Graphic novelist and UK Comics Laureate Hannah Berry gives us an illustrated guide to the complexities of dialogue in comics. These seven (and a bit) tips are a fascinating insight into the visual language of comics.
This is part of our Early Career Writers’ Resources pack Dialogue, made possible by Arts Council England. Discover more here →
Writing a comic? Excellent!
Comics are a unique medium in that, while being as visual as ﬁlm or theatre, the reader is free to absorb the narrative at their own pace in the same way they would with any other book. Being able to linger over the details and digest them accordingly means that every word, every gesture, every expression, every single detail in every single panel, is signiﬁcant and carries with it a wealth of meaning. Pretty good, eh?
The downside, because there must always be one (I’m writing this in 2020 after all) is that comics are expensive to draw and expensive to print, making the real estate of the page itself expensive, which means that space has to be used in the Best Way Possible and words must be chosen carefully.
Here are some (7) helpful things to keep in mind:
1. Keep it short
The instinct is always to over-write dialogue in the beginning because it seems more natural, though you might notice that if you read the dialogue of most comics out loud it sounds absurdly abrupt, and weirdly staccato. On the page, however, it works because it’s being absorbed at the same time as the artwork, which slows the pace right down: sentences read like paragraphs, paragraphs read like an essay. Too much text is unwieldy and unnecessary, and frankly just ugly on a page. Even the ﬁnest dialogue can out-stay its welcome.
To combat this, you need to put your brutal hat on and hack away at those precious words like the most ruthless editor you’d never hope to meet. Look at the comic and decide what absolutely must be said and what is extraneous, even down to individual words in a sentence. There’s a ﬁne but important distinction between ‘ﬂeshing out’ and ‘labouring the point’. As a general rule of thumb, if it can be said in the artwork and if losing it doesn’t change the meaning of the overall comic, it has to go.
2. Don’t ﬁght the art
What do I mean by ‘if it can be said in the artwork’? Comics are a balancing act between words and image, and the written dialogue is only half of what your character is saying to the reader: the other half is the way they are drawn, the way they act and interact with their surroundings and other characters. Anything that can be said visually should be said visually, leaving the dialogue free to do the heavy narrative lifting. Using words to repeat the art is a waste of that good real estate and undermines the artist, even if the artist is you. A character should never talk about how they’re feeling, for example (unless they are lying). On that subject, thought bubbles can be a clumsy way of getting across an inner voice and, depending on your style of comic, probably best avoided! (Narration is a little diﬀerent, but should still be used sparingly…)
3. Fight the art
Having said that words and image need to work together, sometimes the best results can come from the friction between the two. Creating a bit of a disconnect between what the reader is seeing and reading can create some interesting intrigue.
4. Break it up
Take a closer look at any conversation and you can pick up on the diﬀerent emotional/tonal beats; of moments which can be distinguished – obviously or subtly – from each other by style or content. Use these beats to separate out your written dialogue into panels and to help shape the artwork that accompanies each. You can also use these beats to highlight important parts of the dialogue, or to aﬀect the pacing of the scene.
5. Silence speaks volumes
Obviously you came for tips on written dialogue, but do you even need written dialogue? Sometimes giving weight to a pause or a silence can transcend anything that might’ve been said at that moment. It can build or release tension, or give the reader a place to acknowledge what might be going through a character’s mind, or give space for the subtext to breathe. A good comic is all about the subtext.
At the other end of the scale, because of the level of scrutiny the dialogue is under, saying one thing many times really can make a point: repetition is a sledgehammer, and best used for comedic or dramatic purposes.
7. Words are pictures too when you think about it
Every single part of a comic has meaning, and that also goes for the way the dialogue is written. While you need the words to be legible, you can’t ignore that they are part of the art, and the way they’re presented and the way they interact with the artwork (without getting in the way, of course) can bring an added depth.
(Britten & Brülightly p4 / Livestock p50)
You know that weird thing where every other word is accentuated? Why do people do that? It doesn’t help you read it, and it’s actually very annoying…
All images (c) Hannah Berry
Hannah Berry is an award-winning graphic novelist, comics creator, writer, illustrator, editorial gun-for-hire and UK Comics Laureate 2019-21. In 2018 she was inducted as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and became the slightly grander ‘Hannah Berry FRSL’.
Her first graphic novel BRITTEN & BRÜLIGHTLY, begun while studying illustration at the University of Brighton, was published by Jonathan Cape in 2008. It has subsequently been published in the USA, Italy, Holland, France and Serbia, with the French edition chosen for the official selection of the 2010 Angoulême International Comics Festival. Her second graphic novel, ADAMTINE, was published in 2012 and her third, LIVESTOCK, in 2017, both by Jonathan Cape and both to a pleasing amount of critical acclaim. LIVESTOCK was nominated in the Best Graphic Novel and Best Writer categories at the 2017 Broken Frontier Awards, winning the Best Writer Award.
She currently does a monthly cartoon strip for PROSPECT and formerly did a weekly cartoon for the NEW STATESMAN. She has contributed to several comics publications and projects internationally, including WE SHALL FIGHT UNTIL WE WIN (404 Ink & BHP Comic, UK 2018) the venerable 2000AD (Rebellion), LA VILLA SUR LA FALAISE (Casterman, France 2010), IDP:2043 (Freight & Edinburgh International Book Festival, UK 2014), ABOVE THE DREAMLESS DEAD (First Second, US 2014), HOAX: PSYCHOSIS BLUES (Ziggy’s Wish, UK 2014), and wrote the Sentinels reboot as part of the 2017 SCREAM & MISTY special. A regular guest of art, literature and comics festivals in the UK and around the world, her artwork has been exhibited in solo and collective exhibitions worldwide.
The Early Career Writers’ Resource Packs are supported by Arts Council England.