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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 .

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