6 More Dialogue Tips
- Monday, July 4, 2016
- 5 min. read (974 words)
- Bake in Intent
- Awkward Action
- Play On Biases
Here are some more tips to writing dialogue for a believable character. To review, dialogue pushes the story forward or shows the character is interesting through their varied emotions.
Bake in Intent
A common critique of the dialogue mechanics in video games is that players don't know if their choices have any impact on the game. This leads to players feeling their choices do not matter.
Limit the choices to two options, and put intent in brackets to be extra clear the choice will change the story. John says, "Who are you?", and the player can respond:
- You know who I am. [flirt]
- Does it matter? [sarcasm]
Without the brackets, the player has no idea what the result of each choice would be. By picking flirt or option 1, the player is telling us they are in the mood for flirting. We can use this information to have all the next dialogue choices revolve around flirting.
Intent is important for 3 reasons. One, it shows the player that their choices matters. Two, it makes the player think more carefully, therefore engaging them in the story even if the story is bad. Three, it is realistic, when people start a conversation with someone, they often have an objective or intent in mind.
Not every dialogue choice can cause story alternating branches. Eventually, every branch needs to merge down. We can make this merging less jarring by giving each choice a unique NPC response. That way, when the player plays the game again and picks another response, they are greeted with a new response before seeing the inevitable merging response.
Continuing from the last example, the player picked the flirt option. John says, "Is this your way of coming on to me?"
- What? You don't like it?
- Too aggressive? This is so embarrassing.
- I don't know, what does my body language say?
Notice all of these choices follow tip one, that is, all choices relate to flirting to various degrees. Option 1 is confident. Option 2 is shy and awkward. Option 3 is sexy or provocative. Following tip 2 or feedback requires the NPC, John, to respond to each of these choices with unique dialogue. Afterwords, we can merge by having John respond again with a line to keep the story going.
People have a variety of contradictory personalities. A person may treat their mother kindly, but others viciously for no rationale reason. A character with such a range of emotion is said to have many dimensions.
One way to add dimension, without making it seem disingenuous, is to add awkward actions. People in new or novel situations often do not know what the appropriate or socially accepted action is. The default is often to remain silent, however we can break this default with actions. John has been caught shop lifting.
- [threaten to destroy ring]
- [swallow ring]
- [wear ring, and pretend you own it]
People speak at about 110 - 145 words per minute. This gives others the opportunity to interrupt with small comments. I listen to a lot of podcast involving more than two people, and interrupts are common. Most of the time, interrupts are used like a comma. They add additional information or clarify the previous line.
- John: "Hamburgers are diet killers that—"
- Jane: "averaging 400 calories per serving—"
- John: "or enough to undo a 1 hour work out session"
- Jane: "—but they're so tasty John. Won't you join me? I know you—"
- John: "Go fuck yourself, you god damn siren."
- Jane: "You're going to hell anyways. 400 is such a small price to pay for a little drop of heaven."
Interrupts are extremely good at conveying light hearted banter, because it often looks like an old couple completing each other sentences. However, when two strangers interrupt each other, it is often considered rude. Interrupts are also good at portraying charismatic, charming, or socially adept people. Charming people often interrupt in a manner that adds comedy or complements the person speaking.
Rhythm is repetition in a predictable time. Rhythm is important because it adds another layer of engagement. In writing, rhythm is measured in words. Sentences contain 14 - 25 words on average. If sentences were the same length, the reader would get bored quickly. This is like a 10 second section of music repeating over and over, it would get boring fast. Here are some guides to sentence length:
- very short (1 - 5 words) = in a hurry, annoyed, giving a command, scared, ashamed
- short (6 - 14 words) = apathetic, guilty, relaxed, or telling a joke
- medium (15 - 25 words) = explaining a topic, deep analysis or confused, angry
- long (more than 26 words) = is sharing a story, giving advice, empathetic
Every work of fiction is completely new to the reader. They only gain information through reading. The player gets their information via the characters speaking. Again, to avoid predictability, leverage the reader's biases to trick them. Put words in a character's dialogue to push the reader to a certain, hopefully, incorrect conclusion.
John wants to ask Jane on a date. To surprise the audience, lets make John give Jane $50 to borrow. We make him appear to want to ask Jane for the money back, hiding his real intentions. John says,
- Hey, do you still have the $50?
- I messed up.
- Shit, you know that $70 I gave you?