Monty Nero writes,
Death Sentence and occasional X-Men writer Monty Nero lays out nine foolproof ways to write wonderful dialogue. He offers these tips because of his incredibly giving nature and not because he wants you to check out his totally awesome kickstarter Hollow Monsters: Who is the Hollow Man? which is already 136% funded (with cool badges and everything). Not one bit.
- Know your characters: their history, their motivations, their secret desires, foibles, what they need from each scene. What kind of mood are they in today? How will that mood be changed by events? If nothing changes, the scene feels flat. All these things affect how characters talk and interact. You need to write with authority – so don’t skimp the prep.
- Listen. Not to me, silly, to the people around you. Even better: get your phone out and write down what they’re saying and how they’re saying it. Surprising isn’t it. Kind of understated, half-formed, weird, meaningful, rich with implied meaning and character. That’s what people actually sound like when they talk. Now, you probably don’t want the protagonists of your latest comic book to be quite so inarticulate as your pal Waldo, but we do want to lace a little more of that kind of rhythm into our conversational exchanges. Because it needs to ring true.
- Speak it aloud. Honestly, it sounds simple, but just stand up and act it out. Does it sound like anything a human would actually say? Or is it overly formal, too clever by half, or exposition-tastic. Chances are, it’s the latter, because you’re straining to get your story across. So let the reader do the work.
- Imply. If you imply, we can infer. Humans do it all the time. Someone pulls a face and says ‘Suuurrre’. You know what they mean, right? They don’t need to say “Actually, I’m not doing that because you’re such a pain in the ass”. “Suuurrrrrrreee”. We know.
- Have a distinct voice for every character. Amazing how often the ‘top writers’ >cough< in our industry completely fail to provide individual characterisations. Everyone should talk with their own subtle character, from the narrator to the heroine to the guy serving chips in the back. That doesn’t mean over-laboured accents, showy mannerisms, or annoying vocal tics. You should keep it all very nuanced. If you imagine all your main characters in a pitch-black cave trying to figure out an audacious escape, can you tell who they all are from their dialogue alone? If not, fix it.
- Write the dialogue in a separate pass from the panel descriptions. That’s the way people will read your dialogue and narration, in a steady flow across the page of the comic. You need to get as close to that pace when you’re writing. So write the whole scene of dialogue, rat-a-tat-tat, then go back and spread it out over pages and panels. It’ll read so much better.
- Write less in each panel. Yeah, less. No, that’s still too much. Yup, cut it. Even that cute line there. CUT IT! Writing great dialogue’s important but comics is a visual medium. Less is always more.
- Letter it. What?! Isn’t that a little… Wait…you wanna master this, right? I hate to break it to you, but comic book dialogue isn’t ultimately spoken or written in a script document. It’s arrayed across the comics page in complex visual-verbal interactions which convey time and meaning by their placement, size, spacing, font, balloon shape, et cetera. And the smart way to get much much better at doing this is to go the extra mile and letter it. Honestly, you will learn so much, not just about how to write it but how to communicate and generally empathise with your letterer. You remember the letterer, right, the underpaid overworked hero of every comic book who’s going to make your dialogue sing. Or not. You can thank me later.
Finally, great dialogue should flow naturally, feel lyrical on the tongue, make you laugh, surprise, delight or horrify you, imply important things, but most of all feel natural. Effortless. Joyful, even. If you’re not having a blast writing your dialogue, no-one’s going to enjoy reading it. So best of all
- Have fun.
Follow any two of these dialogue tips and you’ll improve your writing exponentially. In return, don’t forget to completely ignore my Kickstarter. Don’t even think about the free Hollow Monsters 80’s vinyl die cut Raleigh Chopper sticker for everyone that backs this “breathtakingly assured…genuine masterpiece”. You definitely don’t want that.
Till next time.