Guest Post: Mede Colvin and 3 Rules for Effective Dialogue

Hello! My name is Mede Colvin and I'm the writer behind the deepwater Southern horror-fantasy comic The Human Atlas, which I do in collaboration with my friend Nintala. I'm not going to say a lot about what I am or what I do... you didn't click on this post for that!

What I'm going to talk about concerns dialogue and how to write it effectively and impactfully. Dialogue is one of the most important parts of a comic: it is the main way that a story advances and explains itself and it is the main way for readers to glean information about what's going on. There are comics out there that do not have any spoken lines or even lines at all, but those comics instead rely on extremely strong visuals to tell their story. Most comics will have dialogue in some form or other. You can sometimes get away with weak visuals, but dialogue is make-or-break material, and weak, ineffective dialogue can utterly kill a comic.

When writing dialogue, I try to follow three main rules:

1. Have almost every line convey some kind of information about the speaker or the situation.

Occasional filler lines are okay, in the same way that beat panels are okay! However, unless you're writing a particularly peaceful scene or a pure slice-of-life comic, lack of direction in the dialogue can leave the reader lost. As with all things, there is a balance; sometimes characters do indeed ramble out of nervousness and things like that. But if it gets to the point that reading your word bubbles is like reading a book, shorten them.

2. Keep your characters' dialogue as concise as possible.

This is closely related to the first rule. Unless you're writing a specific kind of character or trying to write a humorous scene where a character rambles, don't have your characters say in a hundred words what they could say in ten. Try your hardest to keep your bubbles around four or five lines long or less. Remember that comics are a visual medium. We’ve all been told to “show, not tell” when writing, and even though “showing” is the default in comics, this is still valid advice. You’re not writing a book! Walls of text tend to kill pacing and momentum and often leave readers feeling like they're reading a novel instead of a comic.

3. Make it so you can tell every character apart just from their dialogue.

The reader should be able to tell which character is speaking at all times, even without visuals! A lot of characters can talk in a similar manner especially if they're from the same background, but if most of your characters sound exactly like each other, then that's something to fix. A good way to test this is to mentally take out the comic's visuals; by focusing solely on what's in the word bubbles, you should be able to tell at a glance who is speaking. If you can't take enough of a step back at your own work to be objective, have a friend be the judge. If you are the creator and you have access to the comic's raw files, you can even go one step further by hiding the art layer(s) and keeping the word bubbles. Can you still say for sure who's who?

Above is a snippet of The Human Atlas, featuring the characters Iko (the mulberry-colored one with mint green eyes) and Filore (the russet-colored one with glasses and liseran purple eyes). It showcases my approach to writing dialogue, and I'll go over how it demonstrates each of my three rules.

1. Have almost every line convey some kind of information about the speaker or the situation.

This is a fairly slice-of-life-esque scene, but if you analyze each of the characters' lines, they tell you a lot of information about the characters themselves. Iko and Filore are both members of the same fishlike humanoid species: undines. Their dialogue, however, sets them worlds apart. And in just these three sentences, many conclusions about these two characters can be drawn.

Iko's one line seems scolding and extremely strict, hinting at her nature as a reserved but easily provoked character who is insistent upon her own boundaries. Filore calls her "friend" and Iko's very quick to inform her: "we're not." Her use of the archaic terms "nary" and "thee" further paints her as quite old-fashioned, if not even a little bit pompous.

Meanwhile, Filore combines Iko's name with the ancient Greek word "ecumene" - an obscure pun that many readers will find borderline incomprehensible - suggesting great intelligence but a lack of care as to whether or not people understand her. She's irreverent and playfully antagonistic but not quite mean: she very subtly jabs at Iko's formal dialect with "ye olde" before immediately softening the blow by calling her "friend." And her fish-themed riff on the phrase "cat got your tongue" also suggests that she is not above silliness.

2. Keep your characters' dialogue as concise as possible.

There's not really much to say here, both characters' bubbles are fairly concise and accomplish what they need to. Now Iko's bubble is only one sentence long, but Filore's actually seems like it's breaking this rule! It's actually not, and let me explain why.

She could easily have just selected either one of the two sentences she currently says, and dropped the other one. But shortening the line would have risked sacrificing the presence and communication of Filore's character. As stated above, you can infer from her lines that she is a whimsical, wise-cracking type, talking a little more than usual to fill the void of Iko's silence, and this is something that may have been lost if Filore's bubble was downsized.

I want to emphasize that these rules are not strict. Don’t be afraid to occasionally bend them for effect, like I did here.

3. Make it so you can tell every character apart just from their dialogue.

This blends in with the first point somewhat. There are many, many ways to have characters stand out from each other when it comes to dialogue: dialect, speech patterns, brevity or lack thereof, verbal tics and filler words, repetition, and everything else. Most differences tend to be very subtle, but part of the reason why I chose this particular segment from my comic is because these two characters' speech patterns are different in very obvious and extreme ways. Just from a glance at the dialogue, you should be able to form a very good image of these characters' personalities and how different they are from each other. Even if you take the visuals out of the picture!

And that's it! Just like with dialogue, I believe the best columns are short and concise. These three rules are by no means set in stone, but they've helped me improve my writing and I hope they help you as well. And if you've gotten particularly good results out of these, don't be afraid to show them to me - I'd like to see how my advice has helped you!

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