Monday, June 11, 2012

THE INNER LIFE OF COMIC BOOK PANELS: How to Write the Way I Write, Part 4

It's been a crazy few days here.

My father had an aggressive tumor removed from his face, and is not allowed to talk for a week because it might rip the stitches loose on the reconstruction. (I loaned him my laptop for the duration. He's getting a huge kick out of the text-to-speech function. I don't think it makes up for not being able to eat solid food, but it's a start.)

I'm under the gun to get a screenplay finished for a possible indie film production. It's due Friday.

And, least on the list of worries but still a source of stress, we discovered that a stray cat somehow wound up dead in our pool. I choose to believe the cat lost the will to live and committed suicide; an alternate theory is that the hawk that hunts behind our house nabbed it and accidentally dropped it in the pool. In either case, it's buried at the back of our property now. Rest in peace, Unknown Cat. Better luck next time, SeƱor Hawk. (That's why my cats don't go outside.)

I also had occasion this week to take a look at a few scripts from an aspiring comics writer. Now, this is not something I do ordinarily, but I made an exception in this instance, and navigated my way through his three samples. And while the ideas were good, it rapidly became apparent that this writer - through no fault of his own - was just plain unaware of how to construct a comic book script. His scripts were non-viable because there was simply no way for an artist to draw them. He had violated many of the Rules of Writing For Comics.

(These could probably be called "Jolley's Rules of Writing For Comics," but that would sound really egotistical...and yet applicable, since I'm the one delineating them. See, this is why I resisted writing a blog for so long.)

Anyway. I had planned first to go over how to break a story down so that it always fits neatly into the number of pages you have allotted for your script, but I think it may be more important to cover the proper construction of a panel first. So here we go.

a) You must think of your panel as a snapshot. The image it presents, while it might depict objects in motion, cannot depend on the actual motion of those objects.
b) Describe everything that is necessary for the artist to put in the panel, and nothing that isn't.

The a) part...

A comic book script is broken down into Pages, Panels, Dialogue, Captions, and Sound Effects - often written "SFX." (And occasionally Thought Balloons, though I don't care for Thought Balloons and try my hardest never to use them. They tend to make writers lazy.)

First: PAGES. Ideally, each page of your script should correspond to one page in the comic (your editor will thank you for that), and should let the artist and the editor know how many panels are on that page. So the first page of your script starts out:

PAGE ONE: five panels


PAGE ONE: three panels


PAGE ONE: splash page

Or whatever. It's important to put the number of panels right up there at the top, because that's what the artist looks at first, when he or she is designing the layout of the page. And artists are human, just like anybody else, and can make mistakes. If an artist designs a beautiful layout for a four-panel page, only to realize that the page actually has five panels, there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth as he does a bunch of erasing and starts over. Head that off right from the beginning. Put the number of panels right up there.

The Page heading is followed by the panel headings, panel descriptions, any dialogue, any captions, and any SFX. The script for the panel you see up there at the top of the page, from Bloodhound #3, looks like this (colored blue to make it stand out here - comic scripts are in black):

Panel 3
REVERSE ANGLE, so that we’re looking up at Saffron and Clevenger; they make quite a pair here. Saffron’s leaning over the desk a bit, bracing herself with one arm on its surface, while displaying her FBI credentials with the other. Her expression is one of icy, unyielding determination. Clevenger stands about a pace behind her, TOWERING over her with his arms crossed, staring down past her at the manager.
SAFFRON:            Take a good look at us, Mr. Gorman.
SAFFRON:            Try and guess which one enjoys having his time wasted the most.

Each panel of your comic needs to be described as if it's a still photo taken from a movie. You cannot have actual motion in there; you cannot have a panel description that reads like this:

Sally stands in front of Mr. Woolrich. As he talks, she pulls out her pocket watch, checks the time, and replaces it.

That would be THREE panels: Sally standing there, and then Sally looking at her pocket watch, and then Sally putting the watch back in her pocket.

Now, this is not to say that you can't have a ton of stuff going on in your panels. I'm reminded of one of Mark Millar and Frank Quitely's panels in The Authority, in which one character stands in the foreground at the left side of the panel, and has just fired an arrow. In the mid-ground, a character with wings has just swooped down and is delivering a punishing blow to a bad guy. And in the background, another character is catching the arrow fired by the guy in the foreground. (I may not be recalling that with 100% accuracy, but you get the idea.)

Early stories in The Authority tended to read like summer blockbuster action movies. In any given panel, there could be four or five amazing things happening, but the panels were still described like snapshots - like good sports photography, for example, as a football player catches a touchdown pass, or as an MMA fighter lands a knockout punch.

Or, to shift gears entirely, like this:

Photograph by Eddie Adams
You've probably seen that before, but in case you haven't, it's a famous photo taken during the Vietnam War, and captures the exact moment that a vicious murderer is shot in the head by a South Vietnamese general.

Add the Sound Effect BLAM right above the pistol, and it's a comic book panel.

Another thing to be aware of is the ANGLE from which you choose to describe your panel.

Now, you don't necessarily have to choose an angle at all; you can, if you prefer, rely on the artist for some of the angles and placement of objects and characters in the panel. You could have a panel description like so:

Panel 4
Simmons comes charging into the boardroom, frothing at the mouth.

You're not specifying there how close the "camera" is to Simmons, or where it is in the boardroom. You're leaving that up to the artist. When you get the panel back, you might get a broad shot of the room as Simmons bursts in, or a close-up on Simmons, or Simmons might just be partially visible in the background while most of the panel is taken up by a super-tight shot of a fish in a fishbowl on the table. Most of the time that's fine (and you can't complain if you didn't specify)...

...but if it's important to your story that, let's say, Simmons' eyes are bloodshot, and you need to see that in Panel 4, then you need to get more specific with your POV (Point of View):

Panel 4
We're in the boardroom. POV is right in front of the double doors, as Simmons bursts through them. This is a pretty close shot of Simmons' face, from maybe two feet away, and we can see that his eyes are badly bloodshot. He's also frothing at the mouth.

If you need to see that Simmons' eyes are bloodshot, then you do NOT write a panel description like this:

Panel 4
Simmons bursts into the boardroom, his eyes bloodshot, froth in the corners of his mouth. The other board members all react in panic, some scrambling up out of their chairs, some diving under the table.

If the artist is going to depict all the board members freaking out and scrambling to get away, he will have to use a broad angle, with a POV near the wall opposite the doors, or maybe up near the ceiling. He will NOT be able to show all those people's reactions AND be close enough to see Simmons' bloodshot eyes.

An artist I was working with described to me a very troubling panel description he was handed at one point. It was a full-panel page, or "splash" page, depicting a huge crowd that stretched as far as the eye could see down a broad city street. Hovering high in the air, keeping watch over the crowd, were three superheroes.

See the problem?

If the crowd stretches away as far as the eye can see, you're looking at the crowd - probably from a slightly elevated POV, like on a balcony or standing on top of a car - and you're NOT looking up in the sky.

If you're looking up in the sky to see the superheroes hovering up there, you're NOT looking down at the crowd. It drove the artist crazy.

Essentially, in order to write good panel descriptions, you have to learn to think visually. You have to see each panel in your head, or at least a close approximation of it, in order to describe it in such a way that an artist can depict it properly (and without making the artist want to kill you in your sleep).

And now: the b) part!

A good, solid panel description has one purpose: it must give the artist every single bit of information he needs to illustrate the panel. The description doesn't have to be elegantly worded; it doesn't have to be funny; it doesn't have to make you sound smart. It ONLY has to inform the artist. (Not to say that panel descriptions shouldn't be all of those things. They just don't have to be.)

Comics is a highly collaborative medium, though, and artists can and often do contribute as much to the storytelling as the scriptwriter. Depending on the artist, whoever you're working with will probably enjoy having the creative freedom to add to the work.

Let's say you're introducing a bad guy - we'll call him SHEMP - and you want to show him in a seedy hotel room. It might not matter what the hotel room is like, other than seedy. If that's the case, then your panel description can be something like this:

Panel 1
Broad shot of a seedy hotel room. SHEMP, 40, a guy who looks like an old, fat version of Tim Allen, sits on the edge of the bed in his boxer shorts, holding a mostly empty bottle of whisky. He's staring dully at the floor.

That's all you need. Now, given that description, the artist can have a field day: he gets to decide what the decor of the room is, he can put a piece of art on the wall, he can draw little cockroaches scuttling across the floor, whatever. He can create, and if everything works properly, it will add to the story.

On the other hand, if there's something specific about this hotel room that's important to the story, you HAVE to put that in there.

Panel 1
Broad shot of a seedy hotel room. SHEMP, 40, a guy who looks like an old, fat version of Tim Allen, sits on the edge of the bed in his boxer shorts, holding a mostly empty bottle of whisky. He's staring dully at the floor. On a table beside his bed is a HIGH-TECH DEVICE that's startlingly out of place with the rest of the room; it's like a cross between a birdcage and a juke box, and is about the size of an average desktop printer. THREE SMALL, ROUND LIGHTS glow RED on the device's base.

So the weird, futuristic machine is important to the story; it's fully described in the script, and you can (usually) count on the artist to put it in there where it's supposed to go.

But you STILL don't get any more specific about the hotel room, because it's not crucial to the story.

Let's change scenes. If you've got a guy jogging through Central Park, and the only important things are that it's this particular guy and that he's jogging, you can say this:

Panel 1
BRIAN STEVENS, 30, a blonde, blue-eyed, very fit man in a track suit, jogs through Central Park. It's an ordinary day, and people go about their regular business.

The artist can determine the angle and the distance from which you're looking at Brian Stevens, how many other people to draw, anything he wants. A lot of artists will tell little stories in the background; you might get the panel back and see that the artist has added a small boy holding a balloon, running from a smaller girl who clearly wants the balloon back. Or maybe your main character is jogging past a young man in the process of proposing to his (horrified) girlfriend. It's an open invitation to be creative.

If it's raining, however, and your guy is still jogging...for one thing, that says something about his character, and for another thing, the people in Central Park will be greatly decreased in number and motivations to be there. With this panel description:

Panel 1
BRIAN STEVENS, 30, a blonde, blue-eyed, very fit man in a track suit, jogs through Central Park. It's RAINING. There aren't many people out and about, but Brian is oblivious to the rain.

Now you're inviting the artist to add, say, an umbrella salesman. Or some businessman who's just lost his job, walking home, soaking wet and dejected. Or a drug dealer leaning against a tree, trying and failing to look casual.

Or you might just get Brian Stevens jogging in the rain, with no other people around him.

ONE THING TO NOTE: this philosophy of "everything you need, nothing you don't," is not shared by all comic book writers. Some writers put a TON of freedom in the artist's hands - more than I'm comfortable with, honestly. I saw a script years ago that had this description:

PAGES 11 - 14
Collins approaches the beast's lair.

As far as I'm concerned, that's just lazy. That's putting almost the entire burden of constructing the story on the artist's shoulders. If you're going to do that, you should list the artist as co-writer.

On the flip side, some writers go into meticulous, exhaustive detail about every single thing you see in every single panel. Alan Moore is famous for this. If he puts a scene in a library, chances are good that he'll list the titles on every single one of the books you can see on the shelves. He'll describe every article of clothing that every character is wearing, and how they're wearing it. He'll tell you how each pillow is arranged on a bed, and maybe the pattern of the lace on the window curtains.

Now, this is Alan Moore we're talking about here. He's comics royalty. He's practically a demi-god. He wrote my single favorite comic book in the history of ever: Batman: The Killing Joke. (And yes, I know Moore doesn't like The Killing Joke anymore, but I still love it.)

But I also heard a comics artist say, regarding Moore's scripting style, "Jesus Christ. Just draw it yourself."

It is, of course, up to you to figure out what your style will be.

What I've described here is just How To Write the Way I Write.

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