People put a lot of emphasis on dialog, to the point that we’re often drowning in it. A heavy burden is falsely placed on dialog’s shoulders to solve every writing problem and answer every question. It’s often bloated, dull, and ineffective. Like a garden over-run with ivy, dialog needs to be trimmed down to a reasonable size. It’s only one part of the display, and less important than you might expect it to be.
Find one word
When we talk, we often use a lot more words than we need to. It’s a bad habit that can transfer to our writing. This is particularly problematic in a media such as comics where space is limited. Every word we use means less room for an image. In prose it can make our stories wordy and uninteresting. For written work, the issue can be mitigated by finding one word that stands in for many. It saves you space and introduces variety to the work’s vocabulary.
– “He couldn’t stop looking at it” vs “He was entranced.”
– “She accidentally dropped her keys as she caught them” vs “She fumbled the catch.”
With comic dialog, the same principle applies. There is almost always a leaner way of expressing an idea. We just have to search for it. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of getting to the heart of the emotion.
Cut to the Chase
Let’s say a character, we’ll call him Carlos, was just told his father betrayed him, but Carlos is skeptical. How could we express this in dialog? Here’s a couple options:
1) “Do you really think my father would betray me?”
2) “I can’t believe that my father would do that!”
3) “No! It can’t be! He’d never do that to me!”
Fundamentally, all of these options say the same thing, so why don’t we cut to the chase on what Carlos is REALLY thinking?
The best part about cutting to the chase is by saying less you can play more with tone and action. Instead of stating explicitly Carlos’ thought process, we short-circuit to the core feeling. Without all the excess words in the way, HOW he says something becomes more important than WHAT he says. Is he angry? Stunned? Resigned? Does Carlos leap up and pace, or deflate in his seat? Does he look away from you, or stare you defiantly in the face? Film and comics can show these actions, while prose can describe them. Either way, by saying less we’re actually showing the viewer more.
Are there subtle differences in the longer sentences that are not captured by this simpler statement? Yes, and we do lose some of the characterization in the dialog reduction. However, dialog is not the only tool at our disposal. Often, it’s not even the most useful one.
It’s surprisingly easy to forget the visual elements of a story, regardless of the media – prose, comics, illustration, film – all of them have visual elements. Even if it’s just the movie in one’s mind.
Show, Don’t Tell
There’s a mantra I use for writing: “If it can be thought, it can be said. If it can be said, it can be done.”
You’ll notice I don’t have a lot of thought bubbles in my comic. In general, I’ve found for me thought bubbles often become a crutch for lazy writing. Worse, it often creates boring pages.
Now, before anyone takes that statement to mean “never use thought bubbles ever,” I’m not saying throw them out. I’m saying use them consciously and judiciously. Rather than constantly relying on them to convey information, consider other options. Is there another way to get a character’s state of mind across?
When we feel something, we don’t think “I am feeling _____.” Instead, we act on those feelings. Usually in habitual, unconscious ways. It’s far more interesting to learn about characters through their illogical behaviors, rather than a logical and wordy thought-bubble explanation.
Have you ever noticed Mizha has a posture she adopts when anxious? Or that Zhiro tends to get scathingly formal when he’s angry? How about Kali’s tendency to rub her forehead? Whether you’ve consciously picked up on it or not, chances are part of your mind has started to notice the patterns and you’re learning to intuit their moods based on body language. As a result, I can “say” a lot with just their postures without using a single word to describe their mood.
Speaking of mood, don’t discount the impact of layout, color, angle, focus, and framing for setting the tone of a panel. I’m only just starting to scrape the surface of how to properly use these visual elements myself, but there’s a great examination of the Cinematography of The Incredibles that rocked my world when it came to laying out a page. I definitely recommend checking that out for added study.
Silence is as important as Sound
Often what we refuse to say is just as important as what we express. This technique relies heavily of use of expression, tone, and context. It means putting a lot of faith in the reader. And it can be one of the most powerful means of characterizing at our disposal if we do it right.
Consider this quiet moment from chapter two with Pakku. By text alone, we know that someone named Vepina made cookies like the one he’s eating. However, from silence and action, we learn far more than that. We get a feel for the mood and the relationships involved. We can intuit a lot about Pakku, and start asking questions. Readers were very engaged by the mystery of the character, and I got a TON of questions about Vepina afterwards. If I’d stated everything about her and Pakku’s feelings towards her and the history between them in thought-bubble text, there’d actually be less content on the page. A ton of material is covered here, but almost all of it is unsaid.
The Ultimate Combination
Dialog is an important means of communicating, but by not relying on it as our ONLY means of communication, our writing can convey more in the same space. Including action, expression, surroundings, and framing, we free up our characters to talk AND feel at the same time. The purpose of most writing is to characterize, advance plot, or establish an environment. Efficient writing accomplishes all of these at once. The key to this ultimate combination is freeing dialog from the obligation to do all the work. It’s only one of your tools. Bring everything you have to build your scenes.