Some storytellers on storytelling:

Todd Alcott:

The protagonist of 2001: A Space Odyssey is:

a) Moon-Watcher
b) The Monolith
c) Dr. Heywood R. Floyd
d) Dr. Dave Bowman
e) Dr. Frank Poole
e) HAL 9000
f) The frozen astronauts
g) None of the above

Neil Gaiman:

The oddest moment of today was finding a slip of paper in The Graveyard Book book I’m writing in, on stationary from the hotel I was in in Budapest in June, which listed everything that needed to happen in Chapter 7, including the climactic denouement which I was very proud of having come up with last week. Not sure whether this says something about my rubbish memory, or about the sometimes inevitable nature of storytelling. As in, “Of course it went there, because that was where it was going to go.”

§ Professional wrestler and sometime comics author, Raven:

There is a whole entire range of emotion and body language on the selling scale that could be encapsulated let’s say for babyfaces as simply as 1)no selling, 2) registering, 3) selling a little, 4) selling some more, 5) selling a lot, 6) selling to the point of hopelessness for the fan that you will ever recover, 7)no hope of recovery,8)signs of life, 9)more signs of life, 10) the possibility that with enough fan encouragement, you can possibly turn this thing around, 11)fire, 12) more fire, 13)fighting back, 14) comeback, 15)the post comeback, pre-finish full body fire to signify to the people that you are back in control and the heel is gonna pay. Also, let us not forget, that one’s body should still show how wracked with pain it is from step 8-step 15 and on through the rest of the match. Understand this, just b/c you are fired up and back in control, does not mean you should be hurting any less. It only means that you have found a way to fight through the pain with the help of the fans support. That is why people love wrestling, b/c they feel like they are a part of the show.

§ Steven Grant on thought balloons:

Once practically ubiquitous, the thought balloon has fallen on hard times the past couple decades. While there are old-timey comics fans (and professionals!) who believe thought balloons fell on hard times mainly because the too-cool-for-school “graphic literature” snobs bullied everyone into dropping them so as not to look “unsophisticated,” there were good reasons to stop using them. While no device should be characterized as “juvenile” – they are as they are used – thought balloons were mostly put to idiotic, as cheapjack exposition shortcuts.

Bonus: Jonathan Lethem on “plagiarizing”, via Leigh Walton.


  1. I disagree with Stephen Grant’s thoughts about thought balloons. Revealing aspects of a character’s internal dialogue can be a useful device.

    Book authors tend to use it.

    Equating comic story telling with cinema is probably the strong motivator to seeing these balloons as uncool, but film shooting and mise en scene offer greater potential to story telling than comics, so let’s get real here and stop thinking that comics are European movies on paper.

  2. My personal feeling about they thought balloon (in most cases, but not all) is that it generally undermines the visual nature of comic book story telling. Think of Kingdom Come for example. More then half the story in that book is told with the details and body language within the paintings. It’s not a book you can just read through. You have to take your time with each panel. It’s one of those “show don’t tell” things, I guess. I say all this, not having read the whole article. I’m super busy today, but I just wanted to chime in with that.

  3. RE: Thought Balloons, I think thanks to manga’s influence and webcomics, they’re coming back into vogue. Thought balloons, and their borderless cousins the floating asides are great devices for humor as it allows characters to break the fourth wall or speak out of character without disturbing the “reality” represented by the actual dialog.

  4. I have no problems with thought balloons, myself — the bad examples in Steven’s column are bad writing period. I think that’s part of my interest in the aspect of comics as a literary genre as opposed to a storyboard/movie medium. No put down, just two different sides of the same thing.

  5. Without thought balloons the only thing you know about a character is what they say and do. I’ve read many comics which were incredibly devoid of dimension because there were no thought balloons to amplify anything, nor captions to help establish the mood or locale of a scene. Some comic books can be read in less than ten minutes because of this which makes them a less than memorable experience.

  6. @Al – Maybe I’m a sloppy reader, but I didn’t see Grant saying that thought balloons as a means to character development were a bad thing – just that thought balloons as exposition was a cop-out.

    Grant says: “The proper use of the thought balloon is to reveal a character’s internal life, as opposed to the possibly quite different face they present to their world, and to other characters. Any use is possible, and only one use – the old use – is flagrantly undesirable.”

    He seems to be supporting well-used thought balloons.

  7. I love thought balloons. Too many characters are talking aloud nowadays.
    So yes, well-used thought balloons are what we need. Why do people love the book more than the movie adaptation? Internal character design. I say use whatever tool works best for the creator’s style in storytelling.

  8. Grant’s essay merits reading– if anyone hasn’t done so already, I’d encouraged you to give it a look.

    Grant also traces the growth of that device so hateful to me: the narrative caption. Grant seems to accept the conceit of the narrative caption, though he does note its limitations (“Thought balloons, whatever their flaws, engender a sense of immediacy. Narrative captions generate a sense of past action, of a story being told after the fact rather than occurring before our eyes.”). For my taste, I could never get past the conceit of first-person narrative– to whom, exactly, the fuck, are you speaking? I’m not advocating the abandonment of first-person narrative in fiction– you can pry my Raymond Chandler from my clammy, grasping hands. But with Chandler you get the sense of the memoir, with only the strength of the prose bringing immediacy to the action, avoiding the “sense of past action, of a story being told after the fact “.
    Narrative captioning in practice abuses much as Grant describes some bad thought-ballooning: “…the character is not addressing himself, but is using his thoughts to directly address the reader – whose existence he does not acknowledge. Cannot, in fact; any character in work of fiction who acknowledges the audience also automatically acknowledges his own existence only as a construct, a player in a work of fiction with no reality outside that work. ” I’ve never been comfortable with this conceit, and have never understood how others so readily embrace it.
    Thought balloons are an excellent way to seemlessly incorporate a character’s internal thoughts into the story without compromising another aspect of the narrative. And they allow for third-person captioning to add an additional level to the dialogue, either as omniscient info-dumper or personality-infused editorial aside.

    oo! oo! and– do inexperienced comics readers really “get” narrative captioning? Thought balloons are still regularly used in print and television advertising, and understood by the general populace (I’ll warrant).

  9. One of the best recent uses of thought balloons in mainstream comics (I think) is Brian Michael Bendis’ use of them in Mighty Avengers. They’re used pretty much strictly for jokes, characters saying one thing to someone’s face while thinking the exact opposite. The dimension of fun that it adds is basically what makes the book for me, as otherwise it’s a pretty standard superhero team book.

    I’m a big fan of the thought balloon (when used properly) so I love to see it making a comeback.

  10. @Jake – All the inexperienced comic readers I’ve dealt with over the past two years have picked up on the captioning-as-narrative thing without either difficulty or instruction. That doesn’t mean this would be the case across the board, but it’s probably not that difficult to figure out a first person narrator the moment the caption box (a tool used as commonly in print comics as thought balloons) uses a personal pronoun. It might catch them off-guard the first time if they’ve only experienced third-person captions, but it shouldn’t be too hard for them to re-orient.

    As far as the first-person captions, I’ve personally been fine with such a narrative conceit because I like the idea of the protagonist or whoever speaking directly to me. I like the idea that Philip Marlowe or Jessica Jones are taking the time to regale me with some past experience. It removes me from the immediacy of the action unfolding before me but envelops me deeper into the person of the character. I think it could be a good trade-off. Granted it work better with some stories than others…

  11. The Dane-
    I should have been more specific– I expect most folks don’t have a problem reading the title character of a book as its narrator.  I’m thinking more of the recent evolution of the shifting narrative in team books, with color-coded captioning and the like. 
    I’ve always thought of Serialized Adventure Tales as present tense (narrative captioning bothers me less in something like Optic Nerve), and while I’ve learned to accept (if not like) the conceit of what I experience as essentially a present-tense memoir, that acceptance crumbles under the exponential weight of the multiple memoir format and takes me right out of the reading experience.

  12. @ Jake – Yeah, you’re right. Superman & Batman was a pain like that. I think that, theoretically, multiple narrators could be a useful device. I just don’t think I’ve seen it executed well enough to merit it.

  13. I’ve never really liked narrative captions in superhero comics because I don’t really trust the narrator. I have a hard time accepting that Batman or Superman has such a solid, objective grasp of their reality that they can adequately comment on it for my benefit. Narrative captions are by definition for the benefit of the reader and I’m not sure why Batman is speaking to a reader when he should just stay quiet and fictional.

    I really love how many thought balloons there are in the “Brand New Day” Spider-Man comics. A thought is for the character himself, and in this case, thoughts are really the only way we ever get to know Spider-Man. What he says out loud never matches up to his inner self — it’s all brag and bluster and quip. In his thoughts, though, we see his vulnerabilities.

  14. Jesse, I think part of the point of narrative captions are to explore the perspective of an unreliable narrator. It makes the reading more interesting for the reader. I think to say that “narrative captions are by definition for the benefit of the reader” is untrue if what you mean is that narrative captions are meant to be objection.

    That would be like saying that narrative in film is meant to be objective. And if anything, films like Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd., and Fight Club demonstrate that this cannot be the case—nor should we wish it to be so.