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Improve Your Writing Through Comic Book Scripting

© 2004 Jen Dornfeld

Why do I include three references on writing comics on my how-to-write webpage?

I learned about plot by writing comic book scripts. Unlike eluki bes shahar, who first suggested this method to me, I did not try sell my scripts. But I learned a very great deal about writing through some fascinating nonverbal techniques.

First, I began with a story I had not yet sold. (The story was "The Prostitute Deserts" and I may post it here with the accompanying script for illustrative purposes later, if there's any interest.) I had read a lot of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series and I imagined writing the scripts so that my favorite Sandman illustrators could draw the pictures. Using for my model an article he included in the graphic novel version of Dream Country, I faked up a script.

The first exciting thing that happened was that I began to find the holes in my unsold stories. I had thought those stories were watertight. But I knew when I arrived at a hole, because I would try to describe to an artist how to draw the next moment...and come up blank. How could that be? How could I not have noticed that my storyline just dribbled away, lost power, stopped being about anything, right here? I was able to fill those holes by cutting the "nothing's happening" bits and replacing them with powerful moments that did something.

Now I was ready for an artist. So I thought.

Ask an expert

My first script did not separate the images into pages. I didn't indicate the size of the images, nor how they were to be arranged on the page. I didn't even confine my descriptions of the images to static moments, as I learned when I consulted a professional comic book artist. I offered him $200 to draw any two pages of the script he liked, and he declined. "Look here," he said, "I can't draw this. You have the character moving within the frame of the picture. I draw things that are holding still--snapshots." And again, "She has an expression partly exasperated and partly amused--what the heck does that look like? I can draw confused, amused, angry, or scared." In my ignorance and arrogance, I thought he was just being lazy.

He introduced me to the notion of the "keyhole effect," which works for shooting movies as well as for writing and drawing from comic book scripts: Show an image that is either in extreme closeup or quite far away--far enough away that you can get a whole human figure in it. A feature of the human imagination called "closure" will make assumptions and create all the details that you don't actually put in the picture. Even in writing fiction, the keyhole effect is a way of condensing and distilling your ideas enough that the reader can participate in the storytelling. This is part of becoming a good writer.

He looked at my script again. "These are all medium shots, what they call TV shots. TV is nothing but medium shots," he said. "In movies or in comics, you want to show things that can be seen and comprehended through a keyhole."

He also recommended that I try drawing my own thumbnail sketches. I protested that my drawing sucks big time. "Doesn't matter. Do stick figures. Just try drawing these images as you describe them. Then try laying your images out on the page."

I went home and tried it. And I learned some astonishing things.

Eating crow

First, I found the comic artist pro was absolutely correct. I'd described things moving within a drawing. In order to redraw those images, I had to imagine the moment happening as a series of stop-action photographs, and then I had to choose one of those photographs to illustrate what I wanted to convey. Just one. More is not better in comics or in fiction.

Second, I discovered that not only were most of my images "TV" or "medium shots", they were also almost entirely talking heads. Nothing happened. John's face turned toward Mary's with an expression so subtle that I couldn't begin to suggest it with my stick-figures. In the next frame, Mary raised her eyebrows. In the next, John frowned. Exciting, hoo boy.

And once again the comic artist pro was right. Even when I labored over those frames for an hour, I couldn't convey subtle emotion. Emotion happens in context, not only in comics but in fiction. Don't believe me? Read the big sex scene toward the end of Laura Kinsale's Flowers From The Storm, where the heroine finally consummates her marriage to the hero, who has suffered a stroke and can barely talk.


Third, I began to lay out my images in real comic book format--one or three or six or nine images to a page. And I found that the size of the image had enormous importance. Sometimes there was no way to stuff all the information into one image unless the image was at least half a page. With more experience, I began to put very little into a large image--because I wanted it to have more impact.

So layout became an active part of the storytelling for me. Layout of images is a lot like the structuring of scenes in a book. It's possible for God or somebody to drop an entire story into your head, beginning, middle, end, all in one lump, without laying it out a scene at a time. This has happened to me and, if you are a writer, it may have happened to you too. It's a glorious moment. But it's a pain in the patootie to unravel the darned thing into one scene followed by another scene. Sometimes when a scene is giving me trouble I'll thumbnail it, not even trying to letter in the dialogue. Which images are the right ones, the bare bones, the intense and powerful snapshots that make this story?

Layout also helped me see very clearly when I needed a 'cliffhanger' moment. In comic scripting, cliffhangers come fast and often--one at the bottom of every inside page near the fold, and one at the bottom of every outside page. Those cliffhangers must be powerful, because they have to grip the reader enough that they forget they are reading and looking at sequential static images with words. Cliffhangers must make the reader's eye zip from bottom of one page to top of the next page, eager for the next bit of the story. In fiction, scenes and even parts of scenes need cliffhangers, too. And suddenly I understood that with a deep, nonverbal clarity.

The magic

There's a fourth magic about comic scripting, one that has no words to tell its secret trick. Maybe you can imagine it. Maybe you'll just have to try it to find out. But I'll try to describe how it happens:

Fantasize this with me. You have written a story that you love. You have found an artist who really turns your crank-Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones, who drew a lot of Sandman, do it for me. Now you are converting your story into a script so that your artist can draw and color a gorgeous comic book of your story.

Follow closely.

When you wrote the story, it came to you in a series of pictures and words. Sometimes the picture came first, sometimes the words. Depends what sort of writer you are. But the pictures came from the right side of your brain. Then you converted them into a bunch of consecutive words drawn from the left side of your brain.

Now you will read the story again, sentence by sentence (left side of the brain) and convert them back into pictures (right brain). If you remember how you wrote the story, you may remember the pictures very clearly. Ideally, a writer's text is a perfect mnemonic for the image that inspired the text.

But what if your words don't create clear images? You won't really know until you try to describe them to your artist in more words (left brain).

Because what you are doing is actually creating a whole new set of images (right brain) in your head based on words (left brain) describing images (right brain) that spawned your original story. Those new images (right brain) must undergo translation twice more. They first must be described in words, your script (left brain), and then your artist must read them, imagine the pictures that come to him as he reads, and then draw those pictures (right brain).

Confused yet? I was, totally. I stopped trying to figure out what the hey was happening and just did it. I did it for three stories, and then I began the very ambitious business of creating a graphic novel script without writing the story first. So first I wrote the story-script for the pictures (right brain), then drew my (sucky) thumbnails.

The magic of passing the story from one side of my head to the other, trying to make each side tell the story to the other side, worked a miracle.

My writing skill level took a sudden leap ahead. I was able to cut wads of 'talking heads' images from the new script as I thumbnailed along, and I was able to express complex ideas about time and emotion simply by getting creative with the size and order and placement of the image panels on the page. I was intensely excited by that process.

Next, I tried drawing thumbnails for a story that had no words at all. No dialogue, beyond about five to ten words per page. I did not write the script in advance. I wanted the images to come out of my pencil without having to do all that confusing left-right-left translation.

And it happened. I tapped into a chunk of my creativity that didn't talk, yet could still tell stories.

That was a mind-blower. I'd spent my entire life learning about words. And now it turned out it wasn't necessarily about words at all.

To those of you who read comic books when you were young, this will come as a big Duh. But for me, brought up on Kipling and Doyle and Dickens and Wodehouse, i.e. a lot of highbrow pulp fiction from yestercentury, and kept away from comic books because they are 'cheezy,' it changed my whole way of seeing story.

So this article may be Duhsville for you out there. Or you may find, as I did, that the act of doing these exercises cuts loose the imagination from language and lets the storyteller do extraordinary things.

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