Writing Right… and Righting Writing Wrongs
Not long ago, someone on Twitter asked me about my process, or formula, for plotting a story. Completely unplanned, I ended up sending more than two dozen tweets breaking down how I approach the mechanics of writing an issue. What follows is based on those tweets, but substantially augmented thanks to being freed from the 140-character constraint.
Obviously, before you even get to the point of breaking down an issue, you need an idea. If you don’t have an idea, I can’t help you with that. Every storyteller needs a story to tell. Where that inspiration comes from (other than editorial handing you marching orders) could be another entire column. The short answer is: there is no answer. Or no one answer. Ideas come from everywhere and nowhere. Sometimes they just appear, waiting to be plucked like a ripe, perfect fruit from a tree. Sometimes you have to excavate and then polish them, like mining for diamonds or gold.
Writing a comic script is an exercise in telling a story in pictures. The majority of comics today are written full-script method: the writer breaks down the story into pages, and the pages into individual panels. Part of the writer’s job is to come up with, at least in the writer’s mind, the most visual way to tell the story, and then offer that up to the artist. It’s a particular skill, demanding visual and pacing sensibilities that make writing comics harder than either prose or screenplays.
I almost never have every bit figured out at the start; nailing down all those details is part of the process. But once I’m satisfied with the germ of the idea, I write 1-20 (or however many pages the story is) down the side of a piece of notebook paper. I’ve worked in the same Levenger leather folio for the last 20 years, scribbling on white notebook pads that are dutifully filled and then thrown away.
Each number represents a page, of course, and I pace out what happens on each page in just a few words or a sentence. This helps you make sure your story fits into the allotted space in this way. Once complete, this is the roadmap for the issue. But understand that it’s not an ironclad document. It’s a suggestion, and you have to be open to deviating from it, adjusting as you go.
Then, still working in the notebook, I break down each page into panels, figuring out the visual storytelling. Everyone has their own storytelling style. I tend to utilize a fair amount of cinematic storytelling, repeating certain images for effect. I also try to vary the kind of shots I request, in order to lend the page visual variety. Pages of all medium shots or all close-ups are boring (as well as bad storytelling). If you’re not familiar with “Wally Wood’s 22 Panels That Always Work,” you need to be.
Before you ask: no specific number of panels per page is right or wrong. It’s about what each page needs. More action and more characters means you need more space in each panel, so you have room for fewer panels. Less action and fewer characters means there’s room for a denser panel count. An even number of panels favors a more rigid or grid structure on the page. An odd number of panels gives the artist more layout choices. Five-panel pages are most common, though too many consecutive five-panel pages leads to dull repetition.
At all times, remember that somebody has to draw this. Don’t overload the page with too much, but make sure you’re giving the readers their money’s worth. Be aware that each page is precious, and should add another building block to the overall story. Every page must have a purpose: moving the story ahead, doling out necessary information, making a visual impact. If it doesn’t, redo the page.
Like any stylistic tool, deconstruction has a place, but only when it’s properly used. If your page consists of four head shots of characters conversing, you’re probably wasting space, and therefore the reader’s time and money.
When you’re breaking down pages, you need to be particularly mindful of the first and last panel on each page. You should have a page-turn or cliffhanger moment at the end of every page. Metaphorically, you want to ask a question at the end of every page: “What will happen next? Who is casting that shadow? Who said that from off panel?” The reader can answer the question only by going to the next page. This question-and-answer is how the writer drives the reader through the story.
For print comics, page-turn moments are more important at the end of odd-numbered pages (which are actual page turns). The page-turns on even-numbered pages are less crucial, because the reader’s eye has already wandered to the facing page. Big reveals should be saved for the top of even-numbered pages.
An example: in the opening of “Star Wars,” the door on the rebel cruiser opening, and the shadowy figure within, would go at the bottom of an odd page, prompting the reader to wonder, “Who is that?” Darth Vader stepping through the doorway to reveal himself would then be panel 1 of the following (even) page.
At this breakdown stage, I include rough dialogue notes to myself, so I know I’m moving the narrative forward properly, and have enough room to convey information and characterization. I do all this on paper, because it’s a messy, malleable process for me. But if you’re comfortable with doing it on a tablet or computer, knock yourself out.
Once I’m happy with the breakdowns and any dialogue notes, I type them up in an MS Word document. I link specific reference in the script as needed, to convey what I’m looking for, and save the artist time Googling and guessing.
When you come to the end of a story page (say page 3 is six panels, and stretches over two pages of your document), don’t simply skip to the next line and start the next page. Start a new page in your manuscript for each page of your story. This lessens chances of confusion for your creative partners, and allows the artist to discard script pages as corresponding art pages are finished.
I don’t use Final Draft or any screenplay software, because my comic script is not a screenplay. My script is essentially a long letter to the artist, giving him or her the information necessary to draw each page. There’s no one correct method for comic-script formatting; pick the one that works best for you and your artist.
I feel like the writer’s job is to give artists everything needed to construct the page. If I can’t see the page in my head, I don’t have any right to hand it off to an artist and expect it to be drawn.
Now pay attention, this part is important: once you’ve given the artist the information needed to draw the page, LET THE ARTIST DRAW THE PAGE. The artist will interpret and often improve the picture in your head: add panels, combine panels, change angles, etc. That’s the artist’s job. The artist is likely better at it than you are; in some cases, infinitely better at it than you are. Don’t expect artists to be art monkeys obeying your whims. This is a collaborative medium. Collaborate.
Important things to understand: how much visual information fits on page; how much visual information fits in a panel. Your epic shot of two intergalactic armadas clashing can’t be one panel on a six-panel page.
You also need to understand that a comic panel is a static image. It does not move. Characters cannot perform multiple actions in a panel. Your hardboiled detective can’t park a car, get out, shut the door and walk into a building in one panel. That seems painfully obvious, but you’d be stunned how often that stuff gets written into scripts by rookies (and sometimes by writers who have been working long enough to know better). Believe me, when you write stuff like that, artists curse you soundly, laugh at you behind your back, and then tell other artists about it.
Yes, once in a while, repeating figures in a panel can pull off multiple actions: Spider-Man web-slinging, Daredevil skipping over rooftops, the Flash multi-tasking at top speed. But those are specific exceptions, not the rule.
Once the breakdowns are typed up, I go back through and write a more complete take on first-draft dialogue. My first-draft dialogue is wretched, generally without any wit, style or grace. But it conveys what will be said, in what order, and how much room for balloons the artist needs to leave.
When that’s done, off the script goes to the editor and then artist. Include color notes if you have them, since the colorist should get a copy of the script too. Usually the artist will produce layouts, giving writer and editor a chance for feedback on the storytelling. Any major difficulties should be solved at this point. Clear, concise storytelling means the reader should be able to grasp the gist of what’s happening in the story merely by looking at the art.
As the finished art comes in, I write the final dialogue, matching it to the imagery that’s actually on the page, adjusting for length, speaking order, or to cover any storytelling lapses. This is the writer’s chance to react to what’s on the page, to play off of expressions and nuances. The writer should adjust the dialogue to best fit the art. It’s easier and more time effective to rewrite dialogue than to redraw pages.
Remember, only five or six people in the world will read your script (editor or two, artist, letterer, colorist). Your script is not the final product, it’s a byproduct of the process, one the audience almost never sees. The comic is the final product, and your goal is to make the best comic, not the most perfect script.
A few guidelines for the letter script: no more than 30 words in a balloon or caption, usually no more than three or four balloons in a panel. If you need more than the usual room for dialogue, indicate that need in the initial script, so the artist can allow appropriate space. Don’t cross balloon tails. A conversation within one panel can go from the first speaker, to another, and then back to the first. Much more back-and-forth than that can be difficult for both placement and space limitations.
A great script and lousy art produces a lousy story. A lousy script and great art is more engaging to look at, but ultimately empty as a story. Even a great script and great art are diminished by shoddy lettering. All parts of process work together to make a great comic, not to give any one part precedence.
I’ll leave you with advice Jim Starlin gave me at start of my career: each panel is a frozen moment in time. The job is to show the right moments.
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it’s pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes “Artifacts” and “Ravine” for Top Cow, “Prophecy” for Dynamite and his creator-owned title, “Shinku,” for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.