Tagged: Rick Oliver

John Ostrander: Talking The Talk

So you had a story idea and you’ve worked it up into a plot. The characters are defined, you know who is doing what, the twists and turns and even the theme.

Now you have to put words into everyone’s mouths or, more precisely, into their word balloons. For some would-be writers, that’s where the wheels come off. How do you write dialogue? More importantly, how do you write good dialogue?

Let’s start with a basic: all dialogue is action. No one just speaks: they cajole, they explain, they confirm, they deny, they confront, they exalt, they exult, they attack, they defend, they lie and so on.  It is an active transitive verb. When a character speaks, they are doing something or attempting to do something. What’s important is not what the character is saying but what the character is doing or trying to do when they speak.  What does the character want, what goals are they trying to achieve? In short, what drives them? What is their motivation? What do they need? Not just want – need.

Dialogue has two main purposes: to move the plot along and/or to reveal character. Even exposition falls under the “move the plot along” rule.

Keep in mind that in comics, you have very little room for dialogue. Each panel has room for maybe two word balloons – three, if they’re small. Each word balloon has room for two to three lines tops. And you can’t do that in every panel; the reader will just see too many words and skip the page.

I’ve heard it said that comic book scripting is revealing character via newspaper headlines. So you have to be succinct with your verbiage.

Major Ostrander rule: when in doubt, cut it out. If they can (and do) cut Shakespeare, they can (and should) cut some of your lines. You should do it first. I’ve heard a story that legendary writer and editor Robert Kanigher, when he was writing Sgt. Rock, would stand on his desk and shout out the dialogue; if it sounded okay doing it that way, he figured it was right.

Once I delivered a GrimJack script to First Comics and, while editor Rick Oliver was going through it, I was schmoozing the rest of the office as I usually did. Rick came out to me with a page of script in his hand and the matching page of art. He looked at them, looked at me, and asked how much I was paid per page. I told him and then Rick noted “So on this page we’re paying you one hundred dollars for six words.”

“No,” I replied easily; “You’re paying me for knowing which words to leave off.” I offered to add more if Rick really felt it was necessary but he smiled, said he was just curious, and went back into his office.

When writing dialogue, you need to differentiate between characters. They are not all the same characters (even though all of them are you) and so should speak differently. Some people speak brusquely, some like the sound of their own voices. Some people try to over explain their reasons why they are doing what they’re doing; they feel that if you understood, really understood, you’d do things their way. I was told once by one such person that I wasn’t listening, to which I replied, “Just because I don’t agree with you doesn’t mean I’m not listening.”

There is a cadence to how people speak and that’s especially useful if you’re trying to indicate a person has a foreign accent; there is a way of speaking, a certain order. Some movies can give you a wealth of accents to hear; Casablanca is a very good one. Listen and learn.

There’s a simple short-cut that can help you; cast your characters as if they were in an animated feature. Who would you cast as their voice? The nice part of this is that it doesn’t have to be an actor; it can be anyone whose voice you can hear in your mind – a friend, a relative, a co-worker, a politician and so on. They don’t have to be currently living, either; past or present will do.

Listen to your characters as well once you have their voices in your mind; they will not only tell you what to write but may take the plot off in a direction you hadn’t considered. Listen to them and go with them if they do that. There was a GrimJack story once where I refused to do that; I stubbornly stuck to the lines and the plot that I had already decided on. That s.o.b. Gaunt stopped talking to me for the rest of the issue; it was the hardest GrimJack script I ever attempted. I learned my lesson and haven’t done it since.

Listen to people all around you; what do they say and how do they say it? What do they not say? What is left unsaid? In art, negative space can help define the figure. In writing, the silences can define the character. When do they happen, why, and what happens as a result?

Don’t be “clever.” Dialogue should be entertaining, yes; that’s part of storytelling. However, when I encounter “clever” dialogue, it means the author is really trying to draw attention to him/herself. “See how clever I am? Isn’t that a great turn of phrase?” It draws the reader right out of the story and that’s a failure to communicate. There are many writers whose dialogue is clever but that’s not their purpose. Brian Michael Bendis is an example of someone who writes very clever dialogue but he is also a very very good writer because his first focus is story and characterization. He just happens to be clever as well.

Your dialogue can be contemporaneous; it can be elevated. Poetic or streetwise. What it has to do is serve the story and reveal the character.

That’s the job.

Mike Gold, Disturbed


The most disturbing thing that happened to me in comics – non-violent, that is – occurred more than 30 years ago during the early days of the real First Comics. In fact, it didn’t even happen to me directly. It happened to then-associate editor Rick Oliver. That’s how disturbing it was to me.

We had published a story, damned if I remember what it was, about evil robots doing what evil robots do – murdering humans and generally raising a ruckus. That’s been a popular theme over the years, and if you think about it that’s just what Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates were talking about last August when they were talking about the dangers of artificial intelligence. As an aside, any time that kind of brain trust agrees on anything, I pay attention. But I digress.

A gentleman called us quite perturbed that we published such a story. Actually, perturbed isn’t quite the right phrase. Hysterical would be more accurate. He went apeshit because we did a story that violated (actually, ignored) Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. In case you’re not up on such things, those laws go exactly like this:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

An admirable plot device, and Dr. Asimov held to it consistently for decades… in his fiction. Fiction. He never said it was science fact. Actually, he did say he wasn’t the guy who came up with it, that it was something writer/editor John C. Campbell said to him in December of 1940. On the other hand, Editor Campbell claimed that Author Asimov already had the Three Laws in his mind. But I digress. Again.

If this were an in-person conversation at a comic book or a science fiction convention, the caller would have been arrested and taken to a mental ward for observation. Seriously; he was that upset. When Rick told me about the call, I had newfound gratitude for Alexander Graham Bell.

Most of us understand that there are whack jobs out there (I’m sorry I don’t recall the politically correct phrase for “whack jobs”), and we’ve all seen more than a few hanging out around our Great Comic Book Donut Shop. This gentleman didn’t recognize that the Three Laws were merely a good idea and a great fictional plot device. Hell, he didn’t even recognize we had yet to create robots that are useful enough to need the Three Laws. Today, even drones have human controllers.

He desperately needed to get a life… and probably some lithium. But he represents a danger that we see in all of us who are passionate about our hobbies. You see this sort of thing at media conventions all the time – fans who are disappointed that actors aren’t as familiar with their work as they are. Plenty of times I’ve heard fans say that one actor or another was stupid (or worse) because he/she/it didn’t remember some minutia from a teevee series from many years past.

So. Why am I reminded about this now?

Simple. The fourth Republican debate was on teevee last night.