This is the first installment in a brief series of comics tutorial articles by Art Ducko “alumnus” Lauren Amaro. Enjoy!
“Comics are juxtaposed pictorial and other images in a deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” – Scott McCloud
So in layman’s terms, comics consist of images and words that combine to create a narrative. As most of our readers already know, comics can take on many different forms. From single panel comics like Family Circus, to strips like Calvin & Hobbes, continuing periodicals like Batman or Spider-Man, and graphic novels like Maus. Within each of these different forms exists a plethora of genres such as horror, crime, romance, superhero, and even forms of journalism, memoirs and autobiographies. Really, there’s no limit to what kind of comic you can create!
That being said, creating comics presents its own unique challenges. Even people who are avid comic readers can often have trouble composing their own work because of the interplay of literature and art, as well as the fact that many of the formal conventions of comics (such as panel layout and pacing) can be very nuanced and somewhat intimidating to tackle.
Even if a creator does feel confident in their knowledge of the formal conventions of comics, starting a project is never easy. And for someone who is less familiar with how to create a comic, the process can seem positively daunting. In this article I’m going to lead you through an exercise and list the different steps of making a comic to hopefully make this undertaking seem more approachable!
Step one: Pick a chapter of your favorite book.
In this exercise I’m having you pick out a chapter of a pre-existing work so as to not get caught up in details like character creation, world building, or having to come up with a plot. That way, we can just focus on communicating via comics. While the good thing about working from a pre-existing novel is that all of your characters and actions are already planned out, the reality is that if you try and illustrate every sentence in a book you’re never going to finish. And even if you somehow managed to do so, the end result would most likely be full of confusing and unnecessary panels that do more to convolute the narrative rather than clarify it.
Instead, go through your assigned pages and bullet-point-out each scene. Mark every change in location, mark down where important interactions occur and who partakes in them. If you don’t know what moving pieces you’re working with you might end up forgetting to include important parts of the narrative or you may end up complicating it by accidentally placing a character or interaction in a location where it isn’t supposed to be. Organization is one of the key aspects of creating comics and it’ll make your life so much easier if you have an outline, breaking down the scene into its simplest parts, to refer back to.
So now that you know what scenes you’re responsible for, the next step is figuring out how much room you need for each scene. One of the hardest parts of writing comics is getting a handle on pacing which is the rhythm of the story, the scenes, and the dialogue. It’s also the rate at which the reader reads, the speed at which the story events occur and unfold. You as the creator control the pacing by how you choose to break up the actions and dialogue in each scene and how you choose to layout each panel.
Unfortunately, a lot like writing the only thing you can do to improve your own grasp of pacing is to read a lot of comics and practice making your own. If any of you regularly read comics you may have a bit of a leg up. For everyone else the best advice I can offer is to use your intuition and your resources, namely your friends. One of the best aspects of comics is how collaborative the medium is. A single creative team for a comic (single issue) can range from as little as one to six people (including the author, artist, inker, colorist, letterer, and editor), so don’t be afraid to ask your friends to read over your work, two eyes are always better than one.
When planning scenes out for a single issue, Cullen Bunn (the author behind Deadpool and the Marvel Universe, Darth Maul, and various X-Men titles) recommends listing each scene and creating two columns. The first column is how many pages you think each scene will take (again, you’re going to have to use your best judgement here—for example, you probably don’t need to dedicate two pages dedicated to someone trying to find their car keys and you’re probably going to spend longer than two panels on a scene where one character catches their significant other cheating). This exercise should help you realize which scenes need more “weight”, need more space and time to properly develop.
The second column is where you add up the total page count. It’s important to know and set yourself a page limit otherwise you’ll just keep adding and adding more information and losing the plot. Bunn admits that his first plot outline like this is usually about 50 pages worth of scenes for a 22-page book. As an aside, if you’re working in a typical printed comic book format, interior pages need to be made in multiples of four because of the way they are bound so keep this in mind when planning out your page count! If you’re following this exercise I’m going to challenge you to keep it to under 10 pages.
Assuming your first outline is over your page count (which is most likely), now is the time to go back and see which scenes can be combined or omitted to make your page count. If you’ve dedicated a larger number of pages to a scene chances are it’s because it’s important and you should prioritize those scenes. When going back you should ask yourself what each scene is doing. If it doesn’t move the plot along, provide new information, or deepen our understanding of the characters why is it there?
At this point you should have narrowed down the plot to the most essential scenes and have a solid idea of how many pages you have for each scene. You know what needs to happen in each scene, you know who’s in each scene, and you know the goal of each scene. Like I mentioned before, there might be more information (including dialogue) than you can fit in the pages allotted so you’re going to have to prioritize what is the most important thing to have down on the page. And where you can, show rather than tell.
With all of this in mind you’re ready to write your script!
A quick note on formatting your script: while all writers have their own distinct way of formatting their scripts there are certain things that are standard. First of all, you always mark at the top which page is being described and how many panels are on it. This is so your artist knows what they’re going to be illustrating. Some authors will go so far as to describe the layout, for example saying that they want three equal sized panels along the top, an open middle panel and then a medium sized long panel along the bottom. If that’s the case then specify the size and location in the panel description (also clearly labeled). In this script those directions are omitted. Most artists and authors, after a long period of working together, develop a bond of trust; instructions become looser, the writer knowing when to step out of the artist’s way. Artists will sometimes add or omit panels if they believe that another configuration would work better for what the author is attempting to convey but they usually get the approval with the author before doing so as the addition or omission of panels can severely alter the pacing of a comic.
So not only are the pages and panels labeled but so is each instance of dialogue, which is also heavily indented to separate it from the panel description. This makes the letterer’s job much easier as it allows them to quickly identify the dialogue and lets them know how many word balloons should be on the page. Note that if Wolverine were to continue talking in the first panel but in a separate bubble we would add a separate heading, new indentation and label it 2 Wolverine and changing Immortalis to 3. Also, if a panel doesn’t have dialogue you should still indent and write NO COPY just to signify that no text should be included.
If you were to include a caption (either internal monologue or voiceover) you would indent and continue numbering it (following the dialogue numbers) but label it as caption. Same thing with sound effects (usually shortened to SFX).
Writing a script not only forces you to think out your panels, dialogue, and layout before you get to the drawing stage, it also allows you to troubleshoot one more time before you invest hours into drawing a panel that you end up having to redo after realizing that it’s not doing what it’s supposed to do. These are some of the common things an editor will go back and double check once a writer submits a script before passing it off to the artist.
Do your panel descriptions include where the scene is taking place (and if you’re moving between scenes did you include an establishing shot to let the reader know you’re in a new place?). If there are other relevant details (like weather) be sure to specify it in the script.
Did you mark the spatial relationships between characters (where they’re positioned relative to one another/in the scene)? For example, if you have a character jumping out of a window in the middle of the scene you should specify that the character is next to that window before it actually happens. Any new information introduced should be the focus of the panel.
Is there enough camera movement? A good script will offer an assortment of camera views: close-ups, wide-shots, bird’s eye view, worm’s eye view, etc. We will sometimes refer to this as “framing”.
Did you plan out your page turns? Comics are unique in that you’re supposed to read each panel individually, but the panel interacts as part of a whole and when you flip open to a new page your eye can’t help but to “read” the whole page even if you don’t necessarily mean to. This is why it’s important to plan your page turns. As a general rule any big reveals, splash pages, and scene changes occur on page turns. This another way in which you can control the pacing of your comic.
And the most common issue that novel or prose writers struggle with when making the switch to comics: Is it drawable? By this we really mean that you have to be realistic about what you’re asking. Can an artist draw a 6-ton monster crashing through the Golden Gate Bridge wreaking havoc on San Francisco? Absolutely. Can an artist draw a man catching a ball and throwing it in the same panel? Absolutely not. You can only have one action per character per panel. These are some examples of impossible panels:
Once you’ve gone through and checked your script over and made sure that you have all the necessary information, every scene is important and drives the plot forward, you know what moving pieces you’re working with and the space you have to work with them, you’re ready to start laying out your comic, which I’ll cover next week! Until then work on culling down that script into 10 pages worth of material and tune in next week.