Sometimes I feel a tad meta looking these things over, as if I was learning from my own arcana. I’m not an expert, even though I’ve been through the early writing stages of a comic book. As far as learning experiences go, my discoveries tend to be on the fly. I’ll just stumble upon this new idea that will change my current issue, or force me to go back into previous issues to alter their structure. Dialogue has caused me the most trouble thus far when it comes to these retroactive changes to the script, especially when there are plot changes involved. This can be a daunting task, but still manageable with the proper strategies in place. So, here is what I’ve learned and I hope it helps you along as well.
Tip 1: Dialogue is not static.
When we write characters, we feel locked into a particular mood that tends to accompany a particular character. For instance, while writing the initial drafts of my script for my graphic novel, I was intending the character to grow throughout the story in particular spurts. This influenced my approach to the character tremendously. I felt that the character’s child stages would pass and I would then get more into the adult conception of the character. When this particular strategy changed, so did the character and all essential dialogue that interacted with my protagonist. I had to invest a personality into a character where there was none before. How other characters reacted to my protagonist changed as well. I felt particularly attached to some dialogue pieces in the graphic novel’s first and second draft but I felt convicted that I needed to change it, to reflect the renewed perspective of my supporting characters towards the protagonist. I rewrote 4 issues (roughly 100pgs) by the end of this revision period, which was a bother, despite learning a lot about character development.
My strategy since then has been to treat dialogue as filler, or place holders. After I finish an issue, I will go back over the script a couple of times and with my end perspective of how the issue concludes secured in my mind, I do my round of rewrites. Before I would have been lazy and resisted the urge to go back. I said, “It is finished!” But this isn’t enough. Go back and really try to understand who a character is in relation to his/her surroundings. Don’t be afraid to tweak dialogue to better reflect their habits and quirks.
Tip 2: Quantity is Not Quality
I’m a big fan of Neil Gaiman. I love his dialogue and how he blends the genres of Novel and Graphic Fiction together into a harmonious balance. To emulate him, when I first began writing my comic, I wrote rather large dialogue lines and created larger-than-life exchanges in the process. It wasn’t until my artist read my initial scripts where he said something along the lines of, “Dude, this is a lot of dialogue…”
I read Alan Moore and Grant Morrison next. Each wrote large sections of dialogue as well, but Moore was punchy and concise when he needed to. Morrison likewise taught me the meaning of layouts and good editing. Morrison typically writes in tandem with his layouts. Normal conversations are short and brief, while large compositions and full blown spreads and layouts tend to include expository text to move the plot along in large breadths. In relation to my artist’s advice and the examples before me in these two writers, I started finding ways to trim down my dialogue lines in each panel. I needed to find the quickest, fastest way to convey a point or an emotion, otherwise I’d be stressing out my artist, who would find the majority of his art covered up with black and white text. And so, through a series of revisions, I collapsed several conversations. I made them shorter. Now they read better. Every dialogue exchange is clean and less busy. I had no precise science of how to go about this. Setting goals for the maximum amount of text per page certainly helps. I never tried that, but it would help remind you about the need to be aware of the constrictions and restrictions when it comes to comic dialogue.
Tip 3: Character Vomit
This one is a little easier to grasp, but I thought I would include it. Revealing what a character feels is good, but try to save most of that for the artist. I found myself writing what I felt afterwards to be “character vomit,” where everything the character feels just comes out all at once. Jack Kirby would do this alongside all the silver age writers. It was appropriate for the time, but today comes off as obnoxious. If you want a character to feel nervous and scared, it’s a good idea to describe that the character looks scared and nervous. Accompanying dialogue, especially dialogue that is short and sparse, will amplify the power of the emotions going on in the panel. In lieu of my previous point, about 75% of my excess dialogue I cut out of my early drafts were emotional cues. The resulting narrative was stronger and helped amplify suspense and action where applicable to the story.
That’s it for my tips, or what I can think of for now. Consider them and try them out in your own scripts. I’m curious to see how they fair.