Writing dialogue, how I do it: A numbered list

Writing good dialogue is hard.In comics, that is the writing flaw which shows up the fastest. If you know nothing about character development or plotting, those will take a few scenes to surface. Dialogue, however, can sink you in a single panel. I think that I am pretty good at doing dialogue... though I do fall into the same traps again and again. But this is true of even the best writers. Every person has only one view of the world, despite how well they may take on other views. In some way or another, all of my writing is going to sound like me. But, to work as hard as I can to avoid repeating myself, I have gleaned a few tactics from the reading and experimenting I have done. Here's a bit of it. These are some guidelines I follow when I am writing dialogue. This is just my approach, there are many others that work very well for lots of pother people. Usually I start by vomiting out huge passages of rambling, repetitive, chatter that generally gets out what is going to be said. Then I run it through these filters.

1. Show character. This is not just words on a page. this is a person opening their mouth and letting others know their thoughts. This means something. Basically, I ask "how would THIS person say this?" Is she shy? Academic? Bold? Stupid? How can those qualities surface in word choice? In speech pattern? This is the first level, where it starts to look like that person in general. If it isn't quite coming through, I have another trick or two. 1a. Base it on people you know. Or, failing that, actors. When it comes to how they talk, I base almost all of my characters on people I know. Or if I can't think of someone I know, I think of an actor I know of who could pull it off. Once I have that character model in mind, I take the raw dialogue I wrote above and strain it through this person's mouth. How does it sound with him, or her, saying it? This will change a lot of the word choices and cadences. With flat. stock, or background characters, this is often enough. 1b. Don't show off. This is more a warning against bad dialogue than a rule for good. Don't try to sound like a scientist or a cop or whatever. Sound like a person, and then add some cop words on top of that. Don't try to write great dialogue. Write natural dialogue in great scenes and it will seem great.

2. Show background. Realistically, you can't use this one every time. There are some situations where an individual's background simply does not surface in their speech. However, if you dig you will get more mileage out of this filter than you think. Essentially, you ask yourself how this character's unique background would affect what they are saying. At the shallowest level, this is accents and regionalisms. What does he talk like? Deeper than that, look at the position life has given your character. Someone who has worked in restaurants their whole life is going to ask for help in a different way than someone who has only even been waited on. Someone who is ashamed of their ignorance is going to speak differently than someone who is fundamentally curious. This is not a mandate "You MUST show background", but rather an opportunity "how can this background come through in what is being said right now?".

3. Show perspective. Ok, this one is more like a mandate. Especially when page space is limited. If you are not showing some unique perspective, then shut your mouth and let someone else talk. Perspective is related to background, but it is more specific. Background never changes. It is who you are. Perspective, on the other hand, changes from moment to moment. It is how the world looks to you right now. When you are relaxed and comfortable, you have a very different perspective from when you are terrified. When this guy says this thing at this moment, what does it mean to him? "What do you want for dinner?" can mean just that, but it can also mean "I Still love you and your well being is important to me." That depends on the character's perspective at that moment. For this filter to work you have to really get inside your character's head. This is where great misunderstandings and unanswered questions can come from. A character who is feeling shaken from a previous interaction may take a simple question as a flagrant challenge to his authority. Or a character who is giddy on the high of a new relationship may completely gloss over relevant details. This is similar to showing motivation. Every writer has a slightly different approach to finding this level. Again, not every line of dialogue is going to reveal this level of depth. But if it isn't, that is a good red flag. If you are not showing perspective, do you need this line?

4. Less is more. This is a tough one for me. I like my dialogue. I like the way my characters talk. A tend to want them to just talk and talk. But space is limited, and a little goes a long way. People in comics do not talk like people in real life. Don't try to make them. One stammer in an acre of word balloons is enough to let the reader know that this person is insecure right now. One dropped 'r' is enough to show a Boston accent. Let it go. Trust your reader.

And to demonstrate that less really is more...

-Josh Dahl

I hate love revisions.

A look at my writing process. However it comes, I get a general idea of what I want to happen in a comic. Characters meet. Characters fight. Ice blankets the city. Whatever it may be. Then I tease and work those elements together into a story. In the course of doing this, I write and re-write each scene several times. Once they all work together, and do what each needs to do in order to help the story do what it needs to do... the comic is done. The Normally, it sits until it goes to the artist. When the pages come back from the artist, I go through the script again and make sure that it still fits the art. Some parts will need to be expanded, while others can be cut away. Then maybe some touch-ups from the letterer. And that's it.

My current project, Rapid City:Below Zero is turning out to be a bit different. For starters, it was conceived initially as one, single, story. Each plot point, and issue, had its place in the grand scheme. This is restrictive, but it also allows me to have a much stronger handle on the proper function of each story element. What used to be "That is cool! Let's see where it goes!" became "This moves the story forward, but is it doing so in the most compelling way?". Another change in this project is my very long lead time. Extra time, and a focus on plot functionality have really changed the revision process for me. Now that I know what each scene and moment is required to accomplish for the story as a whole, I can zero in and tighten up those nuts and bolts. That part of the process is now much less intuitive, and much more technical. That actually makes revisions much more satisfying. There is more concrete functionality. Then, once the walls and floors are built, I can start adding the furniture and decorations. I can play and make the scenes all pretty now because I know they are doing what they need to do. It is like a wild guitar solo in the middle of a structured rock song. And, that is what I will be spending my snow-day doing!

-Josh Dahl

The 16th of March

It is the 16th of March, and I have no new rapid City script to post.That is not a sad thing, however, because Kav and I have been working on a different script project. This method we are using is much more collaborative, and that makes it harder to predict how long it will take to get it done. That script is not complete, but it is done to the point where it is at least usable by an artist.

I am not really happy that i missed this deadline, but i am not crushed by it either. I have been a few days late in the past... and I am breaking in a whole new method of getting comics done. So, I give myself a little grace period there.

Issue 39

The script for the 39th issue of Rapid City has just been posted. With this issue, the series comes together as a team book with the formation of The Rapid Citizens. Read it here.

Panel 1 Smaller shot of a weary and well pissed off Knuckleduster tearing the rear wheel off of a motorcycle.

Panel 2 Larger shot of Knuckleduster holding the dismembered bike by its rear forks, she smashes it to the ground. The Dead Men are reeling at the sight.

Panel 3 Tight shot on Knuckleduster, streaked with rain, grease, and soot.


Read this, and all my previous Rapid City scripts here.