When NOT To Use Dialogue In Comics

2015 Artwork When Not To Use Dialogue Article Sketch

At the time of writing this article, I’m working on a comic called “Diabolical Sigil”, that will probably have been posted here in late July and possibly early August.

Because I’m slightly further ahead with these articles than I am with my art, I’ve just finished this page of the comic at the time of writing this article:

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] "Diabolical Sigil - Page 2" By C. A. Brown

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Diabolical Sigil – Page 2” By C. A. Brown

Anyway, working on this page made me think about something that I’m still sort of learning. Namely, when is and when isn’t it appropriate to use dialogue in comics. Since I come from something of a writing background, I have a tendency to over-write my comics sometimes.

This was probably at it’s worst when I made my old “CRIT” comics back in 2012/2013, where many pages would contain gigantic chunks of exposition-filled dialogue. Sometimes there would even be as much (or more) page space filled with dialogue as there was with illustration. Here’s an example:

This is a page from one of my old "CRIT" comics from 2012. As you can see, most of the page is filled with dialogue.

This is a page from one of my old “CRIT” comics from 2012. As you can see, most of the page is filled with dialogue.

The thing to remember here is that, although comics can tell stories as well as (or even better than) prose fiction can, comics are more than just illustrated short stories. The illustrations are just as much a part of the story as the dialogue or narration is.

The illustrations in a comic must support the story, but they don’t always have to take second place to the dialogue. Remember the old saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words“? Likewise, remember the old piece of writing advice that you should “show, don’t tell“? Well, both of these things also apply to comics too.

But, another rule applies too – namely, “don’t tell the same part of the story twice“.

If you show something visually in your comic, you don’t usually have to explain it using dialogue. Your readers are smart enough to be able to work out what is happening in a picture (and, if they can’t, then this is probably a sign that you need to re-draw your picture), so you don’t need to tell the same part of the story twice.

And, since looking at pictures is often more interesting than reading words, if you can get something across to your reader using a picture instead of using dialogue – then use pictures.

There are obviously exceptions to this rule, but you should usually only use dialogue to tell parts of your story that you can’t tell using pictures alone.

I mean, it’s theoretically possible to tell an entire story just using pictures – if you don’t believe me, then check out the Wikipedia page about “Wordless Novels“. These were a precursor to modern comic books and they tell entire stories without even using a single line of dialogue.

So, how do you do this? Well, like films and TV shows, comics are a primarily visual medium. This means that you can use many of the silent storytelling techniques that films and TV shows do in your comic.

In other words, you can use things like actions, facial expressions and background details to tell parts of your story in a way that you can’t really do as well in prose fiction (yes, you can use written descriptions, but it doesn’t have quite the same impact as an actual picture).

But, of course, the trickier question is when should you tell part of your story using dialogue and when should you tell part of your story using pictures?

There’s no “one size fits all” answer to this question, but one good way to get a sense of when to use visual storytelling and when to use narrative storytelling is to read as many comics as you can. Read comics by famous writers like Alan Moore, Warren Ellis and Neil Gaiman – or, if these are too expensive, then read some widely-acclaimed and long-running webcomics.

Seeing lots of good examples of good storytelling in comics will, after a while at least, start to give you a bit of an idea about when it is and when it isn’t appropriate to use dialogue in your comic.

———–

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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