Leave room for the pictures!
All talk and no pictures make comics a dull read.
And that’s the first rule of comic dialogue: Leave room for the art.
Tighten to fit.
Here are ways to keep comics short:
Let the pictures do the talking. In our first draft of a script for “Safety Moment” (below), your brilliant editor (me) included the line, “a 3-foot flame shot from an electrical outlet.”
I must have forgotten that readers would be able to see the three-foot flame the artist drew. Remember: Show, don’t tell.
Keep maximums in mind. Some writers limit themselves to 17 words per balloon, 30 words for a typical-sized panel or 60 words on a page, write Nat Gertler and Steve Lieber, authors of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Creating a Graphic Novel, 2nd Edition.
There’s no magic number, but you might study a comic book like the one you’re creating and use its standards. One page of The 9/11 Report, for instance, has 176 words, as many as 56 words per panel and as many as 18 words per balloon.
Drop unimportant details. If it doesn’t help your story, cut it.
Break it into two balloons. Still too long? “Two shorter balloons are less daunting and easier to integrate into the art,” write Gertler and Lieber.
Talk the talk.
Here are some more tips for polishing your dialogue:
- Make it conversational. This is people talking in a comic strip — don’t make it too stuffy. Two ways to practice writing dialogue, and they both involve the ear:
- Listen to what people say and how they say it. Capture dialogue at the deli, on the bus and in the interview.
- Read your dialogue aloud. “I often work out conversations aloud before typing them up to avoid that stiffness,” Gertler writes. “That’s why you see me talking to myself on the bus.”
- Don’t forget the action. “There’s an instinct to stop everything, putting characters into chairs to do nothing but chat,” Gertler writes. “That’s not a wrong thing to do, particularly in drama. But if you take the same conversation and stage it during a bike ride, or at a boxing match, or at the zoo, it becomes more interesting.”
- Don’t get too creative with accents. “Yerr readerr vill kvickly tire uv tryink to dezypher ebery verd,” write Gertler and Lieber.
Learn more about how to write conversationally.
Anatomy of a comic script
Here’s the evolution of “Safety Moment,” a four-panel strip. Notice how the more words we strip away, the better the strip becomes.
Learn more about how to cut copy.