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Building characters

The great comics writer Gail Simone emailed me and a number of other writers yesterday asking if we had one pointer about building characters for a workshop she was about run in Norway. Here’s what I sent her:

I try hard, particularly when introducing a character for the first time, to find that one, small, telling action that defines the character for me. Sometimes it’s big and showy, like the Hulk tearing open his own starship in rage at the beginning of “Planet Hulk.” Sometimes it’s small, like Bruce Wayne just sitting there, quietly watching and waiting while Clark Kent yells at some kids who are bullying another kid in a playground at the beginning of “Batman/Superman.” But in some way that initial action encapsulates the big emotional journey the character’s going to be going on during the course of the story. From that very first moment, the character does something that defines him or her and indicates the conflicts and struggles that he or she will face as a result. Once I figure out this moment, I usually have a pretty good grasp on what I’m doing with a character. If I don’t really nail this moment, then I might be in trouble — I might not have done all the work I need to do to really figure out who this character is, what he or she is trying to do, and what he or she is willing to do to get there.

When I reread that this morning, I found myself nodding and committing to work harder to follow my own advice.

This is why your questions about the process of writing are so interesting and helpful to me — they force me to think about what I do and get better at it.

So thanks, Gail — and thanks, everyone who asks these kinds of questions!

The Five Minute Graphic Novel Writing Primer

By Greg Pak

The fine folks at Script Frenzy were kind enough to invite me to submit some thoughts about comic book writing to their website, which they posted last month. Here’s a repost, in case you missed it. Enjoy!

I came up through independent film as a writer and director, but over the last eight years, I’ve written somewhere around two hundred comic book scripts for big superhero stories like “Planet Hulk,” historical fiction like “Magneto Testament” and “Red Skull Incarnate,” supernatural action like “Dead Man’s Run” for Aspen and Gale Ann Hurd’s Valhalla, and creator owned sci-fi like “Vision Machine.” Every day I’m working on becoming a better writer. Here are a few thoughts and principles that have worked for me along the way.

All those good dramatic writing principles apply

They call them graphic novels, and yes, the medium allows for extended prose, should you choose to use it. But I’d argue that the driving engine of comics is dramatic storytelling. So all of that great advice and training you’ve gotten by reading Lajos Egri’s “The Art of Dramatic Writing” and Syd Field’s “Four Screenplays” and Robert McKee’s “Story” apply. Work those conflicts, tell your story visually, put your characters in motion, know your premise.

Know your ending

I do most of my work in serial comics, meaning I’m writing a 20 page comics script right now that’s one chapter in a longer story. I might not write the end of that longer story for six months or even a year. One of the glories of this kind of comics is that there’s huge space for things to grow and develop organically — entire subplots and characters I never dreamed of when I started might develop down the line. I love this kind of writing. But in order to work this way, I always have to know my ending. If I know how the story ends, I know what my character’s big arc is and I know what the point of the story is — in Egri’s terms, I know my premise. Knowing the ending thus allows me to take advantage of fun twists and turns along the way — I can incorporate new ideas and run down intriguing rabbit holes because I can see how they contribute to the big character arc and premise I’m working with.

More than a screenplay, less than a novel

My comic book scripts tend to be more dense than my screenplays. When I’m writing a screenplay, I’m writing for a billion people, including busy agents, executives, and studio readers. So I’m shooting for lean, efficient, effortless writing that lets people fall into the story and characters and rocket through the read without consciously thinking about camera angles or the specific challenges of the actual filmmaking. A comic book script, on the other hand, is usually read by just a few people, all of whom are directly involved in making the comic book. So my comic book scripts are packed with the kinds of practical notes I’d share with a production designer, actor, and cinematographer. Often I’ll even address letterers, editors and artist by name while making suggestions or asking questions. It’s the most practical way to get things done, particularly since I seldom meet my comic book collaborators face-to-face — 90 percent of our communication happens via email, so it makes sense to front-load script notes into the script.

However (and this is a BIG however), it’s important not to get carried away. A few years back, I realized I was developing a bad habit of describing every darn thing in every panel in way too much detail. That’s one way to make sure you get what you want. But it can be suffocating to artists who want to have the chance to interpret and extrapolate a bit on their own. And as a writer, it’s smart for me to give my artists the room to dream and stretch — they’ll often come up with brilliant images or storytelling solutions that I would never have come up with just by myself.

This is an ongoing challenge for all of us comics writers and exactly how I approach it varies from project to project and artist to artist — different collaborators work better with slightly different approaches. But in general, I’m trying to keep things simpler, to reduce my verbiage, to cut back, to use just a few words if… hey, you know what? I’ll stop right there.

Think about page turns and chapter endings

When writing screenplays, I think about time — the two minute mark, the five minute mark, the fifteen minute mark, the half hour mark, the midpoint. At each of those points, I try to have a hook of some kind, a turning point that resolves some issue and raises a question about what happens next. A similar concept applies to comics, but those marks are determined by the physical form of the book itself. When a reader reaches the end of a page, he or she has to decide whether to turn that page and keep on reading. It’s similar to a person watching a movie and hitting the end of a scene or sequence — keep watching or change the channel?

So at the end of each page in a comics script, I try to create a little bit of drama or suspense. In an action sequence, a punch might be thrown on one page, but the impact isn’t shown until the next. With dialogue, a page might end with an unanswered question, a voice calling from off-panel, or a line begun but not finished until after the page turn.

Similarly, if you’re writing in chapters, you have a great opportunity to build up to nice cliffhangers. In serial comics, cliffhangers are pretty essential. It’s incredibly easy for monthly readers to drop out — it requires enterprise and commitment to go buy the next issue four weeks later. So a memorable, suspenseful cliffhanger that promises not just the next big plot element but some real impact or development for characters we love can be key in keeping a book alive.

Write in chapters

One of the great advantages of making comics is that it’s pretty standard for artists to begin drawing before writers have completed the scripts for the entire series. That’s a great gift for us as writers — we have the chance to see characters come to life before we’ve finished writing the story, which means we can take inspiration and make improvements along the way.
A done-in-one graphic novel is a different creature from a monthly series or miniseries. But by breaking the book into chapters, you can create discrete chunks of story to feed your artist. This not only can make writing more manageable and keep the book on schedule, it also can give you that amazing experience of seeing how you’re writing’s working while you’re still writing.

Listen to your editors

If you’re lucky enough to be working with editors, listen to them. Just about every editor I’ve ever worked with is smart, funny, insightful, and cares deeply about making the book work on every level. When you get stuck on some tiny bit or some massive thematic or character-based question, your editor is the perfect person with whom to bounce ideas around. You may not always agree on everything. You may get frustrated sometimes about things your editor asks you consider or tweak. And particularly when multiple editors are involved, you may have to make a special effort to remember what your story is really about and why you’re writing it as you juggle disparate suggestions. But if you open yourself up a bit, a good, ongoing back-and-forth with your editor will save you hours and make the book so much better. Editor Mark Paniccia was a phenomenal partner in crime on “Planet Hulk.” Editors Warren Simons and Alejandro Arbona were absolutely critical for “Magneto Testament” and “Red Skull Incarnate,” respectively. And my current editors, Jeanine Schaefer on “X-Treme X-Men” and Ellie Pyle on “Doctor Strange Season One,” are making those books so much better every day with their advice and ideas.

Know and love your artists and tailor your writing to help them do their best work

Your artist is your actor, production designer, and cinematographer. He or she is going to bring that script to life, so if you’re lucky enough to know who’s drawing your book, keep his or her style and preferences in mind as you write. It’s also smart to keep track of things your artist might struggle with and tailor your script accordingly. If you artist has trouble with multiple things going on in a single frame, try to break things down into multiple panels. If your artist may not be the best at certain kinds of emotions or expressions, think about ways of staging that convey that emotion without requiring big close-ups. And if your artist speaks English as a second language or you know the script will be translated, make a special effort to keep your prose simple and clear.

I constantly see good artists produce breathtakingly great work when they’re matched with stories that challenge and inspire them and writers they love. With a little thought about your artist’s needs and preferences, you can write that story and be that writer.

© 2012 Greg Pak

Greg Pak is an award-winning writer and filmmaker best known for his feature film “Robot Stories” and comic book storylines such as “Planet Hulk,” “Incredible Hercules” (with Fred Van Lente), “Magneto Testament,” and “Red Skull Incarnate.” Pak was named one of 25 Filmmakers to Watch by Filmmaker Magazine, described as “a talent with a future” by the New York Times, and named “Breakout Talent” of the year by Wizard Magazine. Pak is currently writing “X-Treme X-Men” and “Doctor Strange Year One” for Marvel and “Dead Man’s Run” for Gale Anne Hurd’s Valhalla and Aspen Comics. His sci fi graphic novel “Vision Machine” can be downloaded for free at www.visionmachine.net and will debut as an iPad app later this year. For more about Pak, visit www.gregpak.com and twitter.com/gregpak .

Upgrading to Mac OS 10.7 Lion – What It Broke and How I Fixed It

By Greg Pak
As a user of Apple’s soon-to-be-discontinued MobileMe service, I’ve gotten a number of emails over the last few months encouraging me to upgrade to Mac OS 10.7 (Lion) and switch to iCloud, the service that’s replacing MobileMe. Yesterday I finally bit the bullet.
Unfortunately, the upgrade process broke two of my most-used programs and gobbled up several hours of troubleshooting time. In hopes of helping others avoid the same problems, here’s what I learned:
How to prevent Lion from eating Final Draft
If you are a Final Draft user, DEACTIVATE your computer’s Final Draft program before upgrading to Lion. (Go to the “Help” menu and select “Deactivate”). Your Final Draft license gives you the right to activate two computers to use the program; when you deactivate online in this way, the Final Draft servers keep track and will let you reactivate after you upgrade. If you do NOT deactivate, the upgrade to Lion will wipe out your computer’s record of Final Draft activation and you’ll have to call the Final Draft service number and type through multiple menus to reactivate manually. (That’s what I just finished doing.)
Also, before you upgrade to Lion, go to www.finaldraft.com/install and download the free 8.0.3 upgrade. Previous versions of Final Draft are not compatible with Lion; you’ll need this version to run the program.
Lion may kill your email by changing your SpamSieve filter
After I upgraded to Lion, my Mail program apparently would not receive any emails. At first I thought it was just my me.com address. But it was all of my email addresses. I eventually figured out that the Lion upgrade had reset the SpamSieve filter to move ALL incoming emails to the Spam folder. I rescued the missing emails from the Spam folder and disabled the filter.
Mail may not recognize your me.com email password
I’m now receiving me.com mail on my desktop and iPhone, but not on my laptop. For some reason, my laptop’s Mail program constantly gives me the error message that my password is incorrect. I’ve changed the password — no dice. I still haven’t figured this one out. I’m considering deleting my me.com account in that installation of Mail and recreating it, but that seems a bit extreme. If you have any ideas, feel free to ping me on Twitter.
UPDATE: Just solved the last problem! After some searching, I found this thread that suggested changing “Authentication” under the “Advanced” tab for the account from “Password” to “Apple Token.” Success!

Massive Greg Pak interview at Newsarama’s “Writer’s Workshop”

David Pepose has conducted what may be the longest interview ever of filmmaker and comics writer Greg Pak for his “Writer’s Workshop” column at Newsarama. Here’s an excerpt:

I should say this too, all this stuff I’m saying is stuff that I know, but that I have to struggle everyday to actually implement it, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] It’s an ongoing struggle to have the discipline to make these stories work the way they really should. To cut out the stuff that doesn’t belong, and to invest the stuff that should be there with real emotional truth rather than manufactured shortcuts, and to find the most dramatically compelling fashion to tell the story rather than just the easiest way to tell the story. These are ongoing challenges that I wrestle with every single day, trying to do the best I can and trying to figure out better ways to do it.

Click here to read the whole thing.

Inspiration, motivation, and making a fool of yourself

Another transcribed tweet session by Greg Pak
On Saturday I had the great pleasure of receiving the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival’s Emerging Artist Award and participating in a “Conversation with Greg Pak” event moderated by Loraine Morrill. The conversation and Q&A session were a blast — but afterwards I realized I hadn’t fully answered one of the attendee’s questions, so last night I tried to finish the thoughts on the Twitter.
Read on for the transcript:

Had a fantastic time at the @PAAFF “Conversation with Greg Pak” event last night – thanks to Michael & Joe & Loraine!
But I realized I didn’t completely finish answering one person’s question. She was asking about inspiration/motivation.
I talked about the constant deadlines as a comic book writer being great for discipline. Can’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration. [Comic book writers] have to learn how to make it happen, no matter what, in order to make those deadlines. Which is actually a great thing. Without deadlines, it’s far too easy to moon around with a creative project indefinitely.
So what I forgot to mention yesterday was that it’s possible to create deadlines for yourself to motivate yourself to finish creative projects. Just a few ways…

  1. Form a group with friends to critique each others’ work. Good kick in the pants to at least complete first drafts of projects.

  2. Find contests to enter. Those contests will have deadlines that you can’t miss. (But always carefully read competition rules/regs. Don’t want to sign away rights without realizing it!)
  3. Take a shot at stuff like Ntn’l Graphic Novel Writing Month or http://24hourcomicsday.com/

I haven’t done those myself, but I’ve done the film world equivalent with a 48 hour film at @HamptonsFilm a few years ago.
Finishing projects is absolutely key. And here’s another crazy thought: embrace creative failure and humiliation.
When I was doing improv comedy, I had a friend who said the number one rule was to be completely willing to make a total fool of yourself.
Finishing those early projects is key because they’re going to be flawed and bad and we need to learn by seeing how people react to them.
It’s a cliche, but it’s true – we often learn more from our creative failures than our creative successes.
We might not intellectually know why a creative project succeeds – we just managed to hit the right notes without thinking it all through.
But when I screw something up, boy, do I take the time to think it through and learn from it.
It’s also critical to develop the ability to keep going in the face of creative failure. Most people quit. Sometimes the most talented quit.
The ones who make it have one thing in common – they didn’t quit.
And finally, it’s critical to embrace making a fool of yourself because every awesome creative project initially sounded totally moronic.
Particularly now, it’s breathtakingly/heartbreakingly easy to make anyone’s story sound stupid – in 140 characters or less! 😉
The relevant song for all of this: “They All Laughed.” Here’s part of the Louis Armstrong version.
Which brings me to my recently rediscovered 1980 centaur novella. 😉
Okay, y’all, thanks for putting up with all this yapping. And thanks again to everyone who came to the @PAAFF and @BNWCOMICS events!

“What advice would you give to a writer just starting out?”

By Greg Pak
A couple of nights ago, Twitter user @JohnEton asked me “what advice would you give to a writer just starting out?” Since that’s a question that comes up pretty often, I’m re-posting my tweets below for easy reference. Enjoy!

Huge question! Let’s see… first, read read and read.
Read everything, not just comics, not just fiction. History, biography, natural science. Everything can feed your storytelling.
Train yourself to listen to the rhythms of language around you, the nuances of dialogue. The way people don’t say what they mean.
Make it a habit to write every day. Could be note-taking, recording ideas or scraps of dialogue. Eventually should be stories.
Write and write and rewrite. Get feedback, rewrite some more. It’s a long haul – for years, most of us are terrible.
Study the specific genre/format you’re interested in. For screenwriting and comics, read books about the art of dramatic writing.
Yes, write about what you know. But also, write about what you care about. Passion for your story will keep you going.
Finally, listen to the little voice inside. If it’s telling you something needs work, it needs work. Never stop making it better.
And once you have collaborators/editors, listen to them. No matter how successful you are, you still have huge amounts to learn.
I’m learning/striving to be a better writer every single day, and my editors are incredibly valuable guides.

Greg Pak’s “Super Power Blues” is now viewable online

Greg Pak’s 2005 short film “Super Power Blues” is now viewable online at the Greg Pak Youtube Channel. The film stars Sakura Sugihara and Brian Nishii in the story of a superheroine who constantly has to save the world when all she really wants to do is sleep with her boyfriend. It premiered in June 2005 on WNET’s Reel New York shorts anthology show and played around the country at festivals like Cinequest, the Phoenix Comicon Film Festival, the DC APA Film Festival, and the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.
View the embedded video below or Click here for a bigger version.

“Robot Stories” producer Karin Chien and star Tamlyn Tomita headline SFIAAFF filmmaking panel

By Greg Pak
Two of my favorite people, “Robot Stories” and “Mister Green” producer Karin Chien and “Robot Stories” star Tamlyn Tomita, will be part of a workshop entitled “Up Close and Personal with the Asian American Film Industry” at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Karin and Tamlyn are both incredibly sharp, funny, and totally committed to great independent filmmaking. Sounds like a great program — highly recommended! Here’s more from the SFIAAFF:

Karin Chien, producer of THE EXPLODING GIRL and SANTA MESA, received the Piaget Producers Award at this year’s Film Independent Spirit Award!! Here’s your chance to come hear her advice on how you could become an award-winning producer/ director of your own! Check out our workshop at SFIAFF this Saturday 1-3pm Get your tickets now, more info below.
Up Close And Personal with the Asian American Film Industry
Special Live Events (90 mins)
SAT 03/13 1:00pm,
VIZ Cinema, $8

read more »

FilmHelp interview: Betty Gilpin talks “Mister Green”


Betty Gilpin as Dr. Gloria Holtzer in “Mister Green”
A FilmHelp interview by Greg Pak
As we draw nearer to the premiere of my latest short film “Mister Green” at South By Southwest and the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, I’ll be interviewing a few of the key players for FilmHelp.com. First on the spot is the brilliant Betty Gilpin, who plays Dr. Gloria Holtzer, a scientist with special plans for a jaded government undersecretary for global warming (Tim Kang). Betty was born and raised in New York City and graduated with a theatre degree from Fordham College at Lincoln Center in 2008.
Greg Pak: You came into the audition and just nailed every little nuance in the script. Tell us a bit about the audition process. How did you prepare? And what makes for a good audition process from your point of view?
Betty Gilpin:
I had never auditioned for a short before, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I guess something as simple as just knowing the lines really well helps me. An acting teacher of mine taught me a trick — when you’re memorizing lines to be careful to recite them monotonously, so you’re not married to a specific way to play the line. Then you won’t feel thrown if the director wants to change it up, and the lines will feel more natural. A bad habit of mine is to over-plan what I’m going to do in a scene, so that trick helps me. Is that what you mean by good audition process? Or do you mean the actual audition? A good audition to me is when everyone in the room — actor, director, casting director, etc. — are all in a good mood and an open, creative place. That’s when everyone does their best work.

read more »

Slant Film Festival needs help

A FilmHelp post by Greg Pak
Just got word that the Slant Film Festival is facing a budget crisis due to arts funding cuts. For the past ten years, Slant has provided audiences in Houston, Texas, their only chance to see many, many Asian American films — including a few of my own.
Click here to donate — and if you have an Asian American film, click here to submit it to this year’s festival (deadline is January 30).

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