So you want to write a comic book?
Rachel Gluckstern is one of our favourite editors on Reedsy. Why? Because we love comic books, and Rachel has worked for over ten years within the Batman Group – how cool is that?! So we've asked her for advice on how to write a comic book. Here's her answer.
Comic books remain a mystery to the general public. Let’s face it. Understanding the relationship between the words and pictures, and how the art elevates the story, isn’t a code immediately cracked for a writer new to the medium. When it comes time to write a comic book, it can be hugely intimidating, knowing that at heart, it’s a visual product. But like anything else, it all starts with the manuscript. And whether you’re writing a bombastic, superhero blockbuster or a deeply personal, intimate memoir, there are technical details you’ll find handy to remember as you tackle this task.
1. You don’t need to know how to draw
Whew! Let’s just get that out of the way. You don’t need to draw or even know how to draw in order to write a comic book. Although being able to think visually is definitely a plus, what always matters most are the characters, what they do, and why they do it. Just like any other good piece of writing.
2. How do I make the artist do exactly what I want?
Before we even talk about what you write for the artist, let’s just talk about collaborating with one. A lot of writers worry that not being able to draw the comic themselves makes them scarily dependent on the artist. There’s a loss of control when you’re not the one drawing the book, and let’s be honest, guys, writers like being in control of their words and world. But unless you’re paying the artist yourself, there’s a certain amount of story actualization you’ll have to give up and trust to another storyteller. Anyone who’s written a children’s book is no stranger to the process of having an artist assigned to their work.
Still, there’s a tendency among new comics writers to jam in as many expository captions as possible on top of the art, as if the artist alone can’t possibly convey the writer’s story visually. Unfortunately, this impulse generally creates more of a disconnect between the words and pictures, not less. Trust that your artist will draw that room covered in stacks of papers, empty take-out boxes, half-drunk cups of coffee, and your character slumped in world-weary defeat and clutching a whiskey bottle. Instead of repeating those details in your captions or word balloons, chose the words that will move the story forward from there.
3. Wait, what’s a caption?
There’s some basic terminology in comics, which you’ll find useful to know when describing what goes where for your artist (and editor). It’s not the end of the world if you don’t memorize them, but they’re pretty helpful when getting your artist/editor/letterer (who? The person who actually adds the words to the finished art) up to speed.
CAPTION – a box surrounding words on the page. They’re used primarily for narration, whether it’s a third-person POV or a first-person internal monologue. Sometimes, they’re indicated through their graphic design to be things like text messages, pages from a journal, or electronic voiceovers. They’re also used to identify dates, locations, and to provide transitions between scenes.
WORD BALLOON – These are the round things with tails pointing to the characters to indicate what they’re saying. You can space out multiple balloons and even connect them to break up big blocks of speaking text. Sometimes, people call them “bubbles.” These people are not usually comics professionals.
THOUGHT BALLOON – These were more commonly used in older comics and have become mostly replaced by the multipurpose caption. Instead of the smooth, round balloon outline, a thought balloon has a bubbled border, like a cloud, and the tail is made up of individual little puffs.
PAGE – One full page of the drawn comic.
PANEL – The individual frames on the page, showing a specific tableau in each one, are the panels. They summarize all the action in that particular moment.
BORDERS – These are the lines separating one panel from another. If there’s space between the panels, that space is the “gutter.” A panel without borders is an open panel.
SPLASH PAGE – This is a page that’s just one full image, or a page-sized panel if you prefer.
DOUBLE-PAGE SPREAD – This is one image spread across two whole pages. It’s often used for dramatic effect to demonstrate a particularly awesome moment in combat, or to really show off a landscape. It’s a great way to kick off a story or climax it.
SOUND EFFECT – These are the words on the page indicating sounds. You probably know them best as the colorful “POW!” and “BANG!” incorporated into most headlines about comics, but they’re used for all sounds, from the honking of a cab to the dripping of a faucet. It’s fun to come up with your own onomatopoeia when thinking of the sounds everything might make.
4. So, how do I actually write a comic book?
Get ready for the answer that will make you gnash your teeth in outrage – there’s no one correct format. You might prefer to do a full script, which breaks down each page panel by panel, detailing everything happening in each panel, and with every line of dialogue spelled out, so that the artist theoretically has the clearest blueprint of how you’re visualizing the story and characters. It’s the most common format currently used by comics writers, and if your editor also can’t draw, it can also help him or her visualize it too. However, new writers can sometimes use a little help in figuring out the pacing of the visual storytelling. Too many panels on a page can slow the action down. Same with too much dialogue. A full script is a strong foundation for the writer and can feel like the most complete work.
Other writers do something called a plot instead. This method simply describes what’s happening on each page overall and lets the artist choose how to break the action and visual storytelling down into individual panels. For someone unfamiliar to comics writing, this method can be easier to adapt at first. Sometimes, dialogue is included to give a stronger sense of the emotions in play, sometimes, the dialogue is added after the art is drawn, whichever the writer prefers. Both styles of writing are completely valid ways to collaborate with your artist. It’s all about figuring out what allows you to best communicate your story in its raw stage.
A few last tips:
- Dialogue works best when it’s economical. Twitter’s 140-character limit is an excellent template for your word balloons when you’re getting started. A good general guideline is to keep the dialogue to about 10-12 lines per page, including captions and word balloons together. It’s tempting to cram in as many words as possible, but letting the art shine through lets your story shine too.
- A very common error when detailing the action in panels is to include someone doing multiple actions in one panel. The character can’t take a drink and then pull out his gun to aim at his foe. If you want the character to be holding a bottle up to his lips with one hand and aiming a gun with his other hand, that’s easy enough to draw. Otherwise, the actions will take up more than one panel. This is where the plot method can be helpful, because the artist can summarize the actions appropriately as s/he decides how to break the pages down.
- Not everyone endorses this last point, but overusing captions for internal monologue or especially for third-person narration tends to remove the readers from the story more than immerse them. Essentially, the more you rely on captions, the more you’re telling, not showing. If your character is fighting for her life, having too much internal commentary on the action can rob the situation of its urgency and danger. The more the characters speak outwards to each other, the more you’re drawing your readers into this world.
- "Yeah, but Neil Gaiman uses a lot of internal dialogue and captions!" If you’re Neil Gaiman, what the heck do you need my help for?
The techniques specific to comics can seem intimidating at first, but it’s really just about adapting yourself to another format which allows you to communicate best with your artist. I said that earlier, but it bears repeating. Some artists love the full detailed script, some love the freedom of a looser plot. Generally, though, the artist is eager to work with you and make you happy. When you get stuck, asking your artist “What would you like to draw?” can lead to extremely rewarding input. It’s unpredictable, but it’s gratifying to literally see your story come to life within the pages of a comic. Don’t let costumes or drawing ability or mere uncertainty get in your way from creating the richest characters and plot possible. That’s the life you’re going to breathe into the work. The rest is just how to communicate with your collaborator.
Excelsior (to homage a phrase)!
Have you ever thought of writing a comic book? Would you add any tips to the ones above? Let us know your thoughts, or any questions you might have for Rachel, in the comments below!