Visual novel: Lessons learned. Dialogue
I wrote a script for a visual novel called 'June and July'. It’s about sisters trading mushrooms in space, saving planets, deciding whether to become members of the union or sway towards piracy or anarchy. So, it has politics as one of the main themes. But it is also a story about sisters getting together after years apart and restoring their relationship.
I’ve learned some valuable and surprising lessons from writing the visual novel. Mainly, of course, on how to write good dialogue. The following is a set of those lessons about the craft and tools of the writer, and about the process. Hope it will be helpful to someone else, as well as for me if I ever get a chance to write another VN script.
Writing dialogue is easy. You do have a lot of them in real life, you know how it works. Let it flow. Dialogue is effortless when you first witness the conversation unfold before your inner eye. For this, of course, you have to first do several things:
develop your characters. You can pick a list of questions that sets your character on the path to become a multi-dimensional being, almost real. What are their stories, where do they come from? What are their failures? What are the successes? How do they define those for themselves? What type of choices do they have and how do they feel about those? And many other questions that are relevant for your story – to make these characters as real as they can be, for those situations you are going to put them through.
have them live a little before you start the story. Are they still talking to their friends from school? Do they hang out with colleagues? What type of other relationships and conversations do they have?
character’s path, or arc. It’s a good idea to have a path thought out for your characters right from the start. You will be able to show their change in the dialogue, too.
Dialogue moves the plot. Otherwise, it’s a waste of words.
when your character speaks, don’t let them waffle and hesitate. They have to want to say it for the dialogue to happen. Passion should seep through. Your characters have lots of things to say. They don’t have much time left, they are only alive for a fleeting moment. (so are you, so don’t waste time on writing down their thoughts in the shower or asking “how are you?” unless it’s critical for the story).
remove the umms and the ahhs. It’s tempting to have them, because they seem so natural. But you have to edit out and cut everything that you wrote down and that can be omitted. Experiment and reread both versions. You will see the difference. You don’t imitate reality here, you are crafting it. If you want your readers to be invested, skip the boring parts they have in their mundane realities. Get to the point!
mark your dialogue. One of the greatest experiences from writing a VN script was to work with a score system. Inside a visual novel there is a system that allows you to create different storylines or outcomes, that’s the fun of it. So to make those choices matter, a writer allocates specific points to each such choice in dialogue. It basically begs you to always keep in mind that everything happens to get some score or to explain action or provide info. But interaction is key for VNs. A lot of (ideally all) dialogue choices get inner hidden scores. Example: two sisters’ dialogue. Whatever the older one (the main character) says either rises or lowers the relationship score, which then means either the other sis supports the main character’s decisions or not. This will influence the plot. It’s a great training for efficient dialogue that moves the plot and is essential to the story.
Dialogue should vary. Your characters are not the same person, and they are not you either. We all speak differently. Play with different vocab and phrases, and different grammar.
Style and more style. Pick a reference and imitate. I got an 18th century novel as a reference for a space pirate, so her speech is different. Yet I had to add some space jargon as well, so it’s not a direct imitation of - what would be for them - ancient lingo. But I did snatch some quotes for fun!
Sisters are different, too. One went through MBA, so her vocab is different from her sister’s, who skipped most part of the school and uses simpler words.
Inner thoughts and perspectives can be put in dialogue or monologue. You don’t have to do a stream of consciousness exercise.
I came up with video logging, as my main character records her diary. So this is manifestation of her inner thoughts without narration. I know, genius. Other ideas are: talking with a robot or a plant or whatever/whoever.
Action through dialogue is possible.
I struggled with finding a way to show a chase. I watch a lot of films, so all the visual action scenes in my head really meddled with my approach. In films, you see a car chase, for instance, and they put camera outside, different angles, no dialogue, swoosh-swoosh, bam! They show you characters in the cars, heavy breathing, gritted teeth, short phrases, buckle up! And then you have to sit down and write a dialogue with one scene background in a ship (we didn’t have budget for animation at this point). Here’s an obvious solution: first person viewpoint. Yes, you are following your characters, you witness their lives, you are not a camera. Stay there. What do they talk about or say while this is happening? Describe it, react to it. Here's your dialogue.
short phrases. Once again. The shorter they are, the faster the action, the faster the heartbeat of the story. (And clicks of a mouse to progress the dialogue by a player, which is a marvel and a fantastic tool of how to influence the experience of a player in a visual novel).
another thing I did to achieve more action through dialogue was personification of the ship. You give commands, it makes a joke or gets offended. It has a personality. The ship can also read out some info-dumps (keep them short and relevant, make jokes so they don’t feel too heavy). And what’s better - your characters can react and interact with info-dumps.
Here is an interesting guide for beginners on how to approach a visual novel.
Let me know if this was interesting or helpful! Would you like to see more articles like this one?
You can check out Part I of 'June and July' and play it for free on itch.io!