Comics/Graphic Novels

On Thumbnail Sketches

Once I finish my script (check out last month’s post for details), it’s time to do thumbnails.

Thumbnails are small sketches of every page in a graphic novel.  As I’m doing these, I’m figuring out much of what cartoonists refer to as storytelling.

I decide the size of each panel.  I figure out the blocking within each panel, how my characters and their surroundings are going to be in relation to each other.  I make sure there’s enough for the caption boxes and word balloons.  Usually, I’ll make small readjustments my script as I go.

I don’t care about the quality of drawing at this stage.  I reduce each character to a shorthand by giving just enough detail to make her recognizable.  I’m going for quick and clear here, not pretty.

Early on in my cartooning career, I developed a format for my thumbnails.  I put my sketches and my script side-by-side on the same page.  I indicate where every line of dialogue goes by putting numbers in my word balloons.

Here’s an example:

I settled on this format because I found it easier to edit.  I can change the images without affecting the words, and vice versa.  This way of doing things isn’t for every cartoonist, of course.  A few of my friends have complained that this format is difficult to read.  They prefer the words and the pictures to be together even at the thumbnail stage.

A few storytelling rules of thumb (pun intended) that I follow:

1.  If an action is quick, I try to make it happen left-to-right.  For instance, if the Monkey King is trying to fly through the very bounds of the universe, I’ll have him fly left to write.  I write in English, and English is read left-to-right.   For an English-reading audience, actions feel a tiny bit faster when you make them go left-to-right.

2. For the same reason, if an action is slow, I try to make it happen right-to-left.

3. I try to observe the 180 Rule. Let’s say I have a scene where Jin and Suzy are talking.  In the first panel, I put Jin on the left and Suzy on the right.  I will try to keep Jin on the left and Suzy on the right for the rest of the panels in that scene.  Sometimes, there are good reasons for breaking the 180 Rule, but I keep it for the most part.

4.  I try to have a single major emotion in each panel. A lot of folks read comics really fast.  They dwell on a panel just long enough to pick up a one key piece of information.   If I include more emotions in a panel, I’ll put them in the background and make sure they aren’t essential to the primary thrust of the story.

5.  For the same reason, I try to have a single major action in each panel.

Thumbnail sketches are an absolutely vital part of the comics-making process.  Some would even argue that they are *the* most vital part.  In many ways, the battle is won or lost here, so don’t be afraid to revise of your thumbnails over and over, until you get them just right.