So, I’ve gone now to a few writing workshops and seminars. I’ve heard writers discuss how to write good dialogue, and one thing I’ve heard a few times repeated is this: Joss Whedon knows dialogue. Not just how to write it, but how to inspire others to write it. When people in sci-fi and fantasy talk about dialogue, they talk about Buffy.
Well, I want to say after getting through five seasons, I agree.
Let’s be honest, I never watched the show when it was on. My intro to everything Whedon was Firefly and Serenity. Then I wanted more. Astonishing X-Men comics, sweet. He took my favourite mutant and made him interesting again (for a time, at least…). Avengers movies? Yeah sure, I’m in. Cabin in the Woods? Yup. (Though I didn’t try Dollhouse…or read Runaways…should I?) Not once had I even considered going back to watch a teenage girl beat up ‘vampires’. But then I kept hearing how great the dialogue was. And so, I got my hands on Season 1, and started in Sunnydale right from the beginning.
All right, let me get one thing out, right off the bat. This blog post ain’t about feminism. From what I understand, Joss Whedon’s worlds are a mixed bag and are often torn apart over the subject. This here, this post right now, is just about dialogue. Just dialogue.
Great Dialogue Isn’t Great Dialogue
Now, as far as I can tell, the reason Buffy is cited as great dialogue (as my wife continually points out after watching the occasional episode with me) isn’t because of great dialogue. It’s not poetry; we’re not talking Shakespeare here. It ain’t florid prose, but it feels real. When you watch an episode, the speech feels natural, off the cuff. (Well, mostly. The one-liners after Buffy takes out a vampire are cheesy as all hell.) The characters speak with all the “ums” and “ahs” that exist in real conversation. They let sentences fade away, and a lot of the time the characters do not fully understand what they’re talking about, so they invent new words to try to reason it out, both in their heads and within their circle of friends. (Sometimes, this doesn’t makes a damn lick of sense. Five-by-Five? What does that even mean?)
Note, this is not the author making up words, it is the characters. And when done properly, it makes sense. We do it all the time, and I think it applies heavily to fantasy and sci fi. You’ve set up a world were a young farm hand gets thrown into an adventure with some soldiers. They speak differently, and when they gather together they should have their own slang, their own “in” words. Their own jargon. In Buffy, adjectives and nouns get switched back and forth constantly. Characters twist meanings of things around as they need, and the audience can still keep up.
To enable the audience with that skill, these words should follow a system, not be arbitrarily used any time the author doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Do that and it’ll show though. Whether these words are nouns – say a slang term for a crossbow, a type of demon, a hyperdrive, or the author’s own system for swearing – they should follow the basic rules. (Trust me, made up words are hard for some readers, if you don’t use them properly, you’ll lose your the audience.) This is jargon used by groups of specialized individuals. They are nicknames, but they’ve been around so long people have to stop and think about where they come from.
Character is Key
Wait a minute, you say. That was television. And a show for teenagers who already understood the language. They already spoke Buffyspeak (real thing) when they started watching the show. And this whole show is set in valley-girl California. Yeah, I know that. As a writer we can’t fill up our pages with every character stumbling over their words, throwing in pop-culture references, and adding the word “much” every second sentence and think it’s gonna work.
So what can we as writers take from this?
I think the key to Buffy is the characters’ voices. Now, it might have been the acting, the directing, the writing, or just Joss Whedon’s influence (the guy didn’t write or direct every episode), but the characters each say their lines in a different way. You can tell one from the other simply based on what is being said. There is a flavour to each of them, and it comes through in spades.
Your dialogue isn’t being said by you. It’s being said by your characters, and they should each speak differently. Different rhythms, different phrases. In Buffy (and in real life), people have a few favourite words they like to use. They have a voice. It makes me think of Kruppe in the Malazan Books of the Fallen. He’s the extreme version of this, though sometimes it comes off very badly. It also makes me think of Doctor Who, with some of the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey Doctorspeak. Characters need to find their own voices, but they are most definitely there. So use that. (Don’t overuse it, but use it.) Vampire Slayers have their own jargon. Soldiers have jargon. Bakers have jargon. Nobles have it too. And within each of these professions, the individuals have their own flavour.
Get to know it, and get to know how your characters speak.
Alright, enough of this. I’ve got writing to do, and season 5 to finish.