Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Top 10 Writing Tips for Comic Book Writers

Terrific article by Kristen Simon.



This entry is for writers, so they can understand why great art and a great concept is the LEAST of what they need to worry about. Over the past few months, it's come to my attention that a lot of the proposals I'm getting in are exhibiting the same writing flaws. As someone dear to me once told me, great art draws the audience to the book, but great writing keeps them coming back. As I mentioned in my last entry (5 biggest mistakes made when submitting), we expect submissions to be of professional caliber. In an age where getting published has become easier and easier (print on demand, the internet), publishers need to maintain their standards. If you are submitting to Shadowline (or Image Central, Marvel or DC), you are stating that your work is of professional caliber. I can't tell you how many times I have received a proposal and had to e-mail the writer back and ask them what the story was about. They send a plot synopsis, but fail to tell the STORY (and, yes, there is a difference. If you don't know what that difference is, you're not ready for professional work). A proposal that says "This minor character may end up helping the main character down the road" tells us that you have no idea where the story is going! I'm going to list the flaws that are most common, both with proposals and with the scripts I see:

1. THE BASICS: Believe it or not, we see it all the time, "writers" who do not understand proper sentence structure, let alone basic plotting (and we won't even go into spelling or punctuation). Syntax, grammar and tense are as basic to a writer as perspective and composition are to an artist. Most professional writers we know keep a copy of Strunk and White on their desks for a reason. A lifetime of reading comics no more makes you a writer than an artist. If you don't understand the basics, you need more study.

2. PACING: There are many ways to pace a story depending on the story you're trying to tell. Y the Last man would be paced differently than a Looney Toons story which would be different than an X-Men tale. One simple rule of thumb that applies to ALL stories; it is the first law of journalism: DON'T BURY YOUR LEAD! "I was born twice." Pull the reader in immediately, or lose them forever. A very simple format for action stories (thus, most comics) is: Action-break-action-break-cliffhanger/resolution. Weave the sub-plot in and out. You need to have the proper amount of drama and action to not only balance out the story, but to keep the readers reading.

3. HYPE: The proposal is overflowing with hype. Questions are posed, and answers aren't given. Why is this a problem? Because we are not the audience, we're the publisher/editor! We need to know what the payoff is. We need to know what happens, so we can judge if it's worth the read. Tell us the ending. Yes, we want to know that Bruce Willis is actually dead, even if the audience doesn't find out until the very end.

4. SUCCINCTNESS: The ability to summarize in a paragraph what the series is about. I realize this is hard for writers, because they are naturally attuned to details. But every concept has a basic core. And it goes beyond "X-Files meets Barney with a dash of Star Trek thrown in". Being able to tell someone (briefly) what your series is about is crucial! Writing is a SKILL. We need to know what the story is. The story is the dramatic impetus of the characters. What makes them do what they do? What motivates them? Why should we care about what happens to them? What happens in the course of the story to change them? One of the things that always seems to amaze writers is when I can sum up their entire series in one sentence.

5. OVERWRITING: Too much dialogue on the pages (the "I want to write like Bendis" syndrome). You can't pass off bad writing as "style". We can see right through it. You can list all the examples you want, and believe me, I've heard them all (this is how Ennis writes, this is how Millar does it, etc. etc.)...the problem is that whoever is submitting this proposal is NOT who they are imitating. Bendis isn't all about dialogue. Ennis isn't all about weirdly formatted scripts. They actually KNOW how to write! A quote from Robert McKee's book STORY (a book all novice writers should read over and over again): "As for technique, what the novice writer mistakes for craft is simply his unconscious absorption of story elements from every novel, film or play he's ever encountered. As he writes, he matches his work by trial and error against a model built up from accumulated reading and watching. The unschooled writer calls this "instinct," but it is merely habit and it's rigidly limiting. He either imitates his mental prototype or imagines himself in the avant-garde and rebels against it. But the haphazard groping toward or revolt against the sum of unconsciously imagined repetitions is not, in any real sense, technique, and leads to screenplays clogged with clichés of either the commercial or art house variety."

6. POOR TRANSITIONS. As any writer knows, poor pacing can kill your book. You need to start it of with a bang, and then stick with the highs and lows that keep the audience reading, and then end with a cliffhanger. Transitions are what keep the audience from noticing that that's what is happening. Transitions can be anything from a caption box ("Meanwhile, back at the ranch...") to dialogue. Dialogue transition is when you end on half a sentence, and then finish it off in the next scene. Two different conversations, same sentence ("Wait! That's not a box, it's a...." "...bomb the enemy, we have no choice!"). Sub-plots are your friend, so introduce them properly.

7. INTRODUCING CHARACTERS. Every issue is someone's first. You NEED to re-introduce your characters in every issue. Whether it's by another character using their name in conversation, or by a caption box. It has to be done. This also applies to solicitation text. If we don't know who Danny IS, why should we care if he has a life-altering decision to make? Do not assume familiarity on the audience's part.

8. UNNECESSARY SPLASH PAGES. Splash pages actually serve a purpose. They are dramatic, and visually stimulating. Use them when appropriate, do not use them because you haven't used one in a while, or because you need to spice up a low-key scene. Splashes and bleeds should convey the most dramatic moments—you're going WIDE-Screen with them, make certain that they serve a purpose.

9. BOLDING. You can pick out the experienced writers from the novices with this simple rule. Novices often forget to bold, or they bold the wrong words. Bolding establishes cadence in the reader's heads. It gives the characters a voice without the reader even noticing. When bolding, it often seems like too much. But when you stop and examine how you talk in life, you realize that you place emphasis on certain words. But when you stop and examine how you talk in life, you realize that you place emphasis on certain words. But when you stop and examine how you talk in life, you realize that you place emphasis on certain words. Speak your dialogue aloud or cast your script with famous actors. Note the inflection in their voice. Remember: your characters are your actors, the more distinct and natural you write them, the more believable they'll be to the reader.

10. OVER-WRITING PART TWO: Too much detail in the panel descriptions! Do you trust the storytelling abilities of your artist or not? You should, if he's up to snuff. The only time you should consider putting a lot of detail in your panel descriptions is if there is something VERY specific that you are looking for, or if you have no idea who your artist is yet. A good working relationship between artist and writer takes a bit to develop. But you need to allow the artist freedom to do what he does best, which is illustrate the story you are telling. A good artist should have a firm grasp on what perspective to draw from, which dynamic looks the best, and what would best be interpreted by the reader. (and none of you are Alan Moore, so please refrain from citing him as an example! When you write a book as well-received as Watchmen, then you can do whatever the hell you want)

If you can manage to get past all these mistakes, then not only will you improve your chances of getting published, but you'll probably have the foundation of a solid writing career going for you. Don't be cocky. Don't think that the rules don't apply to you. A good writer follows all of the above. And believe me, we can tell when a writer knows how to write or not!


Brian M Logan

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