Can't spell 'Paint' without P-A-I-N
The Tree of the Thunder Gods
Caring for Your Pens and Nibs
Writing for Comicsby Sylvia T. Leung
Comic books have always been a dominant, pop culture icon. Cave paintings were the first pieces of sequential art and the walls of Egyptian tombs are a testament to the lasting power of visual storytelling. From elaborate murals in cathedrals to your daily comic strip, people have always wanted to put pictures together to express an idea.
Underneath all the lines and drawings in these, however, are good stories. Without a good story to match the visuals, we would have a set of pictures that don't relate to one another. When most people think of stories, they think of novels and pages of text bound in a book, not necessarily a comic book. Writing for a comic has the same essence of writing stories in prose format, but there are elements to consider when you limit yourself to thinking in a limited number of pictures.
A word of warning before we begin. My background is in dramatic, somewhat long stories. The following will be bits of knowledge Iíve accumulated over the years and with conversations Iíve had with other artists, so my bias toward dramatic storytelling might show. This does not mean you cannot apply the tips to a comedic body of work or even short stories. You donít even have to take my advice, as they might go completely against the way you work. This article also gears toward just writers working in tandem with an artist. Though I write for myself, I believe the process is still the same.
Tip One: Outline First
Like writing any essay, an outline of where you intend your story to go will be of great help. Everyone gets ideas flooding their minds at odd moments and at the time they might seem like the best thing to put into your story. My advice is to keep on track, stay focused on what message you want your story to convey overall and what direction your heroes are going to travel. Donít let shiny ideas distract you. With an outline, you can remember the best parts that you need to keep and the sparkly bits that you should lose.
Tip Two: Breaking up the Story Into Visual Bites
Prose writing and comic book writing are different things. Writing for a comic book is like writing a script, where you have short bursts of descriptions, followed by actions and dialogue direction. The outline format of a comic book script makes it easier for the artist to break the story into panels that the reader can follow visually.
Also in prose writing, introspection is a popular way of sharing what the characters are thinking. In comics, you can do this too, but not too much. You should think of it like a movie: it would be boring to stare at someone sitting in a chair and brooding while their voice narrates their thoughts from off screen. My advice: donít tell us, show us. Give your character something to do while they brood. The best solution would be if they performed some task that mirrored their frustration or worry visually while their running monologue is kept to a minimum.
Tip Three: The Difference Between Western- and Manga-Style Pacing
Pacing is the speed at which events unfold visually in a comic book. For instance, one panel can have someone at the refrigerator looking for something and the next frame would be the same person sitting down at the dining table eating. It is inferred that enough time has passed for the person to have taken something out of the refrigerator, prepared it in the kitchen, and brought it to eat at the dining table. Timing and predicting how a reader can make these inferences is difficult to master. Letís look at how professionals do it in America as well as Japan.
In America Ė more precisely, large companies like Marvel and DC Comics Ė the pacing is more compact. You donít see pages where the characters linger over an action unless it is pivotal to the plot or the writer wants the reader to notice a detail. You see more characters filling up a panel of comic and dialogue bubbles interweaving their tales together for a conversation.
In comparison, Japanese manga have a tendency to pace their stories much longer, where a personís actions usually linger and each panel has perhaps one or two dialogue bubbles. This is most noticeable during fight sequences where you have a series of action and reaction panels. For instance, someone gets punched in the face in the first panel. In the next panel, it is smaller with a shot of the character pulling something from his pocket. The third panel is another small frame where the villain notices said object. The last panel would be the object being thrown by the person who was previously punched. Western comics would probably never have the smaller insert panels and let the reader infer that the object came from a secret compartment.
Tip Four: Descriptions Start Here
Just as it is in prose writing, you describe your scenes in the script. What does the setting look like? What time of day is it? Are we indoors or outdoors? Where are the characters situated? If you and your artist have a good connection, the artist should be able to anticipate your needs. However, writing is different from comic books: if you have a specific scene visualized, then describe it to the best of your ability to the artist. Establish the setting first to the best of your ability; this could take many paragraphs if necessary and if you are able to mentally visualize your setting. Some writers love giving the bare minimum to their artists to see what the artist can come up with. This gives the comic a more collaborative feel. Sometimes it is better to help the artist along the way. This will be up to your team.
The main point of becoming more descriptive in your scripts is to keep in mind the action that is going on visually. Donít let dialogue dominate your scene while the characters are doing nothing. If they are walking and talking, give them a place that is visually rich for the artist to play with. Donít sit them in an empty room.
In closing, it is ultimately true that without good writing, the basics of visual storytelling are lost. Your story can be a series of images turning into one another until an ulterior message is conveyed. You can have the most elaborate epic penned and ready to ship to an artist willing to carry such a weight. Either way, writing for comics forces the writer to become an artist as well, capable of painting a picture with words.
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