gathered from various sources
- particular thanks to Richard Starkings
& Alan Grant
Lee Sullivan Art
A Guide to Writing & Drawing for Comic Books
A story, told in any media, is, in the very broadest sense, a conflict and its solution. In order to understand a conflict, some information is required about the individual(s) involved. Therefore, the simplest possible blueprint for a story is as follows:
- Introduce the character(s);
- Establish their situation (the status quo);
- Introduce the conflict (the element that disrupts the status quo);
- Build suspense (as the conflict develops);
- Reach a climax (a climactic occurrence is precipitated by the forces in conflict);
- Show the resolution.
This is not a formula, it is a definition. Unless these elements are present in a work, it is not a story. It may be something else - a poem, a laundry list - but it is not a story. The basic elements listed above are in every story from 'Little Miss Muffet' to 'War and Peace'. Note, though, that they do not have to be present in any particular order.
Always remember that, no matter what title you work on, your priorities are as follows:
1. STORYTELLING. (See General Guidelines above).
Style does not refer necessarily refer to a particular artist's style, but to an artist's ability to include the following elements in his work:
If the story asks for a potato being thrown at a chicken, the artist has to be able to draw a potato and a chicken - otherwise he is not fulfilling priority one.
If the artist is learning to draw a scene involving a potato being thrown at a chicken, then, naturally, he has to be able to infuse the scene with drama. How does the chicken feel about being hit by a potato - how does the potato feel about being thrown at a chicken? We should be able to discern these feelings from the drawing.
The dynamics of a drawing refer to elements such as 'speed lines', the emphasis or exaggeration of certain gestures, and the positioning of characters.
Much of the terminology of film is common to comics -writers will frequently refer to 'the camera' when they are describing the content of a scene. There are three basic types of shot (or frame):-
a) THE LONG SHOT
This shot is best used to establish scope, locale or figures.
b) THE MEDIUM SHOT
This shot is best used for action shots and should feature characters 'full figure'.
c) THE CLOSE UP
This shot is best used for reaction (facial expressions) or interaction (talking heads or fighting bodies). Any shot that 'chop off' part of a figure's body is classed as a close-up.
The responsibility of the writer (as director) is to vary the shots described above and ensure that every new scene accomplishes the following 5 tasks:-
a) Establish locale (long shot).
b) Place figures within the locale (long shot).
c) Establish the figures (medium shots). The "Is he wearing roller skates?" factor.
d) Establish faces (close ups).
e) Establish action (medium shots). N.B. The most effective way of showing action is to adapt a point of view that is perpendicular to it.
Often these 5 'tasks' can be combined, and so save valuable frames on the page of the comic. On film the question of saving space is not as valid as 5 separate shots can be viewed in a matter of seconds.
WRITING FOR LICENSED PRODUCT TITLES - 'ACTION FORCE' (well, this WAS a long time ago . . .)
"Someone once said to me that writing was very much like a letter W. A scene works in a W and a (story) works in a W. You have to start at the top with something good and then you could afford, in terms of content, to let the plot trickle down to the bottom of the W because your (readers) would be ready to take in some background information and story background. Then, once you've reached the bottom of the first V, they've obviously had enough and you would have to write in another peak and, after that, allow them time to digest the peak before building up to the next one. It works too, all through literature. HAMLET makes a good episode of (ACTION FORCE)- it is written exactly as you would write for (comics). It starts with three pages of intrigue - with Hamlet's father telling him he was murdered. The revenge motive, all packed into three pages. So you've got the 'hook', followed by various troughs and peaks before you build up to the smashing fight at the end. And that is the secret of how to write for a series like (ACTION FORCE)."
Well, of course, Dennis Spooner wasn't really talking about ACTION FORCE when he told DOCTOR WHO MAGAZINE his philosophy on writing and HAMLET probably wouldn't make a good episode of ACTION FORCE (not a Fully Armed Negator Gyrocopter in sight). Even so, Spooner's principles do apply. Consider also his comments to STARBURST:
'Gerry Anderson didn't really want a story. He always used to say: 'Tell me four things that will look good on film.' And you'd say: 'A big fire . . .' this and that, and he'd say 'great'. And if you gave him the four things, then the story became (almost) immaterial... Gerry, more than anybody, taught me to think in terms of pictures first - adding the words afterwards. Before I worked with Gerry I'd always thought in terms of words, and the pictures were of secondary importance. But of course, he was right."
Every week in ACTION FORCE, we have five pages in which to grab the readers interest, introduce all the characters and tell a story. Five pages does not really provide writers with a lot of room for manoeuvre, and it can be very easy to waste space by involving too many characters, using overlong explanations of the story-so-far and using convoluted methods of introducing characters. When you sit down to plot or script an episode of ACTION FORCE, try to keep the following points in mind:
- Open with action whenever possible (start at the top of Dennis Spooner's W);
- Try to dispose of the story-so-far as quickly and as economically as possible. Two captions should do it (preferably one) and those captions should really not exceed 30 words, Remember that 'More is Less'. If you can sum up the story-so-far in a couple of short balloons then you cut out the need for a caption and draw the readers into the story that much quicker;
- Avoid prologue pages unless they A. Open the first part of a four-part story, or B. Are packed with action (preferably both if you really must have a prologue page). A prologue page has the effect of making a five-page story look like a four-page story - especially if you put the title on page 2. Always try to dispose of the title on page 1 (preferably in the first frame);
- Don't indulge in flashback frames unless you have a Very Convincing Reason to do so. Why move the story backwards when you can move the story forwards?
- Don't involve characters that aren't available in the ACTION FORCE toy range unless you have a Very Convincing Reason to do so. This goes for characters of your own creation as well as characters that figure in the US continuity. Our job is to help promote sales of the toys - we have at least twenty interesting characters to deal with, why involve any more?
- Don't feature too many characters in one story. Remember that you only have five pages to play with. All-out war between ACTION FORCE and COBRA in Heathrow Airport during the height of the holiday season is an interesting concept, but how are you going to tell the story of the battle, introduce all the characters, characterise all the antagonists and protagonists and bring the story to a satisfactory resolution/climax in just five pages. As a general rule, concentrate on one, two or three ACTION FORCE characters and one, two or three COBRA characters in a story. Two against one storylines always seem to work out well.
- Don't rely on your artist to do all the storytelling for you. If you want an establishing shot or a full figure shot, then it's your job to ask for them. Full figure, 'Costume Shots' are highly desirable in ACTION FORCE. Kids love to see their favourite characters in all their glory - preferably looking mean. These are the pictures that they single out and slavishly copy. Remember Gerry Anderson's point about what looks GOOD. If you can open with a shot of Snake-Eyes rattling his Uzi at us, then you've satisfied two of the points made here - you've opened at the top of a W, and you've provided readers with a costume shot.
- Remember that some of our readers don't bother to read captions - so, once again, 'More is less'. Keep captions covering scene shifts down to just a few words. 'LATER . . .' or 'ACTION FORCE HEAD-QUARTERS, LONDON . . .' for instance;
- Remember that some of our readers can't read - they just look at the pictures. For this reason, a story that can be understood just on the strength of the visuals triumphs over one that relies heavily on explanatory captions or dialogue;
- Don't worry about the hardware and technical details that some writers of ACTION FORCE like to slip into their scripts. As Larry Hama says:
"I think the characterisations in any of this stuff is extremely important. The actual technical stuff, even the military material, is never as important as putting down very consistent, likeable characters. Very few people are going to know whether the technical material is right, but everyone will automatically sense if a character isn't right."
- Keep the reader interested. If you start at the top of the W, you've got your first hook - but keep 'em hooked: Larry Hama again:
"I like to engineer my stories so that there's a little bit at the end of each page that makes them want to turn the page - a little bit of mystery or a little bit of what's going to happen next. I generally plot it page-by-page and I try to figure out an average of four to six frames per page, and it pretty much always works out okay that way."
Okay, that's about it - however, if you've not written for comics before (and maybe even if you have), read through the article How to be a Script Robot by Alan Grant which is attached to this piece. He covers a lot of the points which are mentioned above and many more which are also applicable to writing for ACTION FORCE or any other Marvel comic.
Finally, remember that these are only guidelines - walls for you to push against. Frank Miller reckons that very little good work is created without supervision of one sort or another, without strict rules. But rules can be broken. If you have a Very Convincing Reason . . .
HOW TO BE A SCRIPT ROBOT
by Alan Grant of 2000 AD
Two years ago I asked the guy who writes JUDGE DREDD to let me in on the big secret - how do you write a good comic script?
He looked at me blankly for quite a long time. Then he said, "I really don't know!"
I'm not sure that I'm qualified to elaborate on his reply, but I'll try. Scriptwriting, like any other profession requires a period of apprenticeship, of learning the job. Usually, this is long and arduous and so badly paid that all but the most enthusiastic fall by the wayside.
Obviously, the best way to gain experience is to find an editorial job with a publisher and slog away at sub-editing and rewriting other people's material until you've picked up enough to be able to write your own stories. This is the only real way to learn how to write for comics - rewriting other contributor's stuff until you're sick of it! The majority of 2000 A.D.'s current writing staff started in this way - including Pat Mills (FLESH, RO-BUSTERS, THlE ABC WARRIORS) and John Wagner (JUDGE DREDD, ROBOHUNTER and STRONTIUM DOG) our two top writers. Both have worked on a wide range of comics - girls' as well as boys' - and in fact their first successful scripts were sold to the IPC 'humour' comics, which include WHIZZER & CHIPS, CHEEKY, BUSTER, etc.
However, jobs in publishing are hard to cone by, particularly if you have no previous experience - the old Catch 22 situation: if you need experience before you get the job, how can you possibly get that experience first? The answer: you're going to have to be pretty damn good to start with!
2000 A.D. receives a couple of dozen unsolicited manuscripts each week. Their authors span the spectrum from 'total inexperience' to 'success in other fields of writing, but I want a change'. Many - an increasing number - come from people who write and draw for fanzines. Most of this unsolicited material suffers the traditional fate - it's returned to its author with a 'thanks but no thanks' note, though we usually try to give a fair criticism and some encouragement to all but the absolute no-hopers.
Most of these uncommissioned scripts suffer from the same faults: the principal one being mistaking a good idea for a good story. A lot of fanzines suffer from this one defect in the script department - the writer has what he considers to be a good idea, then proceeds to set it down in black and white as quickly as possible. Anyone can have a good idea - everybody in the world must have dozens of good ideas each week - but it is very difficult to turn a good idea (a story's starting point) into a good finished piece. One pointer, which might be of help here, is - try to 'see' your story, visualising it as if it were a movie you were watching. The trick is then to 'freeze' the frames, deciding which ones best suit the story flow. Most amateurs waste picture after picture, filling them with long and tedious explanations and unnecessary dialogue. The picture itself should be strong enough to convey the story's development; dialogue and captions should be used sparingly, mainly to bring out characterisation and explain sudden switches in action. Even professionals don't get it right all the time, but a good maxim to remember is - never use a caption or balloon containing more than 25 words.
You can be flexible about this, but 25 words is a good 'maximum average' to stick to. Comics have a limited number of pages to devote to any one story or character. If JUDGE DREDD regularly rums over 5 pages, containing 28 separate pictures, there's no point in sending us a DREDD script with 45 pictures. You must thoroughly research your market first - find out the average length of scripts used in the market you want to break into; follow the style already established - a script about Dredd getting married, for instance, would be useless to us. . . . unless you are a genius! Use the type of language already used; no point in submitting scripts with swear-words or blasphemy in them because comics don't use this type of language.
It is extremely important to learn how to ruthlessly cut and rewrite your own material; the better you become at this, the better your stories will be. This is known as 'subbing', and if you're lucky enough to get an editors job it's one of the first things you'll be expected to learn. However, even in professional journalism, no one can be taught from cold how to be a good sub-editor; your flair for the job can be developed and refined, but I believe that if you don't have an original flair to start with, you never will 'learn' it.
As I said earlier, few will actually find editorial jobs - so how do you learn how to sub a story? The fanzines are perhaps the perfect place to start; they are mostly written by amateurs, and it shows. Choose a story from a 'zine. Do you like it? No? Well, what's wrong with it? Could you take the original idea - which is likely to be quite sound, bearing in mind what I said about everybody in the world having a plethora of good ideas - and rewrite it to make it read better?
Make a list of the things you feel are wrong with the story, then re-write it, improving each of the points you've noted. When you've finished, repeat the same process with the same story. You'll always come up with extra little touches which hadn't occurred to you before. Of course, you could go on for ever doing this but sooner or later you'll realise something else that a good sub-editor needs: the ability to know when you've done enough. Over-subbing can be every bit as bad as under-subbing. Another common fault, particularly in scripts written by younger writers, is trying to do far too much. We receive page after page of artwork that is written, drawn and lettered by the same person. To my knowledge, there is hardly anybody who can combine these three talents successfully.
Without wishing to upset any artists, I'd say the scriptwriter often has the more difficult task. It's his job to create the situations and characters from cold, then describe them well enough for the artist to be able to render a satisfactory visualisation. So make up your mind what you're going to concentrate on.
No one - but no one - will be asked to write a serial or series for professional comics until they've proved themselves first via short stories. So forget all about that 50-part epic starring the world's newest and greatest super-hero you've been dreaming about since you first learned to read; write a short story. By that I mean something 40 or 50 panels long - which allows for about 50% cutting, which is reas-onable for a beginner. When DREDD writer John Wagner (or Howard) said "I don't know" (way back at the beginning of this article), this is what he meant - he couldn't tell me how to write a story. It's impossible to formularise what makes a good script, although you can single out many of the elements that must appear in some combination to make a tale a good one.
Some of the points are: -
THE HOOK: What grabs the reader and makes him/her want to continue reading? What makes your story interesting, different? Is it the angle it's written from, the fresh perspective it gives an old subject, the message you wanted to get across? A good story needs a good hook. What makes it a story and not just a record of events and occurrences?
STYLE: In what style will your story written - from which point of view? It could be told as third-person or as first-person tale. The latter is a more difficult style to choose - a certain consistency is necessary, and it makes things very difficult when you want to describe simultaneous action. Will you tell your story humorously, bluntly, over-dramatically? Decide before you write it - and stick to your decision.
ACTION: If your story lacks action - and you want to write for comics - you had better have a re-think! A certain amount of action is almost obligatory, but it must occur naturally and spontaneously, enhancing the actual story. Gratuitous action is a bore, generally speaking. Usually the action high-point is immediately before the climax or prior to the twist. Even comics such as SPIDER-MAN which has a reputation for playing up the no-super-hero aspects of the hero's life - relies very heavily on action.
CHARACTERS: In comics you have a very limited space for developing and expanding your characters. Generally, you have to take the strongest points and emphasise them. The HERO is the most important character, and he shouldn't be upstaged by other characters. Action stems from the hero - he is the motivator. The story must not just 'happen' around him - he must play a positive role.
STORY TWISTS: This point is related to what I said earlier about writing a story rather than just a record of events. Readers must be intrigued by your story, so you need unexpected developments that will keep them reading. But again these must appear naturally and spontaneously - it's no use just grafting on a story twist, because it won't read properly.
SETTING: If the reader isn't to become bored, scenes must constantly change, be seen from different angles. Usually it's the writer who decides the view for any particular picture, although an increasing number of artists are taking this responsibility on themselves. Change mustn't be introduced just for the sake of it - change should help the flow of the story, it should be a logical procession as the story unfolds.
EMOTION/HUMOUR: These add greatly to a story, but again they mustn't be forced on it externally. They should complement a story, not interfere with it.
However, even taking all of the above into consideration, there's still something extra needed for a proper story to result from the mixture - and that's the something special you've put into writing it. Writing a story is often like completing a jigsaw puzzle - you have all the pieces but where do they fit? The best writers, the best storytellers, are the ones who put the pieces of the jigsaw together in their own individual styles. I'll leave you to it now. But remember, when you eventually type up that 'definitive version' of your story ready for editorial submission . . . read it through just once more before sending it to people like me!
ARTWORK, LAYOUT & STORYTELLING
Marvel is in the same business as Aristotle - the business of telling stories. Our business will continue to grow if we continue to tell good stories well.
Newcomers to the medium often make two very fundamental mistakes:-
1. That comic strip is easy to read and therefore easy to write and/or edit. It is not. Never underestimate the task.
2. That you will succeed in the medium by creating pretty pictures. The artwork is there to tell a story and if it does not - it fails, no matter how powerfully, or prettily, drawn.
It is not important for a page to look attractive in itself. Marvel Comics are produced to tell stories and, thereby, entertain children - they are more likely to end up in the dustbin than hang in the Tate. Artists need reminding of this fact as often as possible. Always remember that comic art is commercial art and, therefore, not above criticism. Look upon every page as a page of work-in-progress. If the artist is not doing the job properly, then it is the editor's job to send the work back until they get it right!
Page layouts should always be simple and easy to follow. Always bear in mind that comics are read from left to right and from top to bottom. Take a look at Example 1 and you will see a selection of simple-and-easy-to-follow 'Kirby layouts'. If there is an element on the comic page that distracts the reader from the story, then somebody has got his or her priorities in the wrong order.
Inset or overlapping frames, pages that 'bleed' and 'Buscema layouts' (see Example 2) should be avoided at all times.
Oblong shaped frames are very easy on the eye (consider the shape of a cinema screen), however, this does not mean that every frame should be an oblong. Always remember that a square frame is, effectively, an oblong frame, once dialogue has been added. It is not the job of the letterer to place balloons and captions. It is the job of the penciller to do so and it is the job of the editor to make sure that he knows
it. In general, pencillers should be advised to leave the top third of a frame free of any important action or detail. Balloons float up, after all, and any balloons that are placed over important action are conflicting with priority one.
PANEL LAYOUTS (CLICK TO SEE BIGGER VERSIONS)
contents copyright (C) 2006 Alan Grant, Richard Starkings & Lee Sullivan.
Website design - you guessed it - Lee Sullivan