When it comes to emphasizing, setting off, and differentiating bits of dialogue, cartoonists and comic artists have a wide range of graphic techniques at their disposal.
Used in moderation, these approaches to visual writing can really add to your characters’ expressive potential. One principle is to think about drawing, rather than writing, the text—pursuing varied styles of presentation that enhance while informing.
Here are a few guiding principles along those lines:
Jagged words and jagged speech bubbles convey a tension that’s absent from, say, cursive letters. Varied fonts can complement a character’s expression and amplify the emotions they’re displaying.
Deviations need contrast to really be effective. Starting off with guidelines will help give your “default” style consistency. I like to draw light, ruled pencil lines—using my powers of estimation rather than measuring—and then erase them once the text is inked. (Another approach is to use a lightbox and a sheet of ruled notebook paper underneath the comic.)
Emphasizing occasional words, by making them bold or all-caps, adds to the rhythm of a character’s speech.
Aside from readability, one reason to pay close attention to the amount of space between the words and the speech bubble is that it can affect meaning.
Dialogue written at a very small size, with lots of space surrounding it inside the balloon, will read as extra-quiet or meek. Words that seem to be bursting out against the edges of the balloon, will read as aggressive, unrestrained, or shouting.
Breaking up dialogue into fragments; writing in a non-linear way to allow for multiple reading paths; or vertically stacking words can present a character’s dialogue in a surprising, even poetic way—perhaps most appropriate when a story’s tone tends towards the dreamy or ethereal.
In Comics: Taking it to the Next Level, the upcoming class I’m co-teaching with David Lasky, we’ll explore all manner of techniques for moving beyond straightforward storytelling. Join us on Saturdays at 1 pm, starting January 25!
Greg Stump is a longtime contributor to The Stranger and a former writer and editor for The Comics Journal. His work in comics includes the weekly strip Dwarf Attack and the comic book series Urban Hipster, a co-creation with David Lasky that was nominated for a Harvey and Ignatz award. His graphic novel Disillusioned Illusions was published in 2015 by Fantagraphics Books. An adjunct lecturer at Seattle University and a writer-in-residence for Seattle Arts & Lectures, he has been teaching comics to students of all ages for close to two decades.