Graphic Novel Dialog (Part 2)

By Peter

I used to be totally into audio drama. In our visually-based society, it’s almost a dead art form, but I loved the way it brought to life images in the theater of the imagination. Although I was a big fan of the medium, the reality was that hardly anyone was actually all that good at writing audio drama dialog. The challenge was to have your characters verbally communicate visual information yet somehow have it sound completely natural. Not very many writers could pull it off.

I remember listening to a recording of The Shadow from the 1930s. Just in case you don’t know the plot, the Shadow was a crime-fighting individual who could make himself invisible through hypnosis. The dialog was actually pretty decent, right up until the Shadow went invisible. Then came an endless stream of people talking in a way that they never would in real life. (“That plate of food… it’s lifting itself off the table… all by itself!”)

Sometimes audio drama writers would just abandon trying to write dialog to get across visual information and would rely on narration. The drama became more like an audiobook with sound effects. I always found this approach extremely disappointing.

What’s the connection to graphic novels, which are a completely visual medium? Surprisingly, I see a lot of the same problems with dialog in graphic novels. Although they are visual, graphic novels do not have a smooth flow of time. Because you are looking at a series of snapshots, sometimes writers resort to explaining the obvious in their dialog as a way to get information to the reader. Even the reliance on narration that you hear in badly-written audio drama applies to graphic novels. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a beautifully drawn graphic novel where frame after frame has those little rectangular boxes filled with narrative text and hardly a word of dialog spoken.