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Natural Dialog or Dialogue?

There is always more than one way to say something, sometimes multiple ways. This is true for movies/games/book/audio. The artistic vision may even call for un-natural dialog. This is a very basic list of things one should consider when writing dialog.

Roger Hågensen

July 29, 2011

13 Min Read

There is always more than one way to say something, sometimes multiple ways. This is true for movies/games/book/audio. The artistic vision may even call for un-natural dialog. This is a very basic list of things one should consider when writing dialog.

(Guy Hasson did a Top 10 Don'ts list unfortunately for him I really do not agree with him at all, sorry dude! I originally intended to write a comment there but realized I had more to say on the subject, so I felt that a proper post on it's own was in order.

The issue I have with that list is that I actually in my daily real life do pretty much all those don'ts, so in my eyes that list basically states that I'm not talking the way I should, which is ludicrous obviously. This made me think of what natural or real dialog actually is! I'll avoid the temptation of a numbered list, but it is still a list however.)

Dialog or Dialogue

Pretty much everything that has dialog has some kind of personality or character, even a simple desktop computer. And if you are lucky as a writer you get to create the characters as well, or at least create their personality. If you are unlucky you get told to dialog for something with little room for growth or evolution.

As it is much easier to be negative and say what you shouldn't do, I am instead going to be completely insane and say what you should do, which could potentially backfire really bad in this case, but what the heck, let's give it a shot!


Natural Dialog

There really is only one rule of good dialog writing. Always try to imagine actually being there with the character. Does it sound natural, does it fit their personality, does the way the dialog is delivered make sense in the current situations? In other words is it logical at all! Nature is based on logic (or even chaotic logic one might even say). How do you yourself talk in your daily life? To officials or authority, to those under/above you, or your peers, your family members, friends. Note how people on the town talk, obviously not eaves dropping what they are saying, but more like how they are saying. Maybe try to dig up archival recordings of people talking. Listen and look at how various historical figures talk in video recordings. Avoid fictional media or reality TV media, these are always scripted (yes even reality tv), and edited more than you might guess.


Instructional Dialog

A instructor, trainer, teacher, parent or somebody that tries to hammer home a point will always use wording like "this is very important" even if it is obvious to you or the character being talked to, this is known as conditioning or drilling. The trick however is to keep it real, which is difficult when you suddenly have to mention player interface elements. You will never hear an instructor mention the left control button, unless you are being instructed in playing a game. It instantly breaks the illusion, and it is a pain in the back to get right. so although a text box telling you to move your mouse to look around isn't exactly immersive, it is at least not jarring like a spoken dialog saying the same.

Ideally nothing should be needed. But it is not always practical to provide the player with a quiet room or location with nobody else around so the player can discover how the controls work. but if possible and it makes sense to to the story then this is the idea way. It is always amusing when a player first experiences this, usually followed by a slight sheepish expression as they glance around them hoping that no other people saw them leave a scorch-mark on the wall accidentally. Might be especially amusing in crowds or play-testing rooms.

In any case, learning by experimenting is the natural way to learn something. Also, the better your story/plot/dialog is otherwise, the less instructions are actually needed to point the player in the right direction.

Visibility Dialog

Can the characters see each other? Or more precisely can they see each other when they speak, or can only one character see the other(s), and if so does the other character(s) know that the speaking character can see them and is the speaking character aware of this? Sometimes it may even make sense to let a character miss-understand who can see whom as that ads realism, it is perfectly normal for someone to react with a "Huh?" "What?" "Repeat that please!"

What can you as writer do to avoid un-intentional dialog mistakes? Visualize the scene, grab a writing partner, or alternatively a programmer that really need a break by now due to having hammered on the same bug for the last five hours. Usually the writer will be the speaker, but sometimes it might help the writer if somebody else speaks the line as ones own voice always sounds different from how one actually sounds like. Having a character speak in a different voice also helps highlight possible dialog issues.

Position each other in a way that roughly matches scene. And if the two characters have no line of sight of each other or are talking over a non-visual communication device then a wall with a open door is a great way to hear but not see each other. Alternatively turn your backs towards each other. it can sometimes be surprising how different the dialog may sound. And do not forget to ask your helper how the dialog sounded. A writer is used to seeing the same dialog again and again, but your helper may be hearing it for the first time and out of context which gets you as close as possible to a unbiased opinion on how a line sounds. Also your helper may come up with some awesome dialog as well, after all it is a team effort right?

This part is getting rather long so let me try and  cut this short. Essentially try to visualize. if one character says something to another character "You probably need to push that button in the corner!" but you are in the room and the character saying it is in the hallway, has no line of sight, and has never been in the room, then you have a Visibility Dialog issues, it may just be a minor thing but players do pick up on things like this, same with movies, books, comics, anime and other media as well. If your game has managed to immerse the player, then minor stuff like this start to add up and might make the player slip out of the game world eventually.

Narrative Dialog

Oh boy! This is a toughie. Even this very post actually falls under this as I am actually creating a narrative. I am taking you from one point to another using words, this very sentence is itself a self-referencing narrative.

However a narrative dialog do not have to be used, this is a artistic choice. A narrative is often used to fill in back-story, do exposition, provide passage of time. A narrative may be provided by a disembodied voice, or by an actual character, in other words it does not need to be done by a "Narrator". BioWare did something interesting that uses an actual character in the game as also the narrator, and not just a character that you run into once or twice. Although BioWare are not the first nor the last ones to do this with Dragon Age II, it is a nice current example. and the fact that the character narrating may not always be telling the story exactly as it happen (thus allowing the player leeway in exactly how things unfold) is rather refreshing.

Companies like BioWare with series like Mass Effect and Dragon Age have very heavily branching dialog, and I'm grateful that they do this with big production games like that, as it is something that is very costly and time consuming. But story lovers like myself obviously love the narrative influence we get over the games story, other games do this too, but those two game series are among those that really stand out. I'm sure people will mention others in the comments here, there is a lot of older games that did this, dating as far back as to the text adventure game era. But I'd still like to thank BioWare and other companies like it that keep rich narratives that you can influence like this alive in modern games.

Just to namedrop a few that would probably be mentioned in the comments. BioWare (whole bunch of games), Obsidian (Never Winter Nights 2, Knights Of The Old Republic 2, Alpha Protocol, Fallout: New Vegas), Ion Storm (Deus Ex, Deus Ex: Invisible War), Eidos Montreal (Deus Ex: Human Revolution), I truly wish I could create an all encompassing list of games with this type of story telling, as these are the type of games I feel have the strongest stories, best narratives and dialog, and good voice acting, so if there is a site out there that focus on and highlights games like that then please mention it in the comments here.

Archetype Dialog

I'm not going to say too much on this, except that this again is a very artistic choice. One might think that characters like that do not exist in real life, but you would be surprised. I won't mention any examples as that would probably spur a political and religious flamewar, which is not the point of this post really. Let me just say that over the top characters exist in real life. One should however be careful not to force the player into a archetype (in particular with their dialog), unless that is what the player actually want. Oh how fickle the players are!


Miscellaneous Dialog

This is all the stuff I couldn't think of specifics for. As an example take the situation of player character saying something because you clicked on or tried to interact with something that there isn't any point in interacting with. Or idle talk, leaving your character standing to long and they say something. Things like this can be a hit or miss, or it may pass by mostly unnoticed. Personally I think it adds to the atmosphere and humor of certain games like Monolith's game No One Lives Forever 2, where a character messes up their "lines" and glances at the camera. In other words a game that messes with or acknowledges the fourth wall or the fact that you are playing a game for fun. But in other games it would really ruin the immersion and fail to deliver any laughs and could ruin the story. Old sayings like "Less is more" which indicate that the art is in the subtlety.

As no-one really ever finish mastering the art of writing, in fact no-one ever really finishes mastering anything, there is many more dialog categories that can be covered or talked about in depth, but as this post is getting long enough I will start to wrap things up now, but hopefully you will end up with some ideas of your own on how to think about dialog beyond what I can express here in a simple post like this.

Also remember that sometimes just like silence can be a sound, no dialog at all can also say something, and due to the way the human mind and ones own life view colors what we always experience, the effect may be more impactful than any sound or word could be. Very few are able to pull that off well though.

Spell-checked Dialog

Really? Do I really have to spell this out for you...? *grin* If possible do a spell-check each time you have a new draft ready. The last thing you wanna do when the clock really starts speeding up at the end of a project is to correct thousands of annoying little b........ Well! You know what I mean, heh! By the way, most spell-checkers only tells you if a word is spelled wrong, but not if a correctly spelled word is used wrongly. Missing the "h" in "where" makes the word become "were" which might not be picked up. So even if the spell-checker says you did perfect, you most likely did not, sorry!


Nitpicking & Volume Dialog

I'm not into the achievement/trophy stuff, not my kind of thing. I'm not a competitive player, I prefer story centric games with good voice acting. But why of why is there no option in games (That I've seen!) like "Disable Trophy Announcements", now keep in mind that certain services might have that option. but if the game supports achievements, there surely must be a way to have a user option in the game, that the game can pass along to the service. if sub-title display can be toggled why can't other stuff, right?

Volume levels are a hit and miss setting sometimes. I often find myself setting dialog volume (if that slider exists at all, which it does not always) to 100%, then I set music and effects at anywhere from 50% to 75% volume. Dialog is almost always to low or the other stuff is always too loud. And for some bizarre reason many games do not have a cutscene volume slider, and seem to use the sound effect or music volume instead, so that means very quiet cutscenes. is it that hard to add a cutscene volume slider? Or why not simply the cutscene volume use the dialog slider setting? I am obviously assuming here that a video cutscene is properly dialog normalized. And if the cutscene video has the dialog as a separate track then please use the volume slider settings that the game uses during play. Why the music/sfx track and dialog track in a cutscene video does not follow the games volume slider settings overly annoying.

Final Dialog... erm. Words

Writing is an art, it is not easy, everybody makes mistakes, and writing for a continually evolving and interactive medium like games is really brave indeed. The only thing you can hope for as a writer is that you keep your paycheck, the fans like the way you wrote it, and that maybe just maybe you managed to raise the bar a little on what good writing is, because as a artist you certainly do not wish to lower the bar do you?

Make us proud to enjoy your work! Now get back to work, the break is over. (I know about half of you are probably reading this at work right now. *laughs*)

Always remember that there is more than one way to say something, finding out which way is the best for a given situation, now that is where the art lies!


Roger Hågensen considers himself an Absurdist and a Mentat, hence believing in Absurdism and Logic. Has done volunteer support in Anarchy Online for Funcom. Voicework for Caravel Games. Been a Internet Radio DJ with GridStream. Currently works as a Freelancer, Windows applications programmer, web site development, making music, writing, and just about anything computer related really. Runs the website EmSai where he writes a Journal and publishes his music, ideas, concepts, source code and various other projects. Has currently released 3 music albums.

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