Blah blah blah – dialogue lessons from the graphic novelist


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?

My husband, Dave Morris, is a prolific author and is currently writing a graphic novel, Mirabilis. He writes a fascinating blog about adapting his storytelling skills to a new set of constraints.

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.

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  1. #1 by Jamie on September 23, 2009 - 1:52 pm

    In Applied Maths at school, the temptation was always to skip writing out the unnecessary stages of a proof. So if you had the genius of a HAL 9000 you’d respond to a question about how long a projectile takes to hit its target with just: “g = 9.8 metres/s squared, therefore t = 8.7 seconds, q.e.d.”

    Not that any normal mortal could hold all those steps in their head; we’d need an IQ of 9000 🙂 But it strikes me in dialogue that we do it all the time. Eg:

    HUSBAND: Yuck! You left the teabag in too long!
    WIFE: How long are you going to keep blaming me for what happened?

    Mostly you should assume your readers have pretty high EQ. High enough anyway to pick up on the submerged bulk of unspoken meaning from the tiny icebergs provided by your lines of dialogue, which are maybe not two-percenters but should aim at being eighty-percenters.

    • #2 by admin on September 23, 2009 - 2:27 pm

      I think what you mean is, in your dialogue example the wife knows the complaint isn’t really about the tea bag, and because of what has gone before in the story we know it too. So when you write this exchange, you don’t need to spell it out again; the readers know what they’re really talking about and understand that the majority of the conversation’s true meaning is lurking under the surface. Nice point – and it’s another good way to spice up dialogue.

  2. #3 by Verdonk on September 23, 2009 - 3:12 pm

    Mackendrick, in his book on film-making (called “On Film-making” to make it easy to find), describes how he wrote a scene that just consists of the word “Mm-mm” spoken three times with different inflections.

    Of course, in a movie you’ve got the actors to carry something like that off. Comics strike me as being more like prose than like cinema, so you need more dialogue, though perhaps not quite as much as in a novel. The big advantage over prose is that you can have multiple things going on in a scene without confusing the reader, and in that sense comics are like movies.

  3. #4 by Jane Kennedy Sutton on September 24, 2009 - 10:07 pm

    What an interesting concept and I like the idea of creative cross-training. This gives me some ideas for the next time I run across dialogue sections that need sprucing up.

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