Writing Comics – A Conversation

This post originally appeared on Panels, which is now Book Riot Comics

Writing comic books is an interesting endeavor; like writing screenplays, a comic book script is only a piece of the puzzle — it’s not the finished product. You’ve got to lay down the blueprint for your story in ‘x’ number of pages, and there’s a lot of gray area in how much the writer directs the artist and how much liberty the artist has in interpreting the script. As such, scripting comics can be a bit of a tightrope walk.

When I heard our own Jay Stringer was trying his hand at scripting comics, I immediately wanted to have a conversation. Jay is the author of six novels. So he knows a thing or two about the craft of fiction. I come from different media — before scripting my Sparrow & Crowe comics series (with co-writer Jeremy Rogers), my experience was with film and audio drama.

But, if you’ve read our work here at Panels, I think you’ll quickly see that both Jay and I are lifelong comics readers. It feels like we should know this stuff. Easily. But… it’s hard. I’ve grabbed Jay so we could sit down and chat a little about scripting comics from a relative newcomer’s view.

 

GETTING STARTED

 

Dave:  Jay, you’ve written some novels. Publisher want them, people buy them… it’s safe to say you know how to put a novel together. So… what’s the big deal with writing a comic book script? Easy, right?

Jay: I was caught off-guard by just how difficult I’ve been finding it. I often get asked things like, ‘why don’t you write a film?’ ‘Why don’t you pitch to TV?’ And, though I do try both of those things, I’m always quick to point out that they are very different languages to prose. Writing a book doesn’t qualify a writer to be able to do a screenplay anymore than it qualifies them to do stand-up comedy or write a pop song.

And yet…..

Comics were my first language. I’ve written about my dyslexia for Panels before. Long before I could write stories, or read novels, I was hooked on comics. So I think part of me assumed I would be going back to my natural state, and it would be easy. Almost primal.

I started off thinking of it much the way I would a novel. So, over six or eight issues, I worked out where my act breaks would be. As a novelist, I work in three, four and five acts, depending on the book. But once I started down that road, I realised each 22 page issue needed to stand on its own, with it’s own acts and progression, beginning and end.

And that’s approximately when my brain exploded.

 

BREAKING STORY

 

Dave: I imagine — exploded brains aside — that you’re already ahead of some prose writers in that you approach a novel by breaking down the acts before writing. There are novelists who simply make it up as they go along, discovering their story as they write. I feel like that’s almost impossible with comics, especially due to the standards of serialization. You raise a great point: telling a story over 6-8 issues, at 22 pages each, is heavily structured. I suppose if you decided to serialize a novel and lock it down at EXACTLY 5,000 words per chapter, you might approximate that rigidity.

So, let me ask you this: do you think you’d be having the same struggle if someone just said: “Jay, you’ve got 132 pages to tell your comic book story. Go write a full script.”?

Jay: I usually make up my novels as I go, but I always have an ending in mind and I’m pretty strict about having a structure, so i know to hit certain beats and how many acts I’ll need. I think if I was writing a single 132 page story, an OGN, it would have been easier to adapt my approach. I mean, ultimately the writing would still be a challenge. You can do all the thinking and structuring in the world, but sitting in the chair and typing is always going to be like ice skating up a hill.

Aside from that, though, it would be similar to the way I usually write. And I started out thinking like that. Once I broke it down further, and think of each individual issue, I got stuck. I emailed my buddy Chuck Wendig for advice, because he’s been writing a comic book for Dark Circle. So I emailed him saying, “hell, I don’t think I can do this. A 6-8 issue story that also needs to work in 22 page chunks? It’s tough, man.” And his response was pretty much, “yeah, it’s tough, man.” The trouble with writing advice, with the really useful writing advice, is that it confirms what you already know. That’s usually the best thing someone can do for you, because it gets rid of that bit of your brain that thinks there’s a magic solution. So I threw out all of my novel-writing experience and started again.

Dave: I can see that as a catharsis. Because you realize, “It’s not that I’m doing something wrong, it’s that this IS the process. For everyone.”

My first experience with serialized fiction was Wormwood: A Serialized Mystery, the audio drama that I created with Jeremy Rogers. We created a writers’ room, and we’d break down about eight episodes at a time. However, we had the ability to tweak the script even as it was recorded, and then we could also edit in post-production. We were a podcast, so length was entirely up to us.

So, while that helped me to understand the concept of creating a roadmap and making the individual episodes little complete pieces unto themselves, it really didn’t help me to understand the process of crafting our Sparrow & Crowe comic book mini-series, which had the rigidity of being 5 issues, 22 pages each. And when one issue was in the can and going to the printer — there was no going back.

Thus, Jeremy and I broke the story into 5 chunks. Here’s the original “first issue” segment:

Sparrow & Crowe chapter breakdown

I’ve tried to avoid spoilers. I’ve also NOT fixed up any grammar or bad writing. This WAS the working document.

If you’ve read the first issue of Sparrow & Crowe: The Demoniac of Los Angeles, you’ll see that this is baaaasically what happens in the issue, but there are a lot of details that we didn’t work out until we scripted. In fact there’s a line in there about Crowe’s hand “getting regular people to talk” — I have NO idea what we were thinking with that. The actual scripting was handled as a series of emails in which Jeremy and I broke down the beats, and then we took turns scripting. I scripted the first 4 pages, then I handed it off to Jeremy, who wrote through page 9 or 10. We continually discussed how many pages we needed and how many we had left, making little adjustments as we needed.

And there were at least a few times where we packed way too much onto the page and had to reassess what was feasible for the artist.

Jay: I’m focusing on the first issue right now, because it’s a pitch I’m preparing. What I’ve done is to keep the overall story in mind, the 6-8 issue arc, and then decide what image I want the first issue to end on. From there, I’ve put the rest of the story to one side and focused in on breaking down a 22 page story to get me to that image. I’ve picked an opening image that ties into the closing scene, and then broken the rest down into five cards on my corkboard, each one represents a movement in the story, and on each card I’ve listed the beats I want to hit and how many panels I think that would take.

Jay Stringer's Corkboard

Jay’s Corkboard. I Iike “No Fart Jokes” the best.

Dave: I think the idea of picking a final image is absolutely the way to go. We knew the final image on Sparrow & Crowe #1. In fact, in most issues,  you’ll notice we ended on a splash page or a page with a large, dominant panel. We always wrote toward an image that we knew would be a good “gotcha!” moment on page 22.

That’s also a good technique with the cork board. Cork boards and note cards have always felt foreign to me, but I do something very similar — in a less formal way. I can’t often just “jump into” a script like I might with a prose story. I still need to break down panels first. If you look at my notebooks, you’ll see a hybrid of text bullet points and tiny, almost nonsensical thumbnails. The thumbnails will often not even reflect the panels that end up in the script. It’s more of a ritual — I need it to start thinking in panels, thinking in chunks, as a way of figuring out how much I can fit on a page. From there, I can start scripting. And as I get rolling, the ritual thumbnails become obsolete and I script for just a bit without a net. Always heading toward that final image that you mentioned. That’s my favorite part — when the script starts to roll and gain momentum.

Dave's Thumbnail Outlines

Nonsensical to anyone but me, these are thumbnails for (L to R): Jimmy Details: Heavy Metal Detective, The Margins, and Lost Angels.

 

STARTING TO SCRIPT

 

Dave: Now that you’re scripting, are you finding any difficulty with how much you “direct” on the page, versus how much you leave to the artist? That’s something I’ve always struggled with. The writer/artist dynamic can vary from team to team, from book to book. It’s far less regimented than, say, film. But you’re coming at it from a novelist’s perspective — where you control every aspect of the story.

Jay: That’s been one of the biggest challenges. Part of the problem for me is that this is still a spec and I don’t have an artist yet. Since this is my first attempt at pitching, I don’t have collaborators, or a track record that I can take to an artist to convince them to come in with me. I want to get the script written first, so that I’ve got something to show to people. The trouble is, that means I’m writing my first comic script without being able to write to the strengths of a particular artist or having an established way of working with someone.

What I’ve found is that I have a very strong visual idea of how the first two and last two pages should look, and my scripting for those pages is very precise about the size, contents and layouts of the panels. But for the rest of the script I’m trying to leave as much room as I can for an artist to come in and ‘direct’ it how they see fit. I’ve added in lines about whether each panel is a ‘one shot,’ ‘two shot,’ or ‘wide shot,’ but that’s more to give me something to build in my head as I write. Mostly I’m trying to describe the feeling and emotion that I’m going for, so in one section I’m saying something like “this is a cold war paranoid spy thriller” and in another I’m saying, “widescreen Hollywood adventure.”

What I have done a couple of times is to try and control when an image needs to be held back for a later page. So If I’m building towards an action sequence on page five, I want the first big exciting beat to be held back for the page turn reveal on page fix, like a mini cliff-hanger and resolution. But for the rest of the scene I’m trying to make it clear in the script that the artist can do whatever they want in order to have fun.

Dave: One thing I’m trying to do now, even if I don’t know who the artist is, is to try to make the script a bit like a story that I’m inviting you to participate in. If I’m heading into, say, a car chase, I want the artist reading the script to get excited. I want to write, “and then the car EXPLODES!”  in such a way that the artist reads it and shouts “Oh hell yeah!”

Right now I’m working on a script called Lost Angels with artist Chris Anderson. It’s a young adult sci-fi mystery story that involves a lot of world-building, and Chris’ visuals have actually sent me back into the story, shifting things, creating new subplots, adding nuances. I’ve noticed that the more I script, the more I’m writing specifically for him, giving him backstory but letting him figure out how that plays into the “acting” or direction in a scene.

So, for example, rather than writing that a character “has a stern expression,” I might write something like what I’ve captured in this screenshot:

Lost Angels Script Chunk

From my script for Lost Angels, written to artist Chris Anderson.

Now, I’m writing WAY more than I need to. That’s not a caption. That’s strictly a script note for Chris. But I like the idea that if Chris understands this character, and it can inform his choice of design, expression, bearing, and dress. I don’t need to try to tell Chris how to visualize it — that’s his job. It’s an aspect that I’m really coming to enjoy when scripting.

Jay: I agree. I think something comic scripts have in common with screenplays, is that we are not writing for the reader or viewer. We’re writing for the people who are going to produce the thing the reader or viewer gets to see. What we need to be doing is to put the story into the head of our collaborators, so that they can then put something in front of the readers. Realising that — and getting over the idea that the script had to be a highly polished final product in the same way my novels do — is what finally set me free to finish the script, I think.

Do you like conversations on craft? If so, sound off in the comments below, or just join in and tell us some of your own practices and experiences!

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