Benefit of Writing Comics: Pacey Dialog

May 15, 2015

Welcome back to another installment in my series on the benefits of writing a recurring web comic. In this, the sixth such installment, I’ll be talking about the benefit of writing pacey dialog. This is a direct follow up to my previous blog about writing tight.

The dialog I write in my comics and prose stories has been called “pacey” by several people, which is interesting as I didn’t even know pacey was a word to begin with. The first such person was in a writing course I took at the local university. She had a Scottish accent so I always hear the term “pacey” in a Scottish lilt now regardless of who’s saying it.

At any rate, pacey dialog is that form of dialog you get when you have two or more characters rapid firing lines off one another in quick succession. For example…

[Cubes 99: Banter Up]
Banter Up

While there are many things that separate comics and prose writing, one thing they have in common is that they’re both static. Whether it’s writing words in a novel or a short story or it’s those same words supplemented by illustrations, the fact of the matter is that there’s no motion in those forms. They sit there. Still. Static. It’s up to the author to inject a sense of urgency and movement into those words.

I grew up on the films of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Movies that move along quickly and have lots of action. The original Star Wars trilogy, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park—they caught me in my “formative years.” As such, they’ve indelibly informed how I write stories. I like to write stories that move along at a good, well, pace. One of the best places I’ve found to do this is in dialog. There’s nothing I like better than to write two characters ping ponging lines back and forth.

So where does writing comics come into all this?

As I wrote about previously, in a comic strip you have to write tight. You physically do not have the room in a four panel comic strip to be sloppy. Every word is crucial. As well, except for the occasional location name or time reference (e.g. “meanwhile”), every word in a comic strip is a word of dialog. I’ve been writing the comics regularly for nearly a decade now. That’s a lot of dialog to write.

To have any sort of back and forth between characters in a comic strip requires their lines to be very lean. Even a single word can make the difference between a line fitting nicely within a comic panel or it covering up the artwork. I’ve dropped words. I’ve even completely rearranged sentences to make them fit. Some of that I discussed last time.

Where pacey dialog truly enters the mix is with the speech bubbles in a comic strip. Since every speech bubble has an outline, that outline and the margins around it take up space within the frame. The more bubbles you put in the less space for both the words and the artwork. So to have that true back and forth in a comic strip requires very terse, very pacey lines.

The thing is, after writing terse lines like that for years you get a lot of that carried over into normal prose writing. In that carry over, that’s where I discovered that pacey dialog isn’t just about writing short lines. It’s about getting the rhythms of the lines right too.

[Cubes 10: DishBlaster 3000]
DishBlaster 3000

When I first released the above comic, the final line in the last panel read “You can’t even see the pattern anymore.” It included neither the “wow” nor the “flower.” I left those two words out so that less of the artwork would be covered—there’s an exploded dishwasher on the floor behind the speech bubble.

However, that truncated line always bugged me. It never felt quite right. It didn’t have the rhythm that it needed in order to really work.

I started making the comic strips a couple years before I set up to house them. When I created the website, I took some time to fix a few typos and art errors in the comics I’d produced to that point. When I got to the DishBlaster 3000 comic I revisited that line. I added the two missing words in and found it didn’t slow down the dialog and made it, to my ears at least, sound better and funnier. It was worth giving up a bit of the artwork for that.

Writing comics has taught me that pacey dialog is a combination of terseness moderated by the rhythm of a line. You can actually write some relatively long lines of dialog and still have them feel pacey if you get the rhythm right.

Character wise, I’ve found pacey dialog also really helps. It can show that two characters are on the same wavelength in their thoughts and the conclusions they come to in a story. Or it can be used in more formal settings to show that your characters are clever and quick on their verbal feet. Or it can be used to disguise an emotionally charged scene where the emotion becomes this great subtext underlying everything the characters are saying. Not bad for a few words written in a four panel comic.

Right, that’s it for the benefits of comics for this month. Come back next month for my final installment on the benefit of writing humor (or is it humour?). In the meantime, why not take a refresher on the rest of the series.