I’m writing a new comic (which I’ll finally be able to discuss next week after the announcement at Image Expo) and this early in the work I’m still learning the voices of my characters. Some of them are emerging full-born, chatty and easy — others, I’m having to tease and tweak, and experiment with. It’s fine, either way. I enjoy this part of the process. But it has reminded me again of the differences between writing comics and novels.
Good dialogue always matters. Always, always. But let’s say that writing dialogue isn’t your strength. Okay, that’s fine. In novels you can sometimes camouflage bad dialogue. Or even limit the amount of dialogue you’ve got through the work of engaging a character’s interior life. There’s always a work-around. It’s not easy, but you can do it. Where you’re weak in one area of prose, you’ll hopefully be strong in another.
I don’t think that’s actually possible in comics. Dialogue stands out in its isolation. There’s no prose, no descriptive cushion. Just the art — and your words. Words that are specific to characters. Words that are conversations. Words that sometimes provide narration. You may craft a gorgeous script, but the dialogue is all that the reader will ever see.
There’s also the extra burden of limited space. In a typical comic, panels aren’t large enough to accommodate a huge amount of talking. Conversations have to be succinct, and should accomplish a couple things at once: imparting information, but also character (i.e. think about how personality is revealed through the way someone speaks, through the words used, to the rhythm, to the body language).
It’s not easy. Or rather, some characters make it easy. But we’re not always that lucky. So what’s the solution? In my case, nothing more than continued revision, speaking lines out loud, rearranging conversations, re-imagining characters. Playing until it feels right. And sometimes it’s never going to feel right, and I just have to own that fact, and keep it moving.
This is also my strategy while writing novels, but the pressure feels a bit different. The lines in comics are just so much more exposed.
Anyway, that’s what I’m wrestling with right now. A lot of moving pieces, and all of them are words.