Dialogue Post

Patrick Alexander of Raymondo Person has an excellent post on the inimitable Achewood and the difference that natural, vibrant dialogue can make.

I agree wholeheartedly with most of Alexander’s claims, particularly what creatively dishonest writing can reveal about its author. However, I think blaming such writing on “women’s thoughts and feelings, coming out of a man’s mouth” is a slight misstatement. I would never accuse Least I Could Do‘s Ryan Sohmer, for instance, of listening too closely to women!

No, the problem is bigger than men feminizing their ideas; it’s bigger than XKCD, Questionable Content and all the other romantic dramas that dress up their drama in nerd culture and pedestrian quips. The problem is that people simply do not expect–from others or from themselves–better than artificial writing.

Based on a true story!  Except I left out the part where I paused, hit Back, sighed heavily and put my head in my hands.

Based on a true story! Except I left out the part where I paused, hit Back, sighed heavily and put my head in my hands.

Children are taught from an early age not to write like they talk. Then you have an online culture that glorifies mindless repetition and–paradoxically–lets one circumvent any meaningful contact with different people and perspectives. The result is that too many young writers cannot project a distinct voice–another’s or their own. (And having worked as a teacher’s aide and an editor, I can tell you this is by no means limited to comic writing.)

Small surprise, then, that unrealistic dialogue is almost de rigeur for webcomics. Webcartoonists are not chasing the great novel, they are chasing the mediocre sitcom–for where else would you ever hear an exchange like this?

Which is not to say that dialogue must always be perfectly realistic. Homer Simpson would lose his larger-than-life appeal if he talked and behaved like an ordinary late-thirtysomething. Yet for all his absurdities, he has weaknesses and goals and an internally consistent worldview in which his actions make sense; he’s not stupid for the sake of being stupid. In short, he is human, and humanity is what separates naturally unfolding character humor from a soulless delivery of a canned punchline.

So just how much realism is enough? I can’t draw a bright line, but I can make a comparison with the art side of cartooning. The first thing a cartoon artist learns (and, if he does not, is forcefully reminded by his peers) is that he must know realism; he must, like Walt Disney and Charles Schulz, have a good idea of how shapes, lights, shadows work in reality before he tries his own take on these fundamentals.
It is much the same in writing dialogue. By all means, stylize–punch up those words and make them your own–but never lose your grounding in reality.

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3 Responses to Dialogue Post

  1. [...] the Hell People wants more natural dialogue in webcomics. Summary: Achewood, good dialogue. Sluggy Freelance, bad [...]

  2. I especially liked the line about chasing not the next great novel, but the mediocre sitcom.

  3. [...] one of Anders <3 Maria2. Now, above and beyond what I think of these comics3, both he and Rex Dandycom over at What The Hell People are very ardent believers of how things should be done, on what aesthetics should be praised and [...]

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