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Writing a Comic Book: 6 Tips & Tricks From A Comic Artist

Written by: John Matsuya                Art by: Ben Matsuya

Practical Tips For Writing a Comic Book: Communicating With Your Artist

So you’ve got your great comic book idea, an awesome character, and a general direction of your plot and story. Maybe you’re used to writing screenplays or novels and are an experienced writer. All you need to do is hand off your manuscript to the artist! Writing a comic book should be easy, right?

Comic Book Writing Tips.jpg

Not so fast.

Comics are a different medium. You have the advantage of having an artist collaborate in telling your story, but how do you convey that one scene, pose, or sequence you’ve had in your head for all this time? How do you communicate that exciting twist that will cause your readers to demand the next issue?

Your script is not only a story for the audience, but also the blueprint for an artist. Some writers give a lot of latitude and editorial control to the artist, however there are certain times you may need to highlight a plot point or emphasize an emotion. There might be a visual or a page that you imagined really clearly and want to translate as closely as possible.

Here are six tips you can use when writing your script to differentiate it from other mediums. Having created several of our own comics (Midnight Massacre, Bolt Action) and collaborated on other ventures (Jupiter Jet, Cryowulf), we hope you’ll be able to avoid some of the pitfalls we initially encountered. If you’re working on an indie comic - the following tips will be a way for you to retain your voice, while making your comic LOOK like a comic. If you’re a writer, these practical tips will allow you to communicate with your artists in their language.

1. Know Your Ending

Last things first: know how your story ends. This is a lesson we learned from films; the great Francis Ford Coppola always had to know the ending of his stories because he had to know the scenes that would lead to that ending. This might sound counterintuitive in the world of episodic comics, but understanding where the story is going will allow you to seed motifs, evolve characters, and will be the northstar for your story’s themes. This will elevate your storytelling on every level. There’s nothing worse than weaving a great yarn for your audience, only to write yourself into an anticlimactic corner. Have a general sense of how the story will wrap up for your entire arc as well as for each individual episode.

2. Keep ‘em Coming Back For More

The last page of each individual issue should always pack an emotional punch. Now I’m not saying you have to be M. Night Shyamalan with a mind-blowing reveal at the end of each issue for shock’s sake. What I am saying is, a surprise twist, a quiet realization, or a bombastic upping of the stakes (when done right) will simultaneously lend to a little closure, while also teasing what’s coming up next. Remember, comics are serials - and pulling out the rug from under your heroes or villains will also pull out the rug from under your readers. It’s easier said than done, but each issue should conclude an arc of a mini-story or chapter, while also setting up the next book.

3. Think About The Page Turns

Use the comic book format to your full advantage.

Comic Book Page Turns

Every “turn” will occur on odd number pages. Just a rule to remember: Odd number pages are set ups and even number pages are reveals.

This allows you to plot out the tempo of the story and guide the reader’s eye to where you want them to focus without revealing the surprise. There’s nothing worse than having a wonderful panel where a protagonist is confessing his love, but there’s an alien invasion splattered all over the next page that distract your reader. Having the pay off on even number pages allows the reader to build up the reveal and dictate the pace (by turning the page) Clarity is everything in comics; if the art is a dance, you must lead the reader across the floor that is the page.

In this page from Ben’s Superman example, young Clark and Lana pick up books on page 3 of a 6 page portfolio (odd number setup) when suddenly, he reacts in surprise. We, as the readers, don’t know what Clark is seeing, but the last panel sure gives us a tease and shows the look of surprise on his face. What could he be looking at?

The next reveal (Page 4, an even number) show us that his X-Ray vision has been activated. Allowing us to get the same look of horror of seeing the skeletons of your classmates as Clark gets.

4. Keep Your Dialogue Short

This is a good note for all writing if you specifically want to write more realistic dialogue. Trust the artist to convey a lot with the character’s face. But more importantly - you don’t want to cover up the great art you paid for with dialogue bubbles!

One of our favorite writers, Kelly Sue Deconnick suggested a maximum of 3 lines per dialogue balloon. That’s not to say that everyone has to have a short, clipped, Hemingway-esque cadence. Be mindful of how people talk in real life - and if you generally follow this dialogue rule, when you do have a big show-stopping monologue, you’ll be able to really set it apart.

5. Active Actions Not Passive Scenes

Ben and I were writing a comic about a family of gangsters who owned a casino in Macao. After the patriarch dies under mysterious circumstances, the rest of the family plots to fill the vacuum.  It was supposed to be something like King Lear meets Game of Thrones meets Ocean’s Eleven. I started on the script and proudly handed it in to my brother. An hour later, he handed it back and said - “I can draw this, but it’s eighteen pages of people arguing in a boardroom.”

At that moment, I realized that I was writing a comic, not a play. Visuals pace the story; not dialogue. Find settings and use actions which illuminate your theme (or your characters motivations) while they talk. It will make your stories more dynamic. Your artist is the “director” of the action on the page. He or she will choose the angles, props, lighting and special effects. Unless it’s intended to be more of a conversational piece, be mindful of the actions that fuel each scene.

6. Distinct Characters

Your main characters are going to be featured in many pages - sometimes all of them. Each scene will illuminate their movements and reactions. Imagine what makes your character visually interesting and how would that translate from far away, close up, and even from behind. If all your characters look or dress the same, your scenes will start becoming… monochromatic. You want your readers to distinguish your main character from the group even when they’re flipping quickly through pages. An iconic character will have a prop or a costume that is instantly recognizable, even in silhouette.

Keep in mind, none of these are hard rules that you HAVE to follow. These are just some tips that have informed our own writing. If we can share any of our own tips, we hope that it helps you become a better writer and think about how to best collaborate with an artist on your project. Want more tips or have more questions? Feel free to contact us or leave a comment below.

John MatsuyaComment