Written by Devin Larson
At its most reductive, a comic has two elements: words and pictures. They might seem to occupy separate planes of existence—pictures in physical reality, words as audible dialogue or descriptive text—yet arrange them on the page and you’ll realize it’s not that simple. Words are special. They take up space in addition to their primary function, which means they need to be treated as a visual element on the page.
But therein lies the difficulty: page space is in short supply. Most pages are subdivided into smaller panels, leaving little room for dialogue on top of artwork. How does one strike a balance?
Harmony and Composition
Captions and dialogue balloons should be handled like design elements, of equal importance as other objects in a panel. Basic composition is usually established during the thumbnail phase, so it’s advantageous to sketch placeholder balloons with the rest of the art and proceed from there. Make sure there’s adequate room between focal points in the art and the dialogue, and leave space between panel borders and balloons (connections look bad and draw attention). Lack of planning can result in crowded panels without enough space to fit dialogue, forcing heartrending decisions over which elements of the art to obscure.
When determining the layout of balloons/captions, use them to reinforce the path you wish the reader’s eye to follow. Balloons form an implied dotted line with focal points in the art, so preparation makes the difference between a confusing panel and a clear one.
Show vs. Tell
One issue with comic dialogue is sometimes there’s simply too much of it. There’s a point past which no amount of Tetris-like wrangling can compensate for limited space. For that reason alone it’s good to weigh the benefits of communicating information through artwork vs. speech. Rationing dialogue for when it’s needed increases the value of what’s said, as opposed to wantonly describing everything. Such a tactic also reduces the volume of dialogue balloons, offering the art more space to breathe.
The process of filtering necessary dialogue from the chaff is a critical one. Ask yourself: is there a way to convey this information in the artwork? Does the dialogue advance the scene or is it needless exposition? The audience will read the full panel, images and words both. Good comics are able to tell a story through the art alone, fully coming to life with the addition of dialogue and text.
The Value of Brevity
A good habit for managing word-space is to limit the length of each sentence. Except for rare cases, space limitations prevent long speaking sections, and even seemingly short paragraphs may need to be broken into two or three-sentence balloons to fit the panel. Writers approaching comics from a background in prose may find the difference stifling, but there’s an easy way to train yourself for this—Twitter. The built-in limitation of 140 characters forces you to think more efficiently about word choice and the utility of short words when space is limited. Consider dialogue as a series of tweets and there will be fewer headaches when the time comes to arrange the balloons on the page. However, hold the hashtags.
“Dialogue that Fits”: The header image is modified from Carl Spitzweg’s The Picnic (1864).