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B&N Week 12: Dialogue, Part 2

| March 15, 2011 | 0 Comments

It’s the day we’ve all been waiting for! I’ve been patiently waiting and waiting, and just like Christmas, it’s finally here! Tuesday! In all of its glorious Tuesday-ness! I’m excited. Aren’t you?

We’re still talking about Dialogue! Some things that I think you should know, that should hopefully make your storytelling that much better. Anything for an edge, right? Well, let’s get to it! It’s more Bolts & Nuts about Dialogue!

Last week, we went over the different types of dialogue, and what they all meant. This week, I thought we’d look more at the practical uses of Dialogue, and how that can affect the reading experience, to go along with some tips, tricks, and realizations that will hopefully make your scripting stronger.

I guess it’s Example Time!

Panel 1: It’s daytime. We’re in a busy city, with a worm’s eye view of a skyscraper made primarily of glass.

Pen-Man (from high up in building): STOP RIGHT THERE!

The dialogue in this panel could really come in two flavors: directly from the building, so it looks like the building is talking, or as a caption. As a caption, it would look like this:

Caption (Pen-Man): “STOP RIGHT THERE!”

Notice the differences? (Yes. No… Ummm, maybe?)

The first thing I want you to notice is that this isn’t dialogue that is coming from off panel. Off panel means that the person speaking is within the area of the shot, but they aren’t seen. [Don’t worry, we’ll come back to this.] Pen-Man is in the building, and it sounds like he’s about to throw down.

The second thing I want you to notice is your reaction to it. You’re engaged with the dialogue when it’s coming from the building. You want to hurry up and get inside and see what the fuss is all about! When it comes in the caption, you’re not as engaged. You’re not in as much of a rush to get inside.

The difference is subtle, but it’s there.

This is a trick to get and keep your readers engaged. However, you should only do it in certain circumstances. It works well when someone’s yelling. You’ve just built a minor mystery, and the solving of that mystery should happen in the next panel [or at least a partial solving]. However, the talking building thing should generally be used when you’re changing scenes. Notice, I said generally. This isn’t a hard and fast rule. This is just to get you thinking about it.

Also, although buildings are often best for this type of thing, that doesn’t mean it HAS to be a building. It could be anything that someone is in and talking. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box when applying this.

Now, for the caption, I want you to realize something: captions can be used as a transition from one scene to the next. This doesn’t mean you don’t have to do a proper establishing shot when you change scenes. You still do. But by doing a speaking caption, you’re easing the reader into the next scene. (Is it basically a voiceover that you’re talking about?) Yes. Yes, it is.

And please, for the love of female monkey wrestlers all over the world, remember that quotation marks within the caption means that someone is speaking. If you don’t put in the quotation marks, then it becomes one of two things: an omniscient narrator, or an internal monologue.

Thank you.

Okay, back to the Off Panel dialogue.

Off Panel dialogue is best used when you have a character that you want to introduce dramatically. [Notice, I didn’t say “only used.” I said “best used.”] Again, this person is in the scene, but the camera isn’t on them just as yet. Again, this can be dramatic, but also think in terms of the comedic.

Placement should usually be at either the last panel of the page, or the second to last panel of the page when it comes to drama. Comedy? That’s going to depend on the timing of your joke. [Because comedy is all about timing.]

Now, let’s say you have a worm’s eye view of something, and a part of the person talking can be seen. Not their entire body, but some portion of them. This is NOT an off panel situation. (Really? You don’t say…) No, I DO say. (And you wouldn’t say it if you didn’t have to.) Exactly. If it is a person’s leg, hand, elbow, pinky, toe, knee, sock…I don’t care. If any portion of the person speaking can be seen, then they are “on screen/on panel” and should be treated as such. The letterer is going to point the tail toward where they think the person’s mouth is going to go, so that will be fine. Just don’t think that they’re off panel. Got it? (Got it.) Good.

There’s one other very important thing I want everyone to remember.

Like I’ve said time and again, comic panels are still images. (Again? You’re saying it again?) [And I’ll keep on saying it until you all get it.] They are a snapshot of time, so think of them as something that has JUST happened. The extreme recent past.

With me so far? Because I’m about to say something that’s going to blow your minds.

The last thing your character says HAS to reflect what’s going on in the panel description. (Wait. Are you saying that the panel description is dependent on the dialogue?) Just a little. It’s all moving parts, remember. Let’s take a look at an example.

Panel 2: Pen-Man is holding a puppy up, a look of disgust on his face. The puppy’s tail is wagging.

Pen-Man: Ugh! What is that smell?

Pen-Man: You were a bad puppy, weren’t you?

I see this a decent amount of times. The acting is there, but the dialogue doesn’t fit what’s going on in the panel. That means when your audience reads that panel, they’re going to be thrown out of the story because the words and actions don’t match.

Sometimes, it’s as simple a situation as the one above. All I need to do is switch around the two bits of dialogue in order to make it match. Other times, something more drastic such as a rewrite would need to be done. And sometimes, it’s just a matter of changing punctuation.

Want to test it? Pick up any Marvel/DC comic. (Why is it always a Marvel or DC comic?) [Because those have editors, and there are damned few of you who don’t own at least one comic from either company.] Now, I want you to read it, but with a critical eye. You’re looking for a panel that has a character with at least two word balloons, and you’re going to see if the last balloon matches the action of the panel.

I bet it’s something you never noticed. And I bet it’s something most of you never knew you were doing.

Here’s the last bit before I sign off for the week.

Dialogue does not need to be grammatically correct. As a matter of fact, it shouldn’t be.

How many people do you know speak properly? I’d say that it would be few to none. If your characters are supposed to be real people, then why are you shackling them with proper grammar?

Oh, don’t get me wrong. There’s a nuance between writing properly and writing a character properly, and that nuance is only going to come with time and practice. Mangling the language but still making yourself understood while getting someone else to suspend their disbelief during the time of your tale—that takes practice. [You HAVE been practicing, right?] (…) [Le sigh.]

Grammatically correct dialogue is stiff. Lifeless. Because people don’t talk that way. And while you’re being right, you’re also being wrong. (Wrong?) Wrong. Because you’re boring your audience to death. Don’t do that.

On the other hand, when you’re cutting off syllables and mangling the language, don’t go overboard with it. A reader will only take so many apostrophe’s before they’re ready to call it quits and walk away. Instead of reading the words you lovingly crafted and strung together in order to create a cohesive story, they’re reading this:

In-sted uv reedin’ th’ wurds ya lovin’ly crafted ‘n strung t’gether in ordeh t’ cre-ate a co-hee-sive storeh, they’re reedin’ dis:

Don’t do that. The audience is no longer reading. They’re cringing, and wanting to get away. Find a happy medium. Not so much that the reader is turned off, and not so little that the nuance is gone. Tough, I know, but no one ever said that writing was easy.

And I said this last week, but I’m going to say it again, because it bears repeating.

Dialogue is the only part of your script that gets seen, but it is also the most subjective. What sounds authentic to you may not sound authentic to your readers, so they may say that the character’s “voice” is off, or that they sound stiff.

There is no right or wrong way for people to sound. You’re not going to make all the people happy all of the time. Honestly, be happy if you get 60%. A prime example of that is Bendis.

Brian Bendis is, by most people’s reckoning, a master of dialogue. However, there are people who, even though they acknowledge his mastery, don’t like his writing. The stops and starts, the seeming filler, the interruptions, the repeating, the tangents—that’s how people talk, and some people can’t bear to read that. So, while it’s realistic, it’s too much for some.

Something to think about.

That’s all I have to say about dialogue. Homework? Study how dialogue is used in comics. Look for transitions and off panel characters and when they’re revealed. Look for voice-overs. See what type of caption is being used, and how it makes you feel. By breaking it down this way, you should get a good feel of how your own stories will affect your readers.

Next week? We’re going to talk about your own voice. It should be interesting!

See you in seven!

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Category: Bolts & Nuts

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at for rate inquiries.

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