On writing comics

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This weekend a fellow writer and friend emailed to say she’d gotten her first comic-writing contract, and did I have any thoughts/suggestions/advice/epiphanies, having written my own comic series. Indeed I did, and I’ve been vaguely meaning for ages to write those thoughts up, so she provided me with an opportunity to do so. So here’s what I learned about writing comics:

* turning the page is often a sign of a scene change. Not always, but it’s a good rule of thumb, and if you’re *going* to change scenes, it’s better to do it at a page turn than mid-page unless you can be very clever with your frames to show some kind of continuity leading into the new scene.

* Wally Woods 22 Panels That Always Work is probably something every comic writer, nevermind artist, should be given right away.

* Alan Moore is reputed to work within a 210 words per page format. More than that and the reader starts going “too many words” on a subconscious level. I have observed this in TAKE A CHANCE, where a couple pages were too dialog heavy and I went and counted and yeah, was like around 250 or something. More detail on that here.

* I go to a fair amount of trouble to describe panel layouts and angles and details. This is a technique I picked up from reading how Neil Gaiman wrote comics (and he apparently got it from Alan Moore). The important bit, really, is to end (or begin) the script with, “But if you have a better idea, go for it; you’re the artist, after all.”

* Story beats: I think this was maybe the most critical thing I realized while writing Chance. I was using 22 page scripts there, so basically you’re looking at, say, 11 scenes. Each scene became a story beat, to some degree, and I *really* had to get those figured out ahead of time before I started writing, because otherwise it got sloppy and out of control almost immediately. It’s like a mini-synopsis. “Page one: Intro. Page 2-3: Heroine in action on the streets. She meets a “helpful” powered hero who is embarrassed when he realizes she’s “one of them”–but she’s “NOT LIKE YOU.” Page 3-4: cut to Chance at her day job; use the words “NOT LIKE YOU” as her introductory phrase to keep continuity, so we know who the unmasked woman is. Backstory: Nila arrives with information about the man who killed Chance’s son.” And so on and so forth. Without the story beats I’d have lost my mind right off.

* Keep it simple. I did too many complicated things–too many frames per page (4-6 is good, up to 9 sometimes) a lot. I think it’s the novelist in me. That and the Bendis fan.

* Remember that the action in comics takes place between the frames. We’re just seeing still shots. Apparently it annoys the crap out of artists when a writer has an action and a reaction in the same frame. 🙂

* ALL CAPS usually emphasizes words in dialog bubbles or text boxes. On the finished page, those words end up slightly bolder.

* Don’t forget color, light and time notes for the colorist. Separate them out, because a colorist won’t necessarily notice them in the body of a description. So a page might say “COLORIST’S NOTES: this scene takes place during sunset” at the head, or “Grey rainy day” or “night shot” or whatever. I forgot those a lot.

* If you have ideas on where the text/word balloons should go, put those into the header: TEXT BOX (upper right): sorts of things. It may help the artist laying out the page. (or he might ignore you entirely. Nevermind that detail. :))

* I found it helpful to write most of a page’s dialog before I started trying to script the images. It gave me a flow chart for the page, by telling me kind of how much information was going to get dumped, and then I could work with that in how many panels I needed and things. I’d often get halfway through a page of dialog and then find myself going back and starting to write in the images, but it got me started. And it helped me not forget clever lines. 🙂

So there you go. Those are helpful things I learned while writing Chance.

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5 comments to On writing comics

  • Catie, I have several writer pals who have comic-writing deals. Listening to them describe the writing style made it seem somewhat daunting. The way you lay it out makes it a lot clearer. Still daunting, mind you, but clearer, especialy the last bit about finishing dialogue first to give a structure to it. I like. And I am impressed.

  • It gets less daunting once you’ve done it a few times, like any writing process. And there are a ton of things I picked up from screenwriting classes and reading Nat Gertler’s PANEL ONE, which is a book about how to write comics, but most of what’s on this list seemed to be stuff I figured out through trial and error. Adventures In Writing! 🙂

  • Wow. I don’t write comics but I suddenly feel like I could after this post! Fascinating.

  • When I looked into writing comics it looked very much like writing a film script with all the angles and shot types added in already. Like a director’s shooting script. Oddly, it was what got me to start writing film scripts, because I had this idea for a comic and I started looking into it. Once I started structuring it I realized that it could work for a film script as well, so I started working it up for film instead and found I liked writing for film. It’s fun because I’m a visual person and I can already see the scene in my head, including angles and shots.

  • Liz

    Thanks for this post, genuinely helpful and interesting.

    I’ve been toying with writing a script for a comic for a while now and I’ve got a copy of “Writing for Animation, Comics and Games” by Christy Marx and it’s a huge help.