Saturday, March 05, 2011

Dialogue Wisdom

Sometimes bad cartoon writers (who write cartoons with scripts rather than drawing them on storyboards) justify their silly procedure by pretending to be above cartoons and aiming more at live action procedures.

I found this next passage about writing dialogue from a screenwriting book for live action movies and television.

NOT EVERYONE CAN WRITE GOOD DIALOGUE
I have found this equally true in animation. Hardly anyone is good at writing natural and entertaining dialogue, let alone writing it in character. Most animation writers resort to catch phrases and off the cuff pop culture references that could be said by any character.

Some things you just have to have a talent for - like writing dialogue, or writing melodies. There are all kinds of good musicians, but very few among them can invent catchy melodies. The ones that did are immortal. Character design in cartoons is like this. You just have to have a knack for it. I don't think it can be taught.

WRITING PRODUCES STILTED DIALOGUE BY ITS VERY ACT

I've mentioned before that I have found this to be the case for myself. When I try to write dialogue at the keyboard, it comes out stiff and stilted. Once I know the context and meaning of a scene, I do much better by walking around the room and improvising the dialogue while acting the scene out more spontaneously. Speech must use a different part of the brain than writing.

YOU CAN'T BE TAUGHT, BUT YOU CAN IMPROVE YOUR NATURAL ABILITY BY KEEN OBSERVATION
I think to be naturally good at something like dialogue, you have to have not only the natural gift, but a keen interest and fascination with how people speak. You have to be constantly aware of how different people express themselves and be able to pick out who is entertaining, how and why they are and then how to edit out the boring parts.
By Wolf Rilla

30 comments:

Isaac said...

I'm afraid I'm one of those people who has an ear for bad dialogue, and I can analyze it and tell why it's bad, but I can never write anything that sounds like something a person would actually say.

littlearse said...

I LOVE when a writer captures the personality of the characters and writes motivated script that only those characters would say.
I find it rare in animation, although I think Toy Story 3 gave it a good go.
In tv - arrested development had it down!

Scrawnycartoons said...

As you said, it makes it a ZILLION times easier to write dialogue for distinct iconic characters with clear personalities.

Steven M. said...

I can probably point out bad dialogue, but I'm not sure if I can write good dialogue.

Bwanasonic said...

I don't think that "good" dialogue, and natural realistic dialogue are necessarily synonymous. My favorite era of dialogue is 1940-1950, but I don't think people ever actually talked like the characters in The Maltese Falcon, or for that matter any given Bugs Bunny cartoon of that era.

Dennis Holway Driscoll said...

I think I found a typo? On the 4th paragraph down you wrote 'there are all kinds of god musicians.' :)

Yowp said...

I guess stock characters beget stock dialogue.

JohnK said...

"I don't think that "good" dialogue, and natural realistic dialogue are necessarily synonymous."

I agree. But it should sound natural and pleasant even when stylized. I didn't mean "realistic" by any means.

Peggy said...

It seems to me like you're actually agreeing with this scriptwriting book on what makes for good dialogue. So does this allow for the possibility of there being good cartoon writers who are not terribly visual people? Paul Dini's work on the 90's Batman show comes to mind as an example - though I haven't watched that for a good while and it might not be as good as I remember!

Sadly there have of course been a lot of hacks who were just interested in the paycheck, and didn't give a damn about what was actually going to work well as animation.

(And on a completely unrelated subject, I was at ECCC today and saw a Stimpy costume that deserves a place of honor next to all those off-model vintage toys you have.)

John said...

Dilbert creator Scott Adams once wrote that if you make what the characters say as selfish as possible, the dialogue will sound the most realistic.

Lucas Nine said...

>I don't think that "good" dialogue, and natural realistic dialogue are necessarily synonymous.

I agree. That´s why nowadays there is no more film acting, the lighting is as flat as possible and the camera seems a tv news live show. Because is "natural".

kurtwil said...

Very helpful, given that I too struggled for days trying and mostly failing to give my animated characters decent feeling dialog.

BTW, Would having dialog actors interacting help create a more natural and spontaneous dialog flow?

Many older cartoons benefited from the "radio presentation" approach where all the actors were in the same room, could see and hear each other, and build upon each other's performance. 30's Popeye cartoons had overlapping dialog!!

When cartoons went to isolated soundbooth voice recording (widely used today) they felt/feel more like a series of stand-up routines following each other, rather than strong ensemble acting.

talkingtj said...

i dont understand why writing "good dialogue" is so hard.all writing, no matter what genre, most be drawn from real life and real life experiences. simply listen to people when they speak,develop the idea of the character and base the dialogue on that idea. i create a character, he is rich, scottish and cheap, he is also a millionaire, what should his dialogue be like? shakespearean? no! scottish accent, concerns over money, miserly attitude, very business like=scrooge mcduck, the humor comes from the personality, the dialogue follows-simple! consistency is key, a guy from brooklyn, brooklyn accent, ugly to look at, childish attitude, strong as superman=the thing, dialogue follows, simple! think about character, motivation, background, it all falls into place, dialogue follows, you dont need books or schools for that! inspired amateurs like stan lee or quentin tarantino never went to school for it, why should you? create the character, be consistent, dialogue follows!

Victor Resistor said...

Good characters write tehmselves -

If te character has no defined way of behaving then they will much more difficult to write. Or easier if you just want to have them make a pop culture reference and it seem appropriate.

C said...

I find that's an issue with long-runners. For example, Bugs. People will make him say anything these days, as long as it sounds hip. They don't really write for him anymore.

Martin Juneau said...

@talkingtj
I agree with that statement. Good characters and personality helps a lot for found good dialogues like does Bugs Bunny, Popeye, Ren & Stimpy or the Asterix animated films (In their original run of course.), but i scare that i'm just good for giving clich├ęs dialogues to my own characters even if they benefit the traits of real-life references.

Gordeaux said...

I remember seeing an interveiw with the siger/songwriter Jewel, she was talking about how she wrote her songs, she used to sit in crowded areas and watch life go by, listen to the world, write down the words of life and when she became famous she could no longer do this as people would recognise her and interrupt that flow of reality. Wether you're a fan or not the difference between her first and second albums are quite significant. But the last album she produced was quite soulless in my mind which goes to show what John is saying is so true. That old cliche of KEEP IT REAL! has a profound truth to it when it comes to writing in any art form. I also believe that there is a fair amount of you either have it or you don't!

jeffreyJack said...

Great post. There's that quote attributed to Hitchcock that says, 'When the screenplay has been written and the dialogue has been added, we're ready to shoot. …" his films were beautifully storyboarded and if dialogue really was pushed to the end, it seems the characters would be allowed to have their own voice after they were developed and fleshed out a bit. I just rewatched North by Northwest. Great dialogue. Plus I agree with Bwanasonic. I can't watch The Maltese Falcon without thinking of Bugs Bunny.

C. said...

Stan Lee wasn't an amateur by the time Marvel Comics had its great creative period. He had been writing - AND EDITING - comics since 1941. Say what you will about how he broke into the business, but he knew his stuff by the time Marvel became Marvel.

As for Tarantino, his dialogue is heavy on pop cultural references. Granted, he's a hardcore film fan, but I can't stand his work. There's too much of a reliance on "ooh, I like this scene from Switchblade Sisters! Let's steal THAT!"

BlakeJ said...

Hey John,

Sorry this isn't related to your (awesome) post about writing, but have you heard what has been happening to Charlie Sheen?

This crazy guy has been doing very.. off.. interviews, started a twitter, reached an unfathomable amount of Twitter followers, and NOW is doing a livestream show in the net called "Sheen's Korner".

I'd love to hear your opinion on all this, if you haven't heard of it already.

Blake J

Bruce Quast said...

Good dialogue can make or break a story. It needs to advance the plot, while helping you get to know the characters.
The best dialogue, to me, sounds like real people talking.
I spend a lot of time polishing the dialogue in my comic strip, Faron Square. I hope you'll check it out!
http://www.faronsquare.com/

Ross Irving said...

Hello John,

I know you've made posts using this book as a reference before, do you know the title of it? I'm aching to try and find it and take a boatload of notes out of it.

Ross Irving said...

Hello John,

I know you've referenced this particular book for some of your past posts on writing before, do you know the title? I'm aching to take a bunch of notes off of it if I can get my hands on it. Thanks.

Martin Juneau said...

I have a problem with dialogues based in real life. I know in the US, it's different than where i live, but in Canada and Europe, when you try to made dialogues from real-life peoples, you even add their actual accents which is hurting for your ears when you watch a TV show or movie. Even some local expressions notably in France's show can't be understanded completely by the peoples in America.

I think the best method is yes, based our dialogues from real-life but give them a bit of sense and be understanded by the others, giving them the more neutral possible. That is perhaps the best way it can be done for animation, mostly from Europe dubbings.

Dave said...

Strange as it may sound, dialogue is determined by structure, for which I suggest http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html

Elana Pritchard said...

Reading well-written books helps with writing.

Hunter Thompson copied The Great Gatsby word for word to learn the "rhythm" of Fitzgerald's writing. It's the same thing as copying Clampett or Tex Avery or you to learn to be a cartoonist.

J C Roberts said...

Historically, when it comes to the best cartoon dialog, the voice actor performing it has always been an important part. Mel Blanc, Daws Butler, Alan Reed.. The guys that put just the right spin on the lines and give the characters a strong enough personality that makes writing for them more distinct. How much did these guys bring to the final product? We know from interviews that certain phrases and expressions and specific malaprops came from them and whatever source of inspiration they brought to a character.

I don't know how much adlibbing they did, or could, throw in, but I don't think the writing for these characters reached their peak until those vocal nuances were established.

All in all, a main reason it's a hard skill to teach is because it usually doesn't come from just one writer, but the overall effort of the writer, the designer, and the performer articulating the lines. It's pretty rare that all three are done by the same person, although a certain chihauhau comes to mind...

Dapoon said...

I 100% agree with the point of laying as much (or I would say MORE) stress on analyzing the pauses between the speeches as the speech itself. I think THAT is where the personality comes from.

Like Ed Hooks says "Thoughts lead to emotions and emotions lead to the actions".

Great post again John!

Crimson said...

kurtwil said "When cartoons went to isolated soundbooth voice recording (widely used today) they felt/feel more like a series of stand-up routines following each other, rather than strong ensemble acting."

Isn't that confusing different tasks?

I'm not sure how small and integrated the Fleischer studio actually was compared to the modern system (I suppose a small enough group might be able to "write" in an ongoing organic process throughout production), but there has been good 'booth' work from time to time -- even overlapping dialogue. Where the modern system seems to break down more (casting aside) is with the seemingly apathetic and tin-eared voice directors.

Crimson said...

John said: "Dilbert creator Scott Adams once wrote that if you make what the characters say as selfish as possible, the dialogue will sound the most realistic."

So Scott Adams is another of those writers who has one voice: his own. That works out really well for some folks (Quentin Tarantino comes to mind), but I think it's more of a skill to adopt the voices of distinct characters.