6X6 POINTERS FOR WRITERS
The deed is done. The sample script for acceptance to our annual 6x6 anthology is posted. Artists are reading and rereading it as we speak. Soaking it in. Pressing pencil to paper, or turning on their tablets and blowing dust off their stylus. Because we announced the theme along with the opening of submissions, writers have already had a few weeks to brainstorm their stories. What I’ve found is that most writers will hold onto the script, editing and rolling it over, until the last week before the deadline. For those writers, I thought I would offer some advice.
For many of you, I hope this is your first comic book script. That’s part of the mission of 6x6, and a bulk of the fun. We want to provide an opportunity for people to dip their toe into comic book scripting, test the water, see if they like the temperature. Along the way they’ll pick up tips on self-publishing and working with an artist as well. However, if this is your first script, chances are you’re more than a little intimidated. Last week I posted one of my scripts, so you could see how I format (not industry standard, by the way). I thought this week I’d talk about some beginning mistakes I’ve made and continue to see, some shortcuts I’ve found, and some lessons I’ve learned.
1) Don’t be too wordy. You don’t want to cram a paragraph into a panel. You want the images to have room to breathe. If it takes a paragraph to communicate the action in one individual panel, you might be trying to jam a 32-page comic into 5 pages. Ask yourself if there’s one image that could effectively convey all or most of the words you’re using. Show don’t tell. This is a visual medium after all.
2) Don’t overuse narration. This goes right along with the first one, of course, but it’s worth pointing out. If you haven’t written a script before, odds are you’re coming from a prose background. Heavy narration tends to be a crutch, or a tool for transition, for writers coming from a short story or novel background. They’re used to their narration being the brush that paints the setting, the look of the characters, and the action. If you’re tempted to put a narrator, ask yourself why. Does it help justify the story? Does the twist not work without a detached party? Are the inner thoughts of the main character crucial to the mood or the story? Is this information something I could be communicating with concise images and trust in my artist? Stuff like that.
3) Don’t narrate an action we’re currently seeing. I know we just talked a lot about narrators, but even a story without a narrator could have the main character saying “I went outside to chop some wood,” laid over a panel showing him outside, chopping wood. If an image clearly communicates what’s happening, it’s kind of condescending to explain it as well. Comic book readers are some of the most intelligent readers, because the format requires more assumption than prose. They’ll understand that he’s chopping wood. This is another chance for me to say, “Trust your artist.”
4) Don’t try to tell a 32-page story in 5 pages, as I said before. For a story to be complete and uncluttered, it should be the sort of thing MEANT to be 5 pages. Many times I’ve tried to cram what is essentially a first issue into 5 or so pages. If that sort of story is what you’re dead set on telling, try to think of it as a scene from that larger book, but one that communicates character and probably has a beginning, middle, and end. That leads to:
5) Try working backwards. Well, not strictly backwards, but it helps when your page count is limited. Do a rough outline or thumbnails that starts with where you want to end up, and work backwards from there. If you go back and look at the script I posted last week, it opens with a page breakdown. That was to remind myself what information needed to be communicated on each page, before my long-winded self could even start sending my characters on tangents. I usually conceptualize page 1, then 5, then work backwards from there. “Oops, it doesn’t feel like the middle is fitting into 3 pages!” By working backwards, I’m less connected to material and able to make efficient cuts with my brain instead of my heart.
6) Set the scene. Remember that a reader starts with NO CONTEXT for where the story takes place or what to expect. Opening with panels intended to reveal the setting and the characters’ physical relationship to it helps the reader to get their bearings. It’s possible to open or tell a complete story entirely in close-up, but if done wrong it imparts a sort of seasickness.
7) Every odd-numbered page should end with a question or a cliffhanger. This doesn't apply to you guys so much, because you don't know where in the anthology your story will land, but odd number pages should prompt the reader to turn the page, instinctively. If you give them a choice, they might just put the book down because they have to pee. I also believe you can end in a gag or punchline, but I’m pretty passionate about the power of laughter. I doubt that most industry professionals would agree with me.
8) Read these: Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative by Will Eisner, and The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics by Dennis O’Neill. They’ll tell you all the stuff I just said, but they’ll be more convincing and use visual examples.
I’m going to stress before I go that these are just things I notice when I’m reading first-time scripts, and examples of a process that works for ME exclusively, because that’s my only real point of reference. Please let me know if you find any of this helpful in the comments below. Feel free to share lessons you’ve learned during your process as well!
Also, tune in tomorrow for a special BONUS BLOG by Shivertown artist and 6x6 co-editor, Shanae Lavelle, called "6x6 Pointers for Artists!"