Putting Words in Mouths
On Monday, we started with my script for “Voodoo” #1. Today, the process comes full circle with the final dialogue added to the pages. The lettering you see is by DC’s Jared Fletcher. We have access to the final versions of pages 3 and 6.
The initial script pages were closer to “full script” style — broken down into specific panels — than Marvel style, which leaves much more of the storytelling and pacing burden on the artist’s shoulders. My philosophy is that it’s my job to give an artist all the information he (or she) needs to construct the page. I feel like I have to be able to see the page in my head, and know that it works, before I have any right to hand it to the artist. I’m not comfortable with the “here, you figure it out” method of scripting unless that’s what the artist specifically asks for.
Even though the script is broken down into visuals, that doesn’t mean I expect the artists to slavishly adhere to the script. If the artist finds a different way to convey the same information, I have no problem with it. And that’s the way it should be. I’ve heard plenty of horror stories from artists who’ve been partnered with writers insisting absolutely everything be drawn exactly as written (or, more correctly, exactly as it appears in the writer’s head). To me, that’s a waste of the artist’s skills and creativity. This is a collaborative medium, and the finished product should be greater than its individual parts.
I usually include suggested, or “first draft” dialogue in most of my scripts, so the artist has a sense of what’s being said, as well as the order in which characters speak (for left-right placement of figures). Since the team had to hit the ground running for “Voodoo” #1, the suggested dialogue in the initial script is probably slightly more sparse than usual.
As the art pages come in, I go back into the script and write the finished dialogue. This allows me to script to what’s actually on the page, rather than what I’d hoped would be on the page. It also gives the artist greater latitude to make adjustments in the visuals, since I can react in the final dialogue. I can play off of expressions, body language or background characters. Looking at the art, the characters start to speak to you, tell you what they want to say.
A few general rules: you can fit 25 or so words in a single balloon; usually three balloons per panel maximum; and you can have a conversation between two characters go back and forth, but usually not back and forth and back again (or you get into crossed balloon tails, or awkwardly long bridges between balloons). None of these are absolute, they’re guidelines for making pages readable.
In addition to conveying the dialogue or narrative, balloons and captions also serve the function of leading the reader’s eye across the page properly — left to right, top to bottom.
At this stage, you’re sometimes in the position of needing to cut words, so the balloons aren’t covering necessary art. The writer’s words aren’t as important as the artist’s visuals. “Kill your darlings” is attributed to Faulkner (though Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch first advised, “Murder your darlings”), and it’s especially true in comics. If you’ve written too much, cut it. Brevity is indeed the soul of wit. It’s easier (and faster) for the writer to adjust than for the artist to redraw. Plus, it’s a visual medium. Get the hell out of the way and let the pictures tell the story whenever possible.
Which is not to say that you should consistently leave whole stretches of panels completely silent. A silent panel is an instance in which you the writer want the visuals to carry all of the storytelling. You’re telling the reader, “Look at this.” That’s more effective when it’s a contrast, rather than a recurring motif.
This stage is also when you decide what words will receive bold emphasis. It’s really all about the cadence in your head, how you hear the lines being delivered. Some writers use it a lot, some ignore it completely. I suppose I’m somewhere in the middle, because I want a certain rhythm to the dialogue, and I also want to keep the balloons themselves from becoming too gray visually.
Crafting the dialogue is, for me, a separate skill from the panel breakdowns (which is one reason I like to do the final dialogue in a separate stage). I’ve told this story once or twice before, so bear with me. Early on at CrossGen, I was summoned into the office of the Big Boss. Big Boss held up an issue of “Scion” and said, “What are you doing? Everybody sounds like regular people in here.” I said, “Uh… yeah?” Big Boss said, “Well, they don’t sound like they’re in a comic.” There then ensued a discussion that people in comic books shouldn’t sound like people in comic books, no matter the setting or story. They should sound like real people, because the reader needs to be drawn into the story and made to care about the characters.
I find myself eavesdropping on conversations at Starbucks or the grocery store or the diner counter. I love to hear how people talk, I love to study the character and cadence of the conversation. People often don’t say what they mean, they often don’t speak properly. Trying to replicate that, and move the story forward by revealing plot points in dialogue, is a constant push-pull. Generally, what’s unsaid should be more important than what’s said. Subtext should be more telling than text. It’s especially tricky in a first issue, where establishing characters and context is paramount.
In “Voodoo” #1, I wanted to keep a certain distance from Voodoo herself. She doesn’t even speak until page 9. We’re not inside her head at all. It’s an interesting balancing act to establish a main character, and yet try to keep her somewhat mysterious. We’ll peel back the layers of her character a little more in each ensuing issue — not unlike a stripper revealing progressively more, I suppose — even as Voodoo discovers more about herself. Hope you come along for the ride when “Voodoo” #1 is released on Sept. 28.
Thanks for your attention all this week. Look for a more in-depth “Voodoo” interview with me here on CBR soon with yet another exclusive look at the first issue!
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it’s pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes “Artifacts,” “Witchblade” and “Magdalena” for Top Cow, “Voodoo” for DC and his creator-owned title, “Shinku,” for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com