So okay, where did we leave off?
In our last installment (which you should read before even starting this one), I went over mostly panel size and borders, discussing how the panel itself can affect the flow of your story. Today I'm going to go over dialog balloons and their affect on story flow and pacing.
Ballooning is probably one of the most overlooked and least appreciated fields in the art of comic-making*. What a lot of people don't realize is that it isn't so much the shape of the balloons that's important; it's the layout of the balloons. Take for example Mr. Stickman, here:
He standing there, happy as can be. So let's give him a little dialog:
We know what he's saying in this panel, but . . . don't you think it could be better? Well, this is where the placement of your balloons comes in. Humor me for a moment and say aloud as though you were saying to a friend:
Everybody: "Gee. What a nice day it is. Not a cloud in the sky."
Notice the little pauses between sentences? Notice the lengthier pause between "What a nice day it is" and "Not a cloud in the sky?" Exact intonation will, of course, vary according to where you live and your dialect, but the basic speech pattern remains the same.
When we speak, there are natural pauses when we take a breath or lag behind/jump ahead in thought. Our timing changes according to the color of our emotions. When we're upset, our speech speeds up. When we're tired or cautious, it slows down. Sometimes we repeat words when we're particularly hesitant to voice our thoughts. The "I . . . I love you." is pretty common in shoujo.
So how do we show these pause in speech? Well, let's go back to our little stickman here, but break up the dialog balloons to better reflect the pattern of his speech:
When our eye travels across the page, it interprets any distance from one balloon to the next as a pause in speech.
When that space is filled with art, the eye will linger on the art and lengthen the pause even more.
Rather than leaving the character to the left or right of the panel and simply spacing the dialog balloons further apart, I often center the character on the panel and "settle" balloons around them to create these longer pauses. In that same scene with Leah playing the mischievous mad scientist with her cat, the first page last panel exactly shows this concept:
A question preceded by a statement usually has a pause before it, hence the placement of "Eh, Schrödinger?" to the right and "Perrrfect! Now to make you disappear!" to the left.
Using this same panel, let's move on to the next concept of dialog/balloon layout: Positioning
The majority of us being English-speakers, our natural reaction when reading a page is to start at the top left-hand corner and then make our way across the page reading right and down. Of course, many of us were raised on Japanese manga and can read as easily from right to left as left to right, but there is still that natural disposition to automatically start reading in the direction of one's native language. A few hundred books can't break the training of hundreds of thousands of ads, newspapers, blogs, websites, books, homework, and instruction materials written left-to-right in English.**
To demonstrate, here's the flow of the previous panel with dialog balloons:
Now what would happen if we were to flip the panel?
Well, here's the flow of the entire page:
And here's how the flow of the entire page with the last panel flipped splits up:
The eye doesn't know if it's supposed to read the TOP dialog balloon first or the LEFT dialog balloon first. In doing so, we confuse the reader who has to go back and read the balloons again to make certain they read them in the right order. This is bad, bad, bad, very bad. The flow of balloons and dialog and art should flow in as smooth a path as possible, entering at the top left hand corner of the page and exiting at the bottom right corner.
Now, this doesn't necessarily mean EVERY panel has to real left to right, top to bottom. Quite to the contrary! On page 138 of "Steady Beat," I had a lot of dialog to fit onto the page (actually, this whole chapter had a lot of dialog in general), but I didn't want the layout to look dull or boring. I wanted the art and dialog to flow as smooth and natural as possible.
Now, just sticking to the "left to right, up to down" policy, the page would look something like this***:
Unfortunately, this layout creates an overly-long pause between "E . . ." and ". . . F." To shorten the length of the pause, I moved "E . . .” a little more to the left and ". . . F" to the right:
I also moved "I . . ." in order to make sure the reader's eyes were directed more over Elijah, the speaker, than Leah. It's okay to make little adjustments like that for the sake of layout and design or to keep from obscuring the art too much. But IMHO, it's especially important the reader also knows who's speaking in the panel, and I'll often move balloons to indicate that.
Which brings us more directly to how art and dialog balloons interact with one another.
Naturally, you want your dialog balloons to be closest to the speaker on the page, especially if there is more than one person in the panel. It's very disconcerting to have the character on one side of the page and the dialog balloon all the way across.
It looks a bit like a floating, decapitated head, all lonely on the right side of the page.
Other than position of balloons being an indicator of who's speaking, dialog balloons can also serve to lead the reader through the art. When reading graphic literature, as beautiful as the art may be, it takes longer to read a balloon than it does to take a picture. Sadly, if you pile all of your balloons at the top of the page like so:
The reader is going to take less time to look at the art and skip right to the next balloon. Some people may overlook the art entirely, therefore missing important emotional clues on the face or in body language that would help them better interpret the tone of the dialog.
When you lay out the balloons and art on your page, try and visualize a connected line from the start of the page all the way to the end without breaking, making sure the balloons and art lead smoothly into one another. Here are a couple of examples that I hope you can learn from:
Dialog balloons are living, breathing, dynamic objects. Instead of just throwing them on the page, realize that they're a very part of the design and makeup of your story. There'd be no personality to the characters, no tone, no mood, no pace, and no direction without them.
In our next and last installment of this little series on paneling, pacing, and layout. I'll be covering the few things I didn't get to in the two previous posts such as doubled balloons, using sound FX for directing the eye, offsetting art in a panel or page, and knowing when to utilize same-sized sets of panels for special effects.
*Why aren't there any books on these things?
**And no, this essay isn't about publishing comics for a right-to-left audience. It's about writing comics for an English-speaking audience.
***Dialog taken out so that I don't give away too much of the plot. ;P