Wednesday, April 18, 2007

writing for cartoons 9 - Dialogue

I was pleasantly suprised when my cartoons first hit the air and people I had just met would quote whole passages word for word to me. Passages that I had never memorized myself. Stuff I had never really even thought was that important at the time. People have asked me many times what the secret is for good dialogue. Is there a secret?

...I thought writing about dialogue would be easy, since I have done so much of it. It turns out that I don't think much about it when I write it. I just do what feels and more important sounds right... but that would be lousy advice to give someone else who wants to know the tools of good dialogue. I also know when I read bad or awkward dialogue -when I do it or anyone else does it.

The main tool and one that can't be acquired is an ear for words that sound good together, but not just random good wordplay, but character driven wordplay.

Dialogue has to sound good out loud and you don't know if your written dialogue works until you try to say it. Or maybe until the voice actor says it...or stumbles over it. I learned a lot from having to act out my own characters and I'm not much of an actor, but if I got into the recording studio and couldn't read a line right, I would change the line to something that read more naturally. I did the same for my other actors. If they couldn't get a line right, I blamed the writing, not the actor and would ask them to help me come up with something that had the same meaning but flowed off the tongue better.

When I try to analyze all the considerations that have to be controlled when creating good dialogue, my list gets longer and longer.

Dialogue partly tells the story, but should not be the main storytelling tool.

Dialogue has to sound natural. It will never actually be natural, because that would be boring, but it should feel natural and that is a vague quality that is hard to define.

Dialogue should be appropriate to the characters. You have to have a feel for character if you are to write good personality dialogue.

Anyway, I'll try to backtrack to see what tools I have to either be aware of or instinctively apply when I write my dialogue scenes.


Be In Character- Good
Dialogue needs to be prompted, motivated and be in character-and hopefully be funny too! Ren and Stimpy say different kinds of things and say them in different ways. They use different combinations of words.

Boo Boo, Yogi and Ranger Smith are different characters and have to show their emotions in different ways.
When Boo Boo gets mad he has to say it in a way that sounds kinda sissy, because he is usually such a nice goody-two-shoes guy. You have to push him pretty far to get a cross word from him, and that was the whole story for Boo Boo Runs Wild. He has to have trouble getting his frustrations out.

Writerspeak - Bad:

A lot of characters in modern cartoons are simply mouthpieces for the writers. They speak in the writer's voice rather than the character's voice, tell the jokes that the writer and his writer friends think are funny, but are totally out-of-character for the character who is actually saying them. This common writer's flaw is known as "writerspeak".

"I'll bet that asteroid will burn out in the atmosphere and shrink to the size of a chihuahua's head". That's writerspeak. It's informational, a setup for a gag that is supposed to happen at the end of the cartoon. A gag that the audience will predict the second they hear the writerspeak setup and congratulate themselves when they find that they were duped into being right. A gag that the cartoonists are not allowed to actually make funny by drawing the payoff funny.

This is a line of dialogue that could be read by any character in the story. To the writer of a line like this, the characters are interchangable, just an assortment of extra mouths for the writer, whose mouth doesn't appear on screen.

The writerspeak writer avoids writing character specific dialogue by using catch phrases. If you just tack on "D-oh" at the end of the line, then you know who said it. You could change that to "Cowabunga" or whatever else and instantly define your characters.

Exposition - Bad.
Many writers use dialogue as exposition-they have the characters tell the audience what is going on in the story, instead of writing the characters as characters living out the story.

"I am really sad."

"I am going to walk to the door and open it."

Sometimes exposition can be funny, as in Tex Avery cartoons or in slapstick comedy. It's funny because it's so ignorant. In a way, funny by default.

Musical Rhythm- Good.
Dialogue has to be easy for the actor to read. It can't be clumsy. It should have natural flowing rhythm. It's best to write dialogue by actually speaking it out loud until it sounds good, then sitting down and typing it up after you know it works. If it's hard for you to read aloud, it will be even harder for the actor.

Listen to the word music in this scene from Baby Bottleneck:

I find that if the dialogue has a musical beat with the accents on the important points of the sentences, it makes the meaning of the sentence sink in harder. It's much more effective than just informational dialogue.

Role-Playing Dialogue:
Sometimes a character plays a role, besides just being himself. Daffy Duck in the beginning of The Great Piggy Bank Robbery is playing a little kid-or a big kid that hasn't grown up. He loves comics, and his emotions reading his newest comic are the same emotions that little kids have. His dialogue reflects it-as does the animation and Mel Blanc's great voice acting.

The dialogue also has great rhythm and music.

Here's a clip of George Liquor from Man's Best Friend. Most of the dialogue is character driven. There is a bit of exposition in the beginning and there is one line of "writerspeak" that I couldn't resist putting in the speech. It was a line that I thought was just funny and ironic by itself, but it's not really something George would say. I sinned.


Uploaded by chuckchillout8

Chris Reccardi wrote the line "Maybe I would take the car, but the goldfish took it." I laughed and put it in.

Here is a clip from Ren and Stimpy that is particularly dialogue heavy.

Uploaded by chuckchillout8

There were a lot of things I had to balance to make the dialogue work without competing with the ideas and gags.
Maybe I'll try to break it down in another post.

I will continue writing about writing cartoons and go into more detail on each of these writing tools, and give you step by step procedures of how we wrote our stories.

I'll also include premises and outlines from cartoons that I've had quoted back to me by fans.

I can't help you be creative or show you how to have original and funny ideas, but I might be able to help you make the most effective use of the ideas you do have.