Hey all, and welcome back to Why It Works. Last week, I used Tsuredure Children as a launching platform to discuss some of the ways to sharpen dialogue – how it’s important to avoid relying on canned phrases, and how dialogue should reflect some deeper emotional need of a character. Of course, there’s a whole lot more to dialogue than that, so today I’ll be finishing up with a few more key principles, helpfully illustrated by those handy Tsuredure kids. We’ve got even more points to cover today, so let’s get right into it, starting off with…
#3: Keep It Snappy. Reduce, Reduce, Reduce
Virtually every beginner writer, when submitting their early work to any competent editor, will have that work come back with thick red lines through a huge amount of the text. Dialogue in particular shouldn’t come in the form of long speeches. Dialogue is an exchange of words, and the snappier you make it, the easier it is for the audience to keep interest. When writing a large, multi-scene story, one of the key questions writers ask themselves is “what is this scene doing for the story overall?” The same rule holds true for dialogue – if characters are just spouting lengthy speeches that do nothing to advance a conversation, the audience will fall asleep.
Cutting down on dialogue isn’t just useful for keeping the audience awake, though. Eventually, you start to notice there’s an actual “tempo” to dialogue – that the rhythm of line and response creates an internally pleasing melodic sensation. This is probably easiest understood in terms of comedy – we all understand comedic timing is key to jokes, but the same thing is true of dialogue. Start by cutting unnecessary lines and words and reading your dialogue out loud, and eventually an understanding of rhythm will come.
Tsuredure Children is a master class in conversational tempo, and in keeping things brief wherever possible. The fact that each episode can contain three separate shorts without feeling rushed is a testament to how few words are actually necessary to convey a full conflict. The most recent episode managed to make new character Nanase’s conflict clear with a couple lean sentences, letting the audience fill in the rest while the characters’ back-and-forth kept things lively throughout. Tsuredure Children understands that audiences can fill in a whole lot of information themselves, and that prioritizing the snappiness of dialogue is key.
#4: Say It In Their Voice, Not Yours
I put this one fourth because it’s the hardest to follow, and essentially demands a full skill by itself. In addition to having specific needs, characters have specific voices, voices that are reflective of their backgrounds, personalities, and everything else that composes them. These voices give life to their conversations, and working to make sure all your characters don’t sound like the same person is a key part of writing. Saying your lines out loud is also a good way of checking for this, but it’s also important to just consciously consider “how would this character speak.” If this person is gruff and serious, they’ll probably stick to shorter lines, perhaps with a hint of impatience. If they’re exuberant and love everybody, that probably comes through in their dialogue (though don’t overdo it!). Characters should not all feel like the same person – we wouldn’t be able to tell five characters with the same visual design apart, and the same holds true of five characters with the same vocal quirks.
Tsuredure Children’s most recent episode offered a great example of this principle, when it returned to the story of Goda and Kamine. The fundamental conceit of Goda and Kamine’s material is “these two have a terrible time figuring out what the other is thinking,” but though they share the same overall conflict, their voices are different enough that it was fun simply jumping from Goda to Kamine’s head. Goda is all terse declarations and self-recrimination, putting all responsibility for a conversation on himself. Kamine is all self-doubt and florid imagination, constantly impressing her own anxieties on what Goda might believe. Simply through the contrast in their internal voices, Tsuredure Children makes a repeated conflict feel entirely fresh.
#5: Leave Things Unsaid
Finally, my last piece of advice is to not overly rely on dialogue in general. Human beings don’t articulate all their feelings – in fact, they don’t even understand all their feelings. Oftentimes an expression or glance or physical action can take the place of dialogue, and make the story stronger for it. In dialogue terms, “a picture’s worth a thousand words” reflects the fact that if you can reduce five lines of “I was shocked by the situation happening” to one gasp and expressive face, you’re doing both your reader and the story itself a favor. As hard as we try to imbue dialogue with specificity and voice, the combined brevity and personality of one expression can do far more. And plenty of our favorite story moments rely on ambiguity, where an unspoken truth leaves an emotional gap that the reader can help fill in.
For all its great dialogue, Tsuredure Children is also bolstered by the fact that it is knows when to let its visuals do the talking. This is very clear in its punchlines, where the complexity and ambiguity of dialogue often gives way to one expression that truly says it all. It’s clear too in its use of body language, where characters are often more honest with their limbs than they are with their words. In the end, the complexity of conversation means everything is a compromise – brevity will clash with voice, cliche can actually reflect character, and every rule can be flipped on its head in the right situation. Dialogue is a living thing, and that’s what makes it so special.