From the Writer’s Guide;
“Strenuous activity (i.e. action) is not conductive to conversation. Dialogue during action sequences can quickly become campy and/or preachy.”
When scripting important key fights, dialogue can be a huge asset in expressing the scene, generating narrative drive and presenting crucial turns and reveals. However, in many fight scenes, especially incomplete fight scenes, dialogue or narration can drag down and destabilize the narrative. When including dialogue or narration in a combat or high-intensity action sequence, keep these tips in mind;
#1) Look for Natural Pauses.
Natural pauses in a fight come when the combatant has a moment to catch his breath and focus on something besides movements that hold his life in the balance. Hard to talk when you’re getting punched in the face. Much easier to do so, when you’re stumbling to your knees after the fact.
Hard to talk when you’re getting thrown through a wall. When you’re sitting in a pile of rubble trying to shake the stars from your head, not so much.
Shooting at a horde of zombies as they close in around you, likely takes all your concentration. But that second while you slam another magazine in your rifle, that’s a natural pause and perfect time to scream for help.
Take a 2 minute break and actually watch this clip. Of course, it’s faced paced motion action… but pay attention where the dialogue comes in. Try taking some snapshots in your head. Does the dialogue fall while the characters exert effort, or in the natural pauses between them?
Back and forth dialogue between characters engaging in combat often degrades to “Banter Fluff.”
Banter Fluff |ˈbantər fləf|
noun: Dialogue with no real narrative weight or significance.
Banter Fluff is the place dialogue goes to get super campy or cheesy preachy (particularly relevant in the super hero space, where two or more super powered dudes go at it). For one reason or another writers often feel the need to put something in the panel to compliment the action, nine times outta ten, they rely on some minimal characterization to keep the words relevant but nothing more.
The reality is, Banter Fluff usually just distracts from the action.
Let’s take a quick look at this panel from, Kazar Issue #31. “Owww? You ain’t felt nothin’ yet, Phangor!”
Characterization: Quite weak. This line could have easily been delivered by just about any character.
Narrative Relevance: Virtually nothing. As far as threats go, there isn’t much of anything to this one. This line doesn’t add to, or affect the rest of the story in any way.
TIPS TO AVOID IT:
- Don’t let characters open their mouths unless it’s important. One way to gauge the significance of what the character says, is too look at the effect the words have.
What effect does the character want his words to have?
What effect do the words have regardless of his intention?
If you say nada to either of these, consider removing the dialogue.
- Also, while you won’t likely implement this in the actual writing, think of how many panels you could milk the dialogue if you needed to? For the next five panels could Kazar keep discussing Phangor’s level of pain/discomfort. It may seem silly to consider extending every dialogue bubble in this manner, but that’s kind of the point, immediately, when thinking of this extended to six panels or more, it feels completely corny and superficial to me.
TIP TO MAKING IT WORK:
- If you’ve got to add some Banter Fluff, soak it in as much characterization as you can. Don’t make it sound subtly like the character at hand, make the reader stop and say out loud, “Man, only Kazar could pull a line like that off!” or make them reread it a few times because it’s simply such quintessential Kazar.
#3) Avoid Exposition
People involved in action should generally not be the source of exposition. Action and exposition are pretty much at the opposite ends of the processing information spectrum… It’s difficult to engage the lizard (fight or flight brain) and the logic brain at the same time.
Do you want your reader to process the stranger danger flying fisticuffs, OR, the verbal information? Even if you manage to pull both off, their very nature will reduce each other’s effectiveness.
Notice in the first panel of Captain America #274, “That shield streaking toward us like a missile” / “It belongs to Captain American, but he should be dead!” I’m not sure if writer David Anthony Kraft didn’t think the art of the first panel was clear, or just wanted to tell the reader what they were looking at… either way, it’s a fundamental writing no-no.
Thug 2’s first line, is in the wrong comic. That one belongs in Captain Obvious #274. Is it feeling campy or preachy yet? I don’t know about you, but I’m getting flashbacks to old school kids cartoons from the 70’s and 80’s where everyone explained what they were doing. “Can’t walk much farther. Kryptonite is making me too weak. Am going to stop and sit on this rock. I won’t last much longer if one of my friends doesn’t come and save me.”
Exposition delivered by characters in action, frequently breaks the time pacing synergy between text and art of the panel. The thugs getting hit by the shield isn’t too bad, but really, doesn’t it feel like that’s too much talking for that single moment captured in time?
Exposition doesn’t typically lend itself to short dialogues, and sometimes this balance can get thrown off in a jarring way; one guy taking a blow to the face surrounded by 40 words is a disconnect at both the subconscious and conscious levels.
Keep in mind, a panel can express only one emotion on a character.
When you dump a bunch of info on someone, a good speaker will vary their expression and dramatic emphasis to support the info they’re delivering in order to keep their audience engaged. You can’t capture that in a single panel BUT more than that, where action is concerned, the characters are once again forced to either respond to the action or the verbal information, they can’t do both. It looks like our thugs are grimacing, so any exposition delivered outside emotions of pain, distress, etc., would feel completely disconnected.
Here’s what I’m talking about; Look back at Cap panel 1 and add this dialogue to Thug 2: “ahahahah, not that it matters anyway, once the Baron finds out.”
Lastly, notice the Banter Fluff nature of the second panel dialogue. Degrading into a, “ha-haa! I’m the hero, you’re the villain, and good always triumphs over evil campyness.”
Characterization: Notice ALL the lines in these two panels are void of characterization.
Narrative relevance: This is the tricky part of exposition in action, as one would think/hope any information you drop is going to be directly relevant to the story. In the above example, the “He should be dead” line could be significant and potent in this regard, IF, Captain America’s perceived death was a significant part of the story, or this appearance of Cap was a key story turn. (It wasn’t.)
TIPS TO AVOID IT:
- Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. Get any exposition in action as short as you can.
- Only consider exposition in action that’s absolutely critical to the story and injects direct narrative drive, pushing the story forward (gripping elements, particularly story turns and reveals).
Luke and Vader clash light sabers.
Vader “Your father wasted years of his life fighting for the wrong side. The ideals of the Jedi brought him nothing but pain and turmoil. Until he found true power. The power to destroy weak and force the strong to kneel. The power to overthrow empires and reshape the very universe in his own image. That is the power of the Dark Side, boy.
Luke “Liar! You know nothing of my father.”
Vader “Luke… I am your father.”
I reckon some action exposition like that, reveals the story points you want to reveal while at the same time supporting a dramatic and key reveal.
TIP TO MAKING IT WORK:
- Notice, in my little Star Wars example, the exposition seems natural to the moment. Making sure exposition does not seem forced or out of place is also key to making it work.
- One tried and true method of delivering exposition through action (when you can’t avoid it), is delegating it to a secondary character not directly involved in the action–or at least performing actions more accommodating to longer dialogues.
So far I’ve been focusing on what not to do. Let’s take a look at this Claremont work from X-men 212 and focus a bit on what to do;
#4) Good, Short, and Strong
OK, your dialogue should always be good, short and strong, but if you’re going to put dialogue in your action sequences, for God’s sake man, make sure it’s good.
“You’re fast, I’m faster. You’re strong, I’m stronger. You kill, I’m a killer.”
If this isn’t arrogant, douchey Sabretooth, I don’t know what is.
And how different is this line from Kazar’s “You ain’t felt nothin’ yet” ? Night and day, right?
While the diction is arguably simple, the line really couldn’t be delivered by just anybody.
39 words on the entire page, umm, yeah that’s less than my 40 word rule for a single panel.
I mean it’s Chris Claremont, the legend, what were you expecting?
Short always supports action.
By strong I mean, Strong Subtext. The benefit of strong subtext is that one can read through it fast at surface value. The deeper meaning isn’t revealed by stopping to read a long-winded passage (which as we noted breaks the panel), instead, subtext’s deeper meaning comes by further reflection and rereads.
Dialogue that doesn’t force the reader to stop and understand the full extent until he’s ready, compliments action well.
#5) Escalate and Foreshadow
I’m on the fence with the “claws can’t cut line.” I think it’s mainly there as a segue into the panel three dialogue… but the lower half of the page does something very potent for dialogue in action, it escalates the narrative. In this case, it escalates the stakes–Sabretooth isn’t just here to brawl, the last panel escalates the combat to a deathmatch.
Foreshadowing runs hand-in-hand with escalation, because 9 times outta 10, anytime you foreshadow something, you’re likely escalating at the same time.
A bit mild, but in a sense, Sabretooth’s arrogant boasts are foreshadowing his own ability. If you came to X-men for the first time in this issue, if you didn’t believe Sabretooth at face value, you’d at least think, “hmmm I wonder if this guy really is faster and stronger than Wolvie?” Either way, you’d likely figure you were about to find out in the fight.
Kudo’s to Claremont, he just sucked you into the narrative, big-time.
Last tip people, I got places to go and people to see…
Writer’s often rely on not direct dialogues during their action sequences, but narration.
On one hand, there’s a little bit more flexibility with narration in an action panel, as the textual information is not (necessarily) attached to the timing of the action in the panel.
Thoughts in someone’s brain travel a lot faster than spoken words; as I’m getting punched in the face, I could think “Oh man this is gonna hurt more than that time I got kicked in the face by a donkey at the state fair.” But I could likely only say, “Oh–” in real-time.
For the third-person limited or omnipresent narrator, narration can be completely detached from time. Recalling or narrating the action sequence from another time or place.
However, no matter how the narration is being delivered, it still must be physically processed by the reader, and for this, narration can slow, or break an action panel, just like too much spoken dialogue.
Everything we discussed above applies to effective captions during action. When actually narrating story through captions, tone, mood and style often come into play in a big way. During action sequences don’t get reserved with these elements… in fact, push harder with them.
Use the unique tone, mood and style you’ve established for the story to compliment and support the action taking place. Even if you keep your narration short, a likely smart approach, saturating the action with atmosphere will tie things together and pull the reader in, rather than push them away with superfluous discussion of events.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with dialogue/captions accompanying action, but it’s gotta work for a living. Action is an important part of an comic. Keep these tips in mind and your action will flow like the mighty Mississippi, not like the little creek behind my house that dries up 6 months outta the year.▪
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.