“Hello,” the man says. The woman looks at him and smiles, “The past ten years of our marriage has been a sham, I’m sleeping with the pool boy, and you’re not your daughter’s biological father. Also I’m hungry.” The man takes a moment and wonders if the woman could have been a bit smarter with her dialog.
In “Writing 101: How to Write Dialog That Doesn’t Suck,” I covered the basics of conversation between two or more characters, as well as the concepts of direct and indirect dialog. In my experience, I’ve run across countless writers who could wax poetic about a scene or a face in the mirror, but when it comes down to characters’ interaction within their world, I’ve only met a handful of (published) writers who could pull off good dialog. A good part of the skill to good dialog is in layered dialog: in creating double and even triple meanings in your characters’ words so that as the story progresses, the important stuff doesn’t become forgettable.
In our quest for well layered dialog it’d be good to start out with something that is categorically NOT layered dialog; and that is the concept of the infodump. Whether it’s expositional narrative or an evil monologue the infodump serves as a lazy method for describing the world and the current situation to the player. Often, this is information that the characters in the world already know but that the player must be brought up to speed on, but the infodump can also be seen in games where the character has amnesia or is a “beginner” of some sorts and must be explained the rules of the world.
While certainly there are things that the player needs to know, the infodump serves a singular purpose and is about as shallow and forgettable as a gray puddle. How much more interesting would it be to incorporate the lore of one’s game world into the characters’ and NPCs’ daily lives, into the music and set design, than to merely dump all the backstory onto the player in an opening cutscene?
The Thing, The Thing, and The Other Thing
So, simply put, layered dialog is dialog that has depth. It has more going on than just one thing. In other words, layered dialog is about the thing, the thing, and the other thing. So what are some examples? Let’s look at a villager NPC. The dialog for them could read something like, “Good morning! / Fine day today! / Great day for a walk!” We can layer this dialog by inserting some of the world into it, changing it to something like, “Praise be to you! / Albareth smiles upon us this morning! / Guess I’ll walk to the temple today.” We’ve changed a generic NPC into somewhat of a religious one now. His dialog not only informs the player about the NPC’s beliefs, but also clues the player into the temperament of the village and of the world the player is exploring.
We could take this dialog even further by introducing a second NPC, whose lines might look something like, “Mornin’. / Looks like everyone’s off praising that god instead of working. / My boy used to love days like these.” This particular NPC acts as a foil, or a counterpoint, to the temperament of the village. The dialog of the second NPC builds off of the religious temperament of the village and shows a counterpoint that reveals more story. The player is shown that, while most are religious, some choose not to worship, and for this particular NPC, there are hints that their loss of faith might be tied to the loss of their son. Throw in a tombstone in the village cemetery and you’re golden!
This Seems Like a Lot of Work . . .
No one said layered dialog would be easy! The one example I gave may be one case out of dozens found in a single village, town, or city, and this isn’t even taking main characters’ dialog into account. The goal of layered dialog is to inform the player tangentially, without attempting to communicate directly through them, instead letting the player explore the world and learn about it at their own pace. It’s hard work, but the reward is a fully fleshed out and believable world that the player can immerse themselves in for hours.
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