The Purpose of Dialogue
Sometimes only dialogue can expose the real motivations and secrets of a character in all their complexity. It's especially effective when it exposes the character in an entirely new way from what we as an audience expect. We use dialogue to establish relationships. Dialogue reflects feelings and attitudes. Be sure you know your characters. Each character has his own agenda, often hidden. What is really being said? Which character is driving each scene? Your characters can be driving the action directly or indirectly. Direct dialogue drives people apart. Indirect dialogue draws people together. Characters may talk around a problem as we often do in real life. There may be subtext. But because younger kids probably won't understand subtlety, writing targeted at preschoolers should say what it means. Writing will also be more direct in shorter cartoons, as there simply is not time for many shadings. A longer story digs deeper. To do this try using questions in order to get beneath the surface. Dialogue should never be interchangeable between characters. It should be dialogue that only that character would say. The words should be words that this character would use. Each character should have a different rhythm, perhaps a different sentence length. Dialogue reveals education, cultural and ethnic background, age. Use wording and colorful expressions that are individual to that one character. Unique phrases can serve as a character signature.
Moving the Story Along
A good animation story has to keep moving. Dialogue shouldn't slow it down. It should serve the plot. Dialogue is one way to tell the story, but the dialogue should always disclose tidbits that the characters must tell each other, not just information that you as a writer want the audience to know. Characters make discoveries about what's happening and discover secrets about each other.
Information and Conflict
All the exposition doesn't have to come right away. We want to know what happened before the story started that's motivating our characters now. But information can come out throughout the story. Conflict in dialogue or tension between views is a good way to get information out and keep it interesting. Do be clear enough so that your young viewers understand, but don't say everything. Leave enough unsaid that the audience becomes involved and wants to know more.
The Mood of the Story
Set the tone of the story right away. This is especially important in comedy, so that we know that it's OK to laugh. The type of dialogue must be appropriate for the genre of that specific series.
Characteristics of Dialogue
Good dialogue has a beat, a rhythm, a melody. It's affected by time, place, the weather, etc. It's intangible, like mist, and it depends upon your characters and who they are, their relationships, the situation, the genre, the world of that series, the target age of your audience, the length of the script, and who you are as you're writing the dialogue. Keep it simple; less is more. For young children keep the words simple enough that they'll understand. Dialogue sounds like real talk, but it isn't. It's the essence of real talk with thematic content and an ongoing exchange of power. It must always be easily understandable and clear. You might want to repeat important story points, especially for preschoolers, but repeat with a twist.
The best comedy comes out of character. Be sure you have funny, exaggerated characters, reacting to a funny situation, and speaking in a funny way. Reactions are all-important to comedy. And so is timing! Try to avoid straight lines wherever you can. Use dialogue that plays off the situation. If there's a fire, "Let's hot foot it out of here!" Then play the next line off of that. A straight man can serve as a foil for the one-liners. Insults can be funny. Comedy dialogue develops with a setup and then a surprise punch line. The punch line comes at the end of a speech. Comedy scenes usually go out on a laugh line (a button).
Writing the Dialogue
If you can listen to tapes of your established characters in advance, do it. Your story should be set up in the first few words of dialogue. From the start, keep in mind your final end point, and build the dialogue toward the climax. Write less than you think you need. See and hear it as you write. Act it out in character. You'll want to add a new dimension with your dialogue, but don't make it so different that it doesn't sound like the established characters. Write the dialogue so that the actor can contribute something with his voice (a gulp, an excited squeal, a drawl). Think of Homer Simpson's "Doh!" Give your actors attitude, emotion, special phrasing. Character sneezes, etc. should be written with the dialogue so they're not missed during the recording session. If you're writing only one line for an incidental character, make that one line a jewel...really memorable. Keep your language appropriate for that series. If you're writing an original script, decide ahead of time whether you want your language up-to-date and fresh or classic for a longer shelf life for that show. Dialogue for children can be whimsical and full of contradictions and nonsense. Be original and clever!
Common Problems With Dialogue
- Too much dialogue. (Tests show that cartoons are seen, not heard.)
- Not enough conflict.
- Be sure there's something to animate, not just talking heads.
- No filler dialogue. Make every word count.
- Don't repeat by telling the audience what they've just seen or what they're going to see.
- Be sure that the dialogue is easy for the actors to say. Make it colloquial. Write in between breath spaces.
- Don't write in dialect. It's too hard to read. Let the actors add their own dialect. But do give the lines appropriate phrasing.
- Don't overdo puns, alliteration. And puns don't translate well internationally.
- Keep away from clichés, unless you can twist them.
- Don't write down to kids in dialogue.
- Is your dialogue really necessary? Would the action or gag be better with no dialogue?
- Don't preach! Don't verbalize the story's moral content (if it has any) in a line of dialogue.
Polish up your dialogue last. Go through the script and read only the dialogue. Better yet, read each character's dialogue separately. How does it sound? Does it need more conflict? Can it be funnier or more clever? You'll feel great when you overhear some kid quoting the lines that you wrote!
Jean Ann Wright has been teaching animation writing and development since 1996 and currently teaches for Women In Animation and The Animation Academy. Recently, she started her own consulting business. She's sold her writing to DIC, Filmation and Hanna-Barbera. She enjoys serving on the Los Angeles board of Women In Animation and judging for the Emmys and the Annies.