Hey there, and welcome to the guest blog that my good friend Dane was kind enough to set me up with. Before we get started, I want to say a huge thank you to Dane; not only is he a fantastic novella author and poet, but also the work he does to promote writers and authors from around the world – myself included – is just phenomenal.
I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to get this blog published without him and his tireless efforts. I would ask that if you share this blog that you give kudos to Dane Cobain when doing so, as it’s always important to make sure we give back to the scene and to people that support us and help us learn, develop and continue to flourish.
So, why am I here? Well, my aim with this guest blog is to help you navigate the ever mysterious and elusive world of writing for comics and to teach you some of the basics to help you begin to take the first steps toward:
- Understanding what the roles of a writer in the comics biz are (and aren’t)
- Why formatting is important and how it differs from both novellas and screenwriting
- How to think “in panels” when writing so that you can really tell a full story and therefore prevent your chosen artist(s) from either getting lost and asking you for countless clarifications or taking charge and retelling your script on your behalf
That said, you must always have the utmost respect for comic artists, as they do incredible, painstaking work that brings writers’ stories to undulating life.
And why do this? Well, I find that there’s an absolute drought of information out there to help newcomers to learn how to write for comics. It’s shocking, considering firstly how popular comics are in mainstream culture, and secondly, that the internet is totally a thing now and it’s an easily accessible form of free education for both the tutor and student.
With the exception of tutorials from Great Britain’s Antony Johnston (The Coldest City) and the USA’s Kurt Busiek (Justice League of America), and now myself, there’s literally nothing out there on the web to help writers who are new to the scene to get to grips with how writing for comics is done, and that’s just not good enough!
In my mind, with all these young people that approach myself and other writers at comic conventions here in my now-native Canada, with eyes wide with glorious dreams of writing their own stories for comics or graphic novels, we can’t just turn around and say: “Well, sorry kid, there’s just no resources out there… go out and learn the ropes the hard way like I did!”
Instead, I firmly believe we comic writers have a duty to make all these kids feel listened to, validated and, most importantly, fully advised; that’s really how we make our fans (especially the young ones) go home happy, contented and willing to continue engaging in the comic scene that they know and love.
So, let’s get cracking…
1. Formatting – it’s differences and it’s importance
No doubt you have many questions running around in your head right now about how formatting for comics differs from that of writing a novella (prose) or writing for the screen. Perhaps you’ve even heard a comic writer say something vague like: “It’s not like writing prose and it’s not quite like screenwriting either, but it’s closest to the latter” or, “It’s like screenwriting, but writing for comics doesn’t have a universally accepted format just yet, so just do your thing”, and you’ve probably gone away even more confused or frustrated than when you asked them for advice.
So, with that in mind, what is the definitive answer on how to format for comics? Well, unfortunately, it’s true when writers say that at present we still don’t have a universally accepted format. Imagine a screenplay for a movie or a TV show – search through pictorial examples of screenplay pages and tutorial sites, and it becomes very evident that there is only one correct and acceptable way to write a screenplay.
Imagine being a screenwriter in Hollywood, and that you’ve scored a chance to pitch your script with a producer and a financier (normally one of the big distribution houses). Suddenly you present them with something typed like those badly-formatted stage scripts we were handed in high school for the annual school play; you’d be laughed out of Hollywood. Now imagine that you have a script typed in that style for a comic or a graphic novel and you hand it over to a seasoned comic artist; as long as the story and the flow makes sense, they may well take it very seriously and have enough to work from. But let’s get real for a second – that should never be the case, you should always be striving for the best possible script when writing for comics.
Fortunately, things have started to change in the comics scene and badly blocked out scripts are starting to become a nearly forgotten relic of a day gone by. Writers for comics are now really upping their game, regardless of their differences of opinion on formatting. So let’s revisit that question: What is the definitive answer on how to format for comics?
Well, it doesn’t matter if you fall on the side that believes in writing akin to screenplays or the side that believes in writing similar to the more left-formatted stage plays and/or radio scripts. There’s one thing that has become universal – you must block your script out by panels within pages. It sounds obvious, given how the finished medium reads, but believe me, this perplexes writers from other mediums at first.
So, how do you do it? Well, it’s a very similar process to the header first, action second, dialogue third linear process of screenwriting, except we always have an additional top header that goes first at the start of each page – the page number. Start with your page number first and drop down with at least a one-line space and move on to add your next header, your panel number (always starting at 1 with each new page), then directly under this panel heading follow with this panel’s action. Leave your dialogue until last and break it down by character, giving each character’s block of dialogue its own character identified heading, with responses being linear. After all, a conversation must always read as one.
Below, you’ll find an image example of part of a page from my upcoming Video Game metafiction comic, Årkade:
As you can see, I err firmly on the side that believes more in the left-formatted stage plays and/or radio scripts approach, but should a universally accepted format be created by someone out there and become adopted the industry over (which I’m secretly hoping for), I’d adopt it in a heartbeat.
If, like me, you want to write in more of a flow-centric style, then good software to use is Microsoft Word.
The aforementioned Antony Johnston is one of those people who writes in more of a screenplay-centric style and if that’s more your style, then, of course, any screenwriter will tell you that Final Draft is the way to go. Here’s the thing, though – Final Draft is far too expensive for Joe Public! You can get hold of an open source equivalent such as Trelby for free, and it does exactly the same job as Final Draft. If you’re not averse to paying $45 (USD) for a piece of writing software, then Johnston himself is quite public in letting people know he is a user and fan of Scrivener, and what’s best about Scrivener is that it comes complete with a built-in Antony Johnston Comics Format plug-in. There’s no shame in using someone else’s formatting style and, if anything, I think Antony is one of the few people who is gracefully helping the industry to drive toward that sought-after universally accepted format.
2. Thinking “in panels”
Writing the “action” – the storytelling visuals – of a panel is important; I really can’t emphasise how important it is. Something many newcomers to writing for comics struggle with is how to write action for comics, because it’s genuinely difficult if you’re not used to it! With screenwriting it’s easy – the action has constant motion, which is easy for writers; because, most obviously, the lives we live are in motion, so it comes naturally to us. Writing in a singular frozen-in-time frame does not, however. That means newcomers need to learn to think “in panels” or “ in freeze-frame”.
So, how do we do that? Well, before I start, this exercise isn’t meant to be the single most educational example you’ll ever read, it’s just intended to open your mind to a way of thinking you might not have had the foresight to have realised before.
Imagine, if you will, the most poignant freeze-frame of a single scene in a movie; focus and you’ll see an example in your imagination, you can see how it captures the story of the scene (after all, silent movies used to tell a story through just the picture with no sound, right?). Now, boil it down even further, and start to imagine the most important freeze-frame of a single motion within that scene. See how it conveys the entire understanding of that motion? Well, that’s your panel! Now, relate that to the story idea you have in your head and get articulate on description; after all, like a movie’s screenwriter, you’re writing the blueprint that the director works from, but in our respective cases, we replace a director with an artist.
Perhaps your imagination is not as vivid as mine and, maybe, this exercise is a little bit lost on you so far. How can you achieve the same realisation? Go and watch movies, become a film buff and read comics and use this process to see how the two relate, and you’ll start to see how the sequential freeze-frame motion of a comic relates to the fluid motion of a movie.
This is your jumping off point for beginning to practice your art and to start writing those comics and/or graphic novels, and a perfect place for me to wrap up my introduction to writing for comics. I hope you’ve found this tutorial helpful and guiding.
Thank you, friends, and keep dreaming, keep writing…you’ll never know when one of your dreams might come true!