What An Old Novel Taught Me About Writing Thrilling Dialogue

A while before I wrote this article, I randomly ended up reading the first five chapters of an out-of-copyright novel from 1907/1908 called “The Iron Heel” By Jack London after seeing it mentioned in an online comment and then reading that it was an early dystopian novel.

Although I could probably talk about the novel’s political arguments, or how it breaks a lot of the rules of writing good fiction (but is still very readable), or how the third chapter uses elements from the horror, detective and romance genres to make a political point, I thought that I’d talk about how the story handles dialogue.

Because, despite the story’s old-fashioned narration and lecturing tone, the dialogue-based scenes are refreshingly different to pretty much anything else that I’ve read.

For example, here’s an extract from the first chapter: ‘His smashing, sledge-hammer manner of attack invariably made them forget themselves. And they were forgetting themselves now. Bishop Morehouse was leaning forward and listening intently. Exasperation and anger were flushing the face of Dr. Hammerfield.

This isn’t a description of a fist-fight or a crime. It is a description of a political activist having a polite discussion about metaphysics and science with a bishop and a professor. It is a completely non-violent scene. Yet, it is written like something from a thriller, crime and/or horror novel.

Even though the dialogue in this chapter is sometimes turgid, didactic and ultra-formal (eg: ‘The metaphysician reasons deductively out of his own subjectivity. The scientist reasons inductively from the facts of experience.’) and the argument is presented as being very one-sided, none of this matters because of the descriptions surrounding the dialogue. They make you want to read more.

Here’s another example from chapter one: ‘Ernest ignored the thrust. It was always his way to turn the point back upon an opponent, and he did it now, with a beaming brotherliness of face and utterance.‘ This could almost be a description of an old-fashioned duel between two knights, yet it is a description of two people talking peacefully.

And then there’s this description from later in the chapter: ‘I can hear him now, with that war-note in his voice, flaying them with his facts, each fact a lash that stung and stung again. And he was merciless. He took no quarter,* and gave none. I can never forget the flaying he gave them at the end‘.

This reads like something from a horror novel, or a novel about pirates or maybe a grisly scene from “Game Of Thrones”. Yet, again, it is a description of a few people sitting in a room and having a peaceful discussion about metaphysics and science. A discussion which, if it was written slightly differently, would be the most boring thing in the world.

So, the main lesson in all of this is that even the most boring dialogue can be made thrillingly readable if you pay careful attention to the descriptions surrounding the dialogue.

If you describe the effects of the dialogue in a dramatic way (or the events surrounding the dialogue) and you are willing to borrow techniques from other genres, then you can turn even the most dull dialogue into something that is as grippingly page-turning as a thrilling car chase or a scene from a horror novel.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

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Three %@(Β£#*$ Stupid Ways To Use Profanity In Fiction, Comics etc..

First of all, there is nothing wrong with using profanity in fiction, comics etc…. However, there are right and wrong ways to use these important parts of the English language in the things you create.

So, for today, I thought that I’d look at some of the wrong ways to use profanity in creative works – since they can be quite illustrative. And, yes, some of them are either an indirect or direct result of censorship of some kind, but they can still be very illustrative of what NOT to do.

1) The “American Dad DVD” approach: One of the many amusing things about watching an animated sitcom called “American Dad” on DVD is that the UK DVD packaging will often use descriptions like “outrageous“, “too rude for TV” etc… Which sounds thrillingly rebellious, until you realise that the show’s creators are rebelling against much stricter American TV censorship rules.

As such, the DVD versions of these episodes often include short additional/alternative scenes that use more realistic profanity. However, due to the fact that the show is also primarily intended to be aired on American TV, these scenes and lines of dialogue are included in such a way that they can also easily be altered or removed without affecting the main story of the episode.

This has the unintended side effect of making these additional scenes seem “gratuitous” in the literal sense of the word. Even though an episode might only use one or two four-letter words, they often seem like they’ve been shoehorned into the episode just for the sake of it. Plus, it leads to absurd situations where the dialogue will often be polite enough for the US television censors during fairly important/dramatic scenes but, in some much less significant moment, a character will use much more emphatic language. It just sounds very, very weird.

This is a good example of how important context is when using profanity in creative works. Whenever you use profanity in fiction, it has to emerge naturally from the scene in question. It has to be something that the audience would realistically expect to hear in that particular situation. If it isn’t, then it will just sound gratuitous rather than dramatic.

2) The “Euphemisms When Not Needed” approach: Another silly example of American TV censorship leading to badly-written profanity can be found in more serious American drama shows. Often, these shows will often try to create the impression of their characters using more realistic language through the use of various euphemisms. However, thanks to the censorship, these euphemisms often appear in situations where people realistically wouldn’t use euphemisms.

After all, if you’re talking informally with your friends in private, you probably aren’t going to avoid using four-letter words at all costs. You’re just going to talk normally. However, if you’re in a more formal situation or talking to someone you don’t know well, then you’re probably going to use euphemisms a lot more because of social conventions about politeness. Euphemisms exist to allow people to say things that can’t be directly said in particular situations. Outside of those situations, there is little use for them.

So, don’t use euphemisms in situations where your characters wouldn’t!

If you’re in a situation where you can’t use realistic profanity in your stories but have to write a scene where euphemisms would sound out-of-place, then either use the strongest language that you can get away with using or just don’t use it at all. After all, a badly-placed euphemism sounds more out-of-place than a suspiciously polite conversation.

3) The “Boring Repetition” approach: On the other end of the spectrum, there are right and wrong ways to write dialogue that includes a lot of profanity.

Ironically, you should actually try to avoid realism if you’re using a lot of profanity in your dialogue. After all, when almost every other word is the same four-letter word, it just sounds more like repetitive punctuation than anything else.

So, if you’re using a lot of profanity in fiction then be creative with it! Vary the words that you use slightly and/or pair them with things like wit, amusing descriptions and/or interesting events.

Likewise, remember that less is still more. If you pair a few carefully-placed four letter words with lots of opinionated, controversial, descriptive and/or amusing dialogue, then your work will, ironically, sound a lot more profanity-filled than it would if you actually included ridiculous amounts of profanity. It is as much about attitude as it is about frequency.

A very good example of this approach to profanity can be found in Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” comics, or possibly some recordings of George Carlin‘s stand-up routines.

When done well, profanity-heavy dialogue crackles with a frisson of passion and energy, it makes you laugh and cringe, it makes you want to quote lines from the dialogue and it makes the character who is speaking seem like some kind of cynical badass. However, when it is done badly, it just seems dull, repetitive and/or immature.

So, if you’re using a lot of profanity in your dialogue, then treat it like paints on a palette, rather than punctuation marks.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Linguistic Gimmickry In “Spartacus” – A Ramble

2017 Artwork Liguistic gimmicks article sketch

Although I probably won’t write a full review of it, I’ve been watching a really interesting TV mini series on DVD called “Spartacus: Gods Of The Arena”. Anyway, it contained a very interesting linguistic gimmick in the dialogue which I thought that I’d discuss here.

Even though this show has the classic “it’s ancient Rome, and most of the characters have British accents” thing, the writers have made the main characters speak in a very clipped and grammatically-different way (often leaving out the word “the”), presumably in order to mimic Latin grammar. I don’t speak Latin, but the few Latin phrases I know all use a different type of grammar to English.

It’s a very imaginative linguistic experiment, although it often doesn’t really work that well in practice. Sometimes, it sounds authentically “Roman”, sometimes it sounds like broken English and, other times, it just makes the characters sound melodramatically abrupt. Even so, I can see why they tried to do it.

When it comes to writing dialogue in comics, fiction etc… there has to be a balance between realism and making the dialogue understandable to the audience.

After all, people in Ancient Rome spoke Latin with Italian accents, rather than English with modern British accents (historical British accents sound very different). But, the show was produced primarily for American audiences (even though it was also released on DVD here in the UK) so it makes sense that the characters would be speaking English instead. So, I can see why the writers compromised and tried to include some Latin-style grammar in order to hint at the fact that the characters would have been speaking Latin.

Getting the language right in unusual settings is often a bit of a complicated thing, although I’d often argue that you should lean heavily towards understandability, even if it comes at the expense of realism. Plus, as I mentioned in this other article, there are a lot of subtle things that you can do in order to make the dialogue fit in better with the setting.

Although my other article talks more about how language evolves in fictional settings, there are obviously several ways that you can make the language used in historical settings sound more authentic, without making it seem incomprehensible. The classic trick is, of course, to use lots of posh-sounding words like “aye”, “verily” and “forsooth” (and I sort of did this in at least one historical comedy/sci-fi comic), but the opposite to this can often work considerably better.

For example, like with HBO’s “Rome” TV series, one thing that “Spartacus: Gods Of The Arena” nails perfectly is the grittiness of the language used. Thanks to Shakespeare, past film censorship and other such things, there’s often a false impression that people in the distant past were a lot more sophisticated and polite than people are these days.

So, the liberal use of four-letter words in these TV shows is probably a lot closer to how people used to speak in Ancient Rome. A time where people had fewer puritanical hang-ups about the human body, sexuality etc… A time where, instead of peacefully playing violent videogames, people entertained themselves by watching gladiators literally fight to the death.

In this context, eloquent and polite Shakespearean dialogue would seem vastly out of step with the world that the characters live in. So, this was a very clever choice on the part of the show’s writers -even if, ironically, it also makes the show seem a bit more “modern”.

So, yes, keep any linguistic gimmickry in your stories, comics etc… fairly subtle and your audience will appreciate it.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Lettering In Webcomics – Handwritten Or Digital?

2016 Artwork Webcomic Lettering Article Sketch

Well, since I’m still busy making a webcomic mini series at the time of writing (eg: the one after the one that is currently being posted here every night), I thought that I’d talk briefly about lettering in webcomics and whether handwritten lettering is better than digital lettering.

In case you don’t know what “lettering” is, it’s a professional-sounding term for the written text in a comic. This can either be written the old-fashioned way, or it can be added to the comic digitally. In fact, many traditional print comics apparently actually had a separate artist just to do the lettering – although, if you’re making a webcomic, then you’ll probably be adding the lettering yourself.

Personally, I’m a fan of handwritten lettering (with some occasional digital editing) for several reasons. Even so, there are some advantages to entirely digital lettering. This is one of those questions where there isn’t really a “right” or a “wrong” answer, so I’ll be talking about both types of lettering here.

The first reason why I prefer handwritten lettering is that I find it to be a lot more intuitive in many ways, since you have slightly more control over things like text size, the writing style and how much text you can cram into a speech bubble. It’s also a natural fit if you’re using traditional materials to make the rest of your comic. In addition to this, it also lends the comic a certain amount of “personality” that you just don’t get with typed text.

Unless you’re writing very small text, legibility isn’t as much of an issue as you might think as long as you follow the cardinal rule of handwritten lettering – “ALWAYS WRITE IN BLOCK CAPITALS“. This can take a bit of getting used to, but if your “normal” handwriting is anything like mine, then your webcomic’s readers will thank you for it.

Plus, modern technology has eliminated one problem with traditional handwritten lettering. If you make a mistake in your text, or need to change it, then all you have to do is to open your scanned comic with an image editing program (I use MS Paint for this) and either copy and paste some pre-written replacement text over your original text, or create new text digitally by painstakingly copying individual letters and/or words from other parts of the dialogue.

On the other hand, the advantages of digital lettering are consistency and easy editing. Not only that, because most computer fonts are designed to be read quickly, you don’t have to follow the “block capitals” rule that applies to hand-written lettering. This can allow you to include more nuance in your writing by including both upper and lower-case letters in a realistic way.

In addition to this, if you have some expertise with image editing, you can also add both the speech bubbles and the lettering to your comic after you’ve finished the art. This gives you slightly more control over speech-bubble placement, although the idea of drawing a comic without speech bubbles just seems kind of strange to me. Still, different things work for different people, I guess.

One downside of digital lettering is that, unless you use a custom font, your lettering will have a lot less “personality” to it than it would do if you wrote it by hand. However, if your writing is good enough and your art is interesting enough, most people will probably just let this slide by without really noticing it.

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Sorry for the short article, but I hope that it was useful πŸ™‚

How To Use Profanity Effectively In Comics

2016 Artwork The effective use of profanity in comics

Although I briefly mentioned this subject a couple of days ago, I thought that I’d take a more in-depth look at the right and wrong ways to use four-letter words in comics. Before I go any further, I should probably point out that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with using profanity in comics (or any other media) – provided that it’s done well.

This article will also only really cover the effective use of the most dramatic four-letter words, and I won’t really be covering the less dramatic ones here. And, just for the sake of irony, I’ll try to write this entire article without using said words. But, first, I’ll explain why I’m writing about this topic today.

When I was planning one of the comics in the webcomic mini series that started yesterday evening, I had a rather interesting experience. Although the first three panels of the comic each contained a smaller joke, the truly funny part was the final panel – where one of the characters expressed shocked disdain in a dramatic way. If this wasn’t done dramatically enough, then the comic would be significantly less amusing. It was the thing that brought the jokes in the first three panels together in a truly hilarious way.

So, without even really thinking much, I spontaneously added a realistic expression to the end of the comic. It was a perfect fit with both the moment and the character. Then I started to worry if it would fall foul of the content rules of the sites I post my comics to.

I considered substituting it for a less dramatic phrase, but any lesser phrase would drain the humour from the funniest moment in the comic. In the end, I compromised and kept something similar to the original phrasing – albeit with the addition of two asterisks.

A good general rule for when to (and when not to) use profanity in your comic is to see whether it emerges naturally from your characters or not.

If anything, you should actually be slightly reluctant to use it in your comic – this usually means that it’ll only emerge when nothing else will do. If you take this approach, then every time that your characters use one of these words will be a dramatic/ funny/ surprising etc.. moment.

It’s kind of like a more sensible version of the silly film censorship rule that films with a “12A” or “PG-13” certificate can only use a certain four-letter word a limited number of times (1-2 times in the US, 4-5 times in the UK), despite the fact that, when I was a young teenager, this word always seemed more “cool” or “rebellious” than “shocking” or “offensive”. Then again, this might explain the rule…

Although these silly censorship rules sometimes result in the word being used for immature shock value, or thrown into a film unnecessarily in order to get a higher certificate – they do at least provide a slightly exaggerated example of how to use profanity effectively in comics.

Since the makers of these films can only use the word a limited number of times, they have to use it when absolutely nothing else will do. Although you might end up using it more than 1-5 times in your comic, setting yourself some kind of informal limit can be a good way to make sure that you use this word in it’s most effective way.

Even though a few comic writers can make frequent use of these words funny and/or dramatic through extremely clever writing (Warren Ellis is a master of this skill in his “Transmetropolitan” comics), most of the time, these words lose a lot of their dramatic or comedic impact if they’re used too often.

Not only that, if they’re used regularly in contexts where they probably wouldn’t appear in real life, your comic will come across as immature, rather than “edgy”, “gritty” or “witty”.

So, the rule about being reluctant to use them is more about pacing, timing and drama than anything to do with prim puritanism. Of course, there are a few exceptions to this rule – such as when realistically depicting informal conversations. But, even then, it’s usually better to be slightly careful about how often you use these words, lest you bore the audience with constant repetition.

So, aim not to use them – but be open to the times when they appear naturally and spontaneously. Or set yourself some kind of vague informal limit, in order to avoid lessening their dramatic value through excessive repetition.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

When NOT To Use Dialogue In Comics

2015 Artwork When Not To Use Dialogue Article Sketch

At the time of writing this article, I’m working on a comic called “Diabolical Sigil”, that will probably have been posted here in late July and possibly early August.

Because I’m slightly further ahead with these articles than I am with my art, I’ve just finished this page of the comic at the time of writing this article:

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] "Diabolical Sigil - Page 2" By C. A. Brown

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Diabolical Sigil – Page 2” By C. A. Brown

Anyway, working on this page made me think about something that I’m still sort of learning. Namely, when is and when isn’t it appropriate to use dialogue in comics. Since I come from something of a writing background, I have a tendency to over-write my comics sometimes.

This was probably at it’s worst when I made my old “CRIT” comics back in 2012/2013, where many pages would contain gigantic chunks of exposition-filled dialogue. Sometimes there would even be as much (or more) page space filled with dialogue as there was with illustration. Here’s an example:

This is a page from one of my old "CRIT" comics from 2012. As you can see, most of the page is filled with dialogue.

This is a page from one of my old “CRIT” comics from 2012. As you can see, most of the page is filled with dialogue.

The thing to remember here is that, although comics can tell stories as well as (or even better than) prose fiction can, comics are more than just illustrated short stories. The illustrations are just as much a part of the story as the dialogue or narration is.

The illustrations in a comic must support the story, but they don’t always have to take second place to the dialogue. Remember the old saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words“? Likewise, remember the old piece of writing advice that you should “show, don’t tell“? Well, both of these things also apply to comics too.

But, another rule applies too – namely, “don’t tell the same part of the story twice“.

If you show something visually in your comic, you don’t usually have to explain it using dialogue. Your readers are smart enough to be able to work out what is happening in a picture (and, if they can’t, then this is probably a sign that you need to re-draw your picture), so you don’t need to tell the same part of the story twice.

And, since looking at pictures is often more interesting than reading words, if you can get something across to your reader using a picture instead of using dialogue – then use pictures.

There are obviously exceptions to this rule, but you should usually only use dialogue to tell parts of your story that you can’t tell using pictures alone.

I mean, it’s theoretically possible to tell an entire story just using pictures – if you don’t believe me, then check out the Wikipedia page about “Wordless Novels“. These were a precursor to modern comic books and they tell entire stories without even using a single line of dialogue.

So, how do you do this? Well, like films and TV shows, comics are a primarily visual medium. This means that you can use many of the silent storytelling techniques that films and TV shows do in your comic.

In other words, you can use things like actions, facial expressions and background details to tell parts of your story in a way that you can’t really do as well in prose fiction (yes, you can use written descriptions, but it doesn’t have quite the same impact as an actual picture).

But, of course, the trickier question is when should you tell part of your story using dialogue and when should you tell part of your story using pictures?

There’s no “one size fits all” answer to this question, but one good way to get a sense of when to use visual storytelling and when to use narrative storytelling is to read as many comics as you can. Read comics by famous writers like Alan Moore, Warren Ellis and Neil Gaiman – or, if these are too expensive, then read some widely-acclaimed and long-running webcomics.

Seeing lots of good examples of good storytelling in comics will, after a while at least, start to give you a bit of an idea about when it is and when it isn’t appropriate to use dialogue in your comic.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

A Very Basic Tip For Using Other Languages In Fiction

2015 Artwork Using Other Languages in fiction article sketch

Although this is an article about classic ways to use other languages in fiction, I’m going to have to start by talking about my own (fairly limited) linguistic skills for a while first. Trust me, there’s a good reason for this and I’m not just waffling about myself for the sake of it.

For a long time, I thought that I only knew about three languages. It goes without saying, but English is my first language. As such, it’s probably not that surprising that I’m absolutely awful when it comes to learning other languages.

Thanks to five years of French lessons at school and several trips to France, I can sort of at least partially understand written French and possibly even have a very basic conversation in French. So, French is probably my second language. But my French is probably fairly rusty by now. C’est une catastrophe!

And, thanks to listening to various songs by Nena, Rammstein, Eisbrecher and Equilibrium, as well as visiting Berlin when I was sixteen and having various history lessons at school, I understand (a relatively small amount of) German. So, German is probably the closest thing I have to a third language. Mein Deutsche ist nur rostig.

But, after a random conversation a few weeks ago, I suddenly realised that Spanish was the closest thing I had to a fourth language. Although I’ve never taken any Spanish lessons and couldn’t hold even the most basic conversation in Spanish, I know at least a few Spanish words and can understand a few basic phrases in Spanish.

So, how did I learn this? Well, I mostly just kind of picked it up from American movies, songs and TV shows. Since Spanish is the second most widely spoken language in the US, Spanish words are going to turn up in a lot of things that are made over there.

Still, this raises a lot of interesting questions about how to use other languages in fiction. Most of the advice I’m going to give about this is fairly classic and/or obvious advice, which you’ve probably heard before or have seen examples of before. So, none of this is particularly groundbreaking.

The general rule when using words from another language in fiction is to only use a few of them and to use them in a way that makes their meaning immediately obvious. This is because you can’t assume that all of your readers will speak more than one language. Plus, having to look up the meaning of words from another language on a regular basis can seriously ruin the flow of your story.

So, if one of your characters speaks another language, then most of their dialogue should be in English – with a few carefully-chosen words or phrases in their language, in order to show that they aren’t actually speaking English.

For example, you could write something like: “Walking out of the cinema, Franz shook his head muttered ‘Dass film war scheiße‘. As films go, it wasn’t the best one that I’d seen either.”

Because Franz shakes his head and because the narrator says that they both didn’t like the film, you don’t have to speak German to guess that Franz’s dialogue wasn’t exactly complimentary towards the film.

As long as the meaning of this scene can also easily be understood if the German words were removed (or replaced with blank spaces), then you can add them.

What this means is that you don’t have to be a fluent speaker of another language in order to use other languages in your fiction. As long as you know a few basic words, then you can give the impression that one of your characters speaks another language fluently. In fact, you could even use an online translation program or a phrasebook if you absolutely have to.

Plus, if you use other languages in a way that makes their meaning immediately obvious, then your readers might even end up learning a few new words too. After all, this was how Spanish ended up becoming my fourth language, without me even realising it.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚