Welcome to What Th--? #52, the last column of Year One, as well as the last column – for the time being – dealing with writing. Next week we’ll go over what it’s like writing a weekly column for a full year, and where What Th--? will be going in the future. I’m also interested in hearing what you’re interested in seeing here.

Over the past year we’ve discussed putting together your concepts, creating your characters, the difference between plot, theme and story, working the story up into a plot, and the technical aspects of writing the script. But before you can actually write a script, you need to know how to write dialogue.

This is the hardest aspect of writing to explain. Much of what we’ve talked about before is a constant; structure works in a certain way and when you do it wrong it’s like there are giant neon arrows pointing to the problems. Although the concepts of theme and plot are elastic, the basics are definable.

Dialogue is different. Dialogue is, obviously, individual. Also, comic book dialogue, which is meant to be read, is very different from, say, TV or movie dialogue, which is meant to be heard. Comic book dialogue also has to fit into little balloons that, because of space limitations, can only contain a certain number of words, which means you have to say everything necessary in extreme short hand. You also don’t have the benefit of an actor who can convey reams of dialogue, not with words but with an upturned eyebrow.
I can’t ‘teach’ anyone how to write dialogue – you need an ear to hear how people speak, and then you need the taste to know how to make that work in readable copy, and to make it sound interesting. After all, most people don’t talk with exclamation marks! Real dialogue – the way people really speak, is, unless you’re with someone who speaks incredibly well, usually not interesting.
Listen to a good movie or play and you’ll hear dialogue that, if spoken by a real person in ordinary conversation, would sound ludicrous and forced. Drama dialogue is realistic sounding but not real in any way, shape or form. In many ways, it’s often the way we wish we could speak, or the way we think a certain kind of person speaks. When you listen to good dialogue it sounds real, but it isn’t.

In drama, dialogue is used to create character, differentiate characters, and, of course, tell the story. You rarely, if ever, read well-written dialogue that is unnecessary and isn’t being used to define a character or tell a story. Even when people in a story ‘chat,’ and shoot the breeze, the dialogue is used to make a point. In real life, there is little need for dramatic, pointed dialogue. Most people just talk about the movies, or TV or something else. And, unless they are lecturing or specifically telling a story, their dialogue is aimless and formless, and not designed to tell you anything about the person speaking, though that may, of course, creep in. Also, since we are not, moment-by-moment, living a plotted story with a beginning that inextricably leads to the middle and end, what we as real people say rarely has to progress a story. Real dialogue is not dramatic dialogue.

As I say, dialogue in drama is written so you learn the most you can about a character. And since it is dialogue being used in a structured story, you are, when the dialogue is well done, learning about the story. Good dialogue should show you how the person speaking is reacting to the events that surround them, whether it’s a scene about two people just chatting, or talking about a villain’s plot to take over the world. Every character should react differently, and therefore their dialogue, the way they respond to the situation presented, should be different.

Let’s use The Teen Titans as an easy example.

What I tried to do was give everyone in the group their own speech pattern. This is somewhat bogus if we were dealing with real life, where people, trained by the media, don’t always talk all that differently from their neighbor, but it is a way of easily defining characters in a story. In movies, you might not hear different speech patterns because the actor brings his own inflections and pacing to each line of dialogue, but with the printed word a specially designed speech pattern helps force the reader to ‘hear’ the dialogue as intended. Therefore, Cyborg didn’t sound like Nightwing, who didn’t talk like Starfire, etc. That means Kid Flash, for example, would, because of who he was and where he came from (his back story, which is what in real life is called baggage) have a different reaction to an event than, say, Raven, who had a very different upbringing, or even Changeling, who reacted in his own, unique fashion. Each character’s speech pattern was firmly planted in my head. If I wrote a line of dialogue for Nightwing and at the last moment had to change it to Starfire, I would have to rewrite the entire line. There was no way Starfire would phrase her comments with the same words Nightwing would use. Would never happen.

We used to have a rule of thumb in comics. If you had the Titans inside the T-jet streaking over the Grand Canyon, for example, and all you saw was the T-Jet with seven balloons leading to it, you should still know, without names being used, who was saying what. Again, in a movie, where you hear people speak, that wouldn’t be a problem, but in comics where the only voice heard is inside the reader’s head, it was and remains crucial, if not for character identification, at least for clarity in story telling.
Dialogue comes out of a character’s life. They say things based on who they are. No matter how close they may be to each other, ultimately, they see things differently from each other and they react to what they see differently. Dialogue is the sum of the years of their lives which is why it’s so crucial that once the character is set up that their dialogue, the way they phrase their sentences, the words they use, the thoughts that get them to say what they say, remain as consistent as possible. That does not mean, by the way, that characters need to be frozen in time. They can grow and change, and they should grow and change, but their basic dialogue won’t change because you can’t change what formed their lives.

A reader who followed the Titans while I was writing it knew, based on what they said, who Starfire was, who Raven was, who Cyborg was, because no matter what was happening to the characters within the story, their reactions was always consistent to who they were. You could disagree with what I did storywise, which is a different matter altogether, but the character’s dialogue was always in character. Therefore, if someone else wrote the Titans, as people have, readers instinctively know that they didn’t sound like my Titans. They may like the new stories better, but they certainly didn’t, nor could they, sound like the characters I wrote, because only I knew their voices inside and out and because I was consistent with the characters. That’s not to say someone else wouldn’t write better stories, only that unless they 100% got into each character’s heads, they would be different.
I have to keep repeating this because this is what dialogue comes down to: each character reacts differently. Characters are not interchangeable. As you wouldn’t have Superman act like Batman, or Mr. Fantastic act like The Thing – because you know that would be wrong – you can’t have those characters speak like someone else, or the readers will know it’s wrong.

Dialogue and character are one and the same, and the reaction a character has to any outside stimulus, good or bad, has to be unique. If it isn’t, then you don’t have a ‘real’ character. All you have is a cipher.

Remember, good people can disagree with each other and still be right. I will not argue religion and politics because though I have firmly set views, so does everyone else, and the odds of changing someone’s views are slim at best and usually only leads to fights. People are different. People react differently to what is happening to them. People’s dialogue reflects those differences.

Some nut and bolts:

If you’re writing comic book dialogue, actually consider how many words can fit into a panel before writing some deathless prose which will probably have to be cut lest it cover up all the art. Trust me, that happens all the time.

Do not write dialogue that is purely exposition. That is, don’t sit there and narrate, explain or simply give information in a cold, emotionless fashion. Find a way to reword information so it comes out of character. It takes time to do this, time to even figure out how to do it, but it’s crucial. Dialogue should sound natural, especially when you’re giving information.

Plant as much necessary information as early in the story as you can. Comics don’t work well as drawing room mysteries where everyone sits around the fireplace on the last page as someone explains what happened. If you set things up properly early enough, trust that the readers will be smart enough to connect the dots later on. Restructure the story if necessary to let the story ending flow without being broken up with explanations that will slow it down – unless that is the purpose of the story.
Make sure the people in the story care about what is happening. If the characters don’t care, the readers won’t care.

After you write your dialogue, put it aside for awhile, then come back to it and prune it. Be merciless. Writers talk about killing their babies. That means they may have a favorite line of dialogue that, on second thought, needs to be cut. If a line of dialogue sticks out because it doesn’t sound like the character should say it – no matter how much you like the line, even if you think it’s the best line you’ve ever written – kill that baby.

Dialogue needs to be about character, and the character needs to be concerned with the story. Every line that doesn’t contribute to character and story – toss out. Find another way to say what you’re trying to say that does move forward both character and story.
That’s it. Nothing I’ve talked about this past year is something you’ll be able to do first time at bat. Fact is, it takes constant work and continues to take constant work no matter how good you get. There are no expert writers. There are only people who keep working at their craft without end.

If the first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club, the first rule of writing, ultimately, is there are no rules. You can take everything I’ve talked about this past year and toss it out the window and still create the greatest work of fiction the world has ever seen. But, as they say, you need to learn to crawl before you can walk, and walk before you can run. What I’ve talked about is the underpinnings you need to learn before you can ignore them.

Now go out and write something.

See you in seven.
Marv Wolfman

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