What makes a comic book feel like a comic book? Panels, art, word balloons, roughly 22 pages, but are these the only things you have to keep in mind when writing a comic book script? Of course not! I’m proud to introduce our guest writer for today. Austin Bridges is one of the winning writers for the Women of Darby Pop Breaking Into Comics contest and a writer who has a good handle on how to put together a comic script that feels right.
Until next time,
So let’s say you’re a writer. And you want to start writing comics. Maybe you come from a screenwriting background, or playwriting, or prose, or you’ve never written anything beyond a thoughtful birthday card. The challenge remains the same: how do you script a comic that “feels” like a comic?
Let’s say you’re a writer who has decided to try writing a five-page story. It’s short. It requires less cash to pay a freelance artist (or, it’s less work for your artist/friend to do out of the goodness of his/her heart). And it’s manageable for you to complete. All well and good, right?
So, you write your five-page story in however many panels it takes, edit it, punch it up, get it illustrated, and you read it and… something’s off. Even if the dialog is popping and the plot is cool, it just doesn’t feel like the other comics you love to read and had hoped to create. It certainly looks like a comic, but it doesn’t read like one. Where did you go wrong? What is the intangible problem?
There’s certainly a reading list for getting started in comics (McCloud’s Understanding Comics, Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art, Bendis’ Words for Pictures, the incredible tutorials on Jim Zub’s website, and much more) but to truly understand what makes the medium tick, you gotta get your hands dirty. Don’t just read a comic, study the structure of a comic. Become Neo in The Matrix and see the lines of code making up the comic. Explode a comic into a million pieces and study the fragments under a microscope. Here’s an activity:
Find a comic. Not necessarily one that you love, not even a great one. In fact, my favorite book for this exercise is a short comic, usually between four and ten pages long. You can get these as freebies on Free Comic Book Day, at cons, or sometimes just left over in a pile at your local comic shop. But, find one that’s been published by a legitimate company. It’s often a story from a licensed video game or tv show, and it’s not earth-shattering, but you can read it in a few minutes and say, “yeah, that felt like a comic.”
This is the baseline we’re looking for in the earliest stages. Don’t aspire to the Warren Ellis or Brian K. Vaughan epics just yet; step back and unpack this little gumdrop of a book. Read it. Read it again. Now take out a pen and paper and collect some data. Record the number of panels on each page (often that number starts low, gets higher in the middle, and ends low — or vice versa). Record how many of those panels have dialog or captions on them. How many are close-ups? How many wide shots? Summarize the story beats on each page. Why did the writer include what they included, and how do those things make you feel? Find trends, notice deviations. Pretty basic analysis, right? But, actually do it. It won’t take that long, and I swear it’s pretty fun.
Here’s my favorite thing to chart: try to pinpoint where arcs are set up and resolved. There might be more than one. In the comic I first tried this on — a six-pager based on a popular sci-fi video game franchise — the end of page one established a character-based psychological conflict (“I’ll never be good enough” or something like that) and the end of page two set up a dangerous physical conflict (“enemy ships are attacking!”). Two pages of exciting action sequences followed, and by the end of page five, the physical conflict was resolved (“the ships are retreating!”) and the last panel of the comic on page six resolved the personal conflict (“maybe I am good enough!” (which I’m clearly paraphrasing because now this comic sounds awful)). Simple. Arcs are established, some things happen, and they resolve. Intriguing story beats hit at the page turn to keep you reading. And jarring changes of time or location happen at the start of a new page. This is the work of a veteran. It just… feels right.
Of course, this is one script and one author. A thousand comics can each employ radically different techniques and still “feel” right, but in the case of this activity, you’ve now got yourself a particular comic structure that you know works. So steal it. Take the same number of pages, panels, and/or arcs and lay your own meat on top of those bones. Nobody has to see the finished work, but chances are you’ll have a script that reads more like a comic than your first stabs in the dark. Now do it again with every single good, bad, or mediocre book you can find. I promise that every time you analyze a comic this way, you’ll learn a ton. When you’re ready to graduate to issue-length, make sure you examine those too.
A comic script isn’t a screenplay, or a play, or a novella. It’s a special little flower all its own, with a long history and a bright future full of startling innovation. Don’t forget that, but don’t shrug off the baseline. As writers, it seems like the deck is stacked against us because we can’t see or control the final outcome of our work, but we can actually get pretty darn close if our script choices are motivated by an understanding of the (visual) medium. If you know that, for example, a ten-panel page with lots of dialog gets a little busy (to say the least), you can swerve to avoid it before your artist resents you for it. Best of all, these are your own discoveries – far more meaningful than just parroting Scott McCloud or Will Eisner. Best-er of all, once you know the rules, you get to break them. And that can be the most satisfying experience of all.