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When drawing speech bubbles for an English language comic, is there such a thing as an "ideal" or preferred ratio to them in regards to their width and height?

Ideal in terms of visual attractiveness. Effectively the graphic design version of the golden ratio in architecture

For example, I've noticed that some comics tend to have very wide speech bubbles that are only a couple of lines deep, or narrow speech bubbles with one or two words across but many lines deep.

Or is it simply a matter of fitting them to the available space?

My background is more in Asian language comics where you can fit an entire sentence in the same horizontal space as a single word written in English and the tendency is to prefer even spaced blocks of text, or to write vertically in a way that's not usually done with English language text, so the whole ratio thing is throwing me a little.

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    Ideal for what objective? Dialog can be any length. Based on average word length, maybe a certain width would be conducive to somewhat even, well-filled lines. But then the number of lines would depend on the amount of dialog, so the height would vary or there would be a lot of empty space. You could manipulate the aspect ratio to get the best-filled space for each specific dialog, or go for some "attractive" or familar aspect ratio (the question sounds like this isn't commonly done), or go for uniformity and a limited number of sizes across the whole comic. (cont'd)
    – fixer1234
    Feb 15, 2023 at 2:35
  • You could optimize it to fit the free space in the drawing, or to minimize the need for background, to focus on the character. What are you trying to optimize with the "ideal"?
    – fixer1234
    Feb 15, 2023 at 2:35
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    @fixer1234, visual attractiveness. The artistic equivalent of this scottwilsonarchitect.com/the-golden-ratio-in-architecture Feb 15, 2023 at 18:15

4 Answers 4

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There is no specific "ideal ratio" for the shape itself, other than that in English (and other words with a horizontal layout), you will generally want the following:

  • Oval in shape
  • Wider than it is tall
  • Limited to no more than ~25 words per bubble

Avoid circular or nearly-circular speech bubbles--these have an awkward appearance and will be off-putting to viewers. Similarly, avoid rectangles unless you're doing exposition ("Five hours later..."), or have a mechanical voice of some sort ("I'm sorry, Dave, I cannot do that."); this is part of a "hidden language" that exists within comics, and readers will generally automatically understand that text in a rectangle falls into one of these categories, even if they can't put that understanding into words.

Avoid other shapes outside of specific effects. A speech balloon made up of a lot of lines might look cool to you, but it gives a "disoriented" effect ("What did I drink last night?"). One made up of spiky edges implies an exclamatory statement ("How dare you!"). A dashed outline suggests a whisper, a cloud-shaped bubble suggests a thought (or, if working in a more "manga" or Eastern-inspired style, an outline made up of numerous lines running perpendicular to what the drawn outline would normally be).

Additionally, avoid being too wordy; you don't want your bubbles to be cramped or to overwhelm the page--if it's all text, it may as well just be a novel, after all. The "25 words per bubble" guideline is a general one based on print comics passed around in the industry, and other standards do exist (DC's "35 per page" guideline, for example); in general, less is more with comics, where you want to "show" more than "tell." Tailor your own personal word limits to your specific situation. A comic structured for Webtoon, which will therefore be read on a smaller mobile screen, should aim for fewer words than one that might be in print at standard manga size, which in turn should aim for fewer than one printed in standard US comic size. Choose an appropriate clear, sans-serif font (many free options exist) and edit yourself harshly.

Now, all that said, these "rules" are more like guidelines, and like the "rules" in any form of art, once you understand them, you'll understand how and when to break them as well. But like drawing a stylized figure, you'll need to understand the underlying structure first; don't dive straight into being "unique" or "weird," get a firm grasp on "normal" first.

To get a solid handle on speech bubbles, as well as more of the implied language of comics you already understand without knowing it, I strongly recommend reading the book "Understanding Comics" by Scott McCloud, which does a fantastic job of breaking down that implied language in a very clear, understandable way. (You may also like the sequel "Making Comics," which drills deeper into some of the concepts in Understanding, but it's not necessary; the other sequel "Reinventing Comics" aged poorly and is, quite honestly, skippable.)

Sources: Understanding Comics, college-level comic production courses

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I am not aware of such "ideal". In this context, "ideal" is defined by what is expected by the author / artist. There are several aspect to be considered:

  • length of text;
  • available area;
  • layout of the "boxes" on the page;
  • the design of each "box";
  • patterns used;
  • artistic effects targeted;
  • personal "feeling";
  • others.

Overall, feel free to experiment and see what fits best for you, and for the story you are currently writing. It might even be useful to change the styles from story to story, to create a "branding". A Pizza Hut building will always be recognizable, even if there is another business inside, or a kinder garden. You can achieve that level or "identity" with your comics too. You can create THE new standards, you do not need for others to do that for you.

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I'm not aware of any "ideal" ratio of speech bubbles, but I feel there are some subjective rules.

  • If there are only 1 - 3 short words to write, you can opt for a long and narrow speech bubble and put every word in a new line. That disrupts the reading flow and puts strong emphasis on the words. In my personal opinion it's appropriate for dramatic situations and phases like "Oh my God!", "What happened?" or "Watch out!" but not for emotional situations and phrases like "Welcome back" or "I love you".
  • If you have more than 3 words to write, the speech bubble should be wider than high, simply because a western audience is used to reading long lines of text.
  • Most of the time it's better to have rectangular speech boxes instead of oval speech bubbles, because the ovals either force you to leave some space at the top and bottom free of text, or to break the lines awkwardly into shorter and longer ones to use all the space.
  • In wide panels, a speech box shouldn't be wider than 80% of the panel, simply because that looks odd. In very wide panels, that makes speech boxes so wide that your eyes have to move away from the focus (the character that's speaking).
  • A speech box can (but doesn't have to) have the same width as the panel, but then it should be considered narration. One example would be a panel showing a city in the distance with a box telling us that after X days of travel our heroes finally approached their destination. Another example is a character narrating events of the past: you show the past/memory in the panel and write the spoken words in a wide box.
  • Many people find lines of up to 60 characters (including spaces) readable, but anything longer than that becomes intimidating and people might not read it at all. (source: The optimal line length)

In the end, the most deciding factor for the size and ratio of speech bubbles in the space available on a panel. A golden rule of dramatic content like film, theater and comic books is "Show. Don't tell." so you should try keeping your speech texts as short as reasonably possible and show the key elements of the story in your drawings instead.

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Is there an "ideal" width-to-height ratio for speech bubbles in English language comics?

Not really. Alternatively: the ideal ratio is relative to the context and contents of each individual bubble.

A few general guidelines apply:

  • The main thing to always keep in mind: the text should flow, no matter how experimental your layout is. I see this done 'wrong' at times, and it is confusing and breaks the immersion.

  • Secondly: apart from that first rule, a text balloon's size and ratio are subordinate to the contents of the panel:* it should not cover vital information. This means that, at times, a balloon can have unusual shapes, or is disposed of altogether.

  • Not all speech bubbles should have the same aspect ratio. If they do, a page becomes static and visually boring. Each bubble ideally represents the tone an character of what is said, and/or who by.

  • The bubbles should contain sufficient space. This means that no matter how much or how little text they contain, a specific (and often similar) border will be surrounding that text within the balloon, and, as this will likely be equal on all four sides while vertically the size is variable, a preset ratio is even theoretically impossible. That is, unless you mess around with the width and height of your fonts, but this will probably only annoy your readers.

Catering to a western audience, you'll preferably have bubbles that are wider than they are tall (as seems to be the consensus among us answerers :), as this is congruent with our usual and therefore favoured way of reading.
To emphasize this flow, especially with longer sentences or paragraphs, a ratio that is similar to that of a typical paragraph in a textbook could be preferred, but this is purely theoretical.
Nevertheless, going through comic book examples, you will see this is the norm. Even in generally vertical balloons, the text still needs to be read from left to right, and breaking up sentences into single words just makes reading a little more jarring.


Here are a few relevant quotes from Gary Spencer Millidge's Comic Book Design:

Often, standard ellipse shapes can waste space, covering too much of the artwork and also proving an uncomfortable fit for the arrangement of text. Because of this, it is not unusual to see slightly "flattened" ellipses, irregularly hand drawn shapes, rectangles, and other variations of speech balloons used with success. [p. 102]

Exactly how much space to leave between the lettering and the edges of the balloons is a matter of judgment. Too little can make the balloons appear crowded and difficult to read; too much can distract from the artwork, or cover up too much of the panel. [p. 102]

Caption boxes that contain narrative text or character "voiceovers" are generally rectangular in shape. Because they are not directly associated with any particular object within the panel, they can be placed more freely, so long as they contribute to the overall composition and reader flow.


If you really want to incorporate the golden ratio, a better place for that would be the panels themselves, as the length of text in speech bubbles varies way too much.
As you can see in the image below, this standard division using the golden rectangle already provides a nice layout for a page:


source

But there are only really four variations to this, and it offers yet another approach that is probably way too formulaic to keep your comic interesting.


* Unless, of course, the text (/sound) actually obscures important information, like someone talking so much it makes focusing impossible for a character, or a siren blaring over another text balloon. In that case, though, it can be argued the text balloon *is* more important.

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