Mariko Tamaki on Talking Comics

Mariko Tamaki is a Toronto-based performer, a fan of things that look like sumo wrestlers, a certifiable girl-crush object, and the writer of the awesome graphic novel Skim, which was illustrated by her cousin Jillian Tamaki and has received a boatload of awards. (Read an excerpt from Skim for a limited time on Figment!) It’s the story of Kimberly Keiko Cameron–a.k.a. Skim–a teenage girl who’s experimenting with Wicca and with girls and trying to make it out of high school alive.

Whether you write comics, screenplays, or short stories, dialogue is one of the most important tools in your literary arsenal. Read on for Mariko’s advice on how to craft pitch-perfect dialogue–and then read to the end for a chance to have Mariko read and comment on one of your pieces!

Part of the joy of writing for comics is that it allows me to focus on one of my favorite things about writing, which is the task of recreating “talk” on the page.

A huge part of writing dialogue involves observing how people speak. Next time you’re in a coffee shop, or on the bus, eavesdrop on the conversations that start up next to you. (How you do this without looking creepy or stalkerish is up to you. I usually open a book in front of me and pretend to be reading. Sometimes I’ll act as if I’m making a grocery list, when really I’m taking notes—a trick I got from Ocean’s Eleven.)

It’s amazing the things you notice when you pay attention to the details of how people chatter. One thing I find fascinating is how rarely conversations involve complete sentences. People interrupt each other, switch topics midstream, cut off mid-thought. I also love the fact that it’s possible for two friends to have an entire conversation about something without actually referring to the thing in question (“You know?” “Totally.” “Like, really.” “Totally. It’s totally like that.”)

Dialogue in real life is rarely a neat seesaw back and forth between two people. Mostly, at its best, talk is a bit of a chaotic mess. Microsoft Word goes nuts with green underlines when I write dialogue, because it’s not “grammatically correct.” People, I want to tell Word, just don’t talk that way.

The first stage of writing, for me, whether it’s for a comic or for a novel, involves “hearing” my characters speak. Typically I’ll imagine my main character in an argument, picture what they would say or wouldn’t say, whether they would shout or mumble, and so on. I think you can tell a lot about a person by how they argue.

Filling the character out, I’ll often add in little unique tics or habits (which are often tics or habits I’ve noticed in my friends). Speaking tics can act as a unique form of punctuation, like the person who ends every conversation with, “Well. So there it is.”

Ultimately, a character’s speech can be as telling as the clothes they wear. Talk is what we want to say but it’s also how we want people to see and hear us.

It’s worth noting that not every version of writing for comics involves an explicit focus on dialogue and narration. There are comic writers whose scripts involve a lot of “directing” the visual details on the page. As a non-drawer and a non-director by nature, I am not one of those writers. One of the most interesting elements of the process of comic book writing, for me, is watching the dialogue and illustrations come together on the page. Often this process involves a complex back-and-forth, not unlike but not completely like what happens in a theater with a play: where director, actor, set designer, lighting designer, sound designer, and playwright all combine inspirations to construct the final product. In comics, talk combines with the portrait of the character as constructed by the artist, both the overall portrait and the moments of talk as drawn by the artist.

Now, Mariko’s got a writing exercise for you. Try your hand at the challenge below. Tag your story tamakifight by 11:59 p.m. EST on Monday, November 21. One tagged story will be randomly selected and sent to Mariko for her feedback!


Write an argument between two characters. For this exercise, any argument will do. The focus is not on the subject of the argument (pizza, an ex-girlfriend, whether or not TV is bad for you) but how the characters in question argue their case. Each character should have a distinct style of speaking. As you approach this exercise, ask yourself, how does your character make his/her point? Do they swear? Shout over the competition? Do they passive aggressively agree with their opponent? Do they reference outside sources? Do they even listen to what the other person is saying?

Girls with grit are fierce, independent, strong young women. They’re girls who face tough situations and sometimes don’t come out on top. They’re girls who work hard, who believe in themselves, and who try to follow their principles.

Groundwood Books’ Girls With Grit series is on Figment because each of these books is about a girl like you, or your sister, or your best friend. We’ll be featuring different books every week, so be sure to check the Figment Features page often!

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