Hey Kids, Comics

Maybe not comics exactly. People will always debate what to call the medium. Some purists insist on “comic books” while those more focused on the high art aspect of it prefer “graphic narrative.” And yet these differing terms all boil down to the same thing, for the most part: words and pictures arranged in such a way to create a story.

I first tried working with the medium a few years ago and honestly had no idea what I was doing. There were no real style guides and the script excerpts I found online were drastically different between authors. It wasn’t like being cast into the deep end, it was more being in a tube of semi-opaque liquid. There were clear limits everywhere and only a vague idea of how to move around. But that aspect is kind of the fun part, jumping into the unknown, trying out a medium that I’ve only read in the past.

When I said “medium” that wasn’t a misstep. Comics are their own medium of storytelling that can cover just as many genres and subject matters as the written word and film. Comics do have a great deal of little nuances and hurdles to jump through before coming out the other side with a completed narrative piece. I’m here to show you those odd things that come about when trying to write comics. The art aspect is something you’ll have to ask actual artists about. Art’s different, it’s difficult. Here’s what happened when I just tried some basic paneling:

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Yeah, that’s supposed to be a couple people looking through a hole in their floors at each other.

Moving on.

Comic script writing is inherently different from writing film scripts or straight narratives, the main difference being that there is no set structure for comic scripts. They only need to contain roughly three elements: panel descriptions, captions, and dialogue. From there you can basically go nuts with how you want to structure them so long as they’re readable and an artist can understand what the material is supposed to mean. Here’s an example of that, an excerpt from a script I wrote a few years ago:

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It’s fairly straight-forward, how it’s supposed to look on the page. And this is what the final product looked like:

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And most of those elements from the script are still present in the final art. Which brings me to one of the major points of writing comics for scripts: you are, more or less, writing half the script for an audience of one. Panel descriptions are made almost exclusively for the artist to interpret and work with, they give your words a physical presence on the page. Being straight-forward with these descriptions and not using them as an area to dump narrative information becomes crucial. What do you want to include in these panel descriptions? Almost anything relevant to the visual aspect of the work. How does someone look, what are they currently doing, what other key visual information needs to be present in the panel, where is everyone in this situation? The main theme with traditional narrative works is to always show and not tell, but you’re going to have to quell that voice for a while because descriptions in comic writing are entirely telling. You tell in the script so the finished product can do the work of showing instead.

But here’s one of those odd elements about writing comic scripts: communicating with artists. If, like me, you can barely manage stick figures on a good day, you will be working with an artist to make this script become an actual graphic narrative. Keeping that in mind, these panel descriptions become the basis for the entire story. If they’re muddled in some way that is unclear to the artist, then the story is likely going to feel the same to the reader as well. It’s something I’ve seen a great deal in following comic writers and artists online for years now: always respect your artist.

Storytelling in comics is two-fold, you do have the panel descriptions and the art that can be made from them. And then there’s the rest of the words that the audience actually sees: the dialogue and the captions. Even here there is still a debate on what the latter should encompass. Do you use those little caption boxes for a narrative voice, some unseen narrator telling the reader when and where they are, telling them that suddenly someone somewhere is committing a crime? Or are they used more for something more internal, perhaps the character’s inner dialogue in lieu of the more iconic thought bubble? This is completely up to the writer and the story they wish to tell. For example, here’s a bit of script with a focus on captions:

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And now the finished product:

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The captions boxes here do provide a similar function to the thought bubble, they’re almost out of the story, as though the character is reflecting on the moment from a point in the future. And that’s what fit that part of this particular story. Maybe that dialogue in the eighth panel could have been a thought bubble and the caption boxes were narration from somewhere else in time, it all depends on the kind of story that you want to come through.

Dialogue in comics is the main vehicle for communicating within these pages. But dialogue in comics is something that does have a great deal of overlap with dialogue in other forms. It comes with similar questions as in any medium: does it advance the plot, does it advance the character, what does it reveal about the world that can’t be accomplished elsewhere?

Dialogue is tricky in any medium, it involves understanding the characters and learning how they actually talk to give them a more unique personality. Although this is lessened slightly with comics, as you can physically see who is speaking, the quality of the dialogue must be as close to stellar as you can manage. Those little speech bubbles are going to be your main connection with the reader, they don’t see the panel descriptions and the work you put into them, so you have to be prepared to put even more work into crafting dialogue for your characters. Because here dialogue plays a dual role of advancing plot and characters, typically at the same time.

There are exceptions to everything I’ve just mentioned. There are some comics that omit dialogue completely, there are others that do include full paragraphs of narration within the pages, there are some that eschew the caption box completely and have the unseen narrator’s words floating on the page. That’s what makes comics such a fun medium to work with now, the fact that none of these rules ever need to apply to how you personally write your script. It’s one of the reasons I tried writing comics after so many years embroiled with traditional writing. It’s a kind of release, thinking about all of the possibilities of working with words and pictures as opposed to looking over lines and lines of text. Some of the most exciting comics being released don’t follow any of those guidelines I mentioned and yet some do.  All of it, as always, comes down to the story that you want to tell. Although I’ve glazed over and brought up some of the basic aspects of writing in this weird graphic medium, I do hope that you’ll at least give it a try sometime. You don’t need capes, you don’t need spaceships, you don’t need dragons, or you could need all of them. The most important thing to do with comics is to just jump in.

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Drew Barth is a first year MFA candidate at UCF. He received his degree in Creative Writing at UCF as well. When not worrying about writing he’s either baking or playing with his cat. He wonders if he’s ever going to leave Florida.

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