In journalism there is a basic piece of advice that goes something like this: It’s okay to not know something, as long as you know what you don’t know.
This is useful for journalists, who have to quickly figure out when they need to verify or look things up. It is, however, also solid advice for those of us in other fields, including aspiring artists who—ding ding ding—want to write comic books.
Take me, for example. I know I have the desire and ambition to write comics, and the discipline to pursue my goals, but I also know that I don’t know enough about the industry or logistics or the skill set one needs to write and, ultimately, sell scripts. Not yet, anyway. I work on getting better every day. As I work, I am also fortunate to have access to many writers (online) who do have this knowledge, most of whom are famous, at least in comic book circles.
So, this is the first of an ongoing series compiling writing tips for aspiring comic creators. Each will feature advice from four writers, as well as thoughts or musings from my own experiences (who am I? nobody, so feel free to ridicule! I’m a writer too, which means I hate myself a little, you know how it goes!).
Oh, and if you happen to be a creator who wants to participate directly, please don’t hesitate to contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Help and guidance are always appreciated. We’re all in this art thing together, amiright?
That does it for my intro. Let’s get to it. Happy reading and writing and creating, friends!
How to Write Comic Books: The Importance of Distinct Characters
Shea Fontana (@sheafontana) has written an arc on Wonder Woman, a fill-in issue of Justice League, and she helped shape DC Super Hero Girls. Recently, she started a thoughtful Twitter discussion about effectively writing characters in an ensemble:
When developing an ensemble for a story, make the characters extremely different for maximum use in story. Redundancies in personalities mean that you won't need or utilize characters in story. If you distill each to 4 traits, those traits shouldn't overlap.
It is hard because in real life we tend to be a lot like our friends. But real life doesn't always make great story. Focusing on differences helps more in story than in real life too!
And then, DC Assistant Editor Andrea Shea (@whatthe_shea) joined in to add relevant perspective she gleaned from a master: I always really liked the triangle balances Marv Wolfman described in creating New Teen Titans -- Kory (extreme emotion), Raven (extreme control), Donna (balance); Gar (extreme jester), Cyborg (extreme gravitas), Dick (balance). Wolfman definitely said it better though, haha.
If I remember correctly it was from an interview in the back of one of my old Teen Titans trades, maybe Judas Contract or something. I'll have to see if I can dig it up when I'm home, it's some very cool insight.
My take away is that making characters distinct from each other is foundational to storytelling. Once you have traits, however, push them to extremes. As a short story writer within literary fiction, I too often bog my characters down with realism, making them close reflections of people I know in real life. Real life, however, is dull. What Fontana (and Wolfman via Shea) are saying is forget that, and make characters stand out. It’s more interesting for the reader, and it also gives rise to conflicts.
How to Write Comic Books: Scripting
1. Put big reveals on page-turns
2. Unless you're a designer, let the artist be the boss of page layout.
3. A page flows better with an odd # of panels (3/5/7), though there are exceptions.
4. Always strive to be the best version of you, not a middling version of someone else
Wilson notes later that you must also limit panels to one action and one emotion, and writers should determine number of panels on a page while artist determines layout.
This is all really helpful to me, because my background is in short story writing. I’ve gotten most of my instruction from writers workshops run by literary magazines. I’m starving for instruction on how to operate within the unique structure of comic books. I also don’t draw (well), which means I don’t grasp the perspective of the penciler. This stuff is key for my writer's journey.
What to do, what NOT to do, and why
Gail Simone is (@GailSimone) a veteran writer who has written Birds of Prey and Batgirl, as well as one of my all-time favorite monster comics, the very-underrated Clean Room. Simone recently reacted to a comic-reading binge with some urgent advice for writers, advice she shared in a staccato Twitter burst, which I’ve transcribed for you fine folks below (okay, I copy and pasted them, but still, I care!):
- First, for the love of god, remember that the reader does not know what is inside your head. That is your only job, to convey your message.
- Pro or newbie, shame on you if you don’t name your characters on panel if we are supposed to recognize them later.
- Over and over, I am reading comics where the main character is not named or even introduced. The story just starts and we are meant to guess.
- This is just aggressively bad storytelling, unless there is some specific reason. If you are writing the Man With No Name, fine. But that’s mostly not the case.
- Second, learn what an establishing shot is, and what it accomplishes. Over and over, I was not told where the characters are.
- An establishing shot establishes not just location, but tone. One lonesome farm in the snowy emptiness can convey pages of dialogue and exposition. Better, too.
- Third, when did we forget that it’s important to know what a character wants? I don’t need a characters D&D stats, I need to know what they NEED. What drives them.
- Over and over, I am seeing stories where a threat arises, attacks the hero, the hero fights back, bang, continued next issue.
- If I read your story and don’t know what the character’s motive is, that’s on the writer.
- Additionally, learn what a reveal is. In almost any story worth a damn, someone’s keeping a secret, regardless of genre. Secrets are storytelling nitro.
- Finally, I am still reading comics where the characters all have a similar speech pattern, a sort of affected one-liner-spouting verbal malaise.
- It’s bad enough if TWO characters are indistinguishable in their speech. If all of them are, start over, you have hit a tree in the road.
- That’s it, just some things to consider. A lot of potentially very interesting comics out there are missing a little lesson in the basics.
- Just think it over, I guarantee you you will be happier with the result.
I can relate all of this to instruction I’ve gotten in the literary world. My most influential writing teacher has been Steve Almond, an exceptional short story writer and essayist, an underrated thinker, and an all-around good dude. I’ve been lucky enough to do two workshops with Steve, and he hammers every story on the same points Simone speaks to: 1. orient the reader, and 2. show the audience what the character wants, quickly. Basically, if a reader is confused, a reader checks out, and a reader will always be confused if they don’t know what a character wants. This is true of comic books just like it is of novels.
Maintaining Discipline and Focus
Lastly, none of the tips above matter if you can’t get yourself to the keyboard. Luckily, Brian Michael Bendis (THE Brian Michael Bendis, creator of Miles Morales and Jessica Jones) regularly takes to his tumblr to offer advice:
Just decide that you are the kind of person that gets a certain amount of pages written a day, and be that person. Remind yourself that there are many writers sitting at their computers right now and they are going to end up living your dream life because they sat down to write and you didn’t. Remind yourself that you may get hit by a bus tomorrow and wouldn’t it have been nice to write something on your last day. Remind yourself how lucky you are that you have the capacity for creativity and freedom to express yourself and what a waste it would be not to.
This is a quote to read before and after each writing session, or to print out and tape to your monitor. Storytelling is a burning instinct a select few of us have, a grand human tradition that has transcends technologies. As Bendis says, we are lucky to have the capacity and freedom to do it.
With that, I’m off to write...an hour of fiction in the morning and an hour of plotting or a page of scripting before bed. Writing goals, man, writing goals. Good luck with your own.
Zack Quaintance is a career journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.