Archive for the ‘Graphic Novel Writing’ Category

Short Notes on Long Comics – Review

Short Notes on Long Comics was reviewed by Rob Clough at The Comics Journal!

And it’s paired with a review of L’Age Dur by Max de Radigues, the fantastic CCS Fellow from last year.

Many thanks, Rob!

Graphic Novel Script Format

06/21/2010 51 comments

Last summer, I worked as an Editorial Intern at First Second Books. One of my responsibilities was to read spec script submissions and I was floored by how many different formats were used for graphic novel scripts: screenplay format from a screenwriting software, stage play format written in Microsoft Word, prose outlines with sample pages of finished work…

I love reading scripts but sometimes the writer seemed to be making up the format as they went. I often found it difficult to make out what information was describing the action, what was a line of dialogue, who was saying which lines, what was background information unnecessary for the reader but potentially interesting for the artist, what was direction for the artist, etcetera.

Needless to say, reading those scripts was not fun.

A script is not just words on paper. A script is a visual experience for the reader.

A script is like a map for your story. The pictures and symbols on a map do not hold a candle to the actual experience of the trip, but reading a map can either be a simple, pain-free, enjoyable process for the reader that leads them from spot to spot along the journey or it can be just plain awful. The last thing that we want as writers is for our reader to get lost using our map.

This is why formatting your script in a clear, easy-to-follow way is so important.

Fortunately or unfortunately, a standard format for graphic novel scripts does not exist; at least, I haven’t found it. Depending on your intended approach to producing the comic, there are many accepted ways to approach formatting.

In the 1960’s, Stan Lee was responsible for writing more than 50 stories a month. To take the pressure off his shoulders, he would write a short paragraph of plot for each page of the comic and leave the comic artist to design the page. Only after everything was drawn did Stan write the dialogue for the story (which is why so much of the dialogue is expository – used to convey information when there was no room to do so visually).

If your intention is to just get work out the door, and/or give each role of production a good deal of autonomy, this hands-off approach, later coined as the “Marvel Method,” is a fantastic way to do that. (To the right and left are samples of Marvel Method-type scripts. Click the image to get an expanded view.)

If you prefer the opposite, hands-on, side of the spectrum, consider Alan Moore’s scripts, which rival the length of most novels. Moore wrote pages of prose for each panel, describing every element of every image in perfect detail. Needless to say, this approach offers the writer more control of the story and more responsibility. The best type of artist for this collaboration would be someone who just wants to draw and would appreciate all the homework you put in to make every last detail count (and doesn’t mind reading a lot).

When developing my own approach to writing scripts for graphic novels, instead of making formatting decisions based upon whomever I would be collaborating with – since I rarely know who that person will be until I have finished writing the script – I utilized my time spent as a reader of poorly formatted script submissions as my primary influence.

First and foremost, instead of using two or three script pages to describe one page of comics or one paragraph to describe five pages of comics, I try to have all of the panel descriptions and dialogue for each page of comics to be on each coinciding page of script. Everything that happens on page one of the comic is written on page one of the script. The same with page two and so on.

On the same note, I also arrange the pages during printing so that the even numbered pages (which are always on the left-hand side) are printed on the left-hand side and the odd numbered pages are on the right. This allows the reader to get a more accurate feel for pacing. For example, instead of imagining when the page turns take place, the reader actually turns the page on the page turns.

Second, I don’t separate thumbnails from the script. If thumbnail images are on a separate piece of paper, requiring the reader to turn their head back-and-forth to find the text that coincides with the image, they can easily get lost and frustrated. Having thumbnails on separate sheets of paper also requires more sheets of paper to be carried and kept organized. A 200-page script and two hundred pages of thumbnails is a lot of paper to lug around.

To address this, I adopted the format in the picture to the left and placed the thumbnail on the script page. Working in Microsoft Word (a software that the majority of people have access to and know how to use), I use the square tool bar to make small boxes and place them in the top right hand corner of the page. These are now my rough thumbnails. It’s not perfect, sometimes those boxes can be difficult to maneuver but it’s better than any alternative I’ve attempted, thus far. (To the right is an example from Archie Goodwin, who drew his panels in by hand — though, I would advise against putting them in the bottom right; readers generally tend to look top right before bottom right).

Lastly, I want the reader to be able to glance at my script and visually register the difference between a description of action, a line of dialogue, a character name, anything and everything they would need to know. Eventually, my hope is that they will forget about all the design work I’ve done and simply enjoy the story.

With all this said, I do not consider my suggestions to be the end-all, be-all. Much like the work samples above, my format works for me, and it’s still evolving. If something else works for you, please share it, I’d be up for trying something new.

(Note: The samples above are — in order of appearance — by Mark Waid, Scott Peterson, Roger Stern, Alan Moore, Scott McCloud and Archie Goodwin. With the exception of Moore’s script page, the samples were all taken from The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics by Dennis O’Neil — an excellent introduction to writing comics.)

Building Momentum in Your Writing

Have you ever put something you have already done on your To Do list just so you can cross it off? Why do we do this? Maybe you have different reasons, but I do it because when I have a full list of daunting things to do, it’s satisfying to know I’ve at least accomplished something.

It’s about building momentum. When the ball is rolling, you feel good and thus feel like working more.

So, how do we build momentum as writers? One trick: Constraints.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s true. Constraints (limitations in page count, panel count, cast of characters, tools and production, deadlines, etc.) encourage creative problem solving and force you to utilize what you have to its greatest use – not what you want, if only you had it.

This is why 24-hour comics are so popular. With limitations in time (24 hours) and production (only the tools that aid you in speed – the bare minimum), you can produce a 24-page comic in a single day! In fact, I’d even up the number of constraints and force yourself to do a self-contained story about a particular character (or cast); after a number of 24-hour comics, you’d have a series!

Speaking of series, working within the constraints of page count, a set cast of characters and monthly deadlines this is how the work of Carl Barks, Stan Sakai, Alan Moore, Frank Miller and many others were completed.

Weekly television show scripts are constrained by a set cast of characters, short deadlines and the number of pages (pages = “minutes of screen time”) permitted between commercial breaks.

Daily comic strips are constrained to just 1-4 panels and can eventually be collected to hundreds if not thousands of pages.

Lester Dent made a career in writing pulps utilizing the Lester Dent Master Plot template, which places constraints on word count and plot development.

And many blogs, limited in word count, subject matter and weekly/daily deadlines are being repackaged and published as books (some of which are National Bestsellers).

So why not you?

Completing tiny goals within short deadlines leads to a feeling of success and the desire to repeat such a satisfying process. Positive experiences lead to more output and eventually the sum of all your minimal efforts will result in a huge pile of work. By producing at a high volume (“practicing”), you can eventually find your unique voice (how you like to write), what you like to write about (genre and thematic content), and more people will have the opportunity to read your work or at least hear of you – the prolific comics writer. The more readers you earn, the more fans, followers and hopefully pay will come your way.

So, feel free to constrain your work as much as you possibly can. Keep it short and satisfying. Write as much as you can, as well as you can and as fast as you can within your limitations, and keep moving.

Build momentum.

I hope that helps!

Story Structure in Graphic Novels — Monsters

We all have secrets. Sometimes we feel these secrets are so shameful we don’t tell anyone, but when a secret can potentially affect someone else for the rest of their life it is our responsibility to be strong enough and mature enough to be honest with that person, even if it means admitting that life has left you scared, tainted, or blemished.

This is Ken Dahl’s problem in Monsters, a graphic novel memoir (Ken Dahl is the pen name for Gabby Schulz), when he learns he has herpes.

He struggles to be a responsible, mature adult while constantly tempted to take an easier path (and live life as a monster) by keeping it a secret from friends and, more importantly, lovers.

To see how Monsters works as a three-act story, visit here: Monsters Story Structure.

(Spoiler Alert: If you have not read Monsters, I will be discussing the entire story.)

Story Structure in Graphic Novels — Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean

Sometimes a person can influence and inspire us in a life-altering way. In good situations, we look up to this person and admire them. They, directly or indirectly, become our mentors and serve as a symbol for who we want to be. For Grace, the protagonist in Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean, this mentor is — not a surprise due to the title — the legendary Amelia Earhart.

For young Grace, Amelia becomes a symbol for what she can become in society if she is willing to take the risk of a life-path that is more ambitious than what her hometown of Trepassey, Newfoundland would find suitable for a woman.

Written by Sarah Stewart Taylor (my teacher at The Center for Cartoon Studies) and drawn by Ben Towle, Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean is a solid graphic novel with heart, history and three full acts in just 80 pages of story!

To see how Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean works as a three-act story, visit here: Amelia Earhart Story Structure.

(Spoiler Alert: If you have not read Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean, I will be discussing the entire story.)

Story Structure in Graphic Novels — Amulet Book Two: The Stonekeeper’s Curse

04/27/2010 2 comments

What is the curse of a superhero? Answer: Responsibility.

In Amulet Book One: The Stonekeeper, Emily Hayes struggled to maintain a “normal” life after the seemingly harmless decision to tie the Amulet around her neck thrust her and her family into a life or death adventure (see how in my post Story Structure in Graphic Novels – Amulet Book One). In Amulet Book Two: The Stonekeeper’s Curse, she will face the consequences of that decision.

By taking possession of the Amulet she became a superhero: a “gifted” (not normal) person who is destined to use their gift to save humanity by living a life of self-sacrifice. Emily is supposed to save the world. That’s a great responsibility hanging around the neck of an eleven year-old. What can she do?

What is a superhero supposed to do once they realize they can’t help but be a superhero? Answer: Commit, despite the consequences. That is what Kazu Kibuishi (shout out to a fellow UCSB Film Studies graduate!) explores in Amulet Book Two: The Stonekeeper’s Curse.

To see how Amulet Book Two: The Stonekeeper’s Curse works as a three-act story, visit here: Amulet Book Two Story Structure

(Spoiler Alert: If you have not read Amulet Book Two: The Stonekeeper’s Curse, I will be discussing the entire story.)

Short Notes on Long Comics is ON SALE NOW!

At MoCCA, I premiered my new book Short Notes on Long Comics: 10 Great Examples of Story Structure in Graphic Novels, an updated collection of my blog posts on Story Structure in Graphic Novels.

It is ON SALE NOW through PayPal.

Thank you to everyone who has purchased a copy. It’s good to see how many comics creators are determined to improve their writing.

Check out the 11th great example of Story Structure in Graphic Novels – Amulet Book Two: The Stonekeeper’s Curse!

Story Structure in Graphic Novels — Amulet Book One: The Stonekeeper

04/03/2010 1 comment

Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Emily Hayes of Amulet Book One: The Stonekeeper… They all have one thing in common. Can you guess what it is?

What does it take to be a superhero? Answer: A special ability, a dogged determination to use that ability for good not evil and an Achilles heel (which enables an arch-nemesis to gain leverage on the hero). Often that Achilles heel is family or loved ones.

What is the plight of a superhero? Answer: They can never, ever live a “normal” life. It is their destiny to live a life of thankless public service because it’s the right thing to do and typically the loved ones of the superhero will pay for their choice. This is true in Amulet Book One: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi. Every time Emily chooses to pursue her “special ability” her family is put in more and more trouble.

Since this is a series of five books, by the end of Book One she has not yet fulfilled her destiny to save the masses with her “special ability” but this installment (her origin story) is still presented in three acts.

To see how Amulet Book One: The Stonekeeper works as a three-act story, visit here: Amulet Book One Story Structure

(Spoiler Alert: If you have not read Amulet Book One: The Stonekeeper, I will be discussing the entire story.)

Story Structure in Graphic Novels — Night Fisher

03/21/2010 1 comment

At one point or another, we’ve all held on to something for too long.

In R. Kikuo Johnson’s graphic novel, Night Fisher, Loren Foster holds on to a relationship with his childhood best friend even though at the age of eighteen, they have become two very different people.

Instead of letting go of the relationship and being true to himself, Loren conforms his boy scout nature to a lifestyle of drugs and criminal behavior. It will take a rite of passage in three-acts to open his eyes.

To see how Night Fisher works as a three-act story, visit here: Night Fisher Story Structure.

(Spoiler Alert: If you have not read Night Fisher, I will be discussing the entire story.)

My First Lecture!

My first lecture on writing for graphic novels!

Last Friday, at CCS, I covered three-act structure, utilizing my plot breakdowns of Batman: Year One, Maus and Blankets.

Thanks to everyone who was there. Your questions and participation were the highlight of the talk. I had a great time and hope to do it again soon.

Though, I’ll probably wait until AFTER graduation. During this whole process I learned just how much prep goes into only one 3-hour lecture. Whew! Kudos to every teacher out there pulling-off two or more of these a week. My respect goes out to all of you.

Next week’s post will go over the story structure of Night Fisher by R. Kikuo Johnson.