Creating Comics: Part 1 Writing

I sought out some blog ideas on Twitter and Joshua Dahl suggested writing one on the creative process! So here we are.

I've always been a bit wary when it comes to writing "how to" guides, I mean I'm not published, so how can I be trusted? But what I have done is crap loads of research and experience in the small press scene has taught me alot in the past two years.

These blogs will be brief and very basic. But I will recommend some further reading material which will be essential to really make waves as a writer. This is the launch pad, and I hope it’s useful.

The first part I will cover is scripting and writing comics. Joshua, apologies as you've clearly done the writing part judging from your twitter, but I'll start right at the beginning and go through it all.

 

Format:

Writing for screen has a very rigid specific structure; comic writing is alot more loose with that. If you don't have Courier New 12pt in a film script you've worked on for four years, it's going in the bin.

I personally write my comics like a film script, using the same font aswell. Here is a sort of standard layout of one, and some alternate ways you can write them.

P.1 Denote the page number

EXT. GOTHAM - NIGHT (Very optional, I use this out of personal preference, but scene location can be established in the panel description Page 1 to 3 are equal in size, 4 and 5 stretch across the bottom (some people prefer to give page layout ideas, while others leave it entirely up to the artist)

For a page with just one giant full panel, use SPLASH PAGE. These are often used to emphasis a dramatic or climactic moment.

PANEL 1: Description of what you can see on this panel. Some people put in lots of description, some people put in bare minimum. Neither is wrong, it depends on your style and how your artist likes to work.

CAP: A caption for narration or scene establishing, e.g. I saw the joker, I said hi.

BATMAN: Character's dialogue, can be either centred or to the side e.g. Hi Joker

SFX: Sound effect, e.g. an explosion BOOM, BANG!

To see an example of how other people work, check out: http://www.comicbookscriptarchive.com/archive/

That's the technical stuff out of the way, but what about actually writing a story?

It can be hard pinning rules to a creative medium, but the rules are there in order to be broken, not ignored. If you pay attention most things you read, watch, play have a structure to them, and structure is really important in creating a narrative.

 

The 3 act structure:

Most stories have a beginning, middle and end. This is the basic structure outline, comics can vary, having a 5 issue story arc, is like having 5 acts, TV shows have a 4 act structure, but underlining them is the same: beginning, middle and end. A TV show for example, it's first act will be the beginning, the next two the middle and the end in the last act. The middle is always the longest bit of the story, and the twist and turns within that can be structured within different acts. Been dying to read the next issue of a comic? Because the story has taken a new direction and you want more. But this is getting a bit a head of itself, lets start out.

ACT ONE: The beginning. We introduce the main character and supporting cast. We must learn where, what, when and why. This is the set up of the story, the normality before the plot of the comic kicks in. This is known as the equilibrium. Plots begin when the equilibrium is disturbed by an opposing force. Story is all about conflict, no conflict = no story. Hero vs Villain, Man vs nature, father vs cancer etc. As an exercise, summarise comics right down to this basic outline. The first act film speaking is usually about 10 - 15 minutes.

ACT TWO: The beefy chunk of the story. All the twist and turns of the protagonist’s journey is told here. This doesn't mean twists as in big shocking revelations, just as in changes to the dynamics. The protagonist must face increasing opposition in getting his goal and the disruption of the equilibrium generally involves the villain of the piece. The villain is the antagonising force for the hero to fight against. The hero on his journey will fail at points, succeed and subplots will also be implemented. The most common being the female love interest. Subplots act as B stories to break up the pace of the A story. A subplot however, must be relevant to the A story. There is a final big turn in the story which leads to the finale, which is the 3rd act.

ACT THREE: The finale. The pace is faster, the stakes are high and the hero's goal is within reach. This is the climax of the story, so each plot is resolved and the hero faces off against the Villain and achieves his goal. The threat is stopped and a new equilibrium is established. The idea of the hero on his journey comes from the type of story that heavily uses the 3 act structure. This "hero's journey" outline can be found in Star Wars, Lord of The Rings and Harry Potter. Every notice, Obi Wan, Dumbledore and Gandalf are all alike? Read here.

 

I'm going to cap this one off with an interview by Michael Oeming I conducted a few years ago.

1. Briefly, what is the process from writer to artist, script to page?

I like to approach the story/script like a building. Find the foundation first, what kind of building is it? Dig a big hole and start to lay down the foundation with an idea of your characters. Then flesh out the foundation into scenes and plots, but allow your character to effect the structure, allow them to tell the story and let your outline flex to that. I write what characters think and feel first, dialogue is very last. When I draw a page, I draw it sketched out in loose pencil and ball point pen. Then I scan that stuff and print it out blue line and do my inks directly on the non repro blue line. This also allows me to be more flexible with photo shop, photo reference and google Sketchup when needed.

 

2. Is there much collaboration with the writer?

I think a good artist should be able to enhance the script without changing it. SO at times, close collaboration is great, Bendis and I share the script chores much more closely these days, but for a long time, we only talked about the overall story and then he'd write it up and I'd go right into drawing with little or no questions.

3. Do you think that direct contact with the writer is essential? If so why?

Yes, because there is always questions that will come up. Email is usually good enough though. It is imperative the artist reads the script very closely, don't try and be a mind reader.

4. Do you prefer working with a writer who is very descriptive in their panels or a writer who is more straight forward?

And why do you prefer it? Honestly, I have fun with both. I probably enjoy a vague description though, as I do my best to keep the writer happy, so if I don't get that special cup or picture frame he described just right, I feel like I've failed. Though I do love the challenge!

 

5. How important do you feel is the role of the writer?

Everything should start with a good finished script. Writing is not there to facilitate the art- for that you can just be a cover artist or illustrator. Writing comes first, that makes everything else stronger. Look at Avatar, the film- imagine if the script was anywhere near as good as the visuals?

 

6. Has there been any bad experiences where you've come to draw a script and it caused severe problems?

If so, how could it have been avoided? I have but not for a very very long time. Those problems can be avoided by reading carefully AND holding the writer to what he wrote- within reason, as anyone, even writers make mistakes.

 

7. Is there any advice for aspiring comic book writers you can give, from the perspective of the person that must interpret the writers work?

Describe not in the literal sense, but spiritually. How does the scene feel, what is the vibe of the story or character? Also, learn to use hyperlinks in your scripts, so if you do have something specific you want, you can link directly to some reference source. Also, figure out what the strengths of your artist are and write to that. If it's a Simon Bisley type, don't write a lot of talky head dialogue scenes, if they are more like me, go for subtly.

 

8. Anything else you'd like to add?

Read STORY by Robert McKee. It is not a bible for writing or a map, but it's a good compass that will help you. Also, just read lots and write- start a journal or a blog or anything where you are writing every day for an hour or two- it could be fiction, or just your thoughts and experiences. Bring your life experiences into your work, even if it is just small things. And just to add, I wrote a big ass magazine on writing for college (which featured the above interview). If you want a bit more depth to the writing process, and some reading recommendations, download it for free here.