Tuesday, August 28, 2012

NAILING THE PAGE COUNT: How to Write the Way I Write, Part 8

Okay, first, my apologies to the six or seven people who read this blog, because I haven't posted anything here in something like six weeks. I don't have an excuse, but I do have fairly decent reasons: in those six weeks, I've landed one prose deal with a major publisher, have another very likely prose deal pending with another major publisher, written a feature film screenplay that's about to be taken out to the market at large, and co-written a TV pilot that has, at the time of this writing, gotten either intense interest or actual offers from three production companies. Plus I got another year older.

It's been kind of busy around here.

But that hectic pace shouldn't have kept me from paying attention to my blog. I'll attempt to remedy that, starting now.

The subject of this post is "Nailing the Page Count," by which I mean, "Making Sure Your Story Fits the Exact Number of Pages Allotted." I don't know if anyone else does this the way I do it, and I don't know if there might be some better way out there. What I do know is that, since figuring this out, making the story fit into sixteen pages, or 48 pages, or 120 pages, whatever, has not been an issue. It has become a built-in, required feature of my creative process when working on a comic book script, and is one of the big reasons I can turn a script around as quickly as I do.

(For a standard, 22-page comic, assuming I'm jazzed about the project, it takes three days. I know there are writers out there who can do an entire script in something like ten or twelve hours, so I freely acknowledge that I'm not breaking any speed records. But in each of those three days, I'm spending between four and six hours each day on it -- not killing myself or swilling Red Bull -- and at the end, I've got a finished product ready to turn in.)

Once I've begun to get a picture in my head of what the story is going to be, the next step involves a sketch book. Mine typically looks like this:

I've had a lot of sketchbooks. They fill up fast.

It's not a huge sketchbook, but it's bigger than the standard 8.5 x 11 inch sheet of typing paper. The actual size doesn't matter too much. Let's call it "large-ish."

Next, I pick a blank page and start drawing rectangles on it, each rectangle representing one page of the script. I draw the first "page" by itself, then hook the rest together two-by-two, so it's readily apparent which pages are facing and which aren't. This arrangement is especially important in knowing, at a glance, which pages end at a page-turn. If possible, you want to put your surprises right after a page turn -- in other words, anything shocking should be at the top of an even-numbered page.

These page-rectangles end up looking something like this:

And yeah, they're sloppy. But no one's going to use this thing but me, so it doesn't matter. You may also note, if you look really closely, that it says "Page 3" at the top. If I'm working on something that goes beyond 22 pages of script, I use additional pages in the sketchbook.

I also number each of the pages, and I put the number at the upper left corner of the page. I started out, long ago, putting the number in the center, but one of the things that happens sometimes is you end up re-numbering some of the page-rectangles. And if you scratch out the old one and write in the new one, it's less confusing if you start the numbers out over at the left side. Plus it makes room for the Scene Letter, which I'll get to shortly.

Now: the next step is writing down, in bullet-point format, the Big Things that you know need to happen in the story. Basically the broad-strokes plot elements - one per scene, more or less. I'm talking about this kind of thing:

• Monster goes on rampage through small town
• Sherlock Holmes gets call as he wraps up other case
• Holmes and Watson arrive in small town
• Investigation
• Second monster rampage
• Holmes finds evidence - end on cliffhanger

Then I give each point a letter:

A - Monster goes on rampage through small town
B - Sherlock Holmes gets call as he wraps up other case
C - Holmes and Watson arrive in small town
D - Investigation
E - Second monster rampage
F - Holmes finds evidence - end on cliffhanger

I write that lettered list down on the same page with the rectangles. It looks like this (taken from when I was writing the Tokyopop movie-tie-in series Priest):

(And yes, that's what passes for my handwriting. Legible? Sure. Artful? Not so much.)

Then - on the same page if possible - I write down a long column of page numbers, 1 - 22. If it's a bigger project, I use another sheet of paper and make multiple columns, 1 - 22, 23 - 44, etc. Leave plenty of space between these columns.

At this point, if you're like me and consider basic arithmetic just barely understandable, you break out a calculator. Divide the number of pages allotted to the script by the number of plot points, and there you have the number of pages you can take for each scene.

In the completely-made-up-on-the-spur-of-the-moment Sherlock Holmes example above, I've got six broad-strokes plot points. That means I divide my standard, 22-page issue by 6, and get 3.67. So, roughly, I've got three and a third pages to accomplish each of those scenes. If you were doing a 48-page comic, but had the same number of plot points, you'd have eight pages for each scene.

That's the average number we've just determined. I can take some pages away from some scenes, and I know others will need more. Now here's where I really start playing around with scene length.

I take that column of page numbers, block off how many I think I'll need for each scene, and write the scene's letter next to it, either with a straight line if it's only one page, or with a little bracket if it takes more than one. It'll look like this:

I use a pencil, and write lightly, because I'll probably have to do some re-jiggering on this. If there are certain scenes that I have a better picture of in my head -- for instance, if I know one is simply a guy who comes bursting into a room and shouts, "THERE'S TROUBLE AT THE MILL!" I'll just give that one page.

Often I get the scenes I'm more sure of assigned first, and then realize I have either way too many pages left over, or not enough for something important. So I erase the lines and brackets and try again. (And if it's a superhero comic, it's a safe bet that some big splashy fight scene will take up a lot of pages, so a lot of times I map out the other scenes first and let the fight take up the excess.)

Once I have each lettered scene assigned to a page or group of pages, I go back to the page rectangles and write that letter at the top of each page in its group. That ends up looking like this:

So! What I've got now is a whole page of rectangles, each representing one page, with the page numbers at the top of each one (so I don't screw up my page count in general) as well as the scene letter. That way I can look at the rectangles, see which scene they go with, and just glance down at the bottom of the sketchbook page, at the scene list, to get reminded of which scene that is.

This is one of the Big Tricks, as far as I'm concerned: just write one scene at a time. Don't drive yourself insane trying to keep the entire work in your head while you're doing it. Just do one scene at a time, which is a much smaller, more manageable task. And if you've gotten this far with my whole Plot Layout thing, you'll always know where you are in the story and what needs to come next.

Okay, now I've got my page-rectangles all lined up and ready to go. What I do next is divide each page up into individual panels, and write little eensy tiny notes in each panel, telling myself what goes there.

(I discovered, many years after I started doing this, that what I've been doing is actually a very basic form of storyboarding. Film directors do this kind of thing too. So it's not as though I came up with anything revolutionary -- as with most of my comics-writing career, this just came about thanks to trial and error.)

Again, this is not a set-in-stone kind of thing. Many times I block out four panels on a page, for example, and then discover that it needs five panels. So I divide one of those four in half, and write even tinier notes.

These notes do not have to be complete sentences. They barely even have to be complete thoughts. I've always been pretty good at coming up with fight scenes on the fly, so a lot of the time I write the word "FIGHT" in the first panel, and then just draw a snaky arrow through the rest of the panels to indicate that the fight needs to go all the way to the end of that page. If I do that, and know the fight ends at the last panel, I'll draw a line in front of the arrow, indicating that that's where it stops.

All of this is stuff I do to minimize, as much as possible, how much I have to think about the story structure while I'm writing the actual script. I don't want to worry about the pacing; I want to know that I've already got the pacing mapped out.

Once I've filled in all the page-rectangles with my scribbly little notes, it looks like this:

This way, when I sit down to write the script itself, I'm only looking at one page at a time. In fact, I'm only looking at one panel at a time. It compartmentalizes the process. All I have to do is glance at the sketchbook, and I know exactly what I'm supposed to be putting into each panel.

What this also does is that it lets me complete an entire first draft, before I ever hit the first keystroke.

When you do a plot layout like this, you're in the story the whole time. Thinking about the ingredients, how they're put together, what effects you're going to achieve. You'll realize things as you're making notes on each page, on each panel -- things that work. Things that don't work. Things that need to be added, or omitted entirely. The story will take a much firmer shape in your head than it did when you first started drawing those empty pages.

Now, I attempted to show this method to an aspiring comic book writer at one point, and was met with scorn and rejection. That's fine. As I've said before in this blog, I'm not saying this is The One and True Way to Write Stuff.

I'm just saying this is How to Write the Way I Write.

(And feel free to leave questions in the comments section if any part of this is unclear.)

No comments: