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Secrets of Comic Book Writing
By Michael Dance
Source: The Writing Show
OverviewComic book writing is a deceptively tricky medium. Comics aren't like novels, in which you can describe a scene and a character's actions. They're also not like movies, in which you can use movement and sound to describe things for you. Writing a successful comic involves a lot of the same questions of pacing, story arcs, tone and conflict found in other creative writing, but it also involves other questions: How do you make a visually interesting story that can be told in a series of hand-drawn panels? How well can you convey character arcs through dialogue?
Comic Book StructureWriting independent comics can give you a lot of leeway, but if you're a writer for hire with a publishing company, you're basically limited to around five panels per page, twenty-two pages per issue, and four to five issues per overall story, which can then be compiled into a trade paperback. So not only do you have to worry about the overall story arc and character arcs across all five issues, you have to create smaller arcs at intervals of twenty-two pages each.
Writing TipsOn a per-page level, comic book writer Buddy Scalera says that the first thing writers need to understand is that "there is really no motion. There's the suggestion of motion...the mind is filling in the blanks." The goal, then, is to find the appropriate points to freeze the action--which is often settled upon in the collaboration process between the writer and artist. But it also allows for some leeway in the sense that you have the utmost control over the pace: you can decide whether one page stretches over two days or two seconds.
With such a space limit, you have to keep things extremely tight and moving. During scenes with little action, you have to give your characters something to do so that you don't just end up with a bunch of images of the characters standing in place. And while there's plenty of dialogue, it has to be split up so the speech bubbles don't become too unwieldy, because speech bubbles are fundamentally a part of the art. A common rule, according to Scalera, is to "write for the last panel" to keep readers turning the pages.
You also have to keep in mind that you're writing for both an audience and an artist, and they both need different things. Your audience needs a great plot told through dialogue and action, while your artist needs the right amount of instructions to accurately draw what you need without feeling totally hamstrung.
Styles of ScriptsComic book writers will soon discover their own favorite ways of formatting scripts. But two major standards exist in the industry: the Marvel Comics style and the DC Comics style. When writing for Marvel, a writer must write out what happens on each of the twenty-two pages and then turn his work over to the artist--and only then does the writer start writing dialogue. The DC style is a slower process, but one in which the writer has more control: scripts lay out how many panels are on each page, how big the panels are, and provide descriptions as well as dialogue for each panel.
The Publication ProcessThere's a fairly set schedule for the publication of a comic when you write for a major publisher. On Marvel projects you're writing for a pre-existing character, for example, you must send in a proposal, get feedback from the editor and agree on a story and length. While you're writing out the plot, the editor assigns an artist to the project.
While the editor remains to oversee the process, in many cases it then becomes a close collaboration between the writer and the artist: the writer needs to tell the artist, for example, which props need to be seen in which panels. The artist, on the other hand, can make suggestions on when to split a panel up or combine a few different panels into one.
From there, the comic goes to the inkist (who colors in the pictures), the letterist (for the dialogue boxes), and then a final round of proofreading. Many mainstream products can then go from an idea to a store shelf in under six months. After an initial shelf life of about a month, the comic then has a future with collectors, being resold, appearing at comic book conventions and possibly being collected into publication as a trade paperback.
Independent vs. MainstreamThe rigid publication process is, naturally, much different when writing an independent comic or for a much smaller publisher. You also have more leeway on how long the comic can be and don't have to adhere to the standards of established characters. For example, when writing a Superman story for D.C. Comics, you're expected to set the story in Metropolis and not give Superman a potbelly. Then again, writing for D.C. or Marvel ensures two things: people will read you work, and you'll be paid a fair price for it--usually per page and, if the comics get collected into a trade paperback, with royalties.