Thursday, June 14, 2012

CAPTIONS, SCHMAPTIONS: How to Write the Way I Write, Part 5

Got the indie screenplay done and sent off a day ahead of the deadline today, and I thought that meant I was going to have a few days to breathe, but no! Instead I get to devote most of Father's Day Weekend to research for a potential new video game job. Happy to do it, too. Being a freelancer basically means never saying no to legitimate paying work, and this could open a big door for me, so into research land I go.

That doesn't have anything to do with captions.

This entry is about captions, but it also dips back into my last post, in which I discussed panel descriptions in some detail. The part of that entry most relevant to this one was where I said that, when writing a panel description, you need to include everything the artist needs to know to illustrate it, and nothing he doesn't.

How does that tie in with captions, you may ask? Well, allow me to offer another one of Jolley's Rules of Writing for Comics:

Your caption must never provide information already given in the panel description, and vice versa.

In a much earlier entry, I talked about my first real conversation with a comic book editor, in which Dan Thorsland described the script he was reading at that moment. He told me that the panel description specified that a scruffy man in a leather jacket was getting off a bus, holding an oblong box under one arm. The caption accompanying that description was, "The stranger holds an oblong box under one arm."

That's terrible, of course. It's terrible because it's redundant, and because it insults the reader's intelligence. If you can see well enough to read a comic book, you already know, at a glance, that the stranger is holding an oblong box under one arm. You don't need to be told again.

Perhaps worse than being redundant, it blows an opportunity. You could have used that space on the page to tell the reader something about the stranger that they couldn't get just from seeing the illustration. Maybe the other passengers kept hearing his stomach rumble. Maybe he smells really bad. Maybe the driver is glad to see the stranger go because he kept humming the same irritating song over and over. There's no way the illustration could have conveyed any of that, but a caption could. Easily.

Okay, full disclosure: I don't actually use captions very much myself. If I do, they tend to be first-person narration, and sparse at that. There are two reasons for this: first, I enjoy the challenge of telling a story purely with images and dialogue. (The only captions I can think of in Bloodhound, for example, are ones that specify locations.) Second, if I decide to adapt one of my comics into a screenplay - and I have - I find that it's much easier to do if I haven't got captions all over the place.

Above: my kind of panel
AND YET... sometimes I waffle, and think I might be doing myself a disservice by not using captions, because they are a device that's pretty much unique to storytelling through sequential art. They can come in incredibly handy, and can impart information to the reader with a brilliant economy of space.

Look at that: two words, and we have a wealth of information that we wouldn't have had otherwise. Captions can pull that off brilliantly.

Another excellent use of this that you see in comics (and almost nowhere else) is the introduction caption. In a TV show, if a new character shows up, you've got to have someone actually make an introduction - "I'm Agent Henderson, just transferred in from the Hackensack office" - or figure out some other way to let the audience know who this person is. And that other way will have to take up some valuable screen time.

In a comic book, though, you can put a brand new character on the page and introduce him simultaneously. Just put a caption beside him.

Here, let's pretend this is an illustration:

That grumpy-looking person could be anyone, right? And in a movie, or TV show, or stage play, if someone like that wandered out in front of the audience for the first time and started talking, there would probably be a significant part of a scene devoted to establishing the character's identity.

But in comics, you can accomplish this in a split-second, and maybe even go one better by - again - revealing information that the illustration otherwise can't.

HOWEVER, here's an addendum to Rule 2:

If you do use captions, you must not go overboard with them.

There are two reasons for this - one stylistic and one practical.

The stylistic reason: comic books are a visual medium. Your first and foremost method of telling a story HAS to be the art. A picture really is worth a thousand words, and you've got to use that imagery to get your story across. The dialogue and the captions should embroider the images, provide the hooks and fasteners that connect everything and make it whole; they should not be the whole show by themselves. If you find that the substance of your comic book script is 5% panel descriptions and 95% captions and dialogue, maybe you should consider writing a novel instead. (I actually did come to that conclusion about a project at one point, and ended up writing a book. More on that experience will come later on in this blog.)

The practical reason: if you go overboard with captions (and/or dialogue), you'll cover up the art. If you're writing a comic book script, I feel safe in assuming, that is not your goal.

Also, to tie these two reasons together: reading an overly wordy comic book is just not all that much fun. Huge walls of text surrounded by boxes or word balloons are clunky and look out of place. A super-verbose comic book detracts from both the words and the art.

So, you might ask, how much is too much? How do I know when a caption is too long? Well, I can tell you the way I do it.

First off, unless they are very very short, I limit the combined number of captions and word balloons in a panel to four. Four is the maximum, and that's only if I have a page with four or fewer panels on it.

If the page has five panels on it (unless one is much larger than the rest of them), the maximum combined count of word balloons and captions per panel drops to three.

If the page has six or more panels, it drops to two.

And as far as the word count in each caption or word balloon, I've developed a rule of thumb that's served me well (and never caused an editor to complain). I write my scripts in 11-point Times New Roman, and I set up a custom indent so that all of the captions and dialogue bits start at the 2 inch mark. Then I never let them run longer than two lines.

It looks like this (excerpt taken from my Lerner Books graphic novel My Boyfriend Bites):

One last bit to impart (again tying back into my post on panel descriptions): you must understand the difference between information that is conveyed by images and information that is conveyed by captions.

You CANNOT have a panel description that reads like this:

Panel 1
George collapses on the unmade bed, face-down, without even taking off his shoes. He's exhausted. This has been the worst day of his life, and he hates his boss right now.

You can't do that because there is no way for the artist to convey that this has been the worst day of George's life and that he hates his boss. The artist can handle George collapsing on the bed with this shoes on; he can handle giving George the body language to indicate that he's bone-tired. The rest of it does not belong in a panel description, and if you're going to use captions to get it across, it needs to read more like this:

Panel 1
George collapses on the unmade bed, face-down, without even taking off his shoes. He's exhausted.
CAPTION (George):             This has been the worst day of my life.
CAPTION (George):             God, I hate my boss right now.

Working within the space constraints, there are no limits to how much depth you could give this scene. For example...

Panel 1
George collapses on the unmade bed, face-down, without even taking off his shoes. He's exhausted.
CAPTION:                            No one at the office realized how much trouble George was in.
CAPTION:                            None of them had heard the boss's quiet ultimatum.
GEORGE (muffled):             I could kill him. No one would blame me.
GEORGE (muffled):             They might even give me a medal. Heck, a whole parade.

So, to recap: never say anything in the panel description that should go in a caption, and vice versa - and never get so wordy that your captions and dialogue cover up the art because a) it defeats the purpose of a comic book, and b) you'll make your artist want to kill you in your sleep.

And no one wants a homicidal artist.

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