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Story Design Tips: The Art of Dialogue

The art of dialogue has been developing in theater for thousands of years. Here’s some theory for you.

Guy Hasson, Blogger

June 27, 2011

7 Min Read

Games borrow from many arts: From more than a century of cinema, from thousands of years of art, and from thousands of years of storytelling in prose and in the theater. In spite of thousands of years (literally) of theory about dialogue that has developed in the theater, the art of the dialogue in game design is often overlooked.

Few game or story designers come from the tradition of the theater, and so important aspects of the art of dialogue is lost on them. We’re going to try and begin and rectify this in the first of four columns about the art of dialogue.

Dialogue isn’t words

Start thinking about dialogue as a canvas, rather than as a vessel for words and information. A single picture on a canvas can hold many things, and only one of them is the basic information of what you see (a banana, a monkey, an alien gutting a warrior). There’s also composition, mood, the use of color, etc. – aspects that deliver an experience beyond the simple information that is on the canvas. If you only deliver information through a picture, you fail to use the entire set of tools at your disposal, you make unwitting mistakes in composition, and you appear amateurish.

It’s the same thing with dialogue. Thousands of years of tradition in the theater teach us that the text itself is the least important thing about a dialogue. Dialogue is only a shadow (a result) of something called an ‘action’.

Dialogue is made out of ‘actions’

Let’s define ‘action’ as it’s defined in the theater.

Whenever you have a character appear in the game, that character has a purpose in a specific scene. She wants something. She needs something. She needs to get something. Maybe she wants to feel good, maybe she wants to eat, maybe she wants to steal information, maybe she wants to find a bomb, etc. Every character has a purpose in every scene, even passersby.

Next: Every character with a purpose also has a personality. That personality influences the way that character will attempt to achieve her purpose. One character will try to finagle information through coaxing or being sexy, another will do it through being loud and obnoxious, and so on. To every purpose that a character has, a different personality will have that character try and achieve that purpose in a different way.

Now, in every scene that you have in the game, your character will either: reach her purpose; fail to reach her purpose; be a step closer to her purpose; or be a step farther from her purpose. (Note: It’s always bad dramatically to start a scene and end it at exactly the same spot, which is why that option does not appear). 

Now, break down your scene to little steps. Each step is one deed the character does to achieve that purpose. Each scene is made up of many such steps. Each one of these steps is called an ‘action’. An action can be done using words but also without words.

Start looking at scenes in which characters appear as a scene made out of many actions for each character. For each character, the actions serve the purpose, while being subject to the character’s personality as well as the events that occur. Dialogue will then be but a small shadow of the overall actions and re-actions that take place.

(Hint: If a character reaches her purpose in the middle of the scene, then redefine her purpose so that she has a bigger one. In that bigger purpose, a smaller sub-purpose is achieved in the middle of that scene.)

Now: how to construct dialogue through actions.

The rules of dialogue

Here’s the thing that takes years for theater directors, actors, and writers to get master. You’re going to have to learn this through self exercise. The following two rules are built as shortcuts that will force you to do things right, as long as you follow them to the letter.

Dialogue Rule #1: A character must never say her true action in words.

For example: if the character wants a book, she’ll never say “I want the book”. You must find a way for her personality to try and get what she wants without saying it out loud.

This also works the other way around: If a character seems to say his action or purpose (“I want you dead,” said the killer to the hero), then her action or purpose are different from what he says (Perhaps the line was said out of a need to intimidate, when the killer is weak and hiding it; or it’s bravado, when the killer wants to stroke his own ego; or he’s saying it so someone else will hear and wants to betray the one who sent the killer; or maybe killing is not the thing the character really wants, and what he’s saying is more complex; etc. – there’s a million of other options).

In the beginning, fitting yourself into the constraints of this rule will feel like you’re doing math. You have to solve a puzzle (what’s the action, how to get it, how not to say it; or: if I said it, what’s my real action, then?) It’ll pass and become second nature.

Dialogue Rule #2: You must never write a line of dialogue that has no action

Most dialogue lines in games have no action. They are simply a delivery system for necessary information. That’s boring, bland, and one-dimensional. It’s a painting in which the artist ignores the rules of composition.

Now suppose there’s information you want delivered, and this is information you can only deliver in words. That’s completely legitimate. However, to make the character’s lines fit into the rules of dialogue, you must make up an action for the character with the information that gives him a real reason to say a line that also includes the information you need delivered. The character will only speak because her action justifies it.

Now, since the character has action and a purpose, she must enter the scene with the purpose, otherwise her actions would make no sense. The actions must serve the purpose. So, in order to deliver information you actually have to solve the character’s needs, purposes, personality, and actions, and to make sure that she performs these actions consistently from the beginning of each scene to its very end (and not just during the line you need information delivered). These actions will then appear, as if by coincidence, to also result in the character giving out information that the player needs to hear.

Let’s assume for a second that you started playing around with these rules. You’ll almost certainly stumble upon something that shouldn’t be done. So let’s skip ahead and clarify: “Letting someone know” is not an action. “Informing” is not an action. Any thesaurus variation of these two phrases is not an action. The character must have a vested interested in conveying the information, in addition to needing a good selfish reason to say it the way she says it, and she needs to do perform the action (and fulfill her personal purpose) in a way that fits her personality.

Why do we need this?

Following these short-cut dialogue rules will force you to create a dialogue that is made out of actions, which is a dialogue not of information but of personalities. Rather than create an informational scene, it creates a dramatic scene, with tension, humanity, and a dramatic arc of a story behind it. This leads to scenes and characters and interactions with more depth, more realistic behavior, and more drama.

The more you’ll learn how to follow these rules naturally, the more you’ll see that they’re actually helping you in a) making the story consistent; b) making the story more real; c) delivering even more information that you thought you could deliver through game dialogue; d) making the dialogue interesting rather than tedious.

Learning how to use actions properly and how to convey information through action is hard and takes years to master. It is, however, necessary. I hope the rules, as I’ve phrased them, will help you make shortcuts in the process and allow you to reach better results quickly. Try to give yourselves a few exercises in dialogue in scenes before you start working on your real game. 

This is the first of four articles about improving the art of dialogue in games. Next week, we’re going to take a more complex look at actions and how they work. We’re going to look at actions as vectors.

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