Wednesday, 8 April 2009

6 - Speech & Thought

When teaching my Create Comics workshops, I never used to look forward to doing the speech and thought bit - it was too boring and too obvious. Also some kids expressions drop as soon as they realise they have to write rather than draw.
Having re-read Making Comics (again), I realised what I needed to do - stop treating it as something separate to the fun task of creating a character. Speech is not simply what someone is saying but an extension of their character, just as their clothes and belongings are part of their identities. It should be used to breathe life, add personality and roundedness, revealing their inner motivations and concerns
Before, this was the section I'd want to rush and get out of the way, but now it seems a bit more connected, a way of developing the characters that are being created.

I like to flow right into this straight after doing 2 Card characters. Redraw your animals face in the centre of a fresh page, no bigger than a ginger nut biscuit (we need the space around them).
Now draw yourself a speech bubble, and write in the following sentence -

(I like them to use this sentence as it allows us to see that all 26 letters in their writing are nice and clear, plus kids make some entertaining guesses as to what is special about the sentence). Results will be either as above - with too much empty space left over, or the opposite - words crammed in or bursting out over the edge. The class can now suggest a better method - words first then bubble after. So now we've all done it wrong first of all, we can move on and have a go at doing it correctly - think of something short and simple that your character might say, something that helps the reader understand the character a bit more, or reveals something about them - words first, then bubble -

So can we make any more improvements to help our readers? Usually we will talk about how using capitals helps make the words clearer, and that seems to be what most comics use. On the other hand, capitals can be a little shouty, and if your normal lowercase handwriting is clear enough then there's no reason not to use it (for example Tintin is all lettered in lowercase). Keeping the speech short is also a good idea - people often skip over larger chunks of text (plus some kids just don't want to write more than they can get away with).

Next we talk about how we might show shouting - capitals, bold or block letters, or simply making it bigger. Exclamation marks are effective too.
We also have a go at making a whisper bubble, again expressing something 'in character', and kids sometimes suggest using squiggles to represent something you can't quite make out, though usually just making the text smaller is enough. I mention that smaller text means you need to hold the page nearer your eyes to read it, just as a quiet whisper will need you to go a bit closer to the whisperer - however slightly, this physically involves the reader . Some artists also use a dotted line for the whisper bubble, which again is effective in suggesting that it's not got the full impact of a regular speech bubble.
Kids, adults, anyone, always need reminding words first then bubble.

In these examples above you can also see how I approach showing thought. Everyone recognises the 'cloud with little bubble things' with words inside, though there are other ways. We might discuss narration, which is usually seen in boxes in comics, though can flow across panels or assume other forms. I find with kids it's best not to go into narration, as often it encourages the lazier ones to just replace visual storytelling with "one day Bob was walking down the street.." sort of rubbish.
I ask everyone to close their eyes and think about fish and chips. When asked, nearly all will say they saw an image of fish and chips, rather than the words 'fish and chips' written in their mind.
Now I reckon this is one of the reasons comics are such an effective medium - much of how we understand the world is in visual terms. Andy Runton's Owly uses images in both thought and speech bubbles.
I draw these 2 methods of depiction on the board, and we discuss the advantages and disadvantages of both.

Another great thing about being able to use thought bubbles is that you can reveal characters true feelings - we often say one thing but are thinking something else entirely. This is hard to do in film or theatre, but comics are great for allowing this kind of insight. And again, this emphasise to the class that we are not just showing but describing what someone says or thinks.

Time allowing, I'll show a few images of what I consider to be effective use of these skills, just to reinforce how these fairly simple and obvious methods can be refined and put to good and creative use -

Michel Rabagliati's (excellent) Paul Has a Summer Job uses different ways of showing variance of speech, jumping from group shouts to low mumbled replies. In the same book -

- I'd not seen this in a comic before - a convincing depiction of everyone talking at once.
I also like this from Manu Larcent's (amazing) Ordinary Victories, where he goes to visit his mother and gets bombarded with her talking which literally (or visually) swamps him -

In Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, he crams 7 different thoughts in rapid succession. don't try this at home, as I can't image anyone else skilful enough to either attempt or get away with so much information in one small space -

If I'm with a smarter bunch I'll show them this which impressed me from Jason Lute's Berlin, though it's likely to be a bit much for a lot of people -

It's also good to remind them that not every panel needs speech or thought, and sometimes silence is the best thing for a particular scene or story.

Now I've tried this out yet, but at some point I'm going to do this same exercise but having them draw themselves in the centre rather than the animal (they'll have already drawn themselves Peanuts style in a previous exercise). I'd like to see how comfortable kids are depicting their own thoughts, speech, catchphrases, accents or whatever, and whether I could still keep it as fun and playful.


steve said...

great stuff jim. i always enjoy your (virtual) workshops.

Peter said...

Here's another good one: