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Monday, April 6, 2009

Writing for Comic Books, Part 8: The Differences Between Writing Comics and Writing Prose

In the comments section of last week's column, WaterBoy asked if I would discuss the different approaches required to write for the various comic book genres. I don't know how well I could have discussed the different approaches, but I was to going to try that today. Along the way, I ended up going in an unintended, though probably more useful, direction.

What are the comic book genres and how do the comic book genres differ from their prose cousins? At one point, I would have said that the superhero genre was the only genre found in comic books but not in novels. A few minutes at any bookstore will show that superheroes aren't just for comic books any more. Besides the novels featuring traditional superheroes such as Spider-Man and Batman, more and more novels are being published featuring characters never before seen in comic books. The most recent such book I've read (well, listened to as an audio book) is Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman. I've also seen a book about a therapist who works exclusively with superheroes, though I cannot remember the title or author. There are many more examples.

Given that comic books and traditional prose touch on all the same genres, perhaps it would be better to discuss the general differences between writing comic books and writing prose. I've never written a novel, but you all know I've written plenty of short stories. I'll be contrasting how I approach writing a short story to writing a comic book.

Comic books, like movies, are a visual medium. Two people just sitting at a table and talking through out the entire comic book is likely to be boring. Yes, I know that this was done in a movie but I wouldn't recommend trying it in a comic book without a truly amazing script. However, "action" doesn't have mean page after page of fights and car chases. You can make a visually interesting character development scene by applying some imagination.

In one issue of the Southern Knights, I used a backyard cookout as the setting for a character development scene. I made sure the backyard had a swimming pool so the characters were wearing bathing suits. (Based on my fan mail, that made my female readers just as happy as my male readers.) While two characters were talking, the background had other characters diving or flipping burgers. None of the action was exactly exciting, but it was much more visually interesting than a typical "talking heads" scene.

This doesn't mean you can't use talking heads every now and then. It just means you should use them sparingly.

Suspension of Disbelief
Reading science fiction is said to require a willing suspension of disbelief. Within reason, science fiction fans are quite willing to suspend their disbelief. There are limits beyond which even science fiction fans are unwilling to go, at least where traditional prose is concerned. Comic book fans may have limits to their suspension of disbelief, but those limits do not restrict a comic book writer's imagination very much.

As an example, let's use the story we developed in the third, fourth and fifth columns. The story opens with the Southern Knights battling against two Battlemech style walking weapons of mass destruction. In the third column, I wrote the following:
Why are the big robots attacking? I don't know nor do I care.
Just think about that. The "big robots" that are attacking represent an amazingly advanced technology. They would require vast resources -- money, manpower and manufacturing -- to create. We're talking about rich first-world government resource levels here. Even if you assume some major criminal organization could manage to create something like the mechs, why in God's name would they attack Atlanta, GA? Despite that, no reader would have even wondered where the mechs came from, much less their motivation for attacking Atlanta. We're not talking about a mere suspension of disbelief. This is more like the complete removal of the part of the brain that governs disbelief.

Want another example? Superman takes off the tights and cape, puts on a suit and a pair of glasses then goes to work at a newspaper. Despite being surrounded by intrepid investigative reporters, not one of them sees through this "disguise."

Comic book readers are sticklers about certain things. If a writer messes with the a character's continuity, they'll scream bloody murder. But they won't get particularly worked up about "reality" as long as your book is internally consistent.

A Picture Really Is Worth 1000 Words
Consider the following lines from my Friday Challenge short story The Nomod:
"That's enough, Guard," I said sharply. "You may wait outside the office. I'll call should this man start to get any of your ideas."
The line conveys the character's tone and emotion without any problems. How would you write that same line for a comic book?

Sure, you can write the same words spoken by the character. They'll work just fine in a word balloon. What you cannot write in a comic book are the words "...I said sharply." Exactly how do you convey to the reader the same tone and emotion in a comic book? You don't. Your artist does. Sure, your plot or script will tell the artist that the character is speaking sharply, but passing that tone and emotion on the reader is completely out of your control. I suppose you could have the character who was spoken to respond with something along the lines of "There's no need to speak so sharply!" or have a caption that reads "The sharp words stung the guard's ears." Frankly, both of those options suck.

When writing comic books, you simply cannot identify all of the emotions and tones that a prose writer conveys with a simple word or two. Your script would be clunky and rather irritating to read if you tried. You can get away with describing tone and emotions every now and then, but it's got to be natural. Something like "Don't take that tone with me, young man!" or "Are you always this sarcastic?" are fine every now and then. But only every now and then. Other than working with a really good artist -- always recommended -- what can you do to convey tone and emotion?

First, avoid subtle emotions as much as possible. There's little chance your artist will be able to convey such subtlety and we've already discussed the pitfalls of trying to describe emotions in a comic book script. I'm not saying subtle emotions are impossible to convey in a comic book, but prepare for confused readers if the subtly is vital to the plot.

Second, write your script to isolate lines when a specific tone is required. Let's take a look at the line from The Nomod, this time written for a comic book script.
Tanner 1: That's enough, Guard!

Tanner 2: You may wait outside the office. I'll call should this man start to get any of your ideas.
By separating Tanner's lines into two word balloons, I can call attention to the sharply spoken line. As the two words balloons are directed to the same character and involve the same subject, you imply a difference in tone between the two word balloons. Most readers will automatically read the sharp tone into the first word balloon because that tone fits their real life experiences.

Third, emphasize words and use punctuation to your advantage. Consider the two lines below. (Note that I'm using bold text for emphasis as that's the way it is handled in comic books.)
Oh dear, how dreadful.

Oh dear, how dreadful!

In the first example, the emphasis on "dear" and the simple period at the end should imply sarcasm to your readers. At the very least, the lack of an exclamation point will indicate the statement doesn't really mean what the words say. In the second example, the emphasis on "dreadful" implies that something dreadful did happen. The exclamation point implies real sincerity.

Emphasis and punctuation are wonderful tools if used properly. At times, they even put the lie to my earlier statement that you cannot convey emotion with your script. Still, the easiest way to convey emotion is to make sure you're working with a very good artist!

Well, here's another column that didn't end up going as I had planned. I hope you found it useful. As usual, post any questions you may have in the comments. Suggestions for future columns will continue to be welcome, as well.
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