February 21, 2011

THE WAY OF THE WRITER: Twitter as Dialogue Coach

While this post relates mostly to writing for comics, it does have it's application to film and prose as well . . .

I have long held that the old maxim about comic books which says they are "part movie, part novel" is completely and utterly incorrect.
Something a little more accurate would probably be they are "part movie, part poem". In other words, to borrow from Conan O'Brien's "If They Mated":


So comics share the illusion of the passage of time and visual language with film; and they share the use of words to convey emotion, motivation, and added information with poetry . . . and together they tell a story in a way that is completely different than both, because comics are able to pull from both the visual and the textual.

But in a more concrete sense, comics share something else with poetry: the careful use of words. In a novel, words are chosen for impact, but there is more freedom because there are more words. In poetry, each word must be carefully selected to express the author's intentions in as concise and powerful a way as possible. This doesn't make one type of writing easier or more difficult than the other, it's just my observation in trying my hand at both.

Comics have a similar goal, but with an added limitation: actual page space. There is only so much room on a page, and every word takes away from that valuable real estate. I remember reading an interview with Neil Gaiman when I was first getting into the actual writing of comics in which he spoke of a single panel in a story that gave him, the artist, the letterer, and the editor trouble because the panel was beautiful, but the entire panel had stuff they didn't want to cover. So the question was what should they cover? What was the least important detail on the panel to cover.

For film writing, dialogue doesn't take up physical space, but time. Every added word adds split seconds, which add up to seconds, which add up to minutes . . . which adds to shooting time and the length of the film.

Enter Twitter. Every time I struggle to write a Tweet, so I can fit it into Twitter's 140 character limit, I find myself thinking about how similar this is to the struggles I have with my dialogue writing in both film and comics. 

There's one big difference: Twitter ALWAYS wins. It is 140 characters no matter what. With comics or screenplays, I sometimes can let myself get lazy. Fortunately, this is where having good feedback from writers I respect my my editors comes in. I cannot stress enough that the MOST VITAL part of the writing process is getting feedback from people whose opinion and feedback you can trust. It's often all too easy to spot writers who believe they're good enough editors of their own work. Yes, there are probably a lot of great writers out there who simply don't need editors. I'm not one of them. And neither are you. (Sorry for being so presumptuous, he said, writing a blog post without the use of an editor.) And even those writers who ARE great, well, usually, they recognize the importance of having a great editor who can make their great writing even greater. (See, an editor would have said, "You used the word 'great' four times." And I would have argued, "Well, I did it for symmetrical reasons or something." And the editor would have said, "Take out the first 'great', it's redundant." And I would have.)

So, Twitter can be a HUGE time waster. In fact, if I ever do Writer S. Blockhead again (a badly drawn comic about the hypocrisy of writer's block), the first one will be about Twitter. But, Twitter can also be a great exercise in word choice. 140 characters is a very comfortable character count for comic book dialogue. Can your dialogue fit into a Tweet? Why not? If there's not a compelling reason, consider revising it.

Or at least having an editor look at it.

~ Ben

Other "The Way of the Writer" articles:

The Weight of the Writer
Holistic Writing
Intentionality, part 1
Nothing New Under the Sun
Intentionality, part 2
It's So Rewarding

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