Go and give this chicken to Mr. Curtis" reads just fine, and doesn't gain anything by doing this: "Go and give this chicken to Mr. Curtis."

HOWEVER, you should be aware that some comic book editors disagree sharply with me on this. On one project, after I turned in my first script the editor called me up and said, "Hey, I notice you didn't put the emphasis on the dialogue. Do you want me to do that?"

I hadn't worked with this editor before, but I had been in the business long enough for huge red flags to shoot up when editors volunteered to make large-scale script changes for me.

"Um," I said, because I'm eloquent like that on the phone, "I, uh, I'm pretty sure I did put the emphasis in."

There was a pause. I heard shuffling paper. Then she said, "No, I don't think so... I'm looking at the first page here, and none of the dialogue is emphasized at all."

Red flag! Red flag! In a carefully tactful manner (or at least, in a manner that was intended to be carefully tactful), I said, "Well, yeah, that's true...none of the dialogue on the first page is emphasized. That's, uh, that's how I meant it to be."

There was an even longer pause. Sounding confused, she said, "So, you don't want the letterer to go through and bold every few words? Just, y'know, to make the dialogue read naturally?" The way she said it, it sounded similar to, "So, you don't want the mechanic to put the lug nuts back on your wheels? Just, y'know, to make sure your tires don't fall off?" As if I were either stupid or painfully ignorant about The Way Things Were Done.

Now, I have never said that my dialogue is perfect. God knows I'm always trying to improve. But I do like my dialogue -- on occasion I even love my dialogue -- and I am, in almost every case, proud of it. The absolute LAST thing I wanted was for someone I had never even met to go through and add emphasis "every few words" of my script.

I managed, after a bit of discussion, to convince her that the script was the way I intended it to be, and that the blame could fall squarely on my head if the things the characters said were too hard to follow because they weren't profusely bolded. She didn't like it, but she did relent, and the project proceeded with my script unaltered. This is one of the many things about which you should make sure that you're on the same page with your editor. I'm just intensely glad she called and asked, instead of telling the letterer, "Hey, put the bold in, would you? This Jolley guy forgot to do it."

It might have been okay if she had done that. MIGHT have. But I'm picky about words in general, and I'm monumentally picky about my own words, and one of the things that drives me straight up the wall is to see improper emphasis in a comic book.

It goes back to listening to people talk. There is an organic flow, or cadence, to natural speech, and yes, sometimes you can use emphasis to illustrate it. You can also use emphasis to change the meaning of it in subtle ways. Take this line:

Ginger is so delighted that her daughter's taking dance classes!

Sounds like something you could hear practically anywhere. Standing in line at the grocery store. Listening to your mom talk on the phone. Whatever. But you can start to shade in meanings by adding emphasis to certain words.

Ginger is so delighted that her daughter's taking dance classes!

Okay, so "dance" is emphasized. Specifying that means Ginger's daughter was probably considering one or more other kinds of classes, and Ginger's happy she finally settled on dance.

Ginger is so delighted that her daughter's taking dance classes!

Now we're talking about the degree of Ginger's delight. Apparently she's over the moon about her daughter's decision.

Ginger is so delighted that her daughter's taking dance classes!

We emphasize "daughter," and suddenly we understand that, hey, it sounds as if Ginger has a daughter and maybe a son, too, and apparently it was sort of up in the air which of her kids was going to sign up for dance. And now that her daughter has, Ginger's pleased, which indicates that if her son had instead, Ginger's delight might be markedly less so.

But now look at this:

Ginger is so delighted that her daughter's taking dance classes!

Emphasizing the word "that" indicates... what? Nothing. It doesn't change the sentence in any logical way, and it sounds awkward. (Plus it grates on my nerves like the proverbial fingernails on a chalkboard.)

If you're going to emphasize a word or words in dialogue, just make sure that a) it sounds natural, and b) it adds something to the meaning of what the character is saying. Reading your dialogue out loud is a great help in this, as is getting someone else to read it. (Someone who will give you honest feedback -- this goes back to what I've said in the past about every writer needing an editor.)

I freely admit that I may be in the minority when it comes to objecting to bad dialogue emphasis. There used to be a long-running, popular comic book series -- it had lots of fans, and won some awards -- and the dialogue emphasis the writer used was, to my eyes, SO AWFUL that I couldn't bring myself to keep reading it past issue 7 or so. I remember one sentence in particular that was something very similar to this:

I tried, and tried, and tried, and it never did me any good.

I pointed that sentence out to a friend of mine and said, "Look at that! That's terrible! Who talks like that?"

He said, "Oh...huh. I didn't even notice."

So, yeah. Maybe I'm the weirdo.

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