Talkin' Straight About Dialogue
(Part Two)

Last issue we looked at some of the fundamentals of what good dialogue is and does, and we’ll be building on that in this tutorial. So for those who missed the first class, let’s recap those fundamentals here quickly:

1. Good dialogue reveals character.
2. Good dialogue contains emotional impact.
3. Good dialogue drives the story.
4. Good dialogue flows.
5. Good dialogue fools the reader into believing it sounds natural.
6. Good dialogue hides its own mechanics.

For the purposes of this tutorial, I’d like to propose that dialogue isn’t just two characters talking to each other, but can also include a character talking to himself or herself (thought balloons and internal monologue).

I know what you’re thinking. Trust me. You’re thinking, “Sure, Sean. But what specifically does that mean for me as a comics writer?”

So let’s get to it, shall we? But, let’s get some definitions first, so we’re all using the same terms. These are by no means “official” definitions, but they’ll work for us practical types. The include:


Dangling Dialogue—a bit of dialogue that is captured in a narrative box rather than a balloon and ties a panel to the previous or following scene

Internal Monologue—a person talking to himself or herself, but at the same time directly to the reader

Thought Balloons—puffy balloons, usually when a character is talking to himself or herself, but not directly to the reader

Your extra time and your KISS

No doubt most of us are familiar with the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid), and we’re going to adapt it here. A good comics dialogue writer must remember this key principle—Keep It Short and Strong.

Don’t believe me? Then find the nearest letterer and ask him or her. I bet he or she will tell you that nine times of out ten beginning writers channel their inner Clairmont and have their characters speaking in novel-length expositions better suited for novels or short stories. Okay, the nearest letterer may say it differently, something like “They have their characters say too much, and I run out of room and usually have to tick off the artist by covering up some of the art,” but the idea is the same.

For the record, I’m actually a fan of many of Chris Clairmont’s stories, but you have to admit, the man sure knows how to cram a lot of words into a panel. He can often find ways to make it work because his characters are standing around a conference table or hanging out in a kitchen at the time, not knee-deep in the middle of an epic battle.

This is a good time to remember and practice the proverbial Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In other words, think about your artists and letterers and try their shoes on. If your artist has to draw miniscule scenes in order to fit your characters’ dialogue and internal monologue into the panel, then it’s time to rein it in, cowboy.

Some writers will give you algebraic formulas such as “a splash panel = no more than six balloons or 250 words” or “a typical panel = no more than 35 words,” but I won’t do that here. If you’re not sure how much room your dialogue takes up, reset the font in your word processor and take a look for yourself. (Comics Sans will do for this purpose, at 6-8 point size, though hopefully that’s not what your letterer is using!)  If it goes beyond 2-4 full-page-width lines of text in your average word processor per panel, you’re probably going to give your letterer a headache.

More than one way to skin a cat’s mouth

Repeat after me: There is more than one tool in my dialogue toolbox.

Go back and read that sentence again. Then commit it to memory. Some writers have made names for themselves by avoiding either thought balloons or internal monologue. Some even go so far as to belittle these tools as unsophisticated or passé. But I want to encourage you as a comic book writer to open up your mind to all the tools at your disposal. There’s a valid reason a carpenter needs a hammer, a wrench, and a level—because sometimes a screwdriver alone just won’t do the job. The important thing is to know why you’re using a specific tool.

On the other hand, I’ve seen stories in our submissions pile here in the Shooting Star Comics office in which writers have misused their tools—trying to tell a more adult, Vertigo-esque tale but filled with lots of thought balloons or trying to convey a nostalgic feeling but using heavy internal monologue that in no way resembles the stories they’re trying to emulate. In other words, I’ve seen folks hammering at screws and trying to drive a 10 penny nail with the butt end of a screwdriver. Sure, eventually they may get the job done, but it won’t be pretty or efficient.

However, bear in mind that the way you use your dialogue tools can and will determine the tone of your story. For example:

Dangle your participles…
and your other words too

Don’t be afraid to let your characters’ words jump scenes. Dangling dialogue can be an effective way of bridging from one scene to another, especially if you can find a way to play the words ironically off against the new scene. This is actually a fairly common practice now, and many pros use this technique almost religiously.

If it’s true that the key to keeping a reader engaged is to make sure he or she turns the page, then dangling dialogue is an easy way to force a page turn, especially when you’re in the middle of a scene without lots of kicks, punches, or bullets. Just find that opportune bit of dialogue (something like “But it wasn’t Rick’s baby at all, according to the doctor. She said it must be…”) and let it hang. And with a set up like that, I dare readers not to turn the page to find out what’s about to be said.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for this issue. Keep at it.