Sunday, March 30, 2008

Big Thank You to March Contributors- And How To Write Dialogue

Read this out loud and see if you can make it sound natural.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to the blog as of Mar 30 08...

Benjamin Hernandez

John Faso

Blorch! Studios

Tim Maloney

Matthew Glenn Nunnery

Anthony Rizzo

I took all your cash and bought my sick chihuahua a warm sweater, so Killer thanks you too!

I found an old page of notes (from 1994) with tips to my storyboard artists on how to write natural sounding dialogue. It's your reward for contributing. I hope it's helpful:


The first thing a dialogue writer needs to know is that people do not speak the way a writer writes. Especially a cartoon writer.

Dialogue should sound natural, off the cuff, spontaneous.

It should be structured but it shouldn't sound structured, or deliberate.

It should be poetic, not in a rhyming sense, but in a lyrical, flowing sense.

Know your characters.

This doesn't mean that certain characters always say certain things; don't substitute catch phrases for personality.

Be aware of context - how the characters feel at this moment.

Suggested approaches:

(There is no right way to write dialogue.)

1. Structured Approach:

Figure out what a character needs to say in the story context, structure it for the story's purpose, then rewrite it in the character's words.

2. Empathic Approach

Be the characters: put yourself in the scene. Turn the lights out except for a desk lamp.

Know who the characters are and how they express themselves. Know the situation that the characters are in. Know their specific motivations and feelings at this moment in the story.

Now act. Live the scene. Spontaneously, free-form; just act the scene out loud.
Walk around the room, loosen up.

Improvise the dialogue. Just say your character's feelings as they gush out of you.
Have an assistant take notes.

Don't worry if all your lines don't connect perfectly or smoothly.

You are looking for inspirations.

*This is a good method for artists too.

If you are a S.B. or L.O. artist, Director or comic artist, act it out a few times to get used to it.

After you finish, have an assistant type up notes, categorize your ideas and directions, give them headings.

You edit, arrange, and smooth out, fill in gaps, connect ideas, and write your scene.
This is the better method for writing dialogue. You will find more surprises. Your dialogue will sound more natural and spontaneous.

*There is no perfect, calculated way to write good dialogue. Of all the elements of writing for the screen, writing, dialogue is the one that most closely resembles art.

This requires feeling as well as skill.

Good dialogue does more than just tell the story, it sounds good, it is aesthetically pleasing just for what it is.


Good dialogue must be easy to read. A director always knows if a line or passage of dialogue is not working when the voice actor repeatedly stumbles through the line. This has happened to me many times. A writer (including me) will write a line that is just too long and the actor can't get enough breath to get it out. Or the words just don't flow easily together;they aren't musical, so the actor keeps getting tongue-tied.

To write good dialogue, you should have some experience reading dialogue, so you have empathy for the actors.

This is what's wrong with today's cartoon writers; they have no experience doing any of the things they are demanding of the actual creative people, so what they write simply doesn't work and everyone wants to kill them.

So...test your dialogue before you hand it in. Read it out loud. Is it smooth?

Ask someone else to read it out loud.

Dialogue is perhaps the hardest part of the cartoon writing process. Writers with a natural feel for dialogue are rare. I've worked with lots of funny people, or people who are good with structure and story ideas, but usually end up rewriting much of the dialogue myself.

With that said, it is also the most creatively rewarding part of the process of putting words together. The characters' dialogue are the only words that the audience or reader will ever hear or read of the writer's work. These words can directly affect the audience, can make it believe that the story is really happening.

Again: The audience will never hear your descriptions of plot or action, so use as few words as possible there and be strictly matter of fact and instructional:

Ren does this.

Then Stimpy does that.

Then this happens.

Then Stimpy says (looking deep into his own soul with extreme sincerity, religious resolve):

"I know now what I must do! I must use my gift of save Ren"

Put your creativity into the dialogue. That will actually be heard.

And make it sound natural - even though it has dramatic purpose hidden under the faked spontaneity.


Trevour said...

Thanks for this useful info, John! You have an infinite cornucopia of great theories and ideas.

Oh yeah, if you're wondering who Blorch! Studios is, that's me. I'll buy a few shirts from ya as soon as I get more $$$.

Mr. Trombley said...

Dear Sir, how should dialog running gags be handled? I think that leaning on running gags is the most common (or maybe just the most galling) mistake I see in writing.

The Three Stooges had the best running gags, Moe's "See That?" is my personal favorite, but all the classic sound comedians had them.

Lampshade said...

"Let's see what you look under this... Wow! No wonder you wear a mask."

"H-Hey hey you can't do this! Nobody has out tricked me!"

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

It's a treat to get John's thoughts on dialogue because he's the best dialogue writer in the business. That example from Stimpy's Inventions was terrific.

A lot of how-to-write books de-emphasize dialogue in favor of structure, and that's a mistake. Good dialogue is crucial. I actually get offended by cartoons that don't have it.

Weirdo said...

This soundike a good way to write dialogue for any medium, like movies, television, or even books. This would make a great way to have characters sound different from each other. Excellent post. I think this is one of your best.

kate yarberry said...

kate leaves comment in sincere voice.
" your chiuahuhua looks like it needs more than a sweater."
kate take sip of gin.

how am i doin'?

Eshniner Forest said...


Cornelius Danger said...

Hey John, I know this might be a stupid question but I just kinda sorta got the hang of flash and I wanted to animate a couple of characters talking.

My problem is I'm having difficulty animating mouth movement trying to get my characters to formulate words.

I'm all new to this but is there some sort of reference or site or something that you know of that I could consult for help on animating mouths syncing with dialogue?

Dave_the_Turnip said...

Great notes on writing dialogue.

I usually try and make my university essays read well, and get marked down as that's not how i should be writing ><

Still some great ideas there. I have a script where some of the dialogue just feels too stilted. I might try acting it out with only the idea of what needs to happen in the scene and see what comes out.

PCUnfunny said...

Aww, that dog looks so physcotio.

diego cumplido said...

do you actually own a little "Ren" with a sweater or it's a joke?. I'd love to have that dog anyway.

Michael Turek said...

this is an awesome post.

Jeff Pidgeon said...

To play devil's advocate a little...

The Coens' script for Miller's Crossing is not natural sounding at all. There's virtually no one on the planet who can speak (off the cuff) as well as the clever characters do in that movie.

Verbally, the whole thing comes off like a filmed play, but I maintain that it works, and works really well.

I realize that you're primarily talking about writing for cartoon shorts, but I think there's a 'writerly' quality in a lot of older films that's really great.

Ralph Eggleston once said, "I don't want to make reality - I want (to make) something better!"

Zorrilla said...

Nobody will probably care other than comic artists, but dialogue in comics is a little different than in film.

Space is really valuable in comics, and dialogue sometimes needs to be very functional and even schematic to resolve some minor scenes and save valuable panels for where they are needed most.

A 15 second conversation is easy to cram in a film, but in comics that's probably a page which can be 5% of the total space.

Bitter Animator said...

Where are the animation writers? Serious question and something I was wondering about on my own space recently. Why no web presence? Why no discussion? Why no animation writers' message boards? Where the hell are they?

I found one animation writing blog and there's just tumbleweed there.

I am genuinely interested in writing and, personally, I think the craft of writing is often at an exceptionally high standard. But animation writing? Yikes. What's going on?

I can find thousands of web pages, blogs and so on, by people into animation, cartooning, drawing. One about animation writing.

What's up?

NateBear said...

So you think you can improve my dialogue writing skills, do you? Well I tell you that non one can out-write THE ANIMATION WRITER!. MWAH HAHAHA!

*Bursts into a swarm of fully animated purple and pink bees that cascade across a pastoral, Breugal-esque countryside.*

Jeff Read said...

Comic dialogue is awesome because it's hokey and unnatural. One of my favorite artists -- David C. Matthews -- is an expert at writing dialogue in the golden and silver age style and re-creating that old DC and Marvel "feel".

The Stimpy's Invention line was awesome. For us the quality of R&S dialogue practically goes without saying, and by "us" I mean those who memorized whole episodes and recited the lines shamelessly in unwelcome situations.

Gavin Freitas said...

I think I laughed for about 10 minutes at your chiuahuhua joke. God bless those folks who help sickly animals...

andy said...

This is a gripe I have with Dennis Miller's approach to comedy - completely apart from his ideology, on just an esthetic level, I feel like I'm being read to and it ends up sounding pretentious - delivery is a lot of what makes or breaks comedy, regardless of the ideas.

Mick said...

Brilliant brilliant. i fully agree, this is wine for my ear. i feel exactly the same about dialogue. Everything here that you say is how i think it should go. You know the score with scripts written by some bumpkin... i read one just recently that ignored everything you say here and guess what it reads like a confused spiritless bag of shite. What you outline is so simply the way to go that i find it impossible not to regard anyone who doesn't realise this as an utter baffoon. Nice one fella... poetic is flow is the best, like a drum roll, gags are ryhthmical like life. that is why gags and jokes are and will always be essential to the human spirit. Go man go, brilliant, somebody get John a beer

Jon, Garaizar. superstar said...

i have to write an english paper tonight, its mostly dialogue. you picked the prefect night to post this, haha.

Thornhill said...

Wow, great post on dialog writing!

Mr. K, I think you should let the viewers of this blog know how much money you are making from them. Like a chart of what goal you're trying to reach or something? "When it reaches here, REAL cartoons can be made again!"

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing!

Booo Tooons Ltd. said...

"Matthew Glenn Nunnery"

Aww man, it should have said 'from Booo Tooons Studio with thanks'... This is what you get when you don't have a bank account and have to rely on your fellow Matthew Nunnerys to take care of the donations for you.

Anyway, Booo Toons Studio says: "Thank you, John! From Trevor Thompson ( me ), Matthew and Janine Nunnery. We're glad the dog is warm, and not slowly going MAD!"

Thanks for the dialogue post. I'm just writing dialogue for the cartoon now, so this is perfect timing. We shall, as always, heed your advice, JK.

- trevor.

Anonymous said...

I think that all writers should read Hemingway for his natural and simplified writing. He's a great example of someone who can tell a story without it sounding contrived or forced.
A good example of BAD writing would be the later episodes of M*A*S*H. In the later years, every character seemed to have a version of Hawkeye's lyrical quick wit and tonque twisting creativity in every line they spoke. It's sickening to watch. This is a classic example of the show's writers going overboard with a concept and adding this type of forced dialog to EVERYONE, without keeping in mind the personality of each character.

Raff said...

"So let's take this thing off....Whoa! Looks like you NEED a mask, buddy!"

"Aagh! I'll tear your REAL face off for this! NOBODY out-tricks me!!"

Booo Tooons Ltd. said...


What do you say to people who's favorite dialogue-heavy movies sound nothing like how people really speak ( a la 'His Girl Friday' )?

- trevor.

JohnK said...

Well I didn't say dialogue had to be realistic. It has to sound natural, not necessarily be totally realistic.That would be boring.

It should be colorful, in character, smooth and understandable. This requires great skill and art.

there are no cartoon writers today that are on anywhere near the level of old Hollywood screenwriters.

The Dennis Miller example is very apt.

He writes his monologues out as if he never said them before and then he has trouble saying them, runs out of breath.

They are so awkward and unnaturally stilted and verbose that it's nearly impossible to understand what he is saying, let alone laugh at the jokes.

PCUnfunny said...

Two things John Babe:

1. I have noticed on the flat talky cartoons, the diaolgue explains every single little thing that is going on. I've left the room while watching the simpsons once and I noticed you don't even have to watch the TV. Every character is explaining every single little action. They'll be like:

Principal Skinner: [over the intercom] Attention please, I need a volunteer for a thankless chore.
[Lisa raises her hand]
Principal Skinner: Shall I assume the only hand in the air is Lisa Simpson? Thank you, Lisa.

Guy N. Cognito: [comes into Moe's looking exactly like Homer except for a fake-looking moustache and silly voice] Hello! My name is Guy N. Cognito.
Moe: Get out of here, Homer!
[sound of Guy N. Cognito getting beaten up and thrown unconscious into the street]
Homer: [walking along despondent until he stumbles onto Guy N. Cognito] Oh, my God, this man is my exact double!
[a fluffy-tailed small dog walks by]
Homer: That dog has a fluffy tail!
[Homer leaves Guy and starts pursuing the dog]
Homer: Come here, fluff!

Too much discription from the characters ! This gives no room for any visual entertainment.

Oh and my secound thing. I just bought the complete droopy dvd collection. The DVNR sure is bad on the set, especially on Droopy's Good Deed. JEEEEESUS !!!! You are basically seeing a cartoon being raped in every frame.

Anonymous said...

"It should be colorful, in character, smooth and understandable."
There it is... "in character".
George Liquor is George Liquor and he should speak and respond to any given situation the way George Liquor would respond to it - which is not the way Bugs would respond, not the way Daffy would respond, and not the way Ren or Stimpy would respond to the same situation.
Since these are cartoons, and extremities of almost every kind are certainly welcomed, just about any dialog or reaction could be used as long as it is IN CHARACTER. But the minute a character responds in a way that is not a 'dimension' of his personality - the whole thing falls apart. If I have learned one thing from John, it's that knowing your character, not just physically, but emotionally as well, is of the highest importance.

As far as Dennis Miller, he has writers writing his schtick. Cheap writers that are not keeping in mind his personality, which is why his jokes don't sound like they are coming from him. The trouble is, he himself doesn't know what's funny, which is why he hires writers to write funny things for him, but again, he doesn't know if what they are writing is funny or not, so he goes cheap, and ends up screwing himself by using crappy writers and assuming they are good.
Sound familiar?
Only artists should make cartoons, and only funny people should be comedians.

Booo Tooons Ltd. said...

Thanks for the clarification, John!

I hate it when I get dialogue notes from people saying, "That's not how people talk!" Duh! Who wants to hear that?

- trevor.

PS: It also pisses me off when dialogue is recorded and they delete any spaces the actor takes, and the only time there are any pauses are when they are making something obvious. It hurts, John, it really hurts.

Traven said...

It is a distorted habit of mind which identifies the real with the actual. In any philosophy worthy of the name, the real is always the ideal, the actual merely the apparent. In genuine philosophy the word ideal signifies what ought to be realized, and is realizable. The perversion of modern thought consists in this, that it understands 'realism' to signify what is in the sense of what occurs; that is, it confounds the real with the actual and so with the apparent.

- Albert Schweitzer, 1934

My friends cartoonists should know they stand on a solid intellectual bedrock that stretches centuries in the past, far deeper than the lichen of modern thought.

It seems to me not exactly right to refer to elements of your work as faking. I think, when I myself immerse into a certain character, or - better still - try to express voices already in my head, I don't fake, nor do I deliberately distort, nor create extremities for extremities’ sake. Instead, I try to be faithful to some very unusual things in the world that have somehow been overlooked and unexamined.


Jack Ruttan said...

That chihuahua's brilliant. I imagine it's shivering and its eyes are glistening slightly, and it smells like the inside of a shoe.

Hope he's doing well!

Chris E. said...

Thank you for this. I've always thought about how my characters should talk. Sometimes with I work on them, I sometimes wind up writing in some dialogue in hopes of showing off what they are like. But yeah, I try to really think it over and make sure that it makes sense to whoever reads it by speaking the dialogue outloud.

Excuse my crude drawing.

I know a "comic artist" who does something similar but he just tends to write dialogue that is not only too long, but hard to even get. I know he's trying to make a joke, but it just doesn't come off funny to me.

Maybe it's funny in his own mind. And I don't know of anyone else who draws dopey grinning faces with his dialogue. (I actually had to find one that didn't look like furry porn. Bleh!)

Anyway, I'm thankful for these methods you had mentioned, because now it makes me feel relieved to know that I'm not as crazy as I thought I might've been. XD

Dan C said...

I might add a couple of don'ts -
If you ever find that you have written the following lines:

1. Zero, zip, nada, zilch!
2. What the...!
3. Radical!

It's time to put down your pen. Or to turn off the computer. And then bury it.
I've lost count of the times I've heard cartoon characters say those lines. Nobody has ever said "What the..." and failed to say "fuck!" after it. Similarly, saying a list of words that mean "nothing" isn't sufficient for a laugh. And using "kid-friendly", 'tude-poisoned slang words... well, the less said about that the better.