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  • The Devil Went Down To Georgia, Part 2 (the rest of my notes on Writing for Artists)

    We’re back, and picking back up at…

    SHOT CALLIN’

    Do you really have to pick shots? Think hard on this one. Do you really have a good sense of what will make a good picture, or do you just feel like you’re supposed to do it because it’s your job? Because it’s not, necessarily. You can almost always tell an artist what really needs to happen in a scene, and she will have opinions on how that should all go down. And she’ll be taking composition into consideration, and balancing lots of visual elements. Can you do that? It’s not really necessary with a good artist, she’ll do it anyway. But if that isn’t a strength of yours, then don’t impose such notes on our artist. Then you’re just Sam Phillips at Sun Records walking in the recording room and telling Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins how to sing. It’s my experience that most writers will want to hold on a medium shot for several panels for some reason, and give no thought to how static that looks on a page. Again, they’re thinking of the story as TV when that’s happening. If it serves the story best, that’s one thing, but if you’re simply doing it because it occurs to you, then maybe run it by the artist for another opinion.

    Writing tip! 3-act structure isn’t just for movies! If you’re working on a 22 page comic, it helps to think of it in roughly three seven-page sections, in which each section achieves a plot goal. That bonus page can be a nice full-character splash so your artist can make some money selling the original, by the way.

    GET MORE OUT OF IT, IN GENERAL

    Lull. You’re at a point of the story where you need to convey information, above all. This isn’t a character moment (though it probably can be, rethink it!), it’s not a reveal, it’s not a moment of emotion or suspense. Sometimes it’s just a place where your Xander has to come out and explain vampires for new readers, or maybe it is a character moment and the strength of the whole scene is in their dialogue. That doesn’t mean you need to set this scene in an empty room, or a set piece that the artist has already drawn a hundred times. You can put this anywhere you want, this is a comic book. Get them out to a jungle, or an old crumbling palace ruin. You can be Evocative. Even if it adds nothing but visual interest, you’re still giving the reader more value, and creating interest for our artist. Does the artist do great animals? Then have this conversation take place at the zoo. Or even if it must take place in a house, can we justify a big Dr. No- style giant aquarium to serve as a backdrop?

    I’ve just seen too many scripts specifically say, “This is a plain office room. Nothing unusual about it, very ordinary.” Boy, as an artist, that instantly drains every bit of enthusiasm out of me. And I’ve heard dozens of artists complain about getting this very description. I think the problem goes back to that point we mentioned about many people actually writing for TV and film. They imagine this dull scene as being evocative in some profoundly barren way that will suggest a grand emptiness of soul crushing proportion. In fact, they probably didn’t call for warm scenes or ornate lush opulence in the rest of the story, so this bland office bit won’t stand out as anything, except to make it look like our artist doesn’t have any ideas. Maybe the impulse was actually to save the artist some work and the writer thought asking for nothing special would make things easier. But that impulse is WRONG, and must be stomped out of existence. Nothing will make things easier and more fun for the artist than to give her something truly interesting to depict. And if it’s something we haven’t seen much before, all the better. Never ever forget, the artist must spend all day with this page. Still, you have to be careful about

    PLAYING TO AN ARTIST’S STRENGTHS

    What this really results in mostly is an artist being typecast, because people keep asking for what they’ve seen him draw before. Tomm Coker was about to lose his mind at people requesting him for stories that take place inside run-down buildings, so I pushed hard for him to draw my story in Marvel’s Western Legends. Suddenly he’s drawing canyons and rocks and horses and cowboys, and there’s no mistaking the enthusiasm. Tim Bradstreet has probably long given up on anyone asking him to put a character somewhere outside. “He draws the shit out that brick wall, ask him to do that!”

    This gets us back to that phone conversation that I’ll have before I make it impossible to reach me that way. There’s probably some things Artist X absolutely loves to draw that just never make it into these comics. Ask for a list. Asking for one thing is too much pressure, but if you can get a list of elements, places, costume and so forth from him, you’ll start to get an understanding of a whole direction he wants to go. I didn’t know Juan Santacruz loved horror. All my scripts to him are translated, so I don’t hear from him. He and I worked on Marvel Adventures books like Fantastic Four, and he did that well enough that you would assume it was his forte. Then my editor asked him to do a short story where I had a group (Kickers Inc. in a back up to New Avengers) actually go to Hell. And once we saw him draw demons and nightmarish imagery, we were blown away! Then when I was given one of the Mystic Arcana issues to write, naturally with lots of witches and occult elements, we immediately agreed- This has to be Juan! But no one would have known that from his previous work. He was being a pro and drawing exactly what was called for in the superhero work, not trying to shoehorn things he really wanted to draw in there. Not that that’s always a bad practice. It can give you a clue for their favorite subject matter, obviously.

    It’s my conclusion that in fact, few artists want to draw the same thing all the time. They became artists because of the possibility to live in several different worlds, like an actor who enjoys being a soldier one month, an extra-terrestrial the next. But because superfolks in tights dominate our American market, they rarely get to indulge that possibility. Which is why even though I’m also given lots of long underwear characters to write, I try to switch up the genre they’re in at every turn. So they’re the X-Men; there’s no reason this one can’t be a war story, next issue be a noir mystery, and a survival adventure after that. Roger Cruz often thanks me for that, but really I’m doing it for myself just as much. I’d also lose my mind with the same kind of story every month.

    Unwanted Writing Tip! Good character names are hard- if you get to a part of the story where you need an incidental character and then have nothing to call them. Often I’ll plow right through with them labeled as MRS. NEEDSNAME and then later when I have one, replace it all in stroke in Word’s Find/Replace tool. Or, I’ll check and see if something works from my Names File, in which I throw any random decent name I come across. Where do most of these come from now? My SPAM! Those damn spammers and their auto-generating programs actually come up with some good names, or cull them from stolen email address books. Either way, I see some good ones pop up in my mail every day, and why waste them? The added bonus: now spam doesn’t bother me nearly as much.

    WHAT EDITORS WANT

    Conflict, conflict, conflict! And then they like a little conflict sprinkled on top of that. In comics of course, that could easily mean physical conflict, and yes they want that, but mainly it means situations that keep the characters dynamic. What’s bothering/eating at our protagonist? Character B has just walked in, how does that change everyone’s interaction now? Remember that conflict doesn’t have to be negative or hostile, it can be as simple as: While Character B delivers a key bit of information, Character A really has to go to the bathroom and can’t concentrate. But in comics, where less-than-wonderful writing is sometimes accepted, you’ll find lots of cases where the cast of a book is being unnaturally angry with each other, constantly. What you get is adult characters acting like 14-year olds for no good reason.

    Then again, you don’t want to go to the other extreme you’ll find, where a writer has happily gotten this world built and lets the cast run around in it like peaceful mice, and no chaotic elements will be allowed near to upset this pleasant biosphere. I’m not saying to keep shaking the board, you have to do that in proportion. When a story line is turbulent, the payoff for the reader is that it will at some point resolve into a new situation or status quo that can be explored for a while. And once you’ve explored that set up as far as it yields interesting stories, the payoff is that the world will become turbulent again. You’ve got to balance these, it’s not fulfilling as a reader for the story line to always be in status quo, nor to always be in upheaval.

    At this point of the talk we digressed into making fun of Mary Sues, which is an outgrowth of the tendency to play safe. Heck, this place is so neat, the writer just has create an avatar and jump into it himself. Naturally this new character’s presence is a big deal to the established characters- why, it’s as if he’s always been around! Wesley from Star Trek: The Next Generation is often cited as a prime offender in this category. One of the students told me about the Mary Sue Litmus Test, and you can likely ward off all tendencies to write one just by scanning through one of these. Yet strangely, on some level, ALL the characters are Mary Sues, so you can’t avoid it completely.

    Other Editor Requests

    •Scenes ending on the end of a page, starting on a new one. Again, this is particular to the comics form, and it’s not a hard and fast rule.

    •Pay attention to the speaking order of characters. Remember: NOT TELEVISION. If you have Character A speaking first, make sure she’s in a good place for her word balloon to fall to left, not entering at far right, say. You can get around some of this by leaving space between characters in a wide panel so the balloons can stack, but it’s tricky. But if you have a group in one panel, don’t think of it like a tv screen and everyone bantering at will within. This is a case where you can work it out even without any drawing skill. You can draw a stick figure, right? Oh come on, you can too. So draw them as stick figures and write out their entire lines, see if it works. Now you’ll start cutting down that precious verbiage.

    • Tweak. Once the story has been drawn and lettered, my editors and I will then go back through and fine tune it for maximum impact. You’d be surprised how you can get 10 or 15 percent more oomph out of a scene at this stage, and make the storytelling much more clear. But don’t treat it like the TV and movie cliche, “we’ll fix that in Post,” you probably can’t save a scene that’s not working here in the eleventh hour.

    •The primary thing to consider pertaining to editors when you’re writing this script?

      Get them on the same page as you.

    The editor needs to read your script and see the same story you’re seeing. Your first conversation after that reading will probably let you know how close you got. If you’re having to explain a lot of your scenes and bits, then it didn’t happen, and a good editor will not just trust you to make it all make sense. It can be tough to keep this most important reader focused on your story, they’ve been reading and re-reading scripts all day. I’m always interested to see how other writers set up a script. Mine are pretty simple, I have the panel description first, in bold, followed by the speakers and or captions text. But I’ve seen writers begin with the character text, which just confuses me because I don’t know the set up or context yet. Also I see a lot of writers keep the characters’ lines in all caps, which does further distinguish it from the description on the page, but to me makes it sound like everyone’s shouting.

    MY HIGHLY SUBJECTIVE NOTIONS ON WRITING (Particularly Work For Hire Properties)

    You’ve given DC comics your first script, and it’s impressively deep. There’s the day to day intrigues of human interaction and the politics of living in our modern world. There’s emotional complexity, and existential pondering that asks timeless questions. The problem is, the title of this book is BATMAN, and we expect to see a grown man dressed like a bat beating up freaks. There is always room for layers of subtlety and depth, but don’t try to make a book something it’s not. You have to consider the target audience, and any number of things, like what ages the book is rated for.

    And don’t bog it down. I tend to think these books and their leads should be cyclical rather than linear. Because most of them are going to have hundreds of creative teams working on them over the years, every time you nail down their history, that becomes continuity nightmares for everyone later. A problem here is that many creators want to put their own stamp on these characters. Never mind that years later no one will remember who gave Commissioner Gordon a buzz-saw hand, they’ll just want it gone. That phase when everyone needed buzz-saw hands is over, and now we’ve lost much of the cache the character had because he was adapted to suit a fad.

    Sadly, it’s just much easier to screw with the character itself than to come up with a plot that hasn’t been done to death. And it’s an easier concept to pitch: “Killer Croc bites off Gordon’s hand, so Batman gives him a buzzsaw!” But if you concentrate on an engaging plot instead of randomly throwing out character developments, you’ll have something that stands the test of time better. Then any character developments that result can be trusted more. Never you worry that a type of story has been done before, it’s how it happens that separates the wheat from the chaff (and for some reason, if you’re writing about writing, you’ll break out every metaphor that’s ever been used). But that’s the conflict that exists for you outside the fictional realm…

    PLOT VS. CHARACTER

    Do your stories have plot-driven characters, or character-driven plots? The latter is of course preferable, but wasn’t I just begging for you to focus on plot a second ago? My general advice on this is to construct a plot first, though with a strong understanding of who your characters are. Then plug the characters into it and try your best to let them go and be themselves. If they start bending the plot around and pushing it in a direction you didn’t originally plan, then great. Now they’re driving, and odds are you’ll still get to the basic ending point you had mapped out. But if not, and the story still works well, then be happy. You’ve created a living, breathing story instead of walking a bunch of marionettes around, and that’s the goal. I can’t speak for the process of others, but when I’ve found an entry point into a story that interests me, it usually goes smoothly from there. I’m constantly wincing at the number of comics stories that seem to exist just because they occurred to the writer, not because anyone thought they might be entertaining. And that’s generally my overall goal, to entertain. I’m not trying to impress anyone with how much I rawk or teach them a lesson, I want them to forget they’re holding a book and reading word balloons and be pulled into the story. If along the way some life lesson is imparted or the reader feels compelled to throw up the hand horns that’s great, but that can’t be the main goal.

    Hmm. By now I’ve drifted way off the original point, which was keeping the artist in mind while writing. But not really.

    BECAUSE MOST OF ALL…

    And this should override all previous points and tips. What Artist X wants more than even more than a crime noir story or one with a pie-fight on a submarine, is a GOOD STORY. Nothing deflates our artist more than a phoned in script, and nothing gets them hyper-involved like getting a script where they can tell the writer is really trying. You’ll find that your effort is almost always reciprocated. You’ve got to channel what made you want to do this in the first place. It’s an old joke that most writers are failed artists, but many will fess up to that (I sure will!). After all, if you started reading comics as a kid, your first impulse with making your own was to draw your character. You probably didn’t think “I need to write all this down and go find another kid to draw it.” But at some point you diverged and learned to type, and that’s where you are now. So instead of sitting down and thinking merely of something that could happen, think of something that could happen that made you want to stop reading a comic and go make your own. Armed with a great script, our artist can create something even better than was professionally expected. She’s going to be thought of as a better artist by the readership, and it’s just going to make you look like a better writer.

    So there you have it, the gist of my writing talk this year. Now get fired up about creating whole worlds of excitement and start walking to where you left your computer! And then stop and watch reality TV or play World of Warcrack instead (and hey, it’s Fantasy Football time!), all the while telling yourself that this is just a warm up and you’ll get on that story in just a little while.

    Dag, sorry I had to end on a harsh. But I had to.

    Comments

    Comment from Craig
    Time: November 19, 2007, 1:50 pm

    Parker,

    I really enjoyed your thoughts on writing. Hey, if you ever get stuck for a name, feel free to use mine [just not for perverts, ok?]. Parker is a pretty cool name by the way. Guess it would be sorta egotistical to use it yourself though.

    Comment from Parker
    Time: November 19, 2007, 2:44 pm

    Oh, I’m going to use Zablo somewhere, bank on it!

    Comment from David Oakes
    Time: November 19, 2007, 3:06 pm

    Dude, you tally ripped off my naming trick.

    I am going to forward all my SPAM to you from now on, so we don’t embarass ourselves both using “Ophelia T. Gifford”…

    Comment from Zack Smith
    Time: November 19, 2007, 6:49 pm

    This caused me some mighty pain, Parker. I have a couple GN scripts I wrote back in grad school that have…well, long scenes set in nondiscript offices. Sigh.

    One thing I’m trying to figure out with short stories I’m doing these days is a rule of thumb for the number of panels on the page. I try to keep my descriptions clear and within 3-4 lines, but there are cases where 1) the artist does better when they have a lot of room to breathe, or 2) the artist does better when there’s a lot of panels on the page, because they’re better at rendering character moments than backgrounds.

    Presuming you’re writing a story where there’s a good amount of action and each panel has, say, two characters and a pertinent background detail (and less than 25 words of dialogue), what would be your rule of thumb for best number of panels?

    I try to stick between five and six at most, seven if there’s a stand-alone caption or something. I find three or four lets the artist do some good wide-panel work and flesh out the background.

    Comment from Parker
    Time: November 19, 2007, 8:21 pm

    What’s a good amount of action, and what kind of action is it? Five is a good average, especially if it’s just two characters. And you’re right about the three or four.

    Comment from Van
    Time: November 21, 2007, 7:15 am

    Great tips, Jeff. I wish I could’ve gone down there (I’m in Atlanta), but I couldn’t get away.

    As far as shot calling goes, I’ve gone both ways on that. I wrote a Wolverine script where I did none at all, and then I just finished a graphic novel where I did it for pretty much every panel. Like you said, the key is to best help the artist. The guy doing art for my GN is a talented painter and does editorial cartoons, but he’s never done comic book work, so he needed me to do page breakdowns.

    Comment from Van
    Time: November 21, 2007, 7:21 am

    Oh, also, for great character names, mine comes from my old newspaper job. One of the clerks kept a file for decades on all the weirdest names to make it in the paper. Some highlights:

    Monkeytron Ward
    Doc Mothershed

    Comment from Bill Williams
    Time: November 21, 2007, 7:25 am

    Parker,

    I liked the notes on writing,

    And my favorite name from SPAM is Luis Kabongo.

    How do you get better than that?

    Bill

    Comment from Nat Gertler
    Time: November 21, 2007, 8:00 am

    My suggestion to writers is always to call the shot if and only if they have a vision and reason for it… but that’s a different thing from being able to envision it. Ya gotta envision every panel in some way or form, because otherwise, you risk writing something that cannot be drawn.
    But in general, it is far less important to let the artist know what the image is supposed to show then what it’s supposed to convey (“Commissioner James ‘Shake the other hand’ Gordon’s office is cold, controlled, with everything aligned and orderly, to create a stark contrast with the whimsy of his dreams of Wonderland. This is what he’s escaping from.”)

    Comment from Parker
    Time: November 21, 2007, 9:19 am

    Thanks Van and Bill- I mean Mothershed and Kabongo! And Nat, that is a definite improvement on “nothing special about this office,” and tells the purpose which is great.

    Comment from Bret
    Time: November 21, 2007, 12:43 pm

    Am I alone in thinking that a comic called ” Commissioner Gordon, but with a buzzsaw hand” would be awesome? Not a good idea mind you, but still.

    Comment from Benjamin Hall
    Time: November 26, 2007, 2:27 pm

    What a great post! It really gave me something to think about. Especially on backgrounds.

    Comment from Derrick Clark
    Time: December 13, 2007, 6:57 am

    As a kid,I love the hack out of comic books.But never thought
    about writing for a artist.I believed, I got some great potentials but need to work on the writing process more.

    I just want to get somemore advices?