Drowning in Dialog

People put a lot of emphasis on dialog, to the point that we’re often drowning in it. A heavy burden is falsely placed on dialog’s shoulders to solve every writing problem and answer every question. It’s often bloated, dull, and ineffective. Like a garden over-run with ivy, dialog needs to be trimmed down to a reasonable size. It’s only one part of the display, and less important than you might expect it to be.

Find one word

When we talk, we often use a lot more words than we need to. It’s a bad habit that can transfer to our writing. This is particularly problematic in a media such as comics where space is limited. Every word we use means less room for an image. In prose it can make our stories wordy and uninteresting. For written work, the issue can be mitigated by finding one word that stands in for many. It saves you space and introduces variety to the work’s vocabulary.

– “He couldn’t stop looking at it” vs “He was entranced.”
– “She accidentally dropped her keys as she caught them” vs “She fumbled the catch.”

With comic dialog, the same principle applies. There is almost always a leaner way of expressing an idea. We just have to search for it. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of getting to the heart of the emotion.

Cut to the Chase

Let’s say a character, we’ll call him Carlos, was just told his father betrayed him, but Carlos is skeptical. How could we express this in dialog? Here’s a couple options:

1) “Do you really think my father would betray me?”
2) “I can’t believe that my father would do that!”
3) “No! It can’t be! He’d never do that to me!”

Fundamentally, all of these options say the same thing, so why don’t we cut to the chase on what Carlos is REALLY thinking?

“You’re wrong.”

The best part about cutting to the chase is by saying less you can play more with tone and action. Instead of stating explicitly Carlos’ thought process, we short-circuit to the core feeling. Without all the excess words in the way, HOW he says something becomes more important than WHAT he says. Is he angry? Stunned? Resigned? Does Carlos leap up and pace, or deflate in his seat? Does he look away from you, or stare you defiantly in the face? Film and comics can show these actions, while prose can describe them. Either way, by saying less we’re actually showing the viewer more.

Are there subtle differences in the longer sentences that are not captured by this simpler statement? Yes, and we do loose some of the characterization in the dialog reduction. However, dialog is not the only tool at our disposal. Often, it’s not even the most useful one.

It’s surprisingly easy to forget the visual elements of a story, regardless of the media – prose, comics, illustration, film – all of them have visual elements. Even if it’s just the movie in one’s mind.

Show, Don’t Tell

There’s a mantra I use for writing: “If it can be thought, it can be said. If it can be said, it can be done.”

You’ll notice I don’t have a lot of thought bubbles in my comic. In general, I’ve found for me thought bubbles often become a crutch for lazy writing. Worse, it often creates boring pages.

Now, before anyone takes that statement to mean “never use thought bubbles ever,” I’m not saying throw them out. I’m saying use them consciously and judiciously. Rather than constantly relying on them to convey information, consider other options. Is there another way to get a character’s state of mind across?

When we feel something, we don’t think “I am feeling _____.” Instead, we act on those feelings. Usually in habitual, unconscious ways. It’s far more interesting to learn about characters through their illogical behaviors, rather than a logical and wordy thought-bubble explanation.


This is the posture my character, Mizha, adopts when anxious. Another character, Zhiro, tends to get scathingly formal when he’s angry. Whereas Kali’s tendency to rub her forehead is how you know she’s a tad exasperated. Whether readers consciously picked up on it or not, chances are their minds started to notice the patterns and are learning to intuit the character moods based on body language. As a result, I can “say” a lot with just postures and behaviors without using a single word to describe mood.

Speaking of mood, don’t discount the impact of layout, color, angle, focus, and framing for setting the tone of a panel. I’m only just starting to scrape the surface of how to properly use these visual elements myself, but there’s a great examination of the Cinematography of The Incredibles that rocked my world when it came to laying out a page. I definitely recommend checking that out for added study.

Silence is as important as Sound

Often what we refuse to say is just as important as what we express. This technique relies heavily of use of expression, tone, and context. It means putting a lot of faith in the reader. And it can be one of the most powerful means of characterizing at our disposal if we do it right.

Consider this quiet moment from my comic, shown below. By text alone, we know that someone named Vepina made cookies like the one the character, Pakku, is eating. However, from silence and action, we learn far more than that. We get a feel for the mood and the relationships involved. We can intuit a lot about Pakku, and start asking questions. Readers were very engaged by the mystery of the character, and I got a TON of questions about Vepina afterwards. If I’d stated everything about her and Pakku’s feelings towards her and the history between them in thought-bubble text, there’d actually be less content on the page. A ton of material is covered here, but almost all of it is unsaid.

The Ultimate Combination

Dialog is an important means of communicating, but by not relying on it as our ONLY means of communication, our writing can convey more in the same space. Including action, expression, surroundings, and framing, we free up our characters to talk AND feel at the same time. The purpose of most writing is to characterize, advance plot, or establish an environment. Efficient writing accomplishes all of these at once. The key to this ultimate combination is freeing dialog from the obligation to do all the work. It’s only one of your tools. Bring everything you have to build your scenes.

Read Part One in the Death to Dialog & a Pox on Narration series – Excessive Exposition.

Robin Childs is addicted to storytelling, with specialties in world-building, character crafting, and language making. You can find the results of her storytelling pursuits at LeyLinesComic.com! Or drop a line on Twitter at RobinofLeyLines. If you are struggling with your own storytelling troubles, she offers a variety of coaching & reviewing services!

Posted in Featured News, Helpful Hints, Writing and tagged , , , .


  1. thanks robin I enjoyed reading this and the first part of this article. regarding thought bubbles I tend to use them when a character is telling lies or covering up something.

    • There are definitely good times to use thought bubbles. Lies can be one of them, especially since audiences tend to believe 100% what a character says, even when they’re making an obvious lie. Sometimes a thought bubble in that case can be good for clarity.

  2. Love this. It’s true that less is more. I think many of us who use Twitter daily have learned to use less characters to say what we want. I don’t really read comics that are all wordy, some are 2/3 of the strip. On the other hand, I never understand those with no text like Lio or Henry (maybe it’s just how my brain works, or doesn’t work), so I find somewhere in between to be the happy medium. I think that is why I prefer single panel cartoons. Usually one sentence is all that is needed for the gag.

    While I do believe that 90% of comics is the writing, rather than the drawing, too much text really is too much.

    • Often writing includes specifically choosing NOT to write text, but direction. I think we too often confuse “words” for “writing,” when the act of constructing a story or a joke means so much more!

      I’ve also found Twitter a useful tool in enforcing brevity. Who would have guessed?

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