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?

Hmmm
...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.


Dialogue

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.

MBF_couch

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.

StimpyBreakfastTips
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.

39 comments:

PCUnfunny said...

"I'll bet that asteroid will burn out in the atmosphere and shrink to the size of a chihuahua's head".

That was from The Simpsons. Anway, I see what you mean John. The dialogue shoudln't explain a future gag or any gag. The visuals should speak for themselves.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

I agree 1,000 percent! Anything you write should be fun to speak and fun to draw. Most animation writers simply will not write the kind of dialogue that artists like to draw.

Stranger still, a lot of writers belive that a love of beautiful words is a sign of amateurism. For them structure is the beautiful thing. Everything from commercials to popular music to religious and political classics are based on beautiful words but animation writers believe they know better.

Or maybe they're just worried that thinking about it would interfere with their freelance.

JohnK said...

Hey Eddie

what cartoon writers do you know that know anything about structure?

I've never read a factory cartoon script that showed any writing skills at all.

Jeff Pidgeon said...

Hey, John!

This is off topic, but guess what's coming to DVD!...

Ace in the Hole!!

http://www.criterion.com/asp/release.asp?id=396

Billy Bob said...

Yes, please continue the impotant posts on dialogue, they are very helpful in understanding what makes cartoon stories work and which ones don't work.
Also thank you for clarifying the term "writersspeak".

Jesse Oliver said...

My favorite line from Man's Best Friend is in the scene where George makes fun of Ren for not being able to handle a little discipline, And George said the funniest line ever "Here, Take twenty bucks softy"

Was that your line?

katzenjammer studios said...

John,

Dialog is something I'm tacking right now at the moment. I'd love to see you break down certain scenes and your thinking behind them.

Thanks for keeping up this blog. It's really helpful.

Paul said...

"I'll bet that asteroid will burn out in the atmosphere and shrink to the size of a chihuahua's head"

This could only have been said by Homer, since it was the setup for a character based joke, namely that Homer got something right.

"I'm scared too, kids."

Crumpled Up John! said...

I, along with Eddie, agree 1,000 percent. Maybe even 1,002! All the best dialogue has a musicality to it.
I know that when I hear a good bit of dialogue I have a great urge to speak it from the hilltops and spew flowers, and all that rot. Rarely are there shows being written that utilize that musicality. It's sad.
By the way, a brilliant example of speaking exposition for humorous purposes are the 'Tony and Control' sketches from 'A Bit of Fry and Laurie.' It's positively uproarious!

NextGen said...

Another great post John. Thanks!

Kali Fontecchio said...

I concur! And do the next one!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Crumpled: I agree! A Bit of Fry and Laurie is a must-have. My favorite is the Barber sketch! Now THAT's beautiful dialogue!

Tom said...

I generally act for the characters in my cartoons, and just like you said, it really helps one understand how to write better. I definitely recommend that even if people aren't voicing their own cartoons, they still read through the script as the various characters and record the whole thing. You'll probably notice most of the wierd parts while recording, but going back and listening to yourself will reveal a few more. I've changed scenes around completely just based off how they sounded out loud, and everything I've down has been much better because of it.

Roberto González said...

<"I'll bet that asteroid will burn out in the atmosphere and shrink to the size of a chihuahua's head"

This could only have been said by Homer, since it was the setup for a character based joke, namely that Homer got something right.

"I'm scared too, kids." >

I agree on that. Also, you can't deny the best Simpson scripts have a good structure, more structure than, say, Beavis and Butthead.

The Simpsons do explain too much by dialogue sometimes. In a recent episode they tried to do a musical segment for Xmas and there was a part with Moe trying to commite suicide. It was a bunch of visual gags with the Nutcracker music sounding during the scene, but Moe kept commenting a couple of things, it would have worked better without dialogue.

But I think most of the dialogue in The Simpsons is character driven and they usually understand their characters. Though it's true that they speak a lot and they explain too many things by dialogue every now and then.

kevin said...

Hey John, sorry to be off topic, wikipedia lists the Ultimate Ren & Stimpy Collection to be announced for a 2007 DVD release. Can you mention if this is true or false? Also, do you have any plans to release an Ripping Friends complete series DVD set? Thanks

Rafi said...

John, I can't believe how much you're just giving away to us. I'm not complaining, it's all immensely helpful with my aspirations as an animator and cartoonist.

Can't thank you enough, so eager to learn more about getting the most out of the ideas we as cartoonists have and methods you've found effective in getting them to work in the medium.

All your examples in this post are excellent - I'd really like a detailed breakdown of that Stimpy's Breakfast tips clip, it makes SUCH a great case study for this sort of thing.
The gags and dialog feel perfectly choreographed to make the entire sequence fun to watch.

Pat McMicheal said...

Speaking of Dialogue,Billy West didnt have good things to say about YOU on his website....Maybe someday YOU could explain what happened!
The MuddyMudSkipper theme is the cooooolest jingle I've ever heard! I've made it as a ringtone for my cellphone and everyone says, "what the hell is that?". I tip my hat to who ever wrote that little tune!
the trumpet "crack" at the end is brilliant!

David Germain said...

The notion of writing dialogue to suit the character should be a no-brainer that everyone in the business should just do automatically. Why can't more people grasp this concept?

Oh well. Maybe someday.

Krishna M. Sadasivam said...

John - thanks for sharing your knowledge with us. I hope that one day you will collect these essays and put them into a book. Thank you!

Nate said...

All these years, and Man's Best Friend is just as disturbing.

Kent B said...

John, that's a great definition of "writer speak" - something we all know, but this is the first time I've seen a good definition of it.

As an example of GOOD writing, I found some Jack Benny radio scripts online:

http://tobaccodocuments.org/atc/60233250.html

Now these might seem dated with corny puns, etc. - But they are really funny and entertaining, and they're very well put together. And it's all done with 4 or 5 actors, music and sound effects. (By the way, "Mel" in the scripts is Mel Blanc) If TV animation could be written with this kind of craft and humor, then no one would be complaining!

bc3 said...

Now that the second season of Twin Peaks is finally on DVD the wife and I are watching the series again. Talk about nice dialoge. Agent Cooper has the best lines and Kyle MacLachlan nails the delivery.

"This must be where pies go when they die."

If we're not watching Twin Peaks we are watching season 1 of Ren and Stimpy. What a combo! The two biggest hits of 90-91 they work very well together and will hold up for generations to come!!!

"I've had this ice cream bar since I was a child. People... always trying to take it from me... why... won't they leave me... *alone*!"

Is anyone quoting TV shows these days??? Fake reality shows and Family Guy don't count!

Vanoni! said...

John, I can't believe how much you're just giving away to us. I'm not complaining, it's all immensely helpful with my aspirations as an animator and cartoonist.

I can't believe it either. It's incredibly generous.
My only regret is that I can't keep up.
Trying to study and apply these great notes and lessons takes lots of time - and by the time I get a handle on one, five others have passed by.
No one needs a book. These lessons are always here for the taking - take advantage of them!

What might be useful are specific 'classroom exercises' that go along with the lessons. Akin to the $100,000 drawing course.

- Corbett

Jordan said...

Yeah, not to be annoying, but the asteroid joke is supposed to be out of character, because it's about Homer summing up the entire climax of the episode and getting something right. It's kind of INTENTIONALLY anti-plot development and anti-character. That IS the joke. It's also one of my favorite episodes...That season is when Simpsons really started being more meta and making fun of the conventions of tv writing.



-Jordan

peldma3 said...

Yeas, I used to like sitcom cartoon dialogues more than I do now, But I have come to realize in alot of cases the writers are really just doing monologues and breaking them up among the characters, then shoe horning it in to plot, and unfortunatley the visuals are of little concern to the writer ,... or so it seems. and it's left up to the artist to make it all work!But things are do for a change for the better, and It's comin'
I can't wait to see more cartoons that are great to LOOK at AND funny. Man I am getting one hell of an education here!

Lori said...

A Muddy Mudskipper cereal bowl caddy would be great!

It's rare hearing dialogue on tv and especially in cartoons now that you'll remember and actually want to repeat. I still find myself quoting Ren and Stimpy a lot, though. Mostly Ren.

But, one of my favorite lines was uttered by Dirty Dog in Weekend Pussy Hunt. Thanks!

Jorge Garrido said...

LMAO!!! I've never seen those Ren & Stimpy clips before but they're hilarious!!

"Yoooooooooouuuu don't GET any discipline!! Why don't you go see a MOOOOVIE!!"

"Why, when I was your age, we ate WOOD! And Rocks!"

Oh, and John, please;

BREAK IT DOOOOWN.

JohnK said...

>>Yeah, not to be annoying, but the asteroid joke is supposed to be out of character, because it's about Homer summing up the entire climax of the episode and getting something right. It's kind of INTENTIONALLY anti-plot development and anti-character. That IS the joke.<<

How come everything today that's wrong or bad is "supposed to be bad".

Drawings are supposed to be bad. Characters are supposed to be expressionless. Plots are supposed to meander...People are always telling me that lack of ability is on purpose and funnier than talent and skill.

Is anything today supposed to be done with skill or professional standards? That would be too old-fashioned and corny I guess.

jonathan said...

I hope it's not too late to comment on this thread, and maybe my comment'll even get read by the great John K. himself, but Man's Best Friend is my favorite R&S cartoon: I just watched it for the 20th time and it still made me crack up. So, what's the line in that scene that's "writerspeak"? I'd bet that it's "There's nothing a man hates more than having his lower life-forms sit on his non-living posessions." That one rings a little false to my ears.

Let me tell you what I LOVE about that scene: the sound FX are incredible, especially the weird mechanized "trash compactor" noises that happen when George screws himself up into a rage, or "don't you ever let me catch you on [crunch] MY couch. [teakettle!!!]" Brilliant. (When are you going to give a lesson on sound effects, by the way?)

I love the little animated word "HURL" when Stimpy throws himself at the couch. Half comic-book, half video-game.

The cuts in this scene are WEIRD, though. Like, the cuts between Geo. glowering down at R&S (just before Stimpy jumps on the couch) interspersed with CUs of Geo yelling at them are a trifle... odd. And the fades to black throughout the whole cartoon are sometimes a little disconcerting.

In fact, the whole Doggie-Treat gag is quirky as hell. I don't even know if it's funny, or just plain... eccentric! (But I like eccentric.)

But, man, the weirdness in this scene doesn't even begin to compare to the total freakout postmodern pastiche of the scene after it: that is CRAAZY, with its weirdo cuts to ENTIRELY DIFFERENT animation styles: Ren's tongue branching out, cut to painting of Ren atop George's prone body, all in screwed up colors, done in a completely different style. (Sorry, I'm talking about the rest of the cartoon, which hasn't been posted... yet.) But so, what's up with *that*, Mr. K?

Anyhow, thanks so much for your blog, and all the years of laughter and excellence.

Roberto González said...

>>Yeah, not to be annoying, but the asteroid joke is supposed to be out of character, because it's about Homer summing up the entire climax of the episode and getting something right. It's kind of INTENTIONALLY anti-plot development and anti-character. That IS the joke.

How come everything today that's wrong or bad is "supposed to be bad".<<

But it's NOT bad. It spoils the asteroid joke, but it sets up another joke, which is probably the best of both gags in that final scene, the fact that Homer was right.

Now, if you consider that the line is not natural in the way it's written, that's different. I guess Homer could have predicted what was going to happen "with his own words", but I even think the "chihuahua's head" comparison is not so unnatural for Homer's way of thinking. Maybe the line is a little too long and kinda smart for the character, though.

thehotwad1 said...

Wow, I never ralized how many the cartoons I've been watching have been using writerspeak

I'm starting to see the uglyness behind all these critically acclaimed cartoons, especially the sitcoms.

Jim Rockford said...

"People are always telling me that lack of ability is on purpose and funnier than talent and skill".

"Is anything today supposed to be done with skill or professional standards? That would be too old-fashioned and corny I guess"


Based on what I see foisted upon the public by the entertainment industy nowadays,I would have to agree and say the answer is NO. people without talent rely on the excuse "I made it that way on purpose" as a crutch,an attempt to mask their inabilty to do a proffesional job and at the same put on airs that they are deliberatly being "avant gaurd" by not comforming to old standards of proffesionalism.
This attitude isnt limited to cartoons and seems to have been adopted by and large by most of the entertainment industy.
nowadays very little is professional and polished,we have poor acting,writing,and directing in most cases too,and the public just keeps watching.
Hollywood has become creatively bankrupt,and has invented the ultimate lazy slob tv format ,the reality show!, which is basically a slightly more wholesome version of "bumfights" where they offer idiots money to do stupid things.
Skill and professional standards are the hallmark of someone who actually gives a damn about their work and wants the public to enjoy the finished product.its an "old fashioned" way of thinking in a society made up of real life Homer Simpsons and Peter Griffins,whose attitude seems to be "If something is hard to do,its probably not worth doing".everyone wants to just slide by with the least amount of talent or effort.
the sad thing is that society rewards lack of abilty a lot.
Your cartoons are works of art,and like most true art it goes over most peoples heads (executives heads in particular) and has a hard time becoming mainstream.
when Ren and Stimpy came out it laid waste to all other modern animation and redeemed an art form most of us thought would never shine again.

JohnK said...

>>
But it's NOT bad. It spoils the asteroid joke, but it sets up another joke, which is probably the best of both gags in that final scene, the fact that Homer was right.<<

It's never mentioned again.

You barely even notice a chihuahua and it's nowhere near the asteroid.

What's the joke? It's not a joke if you see it coming a mile away and it's not even played as a joke when it happens.

Jeff Read said...

That Storks, Inc. building still looks futuristic, in 2007.

So much good design it brings tears to your eyes, and I'm still kicking myself for not noticing it all back when these cartoons used to rerun on TNT.

And that was before Turner got happy with the edits; I was fortunate enough to see Egghead waste an audience member with his shotgun.

Vanoni! said...

By the way - I just watched that Breakfast clip and it took me right back to when my friend and I were raging R&S fans. We'd tape complete episodes off the TV using cassette recorders so we could play them back later when we weren't in front of a TV.
I remember this segment particularly because when Ren came on shouting, "How many times do I have to tell you. . ." with that clinking sugarbowl sound accompanying him we'd laugh our asses off.

- C

CP.Aaron said...

Has anyone here ever watched Trailer Park Boys, specifically the early seasons? It's got some really, naturalistic funny character-driven dialogue (and it's actually pretty intelligent if you can get past the amount of swearing).

The newer seasons are kinda getting dumbed down a bit though.

deadman said...

"Maybe I would take the car, but the Goldfish took it"

I simply loved that part in that episode. I just watched it yesterday for the first time and replayed the sequence more than six times. I simply loved that dialogue and the way it was animated. Especially the way George Liquor moves his but and head in rhythm and mouths the previous dialogue and the way Ren imitates George's mouth and dialogue style.

I can't understand why Nick had to ban that episode. Probably they feared the sponsors pulling out their advertisements - advertisements that go to any sickening lengths to make a child addicted to its product.

Thanks for that wonderful episode, John. And thanks to Chris Reccardi too. BTW who voiced George Liquor? I know you did Ren.

Captain Napalm said...

Does no one here have the brains to realize that the chihuahua line from The Simpsons is making the exact same point that John is making? A hip audience knows how stupid it is to set something up that way because they've had to suffer years of terrible sitcoms doing it.
It's totally disingenuous to snip an unconventially ironic moment out of a show -a piss-take on bad story formula- and treat it like it IS their formula. John, why don't you man up and tell us where, exactly, in "Homer's Triple Bypass", does Homer say, "Why, I think today at work I'll have a meeting with Mr. Burns in which I contort into a series of grotesque poses while a floating heart monitor, which is apparently invisible to all but the audience, goes beserk until it starts throwing in shots of space debris and a whole suit of cards before freezing and shattering as I stiffly collapse to the ground"?
Or how about the mysteriously missing bit of exposition wherein Homer rhapsodically describes, for the visually impaired, the exact nature of his epic spice hallucination, complete with such witty observations as "I love the part where my face sinks deep into the centre of my head, wherein it turns 180 degrees in order to face outward as it pops out the other side" and "Don't you love how that noxious-looking mirage of a river turns out to be a huge hissing cobra snake which then encoils my helpless pataphysical person"?

If not for the original context, though, it would be an excellent point, and for someone who's never seen the episode, it probably illustrates what you're saying perfectly, since, like I said, that was it's original intention anyway.

Harvey Rothman said...

Hello John,
The current method I use for writing is to do the storyboard with what the characters say roughly so, it is quite writerspeak-esque. Then, I improvise the scenes without looking at the storyboard in character and modify what the characters say in the script later on.

Is that a good method to use? Thanks.