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On Dialogue - A Response

Recently, there has been a debate over the importance of dialogue in webcomics. The majority of these arguements tend to favor the visual over the written aspects, but I would like to argue the merits of dialogue.

There is the tendency for the webcomic reader to simply skim over a comic that appears "too wordy" and move on to the next bookmark. If that's the case, a creator will have a difficult time reaching that particular reader, and a situation like that may be unavoidable. However, dialogue itself is an art form, and the typography stylings of the letterer can also be an attractive part of the comic. A word in a different color here, a word made out to be far more elaborate than the rest of the dialogue can instantly grab a reader's attention, and reel them back in. This technique is not too be overused, though, or the creator risks making his or her strip too harsh or wild in appearance. It is a method to enhance a wordy strip that has some merit, and is worth considering.

Fancy typography will not win readers over alone, though, and the chosen dialogue must contribute to the strip. EVERY WORD must have value. Pointless dialogue, even so much as an unnecessary "Hello", can take away from the comic as a whole. The vast majority of webcomics are humor strips, so the creator should approach the dialogue from the perspective of a stand-up comedian. If the comedian takes to long to get to his or her joke, the joke itself fails; and the reverse is true that a rushed joke will also fail. The comedian is a verbal artist, and chooses their words in a precise manner in order to make the joke more effective. The most successful comedians have an excellent sense of pacing. If a writer can put themselves in such a mindset, they may be surprised to see that their jokes become stronger. Struggling cartoonists can use such a mindset to refocus their efforts.

Writing makes or breaks webcomics. There can be no disputing this fact. We all read comics where the art may be lacking, but the humor is spot-on. White Ninja and Dinosaur Comics emphasize writing, and don't have the best art on the web. Dinosaur Comics doesn't even change its art, which only proves how well it is written. Art is a bonus for comics, and as an artist, this can be a tough thing to admit. I do believe this, however, and have had an experience which really taught me this. I used to do a weekly comic for my college newspaper, but decided to stop when the printing quality became so poor the strips were unrecognizable and unreadable. That particular downward spiral took time, though. I had to focus my energies on making the comic funny through dialogue, since the art would not be seen at its best quality. I was able to accomplish this, and the comics were actually quite popular on campus.

This rule does not apply only to webcomics - print comics have had to learn this lesson, too. The ninties emphasized art, and most comics were cookie-cutter, which was a (but not the only) contributing factor to the industry's near-collapse. There are writers who tend to be wordy, but are so successful because their writing is wonderful. Kevin Smith, Brian Michael Bendis, and the immortal Alan Moore can make just about any book, with any artist, stand out. Powers could have had a superstar artist, but the more minimalist approach worked out, for example. When the new X-Force (now X-Static) came out, the response was huge, despite having truly indy-style art.

The way to make dialogue work is too make it believable, and make it clever. Stan Lee's writing would never stand on its own today, even though it worked back in his hey-day. (Nothing against, you Stan - you're still the man.) The characters the writer creates must have some characteristic that the reader can identify with. Make them as human as possible. Create a world that could truly exist, and not just be a background. It's almost overwhelming, but dialogue, if consistently clever, can make a comic stand on its own. If the writing is good, people won't mind wordiness. There are just a few rules to keep in mind.

1. Make every word count. Figure out exactly what's needed, and how it should be said.
2. The artist knows how to pace the comic, and the writer should, too. Dialogue follows the same rules, and should be approached as the stand-up comedian developing his or her act. (This only applies to humor comics.)
3. Is the dialogue "real"? Is it believable? Would that particular character say this line? These questions must be addressed. Most cartoonists write up a short paragraph about each character in the comic. Make sure the dialogue accuratly reflects the personality described in the write-up.

I'm not putting down art, or artists by any means. I personally feel dialogue has its place in comics, and it is a very important place. There are times when it is appropriate to be wordy, and times when silence is golden. The idea is too make those "wordy strips" effective to the point where the reader does not want to simply skim things over. Be clever, be witty, and be realistic.

Oh, I know it's not the only

Sean C's picture

Oh, I know it's not the only tool, but it is one that I feel is often under-used, or sometimes even ignored. Actions define a character, but you can commuicate that character's personal philosopy and understanding of the world through dialogue. You need effective dialogue to give a character a more "real" life.

Don't hesitate to procrastinate.
See my stuff at http://www.cuteninjagirls.com

Don't hesitate to procrastinate. My brand new comic: http://cain.bombsheltercomics.com

We're mostly on the same track

Greg Carter's picture

Sean,

Actually I think you were pretty well right on. I didn't think you were harsh at all. Comics with lots of dialogue can work just fine if, as you say, the words are well written. So it's true that if you can write it well enough you shouldn't worry about how many words it takes if that's how you want to communicate.

We just got off an a little side trek about how much some people need the words and some don't. Some people won't read much no matter how well it's written, just like some people won't "get it" no matter how well it's drawn.

Although, actually, I do kinda disagree with this statement:
[quote]The character might have trait X, but that idea needs to be communicated through effective dialogue. (It can be handled visually, but most of the time, it will be through dialogue.)[/quote]
Very few of the comics I read spend time describing the characters. Their trails develop as they are displayed in their interaction with other characters and situations. Through action. Is it because I read so much manga, both in print and on the web? Is the storytelling that fundamentally different that in manga more is implied than actually said? Maybe I just don't read the kind of comics you're talking about. I don't read any of the so called "popular" webcomics that aren't manga, like Megatokyo, Errant Story, Red String, etc. I don't read any DC or Marvel comics, but a decent smattering of US-UK indy non-manga. Is this a case of impressionistic vs expressionistic storytelling? Didn't Joe Zabel kinda touch on that recently? My head hurts now.

This topic is extremely interesting to me so I can see how others interpret things differently. That gives me a better understanding into how I can communicate better though my comic style. Or at least to understand how it might come across to different types of readers.

Greg Carter
Abandon
UpDown Studio

Greg Carter - Abandon: First Vampire - Online Graphic Novel

Ditto on the not-harsh

Aleph's picture

Didn't sense any harshing, but then I have the metaphorical social antennae wrapped in tin foil and perched precariously on the old B&W TV.

Anyhow-- yeah, I also disagree with that statement. Sometimes the best communication can come through when the visual and the dialogue disagree, in fact. Moments that betray insincerity or struggle, for instance, where a moment of dropped facade belies the statements being made.

A lot of comics become operatic, forcing characters to expose their feelings and to be truthful about them. I am much more interested in comics along the lines of Fuhr's work, with characters who withhold some feelings and betray them only in unguarded moments. For characters like that, the realities of the person are conveyed bit by bit through visuals as well as text, forming a crescendo to the final revelation-- or tension wondering when/if that reveal is ever coming.

Some characters just speak louder of themselves by not speaking to the matter at all.

Granted, there are skillful ways to make dialogue reveal these traits, I just don't think it's the only tool and I don't think it's always the most appropriate tool to use.

It Seems I've Started Something...

Sean C's picture

Okay, I may have come off a bit harsh, but please keep in mind that my goal here was simply to defend the use of dialogue on different levels, and argue that "wordy" comics don't work.

I'm an artist, but I do understand that every idea needs to be communicated in its own way. I'm just stating that some ideas shouldn't be limited by the use of "too much" dialogue. If the dialogue is effective, it can work. I raised the point about character write-ups; and I think my point may have been mis-interpreted. I am not knocking the importance of characters, but the fact is most creators have a page dedictated to a brief write-up of their main characters. (I purposely focused on effective dialogue writing, and tried to provide a different perspective on writing; character writing wasn't my primary goal today.) The purpose of effective dialogue is too communicate the concept the creator developed. The character might have trait X, but that idea needs to be communicated through effective dialogue. (It can be handled visually, but most of the time, it will be through dialogue.) Yes, there are comics like Owly that do not use dialogue, but comics like that are few and far between. The only point I was trying to make was that a creator should not allow themselves to be limited by some idea that dialogue is less important than the visual aspects of a strip. If the dialogue is not effective, then the comic as a whole suffers. The writer then needs to evaluate his or her approach and determine what they are doing wrong, and discover what it will take to make the dialogue more effective. If an idea can be communicated well, then the number of words used shouldn't be too much of an issue, provided that the reader-base responds to it. Successful dialogue will recieve a postive response.

Don't hesitate to procrastinate.
See my stuff at http://www.cuteninjagirls.com

Don't hesitate to procrastinate. My brand new comic: http://cain.bombsheltercomics.com

Well, oddly enough, my wife

Greg Carter's picture

Well, oddly enough, my wife doesn't read comics because the pictures confuse her. She just wants prose. Me? If the art can tell it, then the text is superfluous. I have no problem "reading" the pictures. Again I have to point to Andy Runton's Owly.

In the end, it comes down to how your brain interprets the input. Some people read pictures better, some people want words to read, some want words read to them. So it may be true that the lack of text is a detriment to your enjoyment, that's not necessarily so for many others. That's the point I want to make. That's why there's so freaking many kinds of comics. There's that many different kinds of folks reading them. And how cool is it that the art form that is comics is that flexible?

Greg Carter
Abandon
UpDown Studio

Greg Carter - Abandon: First Vampire - Online Graphic Novel

That's true--

Aleph's picture

And different peoples' brains interpret visuals differently, as well. My lovely blue zombie Syl can't really see the pictures in black and white, any comic done in stark lineart style utterly loses her, because of the way her brain works. Grayscale is okay but without a connective surface to objects they just fall out of her ability to interpret. So her interest naturally gravitates towards dialogue-dependant things, and her visual tastes are very narrow.

Whether it's brain wiring or personal taste though, some people are just going to prioritize differently-- I think it's a mistake that from time to time people try to impose timing rules or dialogue rules on the art form. It's better to discuss them as part of a wide variety of tools available to us.

It made a HUGE impact on me when I read Visual Storytelling, and saw some of the strategies used to adjust pacing with and without dialogue. The excerpts from Strangers In Paradise, especially, opened my eyes to new ways of handling action in still frames without having to scribble action lines all over my art. Probably be a long time before I get to what I glimpsed in that process, but, it's helpful. I don't think I would have reacted anywhere near as well to something that tried to impose rules on things, though, because for every rule anybody tries to establish there are brilliant moments out there that shatter those rules.

I think, honestly, form is subservient to function-- if a story doesn't need words, putting them in just because you think it's not a comic without them is a bad idea. If a story needs a voice, leaving it out to be artsy just turns out boring. I totally echo the sentiment, in other words-- the flexibility here is fantastic.

"if a story doesn't need

"if a story doesn't need words, putting them in just because you think it's not a comic without them is a bad idea..."

Well, you seem like an intelligent person, Aleph, so I'm going to assume you already know that's not what I was saying and that the distortion of my argument is therefore unintentional.

Let's finish on a point we can agree on - "form is subservient to function" you say? Absolutely.

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

Website: www.brokenvoice.co.uk
Contact: edit_bvc@yahoo.co.uk

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

Umm, check the nesting here--

Aleph's picture

I realize I aggro'd you a while back, by responding to your BVC article, but, seriously, I am not, like, gunning for you or something. Never was, I just disagreed strongly with the position in that article. And in this case, not 'distorting' your argument nor even addressing it. Totally not about you.

Lookit, I was actually speaking to Greg, see how my comment is nested under his? We were talking about the flexibility of the medium, in a totally positive way. My very next sentence was the opposite extreme, a comic that does need a voice but has no words just to be artsy. It's demarcation of extremes, nothing distorting anybody else. So, no discussion with you to end, I just had some thoughts sparked and typed them down in response to what he said.

Hey, no offence taken.

Hey, no offence taken. I don't mind you having a different opinion to mine (or Greg's or anyone else's) ... life would be pretty boring if we all thought alike!

Based on these two discussions, I can see we might be disagreeing again on a regular basis. But that's okay - no harm in a healthy exchange of views!

:-)

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

Website: www.brokenvoice.co.uk
Contact: edit_bvc@yahoo.co.uk

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

Yeah, it makes it fun if

Greg Carter's picture

Yeah, it makes it fun if when we disagree and can peek inside to show each other why. Some people are too ticklish when you poke them though. ;-)

Greg Carter
Abandon
UpDown Studio

Greg Carter - Abandon: First Vampire - Online Graphic Novel

You got dialogue on my art, you got art on my dialogue.

Greg Carter's picture

"Without text, you just have a series of pictures, not a comic."

I disagree. Without action you have a series of pictures, not a comic. And by action, I mean the passage of time. That can be shown even in one panel by implying what came before and/or after. You can do that with just a single drawn picture, no text, and it's a comic.

Have you ever read Owly? No dialogue there.

But the pictures don't have to tell the story, sometimes it's enough to hold it, or even reference it. And let the dialogue pull you along.

The only thing that matters is if it's good enough. Whether it's text or pictures, alone or together, all that matters is the story.

The only comics that are too wordy are the ones that have too many words. (not trying to be a jerk, just couldn't think of a better way to say it.) Most of my favorite writers write way too much and then cut it back to leave only what is absolutely necessary. Like the quote about how to make a statue, you chip away everything that isn't it.

I've seen comics that were all stylized text. The differing sizes, shapes, colors of the text added to what the actual words were saying.

Comics are a method of visual storytelling using static "pictures" that contain more than just regular text, because we call that prose. That is an overly simplistic version and any asshole can pick that definition apart if they run out of cheetos and get bored.

So you can have a comic without text, but technically you can't have a comic without pictures, or at least graphically stylized text. And that's probably pushing the boundary for a lot of people. It's all a matter of how well the communication is made.

Greg Carter
Abandon
UpDown Studio

Greg Carter - Abandon: First Vampire - Online Graphic Novel

Dialogue

Okay ... so maybe I overstated the case in the interests of emphasis but the principle holds true. I have yet to see a textless comic (print or web) or even a succession of textless pages which could not be improved with the addition of dialogue.

I'm not going to quote web examples (and specifically not examples of comics created by the participants on this forum!) because that just gets people excited and the responses start to get defensive rather than considered. Instead, I'm going to resort to print and - to show that I'm not suggesting the absence of text necessarily means the writer is weak - I'm going to take examples from my favourite comic book writer, Alan Moore (an otherwise "wordy" writer if ever there was one!)

In "The Killing Joke" the first three pages - a total of 22 panels (the equivalent of several pages for any other writer!) - are all but textless. Moore obviously thinks he's creating atmosphere but, for me, those pages are a waste of precious story-telling space. A silent sequence like this would work in the movies where the functions of text (atmosphere, tension, pacing etc) could be carried out by music or sound effects or even by judicious editing. In a comic, however, we have several pages which are not only harder to appreciate than pages with appropriate copy but which - if torn from the book - would make no difference to the reader's understanding of the story.

The same is true of several sequences in "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" where the inclusion of pages without text (or whole sequences where the only text is unintelligible alien-speak) become a chore to "read", disrupting the natural flow and rhythm of the story.

And, at the end of the day, that's not something any creator should be aiming for.

__________________________________
Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

Website: www.brokenvoice.co.uk
Contact: edit_bvc@yahoo.co.uk

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

Umm...

Aleph's picture

[quote]Okay ... so maybe I overstated the case in the interests of emphasis but the principle holds true. I have yet to see a textless comic (print or web) or even a succession of textless pages which could not be improved with the addition of dialogue.[/quote]

http://comixpedia.com/node/7372#comment-19949 -- From "It's About Girls" (the original)

Adding dialogue to that would absolutely have ruined the moment. It was a situation in which no words, no narration, nothing could possibly have expressed the feelings going on so well as being wordless. Narration would have /killed/ that.

To be expected

Well, I guess I expected something like this and that's exactly why I tried to resist posting this response on an artist-heavy forum for as long as I did! I can only refer you to your own comment further down this thread ... different people interpret things differently. You think text would have ruined that? For my money, it doesn't change the fact that "I have yet to see a textless comic (print or web) or even a succession of textless pages which could not be improved with the addition of dialogue."

That's not to say you can't make a comic without text or that it can't be effective up to a point ... just that - for me - it could be even better.

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

Website: www.brokenvoice.co.uk
Contact: edit_bvc@yahoo.co.uk

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

Hmm.

Aleph's picture

So how do you think that could be /improved/ with dialogue?

I still think the wordlessness of the situation is what makes it powerful.

Ah, damn - now look ...

Ah, damn - now look what you've done! There seem to be so many artist-led comics represented here that, rather than risk being flamed, I've been desperately trying to resist the temptation to respond in terms very similar to this! Oh well, since you've started it ...

I don't agree with every point you make in detail but, in general terms - yes, yes and yes. The importance of dialogue to a comic (and that includes webcomics) cannot be over-stated. Without text, you just have a series of pictures, not a comic. Without pictures, you have a piece of prose. The two are of equal importance and - in the best comics - they work together, each complementing the other to create something more powerful than either could be on their own.

Good writing will help control pacing and convey character, emotion and atmosphere (and probably a few other things I've forgotten for the moment!) far better than pictures are capable of doing alone.

See ... you shouldn't have got me started!

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

Website: www.brokenvoice.co.uk
Contact: edit_bvc@yahoo.co.uk

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

Not to be snarky or anything...

Aleph's picture

But I think you're glossing over a lot of the importance of dialogue and compacting it all into #3, and I think a character deserves a lot more treatment than a one-paragraph writeup. The currently running series on dialogue is doing a good job of exploring why characters speak the way they do.

I write and draw my own material, it isn't a problem for me. The characters mean something to me, they are complete people in my view. I think if the work is going to be split between two people, the writer should go above and beyond filling in the word bubbles. A writer should take on the responsibility of bringing life and dimension to characters, not simply making sure they're clever and believable.

I've committed some horrible atrocities in wordiness, and even apologized to my audience for bubble crowding-- the response is always supportive and positive. Why? Because characters don't say things for the sake of talking or being clever. They say things that they think, feel, or need to express, and the audience has become attached to their thoughts and interested in what they have to say. Granted mine is a story strip, but the same things can be said of many 'gag' strips that have lasted in the webcomic world.

It's more than making sure you don't muck anything up. It's charging yourself with the duty of making these characters /people/ to the readers, even in a gag strip-- because personality is where comedy comes from. It is attachment to the unique people you create for your strip that sets your work apart from anyone else's, and that's the heart from which dialogue should begin.