My Comic Life Sundays: Writing Comics 101: The Panel

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My Comic Life Column 007: Writing Comics 101: The Panel

C. Edward Sellner cropped

Last week I launched this series on writing and went in-depth on the format of the comic script, broke down the form and function of each section and focused on teaching the basic mechanics of writing in that format. I also shared the Comic Book Script Archive as a resource for checking out tons of samples.

Now it’s time to start digging into the actual process of writing that script.

The Mechanics of Writing Comics

First, let’s establish a very basic premise: writing in one genre, format or medium is not the same as writing in another. This may seem a ‘no-brainer’ but it’s also a good reminder. Many writers who excel in one form (say non-fiction vs. fiction) or one genre (say horror vs. comedy) or one medium (say prose vs. comics) may not even feel competent in writing in another. At the very least, it’s obvious that if you look at the majority of professional writers, most tend to focus their efforts on a narrow slice of the full writing pie.

Now, just as obviously, there are a growing number of exceptions where writers cross those boundaries. I’m sure any writer who has done so will be the first to agree that they had to work at making that leap. In addition, for those who do, many don’t succeed and end up returning to their mainstay. A smaller group will find some success in a couple arenas, but only a small handful of truly talented folk can claim they have had equal and high levels of success in multiple formats, genres and markets.

The point here simply being that one of the things that makes crossing such boundaries challenging is that while writing as an art form may have some universal principles there are aspects of each kind of writing that are true for some, but not for others, and sometimes even unique to that one. Such is true for comics as well.

The Form and Format

One of the things that I think is truer for comic writing than any other medium is just how much the comic writer has to focus on, think about, and visualize the finished product. Granted, writers in every medium have to think some about this dynamic, but the comic writer must continually be aware of this on multiple levels and for multiple reasons. Naturally, as the range of diversity in how comics are presented continues to expand, some of these factors go up and down a scale of importance, in some cases even relevance. However, some remain fairly universal and most all remain at least something to be mindful of.

From deciding each panel, to the number of panels on each page or screen, and in many cases, the total number of pages allowed per issue, or the total number of issues in the series, the comic writer is having to shape the story to fit the mechanics of the medium. By comparison, prose writers usually have to operate within a broad range of word counts for specific types of story and have to think of pacing within the context of that, but that’s about it. Screenplay writers come closer as they must often write to more defined parameters, keeping in mind more logistical factors, like run time, which is often set to tight standards, use of cast and settings, etc. In film and television, the script tends to be more fluid, often being adjusted as production goes to hit those marks, whereas most comic scripts are completed and wrapped, and then the rest flows with zero to minor changes.

For our purposes, let’s start with a narrow focus and expand out as we look at some of the standard mechanics of writing comics.

The Panel

The panel is the smallest ‘beat’ of story in comics. A panel is a single image with or without text, bordered by gutters. A typical comics’ page has from one to several panels comprising it. The panel is that ‘presented time’ that is actually telling the story, moving the story forward. It does this both by what it directly presents and how well it enables the reader to ‘leap’ over the instants not shown between it and the next panel, that magic space we call a gutter.

Let’s start with what is going on IN the panel.

As a writer, it’s important to understand the dual nature of a panel and its rather complicated relationship to ‘Time.’

Some people think a panel represents a single flash-frozen moment, but that’s not the case. If nothing else, the dialogue in a panel, assuming it’s taking place in real time, means that the length of time it takes to read, or in the story context, speak that dialogue is the length of time represented in that panel.

For example…

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A Panel from Headlocked: The Tryout, from Visionary and Markosia, written by Mike Kingston, art by Randy Valiente, colors by Jessika Gravel, and letters by Jason Arthur.

The dialogue in this panel, at least when I read it, runs about 15 seconds. That means that panel on one level represents 15 seconds of time in the story, the amount of time from the first spoken word, to the last spoken word.

However, and this is the tricky part, since any given panel contains a single given image, the art itself is a little more limited in how it presents time. In the above example, we assume the characters did not remain frozen during the 15 seconds of dialogue. If nothing else, the people ‘moving’ in the background would have shifted, and the guy in the foreground would have blinked, scratched his nose, something. But, we don’t see those in-panel movements because it’s static art.

Now, one of the most common mistakes of aspiring comic writers is the practice of describing a series of actions or movements within a single panel description, which then becomes impossible to capture.

Joe reaches out to the doorknob, turns it, and opens the door.

All fine, but impossible to show each step as outlined in a single panel. That sequence could be implied by simply showing Joe with the door already cracked open, holding the open door by the doorknob, but it then cuts two outlined steps from the script. In this case, that may work as it’s a common enough action readers can figure out, but you can’t have more than a single action with any given character in any given panel. (Unless maybe you’re dealing with a super-speedster kind of deal – the exception that proves the rule because that motif is used specifically to show faster than normal movement, right?)

Now, static art can show movement and even more often imply movement, but only movement ‘in process.’

This page, featuring a fight scene from a short story in Visionary’s anthology Digital Visions #3, doesn’t have moving pictures, but movement is implied in several ways. Take a moment, study the page and see if you can pick up the various ways the ‘static’ art is subtly implying and showing movement.

 

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A page from The Ranger’s Tale written by Jeff Loew, pencils by Esdras, inks by Dean Kotz, colors by Garry Henderson, and letters by Chris Studabaker, available in Digital Visions #3 from Visionary Comics.

 

 

Now, see how you did…

-Natural elements: We assume this world is like our world in that lightning strikes then disappears, rain doesn’t hover in streaks in the sky, but falls. Our intuitive and ingrained understanding of this helps give a feel of motion in the scene as well as heightening the drama.

-Body language: Is there anyone who doesn’t get the two antagonists are facing off against each other, striking a threatening pose in panel 1, then rushing each other in panel 2 and full on fighting in panel 3? The pose, angle, mid-motion shots show the energy and imply the movement of the two combatants. This is heightened by such things as the cloak and hair of the Ranger flaring out behind her as she rushes forward or dodges. The same with the staff in panels 2 and 3, the bend to it makes it feel like it’s being whipped around.

-Special Effects: The little flash in panel three where the sword strikes the staff is a typical comic motif to represent two objects (or people) striking each other.

Okay, those are obvious, Esdras also uses very nice subtle cues to movement in this. Check the rain water whipping off the characters. Esdras does not use motion lines like many artists, but he expertly uses the water being flicked off the antagonists to show movement and energy.

These are ways an artist can take a static image and fill it with energy and movement, and some artists are better at this than others. A writer may suggest prompts to an artist to help inspire them as well, especially if something is either integral to the story or a bit out of the norm in its use. However, more often than not, it’s more important the writer focus on picking out those key moments and let the artist then bring them to life.

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A panel from The Ranger’s Tale.

Likewise, a silent panel…

Sometimes showing the same scene as a previous panel, implies a passing of time in silence, even without the art showing any movement. The drama, or the repetition of the scene makes the reader linger over the image, thus feeling a passing of time as the character reflects, mourns, or plots.

While much of how well this works will rest on the shoulders of the artist, these are tools of storytelling the writer must bring out in the script in order to set them up.

The Gutters

It’s just as important for a writer to be mindful of what is happening BETWEEN the panels. Those lines, spaces, or other means of dividing panels are called gutters and they divide the typical comics’ page, breaking those beats of ‘presented time’ with beats of ‘unseen time’. The ‘unseen time’ is what transpires ‘in between’ the panels.

Let’s look back at our fight scene page. We see our antagonists facing off as lightning strikes. | | We see them rushing each other. | | We see them fighting. The reader can naturally follow the events in between those gutter lines. |They start rushing one another| |They close in and whip their weapons about|. The key here is that the action IN the panels flows smoothly enough that what is happening BETWEEN the panels is very clear. The writer has to be mindful of and make good use of both.

Now, what moments are moments that need to be captured IN a panel? What are moments that can fit easily into the transitions between? This is perhaps the most important skill of a comics’ writer because, in some ways, it is the crux of storytelling using comics as a medium.

In selecting what is being presented in the actual panels, the writer needs to pick those critical moments where action or reaction is visible and helps to move the story forward, making sure that each of those presented spans of time show the critical elements of what is transpiring in the story. Whether it be our heroine landing the first punch, or that moment of sadness at a tragic victory, the beats that bring action, drama, tension, emotion and connection are the ones to show in the panel, using art and text to hit the beats that move the story.

Likewise, the writer needs to ensure that each panel leads into the next with a smooth transition so that the reader doesn’t get confused and wonder what happened ‘off camera’ in between. In other words, what happens ‘off-panel’ should be those in between moments that connect key moments but whose flow is so intuitive and natural the reader will connect that flow instantly.

Again, let’s take our fight scene page above – each panel flows seamlessly into the next, showing a directly related sequence of events between two characters with little room for confusion. That’s easy enough.

What about this one? What happens in between these two panels?

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Panels by artist Scott McCloud from his book Understanding Comics.

I use this panel sequence in my presentations on creating comics and always ask the audience that same question, and without fail, everyone agrees our poor innocent guy gets the axe – but I then always counter with ‘prove it.’ Which of course they can’t, and it’s cool to often see that spark in their eyes in that moment as they realize the leap their mind made between the two images and how definitive it is, even though the art does not directly show it.

As mentioned, one of the mistakes a lot of aspiring comic writers make is trying to put too much action in a panel. The flip side of that are writers who want to have too much take place between the panels. It’s important that the action in a panel, lead naturally into the next, that the flow of the story is so intuitive that readers will make that jump without even realizing their mind filled in those little spaces between.

This, like many things in any art form, is a balance. Just as you can overwhelm a panel with too much going on, you can also drag the story by showing too little. Again, using our fight scene page, it could have been…

PANEL 1: They face off in the dark.

PANEL 2: Lightning strikes as they face off.

PANEL 3: They start rushing one another.

PANEL 4: We see them get closer as they rush each other.

PANEL 5: They whip their weapons around.

PANEL 6: The Ranger swings her sword as the Centaur brings his staff to block.

PANEL 7: The Centaur blocks the sword blow.

We’ve just more than doubled the panels used to tell what was quite expertly done in three. Doing so slows the pace and diminishes the energy of the fight scene. As each panel represents a beat in time, it also stretches the moment out, making it seem less kinetic, less dramatic and bordering on ho-hum.

But, skip that dramatic moment of silence with our tearful ranger, or merge it into some other sequence, such as showing her climbing on her horse while shedding a tear – and you miss out on a powerful character moment that will help readers connect emotionally with your heroine.

This is in part the ‘economy’ of comics – using the space you have, panels, pages, issues, etc. to tell the best story at the best pace to maximize engagement with your reader.

In one sense, each panel stands on its own, communicating a single beat or story moment, but it cannot be separated from how well it works with all the other panels around it. We’ll expand on this next time, as we look at a whole page.

NEXT:

We jump from panels to the next ‘story beat’ element which is the page, or in this digital age, the screen.

NOW DISCUSS…

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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!

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