And now we come to every writer’s favorite and least favorite part of writing; dialogue. It’s always the most fun to write, and it’s the stuff that actually makes it into the finished comic. It’s also the thing you’ll fret over the most, and will having you banging your head against the wall when you can’t find that perfect line. So what makes good dialogue? How do you slip exposition in seamlessly? How many of those balloons can I fit in a panel? I don’t have the answers to all those questions, but I’m happy to tell you what I know, and what works for me.
The first you need to realize about dialogue is you’re going to wind up doing a lot of cutting. A lot. Even typing this out now, I’ve done several revisions. Is that joke funny? Am I just repeating myself? The things you like the most you’ll probably have to take out at some point for the greater good of the story. It doesn’t matter how funny, scary, or emotional it is, if it doesn’t fit the character or the plot, you have to dump it. That doesn’t mean you can’t use it somewhere else later, so write it down, but the sooner you stop thinking every word you type is precious, the better your work will be.
As for the question of what makes dialogue good, it’s totally subjective. Some people love Tarantino’s dialogue, others hate it. Same goes for Aaron Sorkin, Brian Michael Bendis, Keiron Gillen, Kate Leth, Grant Morrison, and on and on. The point is, like most things in comics (and writing) there’s no right way. On the other hand, we all know a bad line when we hear one. Something about it just sounds wrong to the ear, or is super cliché. So how do you get it right? It’s honestly just trial and error. This is the fire in which you find your voice as a writer.
I realized very early on that I wasn’t going to be Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman. Anytime I tried to write some flowery or long form kind of prose, it just sounded wrong and forced. I soon found that I write more like Dan Slott or Peter David, more straight forward, simple even. And simple is far from a dirty word, especially when it comes to story. It’s all about clarity and being able to express ideas/emotion to the reader. My favorite author is Kurt Vonnegut, who used plain language maybe better than anyone. His books feel less like novels, and more like someone telling you a story at a bar. And he’s able to express profound ideas about life, love, death, the universe and more, using short, simple sentences. And so it goes.
Building off of that idea, comic book dialogue is for the most part pretty brisk. There are numerous “rules” in place for how many words or balloons you should have on a panel/page. Alan Moore has suggested only 210 words max per page. Warren Ellis suggests no more than 3 word balloons per page. The point being, you want to try and distill everything down into its purest form. If you can take that joke from 25 words to 10, do it. Sometimes “I’ll kill you” sums everything up better than three panels worth of villainous threats ever could. So whenever you see an opportunity to tighten things up, make the change. Your book will have a better flow, and the art will have more space to breath.
Here are some more things to keep in mind. Your characters are going to be shaped equally by what they say as well as what they do, which means you’ll have to use your dialogue to make each one distinct. It can be easy to fall into the trap of having characters sound too much alike, as well as unrealistic. So make an effort to show off each characters unique personalities in conversation. Your gruff giant should sound different from your jokester elf, and your slacker wizard, and your book smart gnome, and so on. But at the same time they should sound like you…which is confusing, right? Think about it like breaking down different aspects of your personality and spreading them throughout multiple characters. Matt Fraction has written a variety of characters, each of them different, but his sense of humor shines through in each one. Same thing with Brubaker’s crime stories. It would be very easy for him to write a variation of the same character over and over again, but he’s created a number of distinct characters that inhabit the same shady criminal underworld.
Next let’s focus a bit on exposition. It’s a dirty job, but it’s what makes your story go. Fitting exposition into a story is a bit like cooking for a picky eater. You can’t just serve them a plate of mushrooms and expect them to eat it up like the rest of the steak (or vegan soy bean substitute). So try your best to hide it in the good stuff. Fight scenes, jokes, sex, car chases, wherever you can find something interesting. Even then, you can’t just rattle off a bunch of facts or plot points, so try and make it sound as natural as possible.
And just how do you sound natural? Well think about how you and your friends talk. Better yet, go to the mall or the park or any busy public place you can think of and just sit and listen. You’ll hear all kinds of stuff. And no, I’m not saying go eavesdrop on strangers, I’m talking more about trying to pick up on the way people talk. Speech patterns, phrasing, rhythm, vocabulary, all that stuff. Now there is such a thing as being too realistic, which can be equally off putting. Characters say all kinds of things people would never say in real life, and vice versa. I know I catch myself saying “uh” or “um” a lot, as well as repeating words like definitely or phrases like “well you know, I mean…” and there’s probably more stuff I’m not even aware of. Unless you’re trying to show a character is nervous or has been caught off guard, there’s no reason to have filler words in your dialogue. Same goes for repeated words. Repetition can be used to hammer home a point, but if you’re not doing it intentionally, try and avoid it.
One of the best ways to see if your dialogue sounds right is to do what crazy people like myself do and read/act out your scripts. It feels a little silly at first, but the more you get into it, the more you’ll be able to get into your characters. Just make sure you warn your roommates/neighbors before you go into a long villainous monologue.
Finally, one of the toughest things to do when it comes to dialogue is to simply get out of the way. The work disparity between artist and writer is pretty steep. Like I’ve said before, we can knock out a script in a week, but your artist is going to take a month or maybe more to draw it. And while that might make you want to fill up every panel with balloons so it feels like you’ve done your part, sometimes you can do more by laying out, and letting the art tell the story. When I got the art back for part of a project I’m working on, I decided to get rid of all the dialogue I wrote and make it silent. I just felt like I was getting in the way of a story that was already being told so well visually. Obviously it won’t always be as dramatic as scrapping everything, but if you feel like the art is already saying all that needs saying, then maybe consider leaving that panel without dialogue. For example, don’t feel like you have to add some quips to your fight scene just because it’s expected.
That’s all for now. Hopefully you can put some of this to use in your own writing. If all else fails, just remember this is supposed to be the fun part, so don't be afraid to take a few chances. I leave you with some examples of good dialogue. Look them over, and then go make comics!