Process Blog #11: Writing Dialogue for Comics
Jesus, that’s a lot of yakking on Page 22. How the hell does Brian Bendis do it? I wonder if he uses a metronome like David Mamet does. But I don’t want to talk about Bendis or Mamet. I wanna talk about me and how I write dialogue.
I’m a pretty dialogue-oriented guy in general. I’m pretty quiet in person, but I put a lot of emphasis on conversation. I crave having a good conversation like some people crave drugs or fried food. I crave it like I crave coffee. The meaningful exchange of ideas and possibly jokes? That’s my shit, y’all.
As such, the stuff I write always tends to have a lot of talking, which some might tell you is the antithesis of visual storytelling. Obviously, the stuff people do in conversation tells a certain kind of story (like I said in a previous blog post), but oftentimes it seems like talky = bad in many readers’ eyes. That’s probably not the case, though. More likely it’s that talkiness without sufficient payoff is bad, whether that’s dramatic tension or conflict or what.
As a kid, I hated Peter David’s X-Factor because it didn’t have all the punching of the other X-Books of the early ’90s. As I grew up a little, I came to love that issue where Doc Samson gives every member of the team a psychiatric evaluation. Issues like that are great because you spend some time with the characters outside of fighting and hopefully learn something about them — if the writer has done his or her job.
My approach to writing dialogue is this: don’t be boring. Make sure it feels natural enough (or not, depending on what you’re going for), and pepper in some jokes and specificity to let the reader know that these aren’t just ciphers who exist to move the story along, but attempts at creating people that feel alive.
Let’s look at Page 22:
The layout we came up for this one isn’t all that dynamic or anything. Two tiers of repeating panels that mimic static camera takes — something you might find in a Matt Fraction comic like The Order or Invincible Iron Man. Basically, I wanted the interrogation scenes to have a different flavor from the other parts. More rigid repetition, focus on what they’re saying and how they say it, considering they’re just sitting in chairs and blabbing in a grimy green room.
Scripting dialogue-centric pages is relatively easy — technically, at least. Start out by write out all the dialogue, the back and forth. Don’t concern yourself with the panels just yet. If the dialogue is the point of the scene, then you have to let that drive your scripting of the page. Let yourself get carried away if you must. Write to your heart’s content. Go nuts. Then, you edit. Cut out the fat, figure out how many pages this will take, divide it up into panels in a way that makes sense. Kill your darlings, cut out lines that don’t need to be there if you’re pressed for page space.
Then, you keep editing. Your dialogue scene’s three pages? That’s too much? Figure out how to compress it into two. Or better yet, one.
It’s different if the scene is more complex than just two people talking. In that case it’s a matter of scripting out the action of the page (whatever that means to you — punching, walking across the room, tying somebody up) and then writing in the dialogue.
Extreme example, but peep Page 21:
On this page, action (Becky sneaking into the museum) comes first, with dialogue acting as a secondary element of the scene. She sneaks in, fights some robots, flips past some laser tripwire and gets caught. The dialogue jazzes up the scene by further establishing the relationship between Becky and Bark and offering a bit of both characters’ backstories through off-handed jokes and comments. It’s totally secondary and the page could ULTIMATELY do without it (up until the bottom tier) but I think it offers a degree of pacing to the page where a completely silent page encourages most readers to rush through.
Pacing. That’s a subject for another blog, isn’t it?