I had a small revelation about writing the other day. Some friends and I were larking about on Twitter with Monty Python references. Whatever you may or may not think about them, Monty Python made an indelible mark in TV comedy in general and British comedy in particular, much like The Goon Show did a generation earlier on radio.
But there was one thing that was pertinent to the conversation. And that is the incredibly fast paced, well-written dialogue. Both the Monty Python sketched and The Goon Show, as well as most successful sketch comedy written since, requires very fast characterisation. Basically, you have to be able to tell the characters apart, and strongly so, within the first few lines.
For some reason, I was reminded of the John Cleese character (Mr Vibrating) in the famous Argument Sketch. His first (real) line is:
“I told you once.”
Immediately, I get a nice strong flash of character. Here is someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. In fact, such was the skill of Python that if you’ve never seen the sketch, just knowing that it was Cleese in character and you’ll have a good idea what that part of the sketch was like. It was fast, funny and had strong characters, even if they were defined by nothing more than one or two mannerisms.
Sketch comedy like the Pythons wrote went through a lot of characters. Yes, many were re-used and there is a lot of humour in seeing a Gumby simply appear at the start of a sketch because you probably already know what they’re like. This is also Fast Characterisation.
How do you use these in writing prose?
I’ve found that it means dialogue is a good way to impart strong, fast, effective characterisation. You can do this with subtleys like word patterns and altered phrasing or with more obvious quirks like mis-remembered or favourite words. Even a lack of response will be telling, or curt responses. In the theatre of your mind, give the character an accent or affectation – now write it like that. Still having trouble? Make one character just speak differently to you.
Different characters should be identifiable by their dialogue. If you do it well, you need far fewer dialogue tags. (But whether you should use fewer dialogue tags is a topic for another time!)