A HANDFUL OF USABLE WRITING TIPS

Simple and concrete tips to write better dialogs for your game, along with exercises.

  • calunio
  • 02/14/2020 01:47 AM
  • 1217 views
One of the toughest and most important parts of making any story oriented games, including RPGs, is writing dialog. You'll find tons and tons of articles, videos and tips on how to write better dialogs. I have been reading/watching a lot of those, I'm learning a lot, and I decided to write my own. I want to make it as concrete as usable as possible, so I’m adding some exercises to practice each of those tips.

The first (and possible only) thing you need to understand about dialogs is this: like everything else in a game, if it’s there, it needs a purpose. Don't add dialog just because. Don't add dialog just because it's an RPG. Don't add dialog just because you feel like characters need to talk. Don't add dialog just because cutscenes are cool. If, at any moment in your game you decided that characters are going to talk to each other, first answer this: why?
I'll come back to dialog goals later. Now let's skip straight to my 6 writing tips.

1 - Add personality
You've probably heard that many times. There are many ways to add personality to your character, but let’s focus on one: customize the way they talk. The way they talk. Every person has their own way of saying things. It's not just about the information being presented; it's about how it's presented. That is personality.
There are infinite ways to add flavor to speech. Maybe your character speaks in short sentences. He may love using big words. He may hesitate too much. He might never hesitate. Maybe he sounds apathetic, like nothing really matters. Maybe he's too hyperbolic, and sounds like everything is too damn important.

Example: "The royal ball is tonight, and I don't have anything to wear".
Saying that with personality:
A-"I don't really have anything to wear tonight. I mean, I do, but it might not be appropriate. It's not like it matters, but maybe it should? It's only a ball... What should I wear? Should I even care?"
B-"If I have anything to wear at the royal ball? I'm not naked, am I?"
C-"The royal ball is tonight??? OH MY SWEET BABY JESUS WHAT TO WEAR? God, why are you doing this to me? Please have your angels come down and bring me something divine to wear. Or just kill me right now!"

2 - Be concise
Always make your dialogs as small as necessary. That doesn't mean your dialogs need to be brief and sentences need to be short. Here’s my rule of thumb. Every time you add a message box, ask yourself if I just rip that off, will the dialog actually lose anything? Or does it maintain its essence? If you can take it off, do it.

Example:
-We've been traveling for days. I'm hungry. I'm afraid we may not have enough food to make it to our destination.
-What do you think we should do?
-Maybe we should take a detour and hunt.
-Hunt? What would be hunt? There are no wild animals in this area.
-It's our only option. Either we hunt or we starve.
-But if we take a detour, it will only make our journey longer. Food shortage might be an even bigger problem.
-Maybe. Maybe not. We just need to have faith.

Shorter version:
-I'm hungry. I'm afraid we may not have enough food to make it to our destination. We should take a detour and hunt.
-What would be hunt? There are no wild animals in this area. If we take a detour for nothing, shortage might be an even bigger problem.
-Maybe. Maybe not. We just need to have faith.

3 - Add details
When you add details and specificity to the information your characters are discussing, it makes dialog sound more realistic and your world more alive. Just be concrete about whatever anyone's talking about.

Bland: "I'm a blacksmith. I make swords, shields and armors".
Specific: "I'm a blacksmith, like my father. He taught me to make swords, shields and armors. My swords are not as sharp as his, but my shields are unrivaled".

Bland: "This spell can summon the King of Demons. He's very powerful".
Specific: "This spell can summon Barkvahzat, the ruler of the 62nd layer of the lower realms. He is able to mold flesh and stone merely by uttering power words in the demonic language."

4 - Surprise me
Our mind is designed not to waste unnecessary attention with stimuli that are familiar and predictable to us I will kill you in your sleep. It works in "low-energy mode" when stimuli are familiar, and "high energy mode" when facing the unexpected. When you add something unexpected to dialog, players will wake up. You don't want them sleeping while reading your dialog. Not literally sleeping, but maybe just forgetting everything they read immediately after they do. WAKE THEM UP.

Predictable: "You killed my father. He was the most important person in my life. I will never forgive you. It may take days, months, years or my entire lifetime, but I will avenge him. I will kill you."
Less predictable: "You killed my father. He was the most important person in my life. But he had terminal cancer, so he was going to die soon. You made him a favor by relieving him of his pain quickly. Thanks for that, no hard feelings. Just kidding. I will kill you!"

Predictable: "The only way to kill the demon lord is by piercing his heart with a sword made from the metal of the forgotten dwarven mines. We must find a blacksmith capable of forging such weapon."
Less predictable: "The only way to kill the demon is by piercing his heart while he's laughing. But he's got a very unusual sense of humor. We must find someone who's capable of making him laugh".

5 - Don't say what you mean
This one I heard from Shonda Rhimes, the author of Scandal and Grey's Anatomy. People rarely say what they mean. They rarely express their thoughts and emotions clearly and unambiguously. Dialogs are more interesting when they don't. You, the author, knows what the character is thinking and feeling. But he might say something entirely different, that only hints to the source. Or maybe he's just speaking indirectly. Either way, don't be too blunt.

Example:
A character doesn't like the team leader because he always has terrible ideas.
Direct: "I don't like our leader. He always has such terrible ideas."
Indirect: "Have you seen how dirty our leader's boots are? It's like he never cleans them. What kind of person doesn't clean his own boots?"
Indirect2: "Of course I trust our leader. I'll admit his ideas are not always the best, and of course I'm scared he might screw the whole party again. But he's our leader, right? It's not like we have a choice... Do we?"

6 - Prepare for continuity
I always love when a character reveals some information about him that was not explicit before, but it was hinted. It makes characters sound consistent, and makes the player feel like small details in dialog matter. Romantic Comedy movies do that a lot. They just throw some apparently useless piece of information at some point, and it becomes more significant later.

Example:
Point A in game: "Why do you want to buy horses? We can go on foot. I know it takes longer, but we can save some money that way."
Point B in game: "There's our enemy. Let's kill them! But be careful when attacking the mounted ones. Kill the soldiers, but not the horses! They haven't done anything wrong."
Point C in game: "When I was a little boy, I had speech problems and I had a hard time making friends. The only friend I had was Bambam, a horse from a farm in which my father worked. I would ask my father to take me to feed the horses just so I could be around Bambam. I don't think they make human friends as loyal as Bambam was. When he died, I couldn't get out of my room for weeks. Thinking about it still hurts."

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THE WRITING PROCESS



Other then specific tips for writing pieces of dialog, I want to point some general tips for the process of writing. So you need to write some dialog for your game. You sit down, you open RM or some text editor, and stare at blank space. Now what?

1 - Have a goal in your mind.
The first thing you need to answer is: what do I want to accomplish with this piece of dialog? Answer this with a brief sentence, like "I want to make the player feel sad", or "I want the player to get to know more about this NPC's personality", or "I want to build friendship between the characters", or "I want their friendship to shake". If you don't have a goal in mind, it's much harder to make that dialog actually relevant to your game.

2 - Don't plan. Improvise.
This one I discovered while writing dialog for my game. After watching a bunch of videos, I learned that I should outline each character style and personality before writing their dialogs. What I discovered is that it's much easier to write first, outline later. Don't plan too much. Just try to feel the characters, feel the environment, feel the scene and the mood, and write. You might surprise yourself with what you come up with. While/after writing, you will discover things about your characters that you may not have planned beforehand, and it’s a lot of fun.

3 - Review
Once you wrote an entire piece of dialog, review it. Do it more than once. Can something be removed? Can something be rewritten? Is there a better way to write that part? Do I feel what I'm supposed to feel after reading it? Is it repetitive? Does it make me proud of what I wrote? Does it make me smile? Does it give me shivers?

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EXERCISES



Writing is a skill, and the only way to improve any skill is with practice. Having that in mind, I made a short list of exercises to practice each of the tips I listed above. You might want to exercise them a bit before putting your hands in your own game.

Feel free to post your exercises as comments. I'd love to read them!

1 - Adding personality
Rewrite the following lines of dialog 3 times, each time with a different style of speech, but conveying the same information.

A - I am not motivated to proceed with this quest, and I'm going home.
B - I caught my girlfriend cheating on me.
C - The most powerful demon of the world has awakened from his sleep. The world is going to end.

2 - Being concise
Rewrite the following dialog as briefly as possible, but trying not to take anything meaningful away from it.

-I was kidnapped and you set me free. I'm forever in your debt. How can I repay you?
-As a matter of fact, I'm set on a quest to defeat the evil Shogun. Do you want to tag along?
-You want me to join you and help you defeat an evil Shogun?
-Yes, that would be great help. You seem resourceful. Want to come?
-But why are you calling the Shogun evil? Evil to what standards?
-He kills innocent people. That's enough to make me think he's evil.
-Innocent? Is anyone truly innocent? Are you?
-I'm no saint, but I'm trying to do the right thing. And right now, killing that reckless murderer feels right to me.
-I owe you my life, but I don't think I can repay you by taking another. It's against everything I believe.
-So you're not coming?
-No

3- Adding details
Rewrite each line of dialog adding specificities and details that, in your opinion, make them sound more interesting and appealing.

-I just graduated from wizardry school.
-This robot only processes negative emotions, but not positive emotions.
-I am hungry. Let's get something to eat.

4 - Surprising me
Complete the following lines by adding something that you consider to be completely unexpected. I suggest making at least ONE of the lines NOT humorous. The point is not just to make something absurd and funny. It can be unexpected and yet reasonable… and, most importantly, usable.

-We have slain the elder dragon, but he's not really dead. His soul is bound to that crystal, and as long as the crystal is intact, there is still a chance he may come back to life. What we need to do is
-Oh, you're heading for the town of Nazqua? I've heard they
-This book is written in an ancient language, and few can read it. I can read the first lines, which say

5 - Not saying what you mean
Rewrite each of these lines of dialog by expressing the same thought/emotion in a way less explicit manner.

-That monster killed my friends. I'm sad and I'm going to kill him.
-You are stronger and have better equipment than me, and I envy you.
-This tower is tall and creepy, I'm scared.

6 - Preparing for continuity
Below is some revealing piece of information about some character. What I want you to do is write 2 lines that hypothetically appeared at previous moments in the game which hint to the information I'm presenting, but don't reveal it entirely.

-I am not really a human. Not entirely. My father was human, but my mother was a succubus. Succubi usually have sex with men just to feed on their energy, and they kill them in the process. But my father did not die. He found my mother after a few days and caught her right in the moment I was born, seeing succubi gestation period is extremely fast. Had it not been my father, she would have eaten me. He saved me, and raised me as a human. But no matter how much I fight it, her demonic essence is still part of me.

Posts

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author=Kylaila
Practice Taimu


Very nice! I like how you developed different personalities to each line!

author=Chivi-chivik
I specially liked the "Don't plan. Improvise" part, because that's exactly how I write. I always start by having a premise + a few characters, then I write dialog for them and then I add more and more things organically until I end up with something good that can be finely tuned into a good story.


Yeah, the more I use this logic in my writing, the better I like the results. I feel like my best ideas come WHILE I'm writing dialogs, not before. Some things just seem to be evoked by the context of the dialog.

author=Darken
Agree with all the points made, however I feel like these examples rely on adding additional plot points or potentially confusing the point of the scene.


You are absolutely right.
I did mix surprising presentation with surprising plot because it's very difficult to add surprising elements to an ordinary event, but I like your Ex Machina example. Should be hard implementing that in a game though, because I dialog so long would have to amount to something pretty amazing to keep players hooked.
4 - Surprise me
Our mind is designed not to waste unnecessary attention with stimuli that are familiar and predictable to us I will kill you in your sleep. It works in "low-energy mode" when stimuli are familiar, and "high energy mode" when facing the unexpected. When you add something unexpected to dialog, players will wake up. You don't want them sleeping while reading your dialog. Not literally sleeping, but maybe just forgetting everything they read immediately after they do. WAKE THEM UP.

Predictable: "You killed my father. He was the most important person in my life. I will never forgive you. It may take days, months, years or my entire lifetime, but I will avenge him. I will kill you."
Less predictable: "You killed my father. He was the most important person in my life. But he had terminal cancer, so he was going to die soon. You made him a favor by relieving him of his pain quickly. Thanks for that, no hard feelings. Just kidding. I will kill you!"

Predictable: "The only way to kill the demon lord is by piercing his heart with a sword made from the metal of the forgotten dwarven mines. We must find a blacksmith capable of forging such weapon."
Less predictable: "The only way to kill the demon is by piercing his heart while he's laughing. But he's got a very unusual sense of humor. We must find someone who's capable of making him laugh".


Agree with all the points made, however I feel like these examples rely on adding additional plot points or potentially confusing the point of the scene.

The movie Ex Machina I think does a wonderful job at sidestepping "obvious" dialogue and making characters spontaneous and surprising. Mainly due to the Nathan CEO character.

I'd suggest watching the movie if you (or anyone) hasn't seen it, but I think this scene illustrates what I mean (minor spoilers):


Nathan introduces a painting, that's seemingly unrelated to the plot of the movie or even anything. I didn't know who Jackson Pollock was before seeing this scene, but I think the trick to this scene is that we as an audience are learning a tidbit about art history before arriving to the actual point and we do find out the painting is actually related. It's a neat distraction trick much like Resevoir Dogs opens up the film with a debate about tipping of all things. The point of the scene doesn't change if you removed the bit about the painting, but it would have been less interesting.

The movie doesn't do everything perfect I think when the movie talks about the turing test (which is a thing any sci-fi nerd knows) was a little more straight forward and boring. The same way hearing about the legend of a demon lord being sealed away for 500 years is. The exercise/examples should be less about adding a surprise twist element to a premise but rather how the characters go about exposition in a way that accomplishes the same thing a boring exposition dump typically would.

Obviously there are way other tricks than just add some seemingly educational trivia but if I knew all the tricks to surprise people with writing I'd write a book on it.
I'm almost 2 months late to this article, but I still want to say that this is a great guide!

I specially liked the "Don't plan. Improvise" part, because that's exactly how I write. I always start by having a premise + a few characters, then I write dialog for them and then I add more and more things organically until I end up with something good that can be finely tuned into a good story.
Practice Taimu

1 - Personality
A:
1. How can you call THAT even a quest at this point?! This isn't what I signed up for, I'm out.
2. Uhm, I know I said I would see this through, and- and I still hope you all do, but this is, this is getting too much. I- I don't want to go into one of those places ever again. I'm sorry...
3. You know how I've always wanted to join the Falcon Knights ever since I was little. And how we just met the captain of them? Sooo.. about that quest we were on, you are on it now.


B:
1. So, uhm, something happened, and we decided to break up.
2. THIS FUCKING - I mean, MY GIRL JUST WENT AND FUCKED THIS SCRAWNY POST BOY, WHY EVEN hiM?!
3. I never told you, did I? She cheated on me. Did it right in the cabin we usually sleep in. I forgave her and guess what I found just a week after? Anyway, it's over.

C:
1. There's news alright. See this volcano? It wasn't here a month ago. This entire area wasn't even a steppe a month ago. THERE WERE EVEN LAKES HERE, OKAY! It's too late now. There's only one demon who can do such a thing: Churgath's come back. Enjoy your last days.
2. IT's HIM, It'S HIM, It'S HIM! OUR DAYS ARE NUMBERED! HE'S BACK! WOKEN! AWAKE!"
3. When the earth rumbled we were worried, but not yet alarmed. This has changed. Not just any calamity, but her gruesomeness has returned. We thought the seal would last longer than this. We are not prepared. I admit it: this is our end.

2 - Being concise

"Y-you! I'm free! How can I ever repay you?"
"Come with Bobo."
"Huh? Where to?"
"You follow Bobo, kill evil Shogun, world at peace. Sound good, no?"
"I-I am so sorry, I don't think I can."
"You no like good things?"
"No, yes, I mean, this isn't how it works. I-I could never take another life, even if it was called 'evil'."
"Bobo go without then.

I'll try these when the important stuff is out of the way. I need to practice my english word finding.
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