Sam’s Comic Cheat Sheet – Writer Sam Ruano’s Tips of the Comic Trade
by Sam Ruano
There’s an old Stephen Wright Joke that goes “Two guys walk into a bar… you figure the second guy would have seen it”. The joke works because it makes you an accomplice. You picture it and by doing so you fill in a blank, connect a dotted line, draw a conclusion. Writing for comics is a lot like this. It’s first and foremost about writing for a visual medium but the great ones make the reader an active participant. Volumes have been written about the art of writing visually but for our purposes I’d like to create a short cheat sheet to help you hit the ground running. When I sat down to write my script for Holmes Inc, the first thing that came to mind was format. Opinions and styles vary but it helps to consider your script as the blueprint for a dialog between you and the artist, even if that artist is you. Description tells the artist what to draw.
Some people like to keep it casual and conversational while other writers take a more traditionally filmic approach. Either way, your objective is to write for images that fit inside a panel. Think of your panel as a camera lens. Shot angles, length, width and depth are all tools you will use to make your story visually interesting so cut down on long drawn out conversations and repeated static images. Variety and juxtaposition are your best friends; use them often. The screenwriter’s adage of “Show. Don’t tell” is just as applicable here as it is on screen so have your characters doing something as much as possible. If there’s no way around a static scene try to keep it under three panels.
If your panel is a camera lens, consider yourself more of an editor than a cameraman. You’re responsible for setting the pace of the story while the illustrator generally ensures the artwork in each panel flows into the next and that the page as a whole maintains design continuity. You are only limited to the space on a page but keep in mind that one page generally consists of six panels. You can add or subtract panels depending on their size but make sure it helps moves the story forward. If you have an extreme close-up that takes up half the page it better reveal or expose something important about the character or situation.
Always keep the reader in mind and let every panel tell. It’s easy to get disoriented if you show three close-ups in a row so remember to pull back once in a while to let the reader know where the scene is set. You can start wide and push in or reverse that but every choice you make places makes a difference in what you want to emphasize. Don’t be afraid to think outside the panel. While generally speaking you only have room for one action in a single frame, with the artists help you can make up all sorts of special effects like Bruce Banner transforming into the hulk or Spidey moving so fast it looks as though there are five of him.
One last word on pacing, Writers, don’t be afraid of silence. You don’t need dialog in every panel as long as the panel is doing its job – telling a story. So break out of the panels, stretch them, shrink them or erase them completely. Find a style that works for you because the only rule is to tell the story.
Here are some great resources that always help me in a pinch.