In the last article, Adam gave a good grounding in story telling and getting started. I thought I would drill down into the art of comic writing as it's really quite different to writing for film or writing stories.
HOW TO STRUCTURE A SCRIPT
There are a few different ways to lay out your script, but here are some very basic rules:
Start a new page on a new page
Give a brief description of the 'action' or scene
Divide the page into panels
Mark the dialogue clearly
Would suggest this panel runs the width of the top third of the page. We are in an apartment in a newly-built high-rise in 1950s Manhattan.
We see the cityscape outside through a huge picture window, past a couple in silhouette – Abel and Ginny. There is distance between them, and her body language is defensive. I think if we can see that he's in a suit with slicked back hair and she's in a very 1950's dress with a huge skirt it would help convey the time period.
ABEL: Don’t be so dramatic.
Close on Abel's face - he's handsome, with slicked back, black hair and villainous pointy eyebrows.
ABEL: It won’t be anything flashy or complicated.
Close on Ginny - she is sad, depressed, eyes downcast, resigned. Abel could be in the frame - back to us, all in silhouette? Abel's hand on her shoulder or turning her chin towards him? The Ring is visible on his finger.
ABEL : Ah! I know.
Similar to Panel One, but we’ve pulled further back and now we can see in the extreme foreground an outstretched hand on the floor attached to someone off-panel, reaching out from the shadows, expensive rings, long red nails, and covered in blood.
ABEL: Make it look like an accident.
You can see that Panel One gives the artist some idea for an establishing shot - the general rule being that, any time there is a change of scene, you need some way to convey that to your reader - but bear in mind the artist needs space to draw a large establishing panel. This also happens to be a change in time and location, so the description to the artist is more comprehensive than might normally be necessary.
Much of what you read about writing for comics is that the writer’s job is to write and to set the scene. The artist’s job is to interpret the dialogue and action and to find the best way to convey that to the reader. You might notice that, rather than telling our artist in much detail what to put in each panel, we've given a brief description of what's happening. For instance, in Panel Four we've asked the artist to pull back so we can see the outstretched hand. Anything else in that panel is up to the artist. Often, when I write a script I really only have the dialogue in mind and I leave the rest up to the artist. That's their part of the creative process – and they’re almost always going to be better at coming up with compelling pictures than me, anyway.
There's a knack to this, to be sure, but, if you follow the general principle that your characters need only talk when they have something relevant to say, then you can't go far wrong. Dialogue shouldn't include a description of the scene or the action.
I read a comic recently where someone woke up in a tomb. The artist had done a brilliant job of conveying that the person was alone and lying on a sacrificial plinth. The dialogue also did the same thing: "Urgh...where am I?" "Where are my clothes?" "Urgh, I'm in a tomb." I don't know about you, but I don't tend to announce my daily routine to the world. "I am brushing my teeth." "I am going downstairs." “My eyes are very puffy.” "I am making a cup of tea." “I enjoy tea.” It grates, and interferes with the readers' own thought processes. Worst of all, it takes a massive shit all over the pace of the storytelling.
One might argue that it's good to know that he was confused and disorientated - but, again, the artist had done a brilliant job of conveying that in the body language and facial expressions. When I saw the page without the dialogue (before the dialogue was available) I knew what was happening. I was intrigued and wanted to know more. The dialogue put me off the comic because it didn’t add anything; in fact, it turned a scene with some appealing mystery into a scene lying bloodless on its altar. Words in a comic aren’t sounds adding to the drama and rhythm of the narrative. They’re pictures of sounds which by necessity take up space that other, more efficient pictures could be occupying. Speech in comics is always a trade-off, and its value should always be weighed against the image you’ll be losing.
This is not to say that characters in comics should drift in a mostly-soundless vacuum of authorial discipline. A character waking up in a tomb might say ‘what the fuck’ or ‘uh oh’ or ‘t….t…table’s so cold….’. They’re unlikely to caption the objects and events
around them, though. To do so is unnatural, wasteful, and self-indulgent.
Dialogue should drive the story forward; it’s part of storytelling, after all. When you've written your dialogue for a scene, cut it back as much as you can tolerate. Leave it for a while and then cut it back again. Adam and I edit each others' dialogue and the overriding questions are always; What is the purpose of this line? How can we cut this word or line? Why is this person saying this anyway? Is there a better way to convey this to the reader? A good editor would have told the writer in the example above to cut all the dialogue. Without the dialogue, the reader is able to put themselves in the position of the character, to empathise and to feel via the art.
WRITING A COMIC ISN'T WRITING A BOOK
Seems pretty obvious, doesn't it? In the previous example of the guy in a tomb, it might have been acceptable, in a story or book, to have some insight into his thoughts. A book doesn't have art to compliment the writing so descriptive dialogue of interior processes might be necessary.
Here's an example of what Adam and I would consider truly bad writing...even though it's published by one of the most successful comic book publishers of all time.
Lois' first line need only be "Quite the scoop there, Smallville: Lois Lane has a private life!" You can tell she's mad, you even know what she’s mad about. She doesn't need to say any more than that! As for Clark's dialogue....I'd argue that none of it actually needs to be there - the point of this page is to let the reader know that Lois sees Clark as her friend and that she's noticed Clark/Superman is seeing someone.
"The reason I didn't tell you first is because I knew you know me well enough you would talk me out of it"
How awkwardly is that sentence structured? So many 'Knew's' and 'know's'...urgh! I had to read it 3 times, to get the gist...and that interrupts the flow and pace of the comic. That panel alone has 54 words in it!!! That's more than enough for a whole page...and it's a credit to Kenneth Rocafort (the artist) that he's managed to put together such a beautiful page, despite having to leave so much room for the words :)
Apart from all that, Lois' saying this is apropos of nothing - Clark never asked why she didn't tell him first, Clark never mentioned it. I think the writer just liked the dialogue, and couldn't think of a way to convey all that information without a lot of words. The editor should know better!
‘Yes, but that’s how people talk,’ may be one rebuttal. ‘Speech is messy, thoughts bump into each other and come in a jumble and preserving that natural flow makes for more compelling characterization. People don’t talk like robots, you know.’ Fair enough. The price of that approach is having a page that is almost entirely covered in badly-constructed sentences…for the fairly uninvolving purposes of dialectic realism. We don’t move the story as far forward as we might on this page, even though we should. We get a few uninspired talking-head shots. We have dialogue that we have to read three or four times to understand quite straightforward ideas. But…at least Superman and Lois sound realistically mealy-mouthed and backwards.
If, as a comics writer, you want to preserve the natural flow of human speech, that is admirable. But you are not writing a screenplay, in which the only price of that speech is space on an audio track. Your characters’ dialogue is far, far more expensive than that in terms of your story, and you should respect that expense. If, upon closer examination, you find that you have written a page with a very simple emotional exchange on it and you added a lot of words to make it seem more complicated and/or ‘realistic’, then the responsible thing to do is to take the words out and own your simple page. Or find another way to give the page the emotional depth you feel it deserves. The irresponsible thing is to make excuses when your first try didn’t work.
SO HOW MANY WORDS?
There is no hard and fast rule about how many words should be in a panel, but comics are about the art, not the words! An old rule of thumb is that no panel should contain more than 26 words. Like all old rules of thumb, many creators constantly try to find ways to make it look like a silly rule that should be discarded. Sometimes they succeed beautifully. Usually they don’t. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, but be honest in your assessment of what you’ve created when you write a wordy panel. Even if you’re a bold iconoclast who doesn’t let The Man tell you what to do, 26-or-less is a good, solid number to shoot for when something feels too long and you don’t know how to start cutting. (This paragraph used to be a page, for example).
If you are a beginner and you are looking for some guidance here are a few tips:
1. ONE PANEL ONE SPEAKER: If it's a panel with one speaker in, and the artist hasn't been asked to show more than one person (the speaker) then you can have that speaker make a longer speech. For instance:
Lesley has worked herself up into a tumultuous uproar.
LESLEY: Is that all? No gimp masks or harnesses for when we line up to blow Keith of Scope fucking Marketing in tearful pissing gratitude for ruining the magazine,or anything?
This immediately makes Lesley's speech more dramatic, more powerful and give it a lot more weight. It's allowed the artist to convey that, in the dramatic pose he's chosen for this panel. Notice, too, how the script gives a very simple description of what Lesley is feeling, rather than doing. The description to the artist gives no direction about her movements (Ok, it's a comic there are NO movements), actions, facial expressions - it simply conveys to the artist that she's worked herself up.
2. ONE PANEL TWO SPEAKERS: If the panel needs to show two people and they both need to speak then be aware that it's much harder for the artist to show the nuances of body language, facial expressions or how those two people react to one another. Notice how the following exchange doesn't include as many words as the previous example of Lesley letting rip? There's a reason for that - because the artist already has to fit two people (and the receptionist - although you'll notice we only offer that as an option to the artist - and their dialogue balloons, and space for the balloon tails) into the panel, giving each speaker three times as many words means less room for the art...and the art is really where the storytelling happens.)
Mid shot - Abby and Kiki are still by the receptionist’s desk. We might see more of the receptionist now, looking through the magazine.
ABBY: What is her problem?
KIKI: Trying to sound like she knows shit.
KIKI: How was lunch?
3. ONE PANEL THREE SPEAKERS: I would say try not to do it - I couldn't find an example from Granted until Episode 2. If more than two people have to be speaking OR two people have to speak more than once (i.e. in an exchange) then see if you can divide that panel into two or three separate panels. The reason, if it's not obvious, is because the artist immediately has to pull right back from the scene, show smaller figures, less detail, less nuance, less emotion. The art becomes background to the word balloons - the art in your comic is being subverted by the dialogue. It really isn't pretty and gives the words (and art) much less impact.
When we watch a film and the director pulls right in on a speakers' face, we (as the viewer) are being invited in to their world. We are sharing their emotion and experience, we listen more carefully to the weight of their words or, if no one is speaking we pay more attention to their non-verbal communication.
When the director pulls way back, we are being asked to step out of the world and be objective about what is being shown (or said). Those same devices can be used in comic writing, but you do have to know the difference. You need to understand whether you want your reader to share the experience and empathise or stand back and observe.
Other things to read:
Scott McCloud's brilliant - Understanding Comics & Making Comics
Will Eisner's series of books about writing Graphic Novels
I've attached a PDF of this document for you to download and keep :)
We welcome any questions, debates and discussions