ON WRITING COMICS
THE DC COMICS GUIDE TO WRITING COMICS is an unwieldy title for such a slight book. Written by Dennis O’Neil, 125 oversized pages are devoted to the art of comics writing. This book is profusely illustrated. More than half of those 125 pages are art. So already you’re down to 63 pages of text about writing comic books. Doesn’t leave much room for the topic itself, does it?
Certainly it doesn’t, and the book suffers for it. What you get is a light and breezy whirlwind tour of storytelling through sequential art. O’Neil goes to great pains to create a series of definitions, even going so far as to define what a mini-series is, as opposed to a graphic novel and a maxi-series and a mega-series. So much time is spent creating these definitions and in showing a brief historical context for them, that any room for depth is squandered.
The book also has some production difficulties. The one that sticks out and has to be the most embarrassing is on page 21. There’s a large panel of art from Mark Waid’s JLA run that is there to illustrate the use of larger letters inside a word balloon. The problem is that the scanning on the lettering layer is so screwed up that the words are illegible. While there isn’t another example quite as bad as that, there are some other pages showing evidence of pixellation throughout the issue.
The text of the book is presented in classic Times New Roman font in one wide column down the page from border to border. It ends up looking like a FAQ off the internet that’s just been printed out. Some of the layout is suspect, as paragraphs continue onto following pages but get squeezed into a tiny space underneath or next to a page of a comic book being used to illustrate a point from earlier in the text. More than once I mistook a short paragraph for a caption and nearly missed a page.
In the end, though, this is not the book you should use to learn how to dialogue, plot, and structure a story. It’s a nice introduction to a number of concepts, including the three-act structure and some classic comic book story structures. It also gives great examples from “No Man’s Land” and the “Death of Superman” to illustrate the points about the megaseries. O’Neil gives some great further reading recommendations in the back, any one of which will teach you far more than this book will. It includes Scott McCloud’s UNDERSTANDING COMICS and Robert McKee’s STORY. These are the books you should go to for more concrete examples and lessons of how storytelling works.
You don’t need to limit yourself to those two. There’s a world of information out there for wannabe writers. Just one warning: No rule is inviolate. Nothing is sacred in the creative arts. Even the idea that you need to know the rules in order to break them is somewhat suspect. However, I think it helps greatly to have a sense of classical structure and to read what others have to say about other parts of storytelling. In particular, short story writing teaches plenty of ideas that translate easily to comic books.
Caveat emptor: I’ve never had a story published. I haven’t really tried all that hard in recent years, either, but I have dabbled in some short comic script writing. You can feel free to take this entire column with a big huge grain of salt. What I’m about to talk about here are a scant few of the books and web sites that opened my eyes to various ideas and techniques that I’ve been able to apply to all forms of storytelling, from the movies to comic books to prose stories. Many of the lessons I learned from these books inform my reviews. I can better look under the hood, if you will, of stories now because of the things I’ve read here.
My favorite book – and the one that opened my eyes the most to story structure – is a book called “Scene and Structure” in the “Elements of Fiction Writing” series from Writer’s Digest. It’s written by Jack M. Bickham and goes into great detail and depth on the three-act structure and how stories are comprised of scenes that, themselves, are composed of three parts. The book goes to great length to discuss various ways to raise the conflict, to maintain suspense and interest from scene to scene, and how to use a scene to start or end your story. While it does get a bit formulaic in one or two spots, I think the lessons taught by this book are handy for any writer. The book applies itself mainly to short story fiction, but also discusses novel structure near the end. For the purposes of beginning comics writing, I’d imagine that the short story lessons are most important. They’re the ones that tell you now to waste a word. The book is only 130 pages and can be had for $12.
The “Elements of Fiction Writing” is a series of eight different books that discuss various aspects of storytelling, from plot to characterization to dialogue. They’re all worth a look, I think, but Bickham’s book is the highlight for me.
J. Michael Straczynski’s THE COMPLETE BOOK OF SCRIPTWRITING is billed as the “all-in-one guide to writing and selling screenplays, teleplays, theatrical plays, radio scripts and animation scripts.” It’s an interesting study of the different styles of scripts that are out there. As comic book writing doesn’t have a single agreed-upon standard formatting, you can roll your own format. Aside from reading other comic book scripts, it might not be a bad idea to get a look at popular formats used in other media. This book includes plenty of that, including a full BABYLON 5 script. If you read the entire book, you’ll also glean some hints and tips on storytelling along the way. It can’t be helped.
Stephen King’s ON WRITING is an interesting book to read. I’m not sure there’s anything terribly new in there, but it’s written in leisurely conversational style that will suck you in. The first half discusses his life as a writer, while the second half talks about various writing skills. The book was noticeably interrupted when a truck hit King on a stretch of Maine road. I’m afraid the book suffers instructionally for it a bit at the end, but gains a lot from a memoirs perspective.
Peter David’s BUT I DIGRESS collection contains a section on comic book writing. If you can find the book, it’s a good read in and of itself, too. If nothing else, you’ll get a kick out of reading columns discussing the then-current events like the formation of Image Comics and The Death of Superman.
Of course, you would do well to read the scripts of others. There are plenty of comic book scripts to be had today. Some writers will have them for sale at conventions they make appearances at. Or, look at your favorite writers’ websites. There are plenty of those around which include script samples and, sometimes, whole scripts. (Search the extensive CBR Links Database for some.) Brian Bendis is even printing a POWERS SCRIPTBOOK through Image in September, containing the complete scripts to the first eleven issues of that series. Larry Young, of course, published THE MAKING OF ASTRONAUTS IN TROUBLE, which contained the complete scripts to the original ASTRONAUTS mini-series.
Chuck Dixon’s web site is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to writing comics. From the 10 Commandments of Comics Writing to the use of subplots in on-going series, you’ll find essays on specific aspects of comics scripting. The sub-plots piece, for starters, is a much clearer explanation of the theory that O’Neil refers to in his book as the “Levitz Paradigm.”
It’s not just Dixon, either. Many of your favorite comics writers have their own web sites, and many of them include writing tips and/or sample scripts. All of these are useful, and I’d encourage you to seek them all out.
Marc Fleury’s “Writing For Comics” website hasn’t been updated in three years now. It’s safe to say it’s dead. There’s still a lot of interesting material in there to chew on, if you’re so inclined.
Of course, it also goes without saying that you should also read as much as possible from as diverse a selection as you can. Keep your eye on the headlines in the local newspapers and news web sites. Most of all, though – apply your butt to the chair and begin writing. Trust me. It’s the only way to learn and the only way you’ll accomplish anything.
If you have other books and web sites you’d like to suggest, I’d highly recommend posting a pointer on the Pipeline Message Board for one and all to see.
In case you weren’t paying attention, this is the third column this week. Tuesday’s column was the usual weekly review of books that came out this week. Thursday’s column was a look at two great books that are overlooked in today’s market: THE FLASH and THE DEFENDERS.
Busy week again next week. With any luck, the Comic Con International: San Diego programming schedule will be finalized and available on its web site. Along with that comes the annual Pipeline look at the contortions the schedule sends me on.
Since the deadline for pre-orders is approaching, a flip through PREVIEWS is a must.
Of course, all the usual Pipeline Previews and mayhem will continue.
So please be sure to stop back next week.
More than 225 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They’re sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML.
This year, you can still catch me at the Chicago Comicon (i.e. WizardWorld) and the San Diego Comicon (i.e. the Comic Con International: San Diego). I’m also tentatively scheduled for a day at the Small Press Expo in Maryland this September.