Writing for Comics

I can’t say I have a whole lot of experience with writing graphic novel scripts, since all I’ve got under my belt are two Script Frenzy efforts, but going from zero knowledge to current knowledge there are some things I’ve found extremely useful and I figured I might as well share them.

First is a book by Will Eisner, called Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative. For those who haven’t heard of Will Eisner, he’s the artist for whom the comics industry named their annual awards (The Eisner Awards), and he’s probably best known for his work on The Spirit though his credits run much deeper than just that. He later also turned to teaching and lecturing and is extremely respected in the field. Reading this book, it’s easy to see why. In this one he stays away from basic writerly things like what makes a character interesting, or any of  the nuts and bolts associated with good story writing, and focuses on what makes for compelling visual narrative. There are many ways in which graphic stories vary from prose, and even from movies, that aren’t obvious. At least, they weren’t obvious to me. There are loads of examples, using Eisner’s own work as reference, showing how things like minute changes in perspective, combining elements into a single panel, even details down to the lettering, can affect the user’s perception of the work, and user perception of the work is really what drives a good graphic story. You need to know the backbone of telling a good story before you can tell a good graphic story, but there’s no guarantee that being good at the first will allow you to be good with the second. So doing regular writing homework first is a must, but I think this book should be considered essential to anyone who wants to know how to take their story and tell it in a way that makes the best use of the square inches available to them on a comics page.

The most intimate relationship where graphic novels are concerned is between the art and the reader, but the art is guided by a third hand, that of the writer, which brings us to the second thing I’ve found extremely useful this month.

In this short blog post, Warren Ellis explains What A Comics Script is For. The first line states:

A script is a set of instructions to the artist(s), letterer, editor, colourist if applicable, and designer if applicable.

This may sound brutally obvious, but it’s the sort of thing you don’t necessarily think about if you aren’t in the business. I’m used to writing for the end consumer, the reader, and I’m used to employing all sorts of tricks and tactics to reveal information, to avoid revealing information, or to reveal something subtly. A comics script is not the place for subtlety. Your story may employ subtlety, and the art may reveal things in a certain sequence, so the user may be expected to see a vague shape coming out of the shadows to reveal a specific monster, but the monster needs to be very clearly defined to the artist who is going to draw it, even from the first blurry outline. The rest of Ellis’ post serves as a fantastic, concise, hilarious list of what to do and not to do when writing a comics script.

Many times this month during Script Frenzy I’ve found myself hinting at things or being ambiguous in my descriptions because what I needed was for it to be ambiguous to the reader, but that’s not how it’s done. It’s how I’m used to writing things, but it makes for a piss-poor script. I’ve left it as is for now because a) I have a 100-page target to hit, b) That’s what rewrites are for, and c) I couldn’t care less right now because I know that this particular script will never see the light of day in its current incarnation. I am, however, trying to keep these things in mind for the pages I have yet to do.

So, my recommendations for people dumb like me who think they can squidge out a comic script are to read Eisner’s book to see the best way to communicate graphically to a user, and read Ellis’ post to see what you need to remember when writing a script so that you can wring those precise graphics out of your artist.

One last thing. Once you have a grasp on the above, there are several writers out there who have made a few of their comics scripts available to the public. Find writers you’ve heard about, get the scripts they’ve made available, get the relevant comics so you can see what happened between the script and the final product, and learn. Never stop learning.

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