Adding Description to Dialogue: The Comic Method

The biggest challenge in writing dialogue, I think, isn’t necessarily actually writing good dialogue. Most of us can find examples of snappy one-liners or decent conversations. The problem, instead, is making sure that the dialogue doesn’t yawn and swallow the rest of the scene, leaving us with a couple of characters talking in what for all we can see might as well be a probabilistic haze (only without the need to occasionally duck passing electrons). It’s pretty easy to get to the point where it’s all dialogue, one steady run of one voice after another. We’ve all done it, I’m sure; I know I’ve done it far more than I like to think about. The trick, of course, is getting ourselves to stop—and this is something we need to do, or we end up with people who give up on the dialogue-heavy scenes because they just can’t see what’s going on.

I was looking at it today while coaching one of my friends through a scene that she was having trouble writing—issues with the subject material. Kind of thing that happens a lot when you’ve never actually done [fill in the blank], particularly when the blank is outside your comfort zone a bit. And that got me thinking. I already use visualizations for action scenes, applying the elements and principles of visual art to making the most important moments of my actions particularly spectacular, but what about everything else? That gave me the Comic Method.

The idea is pretty straightforward. If you’ve got a scene in which the most important part is the dialogue, and you don’t want it to look like it doesn’t have a clear referent, try imagining it as a comic, one or two lines of dialogue per panel. If you can keep pictures in your head, do it there, but if not, feel free to grab some scratch paper and draw little stick figures, give yourself a sense of what’s going on. Once you’ve got that, see if you can add something that hints at the picture as a narrative beat. Try to avoid the panels that are nothing but talking heads; you can have one or two of those in a scene, but most of the time your characters should be doing something, even if it’s not much of a change from what they were doing last time. Think of it this way; how often do you just stand still facing someone when talking?

What this does is force us to look at the scene through the eyes of someone who needs to make it as interesting visually as it is to listen to. Comic artists can’t hide behind their dialogue alone; since they need to include visuals, it gives them practice at thinking about what it is that their characters are up to between their words.

Do this enough, and you’ll find yourself thinking about what the characters are doing by sheer force of habit—and that, in turn, will make your talk-heavy scenes a whole lot easier to envision.

3 comments

  1. Michael says:

    Very timely — that’s exactly the problem I’m having at the moment in trying to revise one of my old stories. Long sequences where the dialogue just takes over (and that’s not getting into the problems with the actual spoken words…). I’ve gotten better at it since then, but clearly when I wrote this I hadn’t even realised it was a problem….

  2. UZ says:

    Ha, do this pretty frequently, although I find pantomime is simpler. This is probably something no one needed to know about my writing process. :)

    But, beware the inherent blind spots of comics as much as you do those of the novel! Each has its own too-easy mistake.

    The novel makes it easy to say things that are hard to do, or complicated, or dramatic. Consider the following compression of detail:

    “Excuse me,” she said, folding an origami paper crane in the brief pause, “but I couldn’t help but notice that you have a lot of paper here.”

    How long does it take to fold one of those things? How long does it take to say that sentence? But somehow it doesn’t sound that weird in a novel, even though by rights it should be.

    What do you get in comics? Compression of dialogue. (Well, monologue usually.) Any comic character worth their salt can deliver several lines of stilted dialogue in the time it takes for them to perform an incredibly brief *action*, like explaining the philosophical underpinning of the story in the middle of a punch.

    Two wonderful problems to watch for! And/or parody.

  3. Ravyn says:

    Michael: Yeah, I have the same problem when gaming sometimes. I think it’s one of the things that drove one of my former players out of dialogue scenes.

    UZ: Agreed. Particularly the parody part; I think one of my favorite examples was that one Twilight parody that cropped up on Livejournal, can’t remember the author, where at one point the narrative beat had Edward crushing boulders with his toes. That must’ve been some fast rock-powdering.

    I’d expect the overall purpose of the exercise to cover for a few of the blind spots comics have, though. After all, the following does look rather silly in prose:

    “And I, for one, believe in the right of humanity to self-determination, regardless of the theoretical existence of Fate and the rather more real existence of these brain-washing engines which I will destroy once I have finished with you, as you would clearly prevent me if I worked in the opposite order!” Rychus exclaimed as he delivered one of his powerful punches to the jaw of the mad scientist, sending her sprawling.

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