Hey all, and welcome back to Why It Works. Last week I wrote about Tsuredure Children, and included among its virtues the true but not particularly useful “good dialogue.” Dialogue clearly is one of Tsuredure Children’s premium strengths, but it struck me afterwards that it’s also far from self-explanatory. “Good dialogue” is certainly a valuable quality in anime, but what the heck makes dialogue “good?” Making that distinction can often seem like a highly subjective or “you’ll know it when you see it” thing, and infusing characters or stories altogether with strong authorial voice will often make them very divisive (see: all of Nisio Isin’s work). Even so, there are still some general guidelines for making dialogue pop. Today I’m going to plot out a few of those guidelines, using Tsuredure Children as a jumping-off point for things that matter to any production of dialogue.
#1: Avoid Cliche
Cliche in a story’s setting or narrative is an issue, but not a backbreaking one. Basically all plots have been used again and again, and it’s how a specific story adds its own personality and life to those narratives that makes us care. Cliche in dialogue means your characters don’t feel like characters at all - they feel like props. Characters are our gateway to narrative, giving us a reason to care about whatever cataclysmic thing is happening, and if your characters sound like everybody else, the audience has no reason to be reading your story. Canned phrases don’t tell us anything specific about any individual character - they’re filler text, serving a “someone has to say something here” role while wasting that moment’s potential to make us care about your cast.
Tsuredure Children’s characters could be loosely slotted into roles like “the tsundere” or “the quiet intellectual one,” but they don’t speak in lines like “it’s not because I like you or anything” or “exactly as I predicted” or “you pervert!” There is a uniqueness to their individual lines that amplifies both their personalities and the comedy of any given moment, and avoiding cliche is the first step towards achieving that. A line that could be said by any character in a similar position won't tell you anything meaningful about who this character is.
#2: Have Dialogue Come From a Place of Emotional Need or Truth
That description sounds pretty complicated, but all it really means is “think about how this particular character would feel about this situation. What is inspiring them here, how do they feel about this discussion, and what do they want out of this conversation? Let their spoken words emerge naturally from those thoughts and feelings.” Dialogue should not exist in a vacuum, lines bouncing off lines without their speakers involved. We speak to communicate, to convey our internal feelings to each other. Individually witty lines are nice, but they’re far less important than making sure what a character says reflects a firm, consistent emotional place. Doing that allows the audience to latch onto a scene’s emotional narrative, puts arguments in clear human terms, and makes your characters feel significantly more distinctive and real.
Tsuredure Children doesn’t have any problems with this one - after all, it’s pretty much entirely constructed around “this character feels this strong emotion, this character feels this strong emotion, let’s watch them clash.” Even a feeling of uncertainty can be conveyed in clear, emphatic terms that help us see where a character’s coming from. You don’t always need every character in a scene to have their motives be clear, but making sure at least the viewpoint character’s words express a tangible perspective is one of the best ways to make us believe in them, and care about what they do.
Aw jeez, looks like I’m already running out of space for this one. As it turns out, dialogue is pretty complicated! I’ll leave off here for today, but will be back next week with a few more guidelines for making sure your dialogue really leaps off the screen, or just for better articulating exactly what works about dialogue you already love. Until then, I hope you'll keep rooting for these hapless, wonderfully written Tsuredure Children.