How do you make dialogue scenes interesting? Here’s one way…
You’ve got a scene where your characters are going to have a conversation. Now you come to write it, will that be interesting enough?
What’s this got to do with dialogue in regular prose novels?
Well, different media can teach us a lot about our craft. I think of it as creative cross-training – it makes us aware of why we do things and whether we could do them better.
And it so happens that the graphic novel is a particularly demanding medium for storytelling. The script must be concise without rushing. It must have maximum drama. Each scene has to work very hard.
It’s especially unforgiving for dialogue scenes. If two characters are going to natter to each other for half a page, it’s just two heads, or two figures, frame after frame. Very boring indeed. In Dave’s words:
In a dialogue scene, you don’t want everything to grind to a halt while two characters do nothing but natter to each other… In a movie they might go for a walk and the changing background creates visual interest, but in a comic it’s obvious you’ve just got a bunch of two-shots from various angles and distances. The medium demands more visual variety than a movie but if you do that just with different angles, it can end up contrived and busy: the direct overhead shot, the over-the-shoulder, etc.
So Dave adds interest by turning up the underlying story – putting in a secondary narrative thread to illustrate something about the characters that isn’t being said in the dialogue.
And this is where it gets interesting for prose writers.
In one episode of Mirabilis I had Jack talking to Estelle, and a lot of it is exposition. So I had them get to her car and the chauffeur says it’s broken down and Jack is saying, “Newfangled contraptions, eh? I’ll get you a cab.” And Estelle says, “Nonsense,” flips up the hood and fixes it – to Jack’s astonishment. So that was good because it not only covered the expository stuff in the dialogue, it told us something about Estelle (she’s independent, modern and good with machines) and more importantly it moved their relationship on, because Jack is left feeling like he’s made a fool of himself so next time they meet he’s got the baggage of this scene to deal with. (You can read the full text of this article, and see the scene’s lovely visuals, here)
Notice that this isn’t irrelevant nonsense, added for the sake of giving the artist something different to put in the picture. It adds depth to the story. These are some of the most rewarding moments in writing. The things you didn’t plan to put in your scene until you realised you had a problem to solve. A bit of head scratching and you raise your game.
Of course, in novels we don’t always have to try so hard with the scene’s ‘visuals’. And in some dialogue scenes the content of the conversation is so powerful you need little else – for instance a confrontation or a confession.
But often, when I’m about to write a scene I envisaged as principally dialogue, I want to do more with it. Next time, I’m going to think like a graphic novelist.