August 29, 2007

Dialogue Balloons: a User's Guide

Vacation was great! Thanks for asking.

Down to business.

Dialogue Balloons are good, and you should use them in your comic. They are an unfortunately imperfect tool for representing speech in an image, but they are the best tool we've got.

So don't try to get away with half-assed crap like this.

I hope I don't have to explain how terrible that looks.

Here is how to properly operate your dialogue balloon.


Balloon versus Text

As I said in Text Triage Unit No. 2, you should make your balloon big enough to give the text some breathing room around the edges. Don't vacuum-pack your text.

Balloon versus Panel

Panels should never be more than 40-50% filled by a single balloon. All that white in one area is visually jolting, and distracts the reader from the image. So don't let this happen.

If you use multiple balloons, though, you can get away with cramming a bit more text in.

That's not a perfect panel, but it's a workable one.


The standard balloon shape is somewhere in between an ellipse and a rounded-off rectangle. You should adhere to this standard.

If you use an image editor to letter your comic, be careful with the ellipse tool. If you square up your text well, putting an ellipse around it will work just fine.

But if you have a long narrow line of text, it can look very awkward.

It's amazing how many professional comic artists and letterers still haven't realized this.

Non-standard balloon shapes (like squares or wiggly blobs) are inherently distracting, and therefore best used only when you want to draw attention to a particular "voice." For instance, if you have a robot character, using perfectly square balloons for its speech would convey a rigid, synthesized voice. You could also use square balloons when a human is talking through a machine such as a phone or a radio.

Or, you know, whatever.


Do whatever you want with your balloon tails. As long as they're pointing in the approximate direction of the speaker's head, I don't really care.


The line bordering your balloon should be thick enough to see, but not so thick it's distracting. 1.5 to 2 times the line weight of your artwork is a good guideline. It should also never be thicker than the panel border (unless of course you used a borderless panel).

Too thin:

Too thick:

Borderless balloons are also a viable option, as long as they're clearly distinct from the background.


Should you allow balloons to overlap your characters, or not?

There's no correct answer. Manga artists have no problem with overlapping. Western artists typically avoid it. It is up to you to decide.

Personally, I think that keeping characters and balloons rigidly separated also keeps your readers more emotionally separated from your comic, because it limits what you can accomplish with close-ups. But you should go with whatever makes you feel comfortable.


Zaron said...

For balloon outlines, would you say 2pt thickness in Photoshop is a good size?

Meredith Lewis said...

I can't really say. It depends on what the line width of your artwork is.

vineris said...

Balloon overlapping can be a good way to indicate things like an interruption, or someone talking over someone else.

RØB said...

You know, I doubt very much if I'll ever create a webcomic (maybe I just issued a challenge to myself, though?), but I do so love reading this blog nonetheless.

Shishio said...

"If you square up your text well, putting an ellipse around it will work just fine."

Someone once told me that you should keep your text in a rough diamond shape. I think this is a good rule of thumb if you use elliptical bubbles.

I, however, am a grossly incompetent letterer, (In some instances, my lettering is even worse than my writing.) so I use rectangular bubbles and square up my text accordingly. (i.e. Wrongly.)

I'm sorry.

Anyway, I am glad to hear you had a good vacation, and I look forward to more posts.

Anonymous said...

I feel like rambling on balloon overlap, so here we go...

What vineris said is true; two balloons overlapping each other is a good way to show interruption. It's the visual equivalent of two people talking at once. Up the balloons, up the amount of people talking. This is pretty obvious, but it's a good stylistic choice since it does convey the feel of multiple people talking at once.

As for the balloon's overlapping the character, it's an artistic choice. Having the balloon overlap the character gives emphasis to the balloon and the text; it's good for dramatic reveals, exclamations, generally short, punchy dialog you want to emphasise. This also pulls the characters into the background, so use it minimally if you want impact on the character as well. This is not an excuse to hide your bad art with good writing; if you're making that decision, you should be writing fiction, not making webcomics.

A question for meredith: will you be touching on stylistic choices on text placement at all? I mean like having the dialog come out of the balloon, or sans balloon at all. I guess this would fit more with sound effects, though.

raz said...

Lots of good things to think about for the future! My last project was very messy when it came to dialogue balloons, so this is a great source as to where I went wrong/where I can go right. Thanks!

Fabricari said...

I find a good rule of thumb for balloon border thickness is to keep it at a similar weight as the border of the panel. The gutter space and bubble regions are part of the same meta-space (izzat a word?).

I do disagree that non-standard bubbles are distracting, however. Again, consistancy is key. If you, as an artist, establish a standard - follow it. Deviation from your established standard then creates the effect of tonal difference.

Remember Eisner award winning artists like Dave Sim (who won the award year after year for his lettering) and Chris Ware have broken every one of these rules and created grand comics-syntax with their bubble-deviations. Granted, you should understand the rules before you break them...

Keijjo said...

It is perfectly allright not to use balloons. They are very dominant and very "comics".



comics teacher since 2000 in the Liminka School of Arts

raz said...

Probably a silly futile prod, but it's been a while since the last post; I DO enjoy the concept of this blog very much, and I would like to see many things covered here!

If the reason behind your absence is lack of time or not related to lack of motivation, then please ignore this comment. :)

Anonymous said...

Can you give me a font or two that's really good for dialog? I really like the font you use here too

Jigsaw Forte said...

More, please!

I find this blog to be awesome and worth it. Please continue. :)

Fox Lee said...

Don't you ought to mention having balloon tails extend all the way to the character's mouth, rather than just pointing at the character? I think that's one of the ugliest mistakes you can possibly make in comics (beautiful example, though I'm sure it's not meant to be attractive).

Aside from that, I'm loving your work.

Zero Rose said...

Another thing I use in my webcomic, Guys n Ghouls, is differntly shaped balloons to indicate things like choking, gurgling, wehezing, grainy voices, yeling, or electronics. FYI - I tend to use squares for electronics and jagged bubbles for gritty voices. ^_^ Just some advice.

HStrhd said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
HStrhd said...

Great tips. Unfortunately the characters look like something Filmation spewed out. If that's your art, and you decide to write a post on good drawings and techniques, don't use yours as an example.

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Anonymous said...

recently I started to make comics and illustrate them using Photoshop and I didn't know how to create dialogue balloons for my comic called Sildenafil Citrate , thank you for explaining how!

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