General Tips

Here’s some basic but important technical points that I’ve seen plenty of letterers mess up on:

  • Keep the panel border larger than the balloon border. The panel is what divides up the sections of your page and thus it should have the most dominant lines. This is to help the flow of the page obvious to the reader. Sound effects can sometimes be an exception to this rule.

  • Don’t letter in serif fonts. No explanation here, it’s just universally accepted as a big no-no.

  • Use non-crossbar “I” unless it’s at the start of a proper-noun or the word “I”. This was originally done to save space on the page but it has become a standard. Nate Piekos has a good example of this. An easy solution for this is to turn auto-ligatures on in your lettering software (if your font supports it).

  • Text within a bubble should be diamond shaped. Keep the widest parts in the middle to maximize the use of the balloon and maintain even spacing.

  • Make sure to apply proper kerning to you letters. Different combinations of letters have different amounts of space between them. If you don’t manually even out those gaps, your words will have unwanted spaces (Relevant xkcd).

  • Keep the space between the text and the border (AKA the negative space) consistent consistent within the balloon. This just keeps the balloon clean and makes sure you’re using the space efficiently. This rule is sometimes intentionally broken by warping the balloon slightly. This is done to create a more stylistic or raw feel.

  • Similarly, keep negative space and font size consistent across balloons. Different sized text and negative space are used to represent someone whispering or yelling. Make sure to stay consistent across your “normal” balloons so the reader clearly knows when something abnormal is happening.

  • Generally, it’s better to keep you panel borders thicker than your balloon borders. This is to help maintain the feeling that dialogue is a part of the panel and not sitting on top of it. Some letterers choose to not even use borders on their balloons. An exception to this rule can be if your balloons are popping out of your panels or if your character is yelling.

  • Point the tail of a balloon to the mouth of the talker. This guides the eye to the right place. People don’t talk with their chest or their forehead!

  • The length of your balloon tail matters. Longer balloon tails can be used to show distance or the scale of a scene (this is great for establishing shots) or for when someone is shouting. Shorter tails are the opposite and can be used to show intimacy or someone talking quietly. In general, it’s a good idea to avoid very long balloon tails. They tend to look unnatural and end up disconnecting the speaker from their words. If you must use a long tail, try making it more dynamic. Here’s an example from my comic.

  • Keep balloon tail width consistent. The width of the tail at the point where it touches the balloon should be consistent in size throughout all your balloons. The width of the tail has a similar effect to the length in that wider tails imply a louder noise. This effect should be treated with more subtlety however since it’s easy to make tails look too skinny or bloated.

  • Try not to put your balloons horizontally or vertically parallel to a speaker. This results in extending tails from the exact sides, top or bottom of balloons and makes the whole thing look static. Non-parallel lines add fluidity and movement to an image.

  • Don’t cross balloon tails. It’s just confusing for the reader. I’d argue that this could be done on purpose to show a loud, jumbled scene.

  • Avoid tangent lines. They confuse the reader and make things seem attached when they shouldn’t be.

  • Extend the tail of the balloon from it’s center. This makes the balloon feel properly weighted. If you are connecting multiple balloons together with a single tail, the tail should go through the center of all of them.

  • The closer balloons are together, the faster they’ll be read in succession. As the reader’s eye travels through a panel, they get the illusion of time passing. If you put balloons closer together, they’ll seem like they occur within a smaller amount of time. Butting balloons up against each other shows that one is said immediately after the other. This often implies one character interrupting another. This takes me to my next point:

  • Don’t put balloons in adjacent panels right next to each other unless you want to reader to move there immediately. By putting two balloons together, you’re showing the reader the next spot their eye should go too. Often times, adjacent balloons are accidentally placed too close to each other, resulting in the reader skipping over the rest of the panel.

  • Avoid widows and orphans. Weird names, I know. Widows (a single word as the first line of a balloon) and orphans (a single word as the last line) generally make your balloons feel uneven. This can be okay depending on the word but short words like “a”, “I’m” and “the” tend to look weird on their own.

  • In general, balloon tails should extend out half the distance from the balloon to the speaker’s mouth. This isn’t a hard and fast rule but is usually a safe bet. An exception to this is if it violates the following two points.

  • Don’t cover up key art with balloons or their tails. This generally applies to faces but not always. This also includes depth cues. Covering up areas that contain the barriers between foreground and background elements ends up flattening the image.

  • Don’t block line of sight with word balloons or captions. It can confuse the reader and detract from the moment. The difference can be seen by switching from this to this. That said, this effect can potentially be used to show a disconnect between characters.

  • Be consistent with the shape of your balloon tails. If you want to use curved tails, stick with that for a majority of situations. Consistency helps normalize elements for your reader. Once you’ve set a baseline, you can switch it up in certain moments to show emphasis (straight lines for an abrupt statement) or to express how different characters talk (a sly, shady character might have curvy tails that wrap around the other elements within the panel)

  • Use balloons to guide the eye through the page. Here’s a great guide by Chris Oatley that covers a whole bunch of ways to do this.

  • Generally, you don’t want more than 20-25 words in a single balloon. This is to keep a panel from feeling bloated.

  • Consider whether you want the art or the lettering to be seen first. Unless there’s a mandatory sequential order to the lettering and the visuals, you generally want to put the most impactful piece last to give your readers a chance to linger on it. If your panel is someone punching someone else while yelling “Gahh!”, the punch in the face is probably the more important piece and therefore would come after the dialogue.This is especially emphasized on the final panel of a page. The reader will be hanging on whatever you show them last, whether it be the art or the lettering, until they turn the page. Which will leave the bigger impact? Put that one last. This video by NerdSync covers this point well.

  • Make sure to handle quotes and dialogue in captions properly. I find this one a bit more subjective but still, a standard exists.