My Comic Life Column 010: Writing Comics 101: The Story
Welcome back as we wrap this round on writing (say that three times fast). Remember, this column looks at the entire process of creating and selling comics, so, I’ll focus on one arena for a series and then move into another.
Writers, you’re going to want to stay tuned to future editions simply because the more you know about creating and selling comics, the more skills you bring to any project you’re signing on for. Not to mention after the penciling series, I’ll be focusing on collaboration, then not too long and another writing arc for more advanced stuff. Ok?
So, we’ve looked at the mechanics of the script, the panel, and the page, now as we bow out on the art of stringing words together, let’s look at…
Telling the Story
There are tons of resources out there that can help you learn the basics of storytelling in general, from character development to plot, pacing, etc. There is also a good number that focus on storytelling and writing comics in particular. I’ve already started listing some great resources on our Archive page and will be adding to that a good bit before the end of the year with my own recommended reading for everyone’s wishlist this holiday season. Any of those listed would be great resources for aspiring writers to check out.
For here and now, let’s focus a little on the specifics of telling a good comic story and some of the general principles you need to be aware of.
Beyond the Panel and Page
In previous columns, I focused a lot on the mechanics of the script as well as the comic book panel and page. I talked about how each of those represented ‘beats’ in a story and the potential and limitations for each. However, once you start linking those small beats of panels into pages, then those larger beats of pages into something more, then you’re getting into storytelling.
And just as I mentioned how important it is for a writer to be thinking visually at each of those levels, that becomes even more important here, because the broader story being told is one that is a meshing of word and art, a flowing sequence that will be breathed into life by art, so it’s critical that you as a writer are thinking on some visual level. You’ll see what I mean as we go.
There are several general factors a writer should be aware of when working in the comics’ medium, in order to make their comic writing as effective as possible. Let’s take a look at each.
1) Let the Art Tell the Story
A common mistake among aspiring and neophyte comic writers is when they feel the need to describe the action in captions or dialogue that could much more easily just be shown in the art. This includes settings, actions, even emotions. It’s true, a picture is worth a thousand words, which is what our medium is built on, so, when you can, let the art tell as much story as possible and get out of the way.
2) Make Sure the Art IS Telling the Story
The flip side of the above coin is when the writer passes up great opportunities to let the art carry more details of the story by failing to give proper direction to the artist. I can’t tell you how many scripts I’ve read that fail to include any body language, facial expression, or other visual emotional cues to the artist that can add depth to the story. The majority of scripts I read in submissions and from new writers mention WHO is in the panel, but only in the rarest circumstances mentions anything to give more insight into those characters.
Telling us our heroine is in the panel is fine, but pointing out “our heroine should be standing hands on hips with a broad smile on her face” helps carry the emotion, mood and depth of the story, especially in those times it may not be clear to the artist just what those feelings and emotions are. Only you, the writer, may know the deeper motivations of your characters so it’s on you to communicate those underlying elements.
Now, if you’re working with a great artist who recognizes the importance of such subtle elements to the art, such as body language, expression, etc. then they may be great at adding it in anyway, but without direction, they may assign different motivations than you had in mind. If it’s a character you both have worked on a while, then even those deeper motivations and little character bits may come naturally.
But if it’s a new story, and a newer artist still feeling their own way, and you as the writer don’t share some of those cues, you may also end up with a bunch of listless, boring people just standing around, and that will be partly on you.
Beyond expressions and emotion, this kind of visual storytelling can happen on a lot of levels. Establishing a setting of ‘a city street’ is basic, but establishing a setting as ‘a city street in a bad neighborhood, with boarded up windows, trash littering the sidewalks, etc.’ sets the tone. Letting an artist choreograph a fight scene is best, but pointing out ‘one fighter is clear, smooth, skilled and simply defending themselves, while their opponent is desperate and savage’ helps the artist add layers of depth to that fight scene that will tell more story with the art.
You can even craft a story such that this ‘visual storytelling’ element is crucial to the actual story working. Some of the best comics, to me, are the ones that once you finish the story, you want to go back and read it again for all the little visual clues you missed. For example, if you’re writing a mystery, make sure certain props or features are clear in the art, so that they can be revealed later as the clues that lead to the solution.
Use of iconic visuals, as mentioned previously with Watchmen, also adds elements to a story. They can be specific symbols, or simply powerful, iconic shots that bring the story to a critical focus, such as a drop of blood falling into a pool of blood, a character sitting with their head in their hands, dejected and lost, or someone cradling the corpse of a fallen loved one. Think about some of your favorite comic stories and I can pretty much guarantee you there was at least one image somewhere in that story where the art told it all, no words were even needed, and that image stayed with you a long time.
Incorporate these things to add depth and detail to your work and help your artist tell the full story.
3) Use an Economy of Words
Because comics are a visual medium, you want to strike a fine balance of text and art. Make sure you aren’t overwhelming your story with narrative. Lots of words on a page make it look cluttered, detract from the art, slows the pace and tends to drag for the reader, increasing the chance they will get bored or frustrated.
Of course, there are going to be exceptions. There are times when there may be a need for heavier narrative. It may be an expositional scene to give necessary backstory or an important dialogue between two characters that explores their relationship, but these should be exceptions, not the rule.
4) Comics Are a Visual Medium So Make It Visually Dynamic
This is obviously something we will explore more in the art end of things, but it’s an important concept for writers as well. There is a reason the abundance of comics have over the top storylines that include lots of action, fantasy, and other visually dynamic plots. Simply put, dynamic, exciting visuals grab reader’s attentions and interest MUCH faster than pictures of people sitting around talking.
Yes, there can be perfectly good comics that do not include world-saving battles requiring two-page spreads for all the explosions. However, whether it is a use of setting, a purposeful focus on mood and tone to add dramatic tension, or any other tool, the more visually dynamic you can make a scene, the better it will play in an illustrated book.
For example, say you’re writing a scene where our hero is talking with his lady love about their relationship. It’s an important story element. It has emotional drama, people love the characters so they will be invested in it, but can you help make sure it plays out better? Sure. Do they decide to chat in her apartment? Or maybe he flies her to a mountaintop at sunset? Think about what choices you can make to give room to and ensure the art stays as dramatic and dynamic as possible, no matter what the content of the scene itself.
5) Comics Are a Visual Medium, Play to That Strength
As a comic writer, keep in mind you have multiple levels you can tell a story on. There is the narrative caption box, the actual dialogue, the internal monolog, and the actual portrayed events. Those portrayed events give you a whole level of storytelling you don’t have in prose so exploit it where and when you can.
For example, a prose novella I wrote, Legend of Fire-Mane, that was published in our first run with Visions, was later being adapted for a proposed original graphic novel. The opening scene in that story is a prophetic nightmare of the aged Dwarven-Lord in the story. In the prose edition, I had to focus on ‘painting’ the dramatic scene of crows feasting on mounds of dwarven corpses and the two elemental giants that then appear and fight. But, once the artist, Revin Denisya A Putra, illustrated those pages (seen above) and brought that scene to life, I didn’t need to use words to do it. So, I added the haunting words of a Dwarven funeral dirge that anchors the images, alludes to them, but adds more to the story.
Work on ways to maximize the story being told in the comic. Don’t include tricks for the sake of including tricks, but ask yourself how you can enrich or deepen the story by playing to the unique strengths of comics.
As I started this series I pointed out that one thing that makes writing for comics unique is the need for the writer to continually be mentally aware of the finished product. I kept a tight focus on that as I discussed the panel, the page, composition, etc. This also applies on a larger level in terms of the story as a whole.
Most comic writing opportunities are going to come with a set of expectations and thus limitations that will need to be considered in your approach to the story. This will often include having a certain page count to hit, which could range from 6 to 240 pages. It will also include the means by which the story is going to be released – serialized chapters, or a single collected edition, digital or print.
This will even be true if you’re creating your own thing alone, or with an artist. You’ll need to have a platform to release your comic, set up a schedule that can be met, and however those logistics play out, should then be considered once you begin writing.
The point here is that you need to know WHAT format you are writing a project for and write accordingly.
A stand-alone story should, obviously, be a complete story with beginning, middle and end. You’ll need proper pacing that will carry the story through the allotted pages, if that is a limitation in place. That story will also need a definitive enough resolution that the reader feels they got the desired payoff and the story wrapped up for a satisfying finish. Sure it can hint at more, set up a sequel if desired, but by and large, THIS story comes to a definitive end.
Serialized writing, such as doing issues of a comic series, or chapters of an ongoing webcomic, begins to introduce new elements to storytelling that are also important. Here, each issue or chapter becomes yet another beat to a still larger story. Oh, sure, maybe any given story – an origin, a specific conflict, or adventure in general – may end in any given chapter or issue, but the nature of serialized writing is that that ‘story’ then becomes part of the larger story for that series.
So, once you get into serialized writing of any kind it becomes even more important to be able to craft overlaying storylines, plots, and sub-plots, etc. that can weave in and out of the spotlight of the larger, ongoing storyline. It will also become important to be able to learn to write each chapter or issue to serve two very distinct purposes. First, each chapter or issue has to provide the reader sufficient payoff to make them feel the time invested was worth it. Second, and just as important, each chapter or issue in some way, shape or form, needs to provide enough of a hook to ensure the reader will want to come back for more.
And that will form the basis of our next writing series!
We break next week for the Thanksgiving holiday, so HAPPY THANKSGIVING to everyone who will be celebrating! We’ll return December 4th for a one-shot column topic critical to freelancers everywhere – The Contract!
About C. Edward Sellner
A full-time professional freelancer, Sellner has credits as a comics writer, prose author, colorist, artist, and editor from multiple publishers. He is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Visionary Comics, one of the best known comic studios and digital publishers in the industry. The studio opened in 2006 and since then has published over 70 different titles in its digital line, and been involved in over a hundred different projects in production. Its clients range from Hollywood producers to international sports stars to other studios and publishers. It became the first independent studio to enter the licensing game with the announcement of its Deadlands license, which has since been published in comics from Image and IDW and novels from Tor Books. The studio also hosts a successful internship program where interns get practical, real-world freelancing experience, including paid work on actual jobs fitting their skill levels. Learn more at www.visionarycomics.com!