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B&N Week 119: Prose vs Sparse

| April 2, 2013

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Welcome back to another Tuesday! I hope everyone had a great weekend. For some of you reading this, there was a religious celebration this past Sunday. I hope that you shared it with family and friends. I know I did, even though I wasn’t feeling well. For others, it was business as usual. There is no right or wrong to your own personal beliefs. I just hope everyone enjoyed themselves, no matter what.

But that isn’t what I want to talk about this week. This week, I want to talk about two types of writing styles that seem to permeate scripts that newcomers seem to gravitate to. One of them is right [but still a bit wrong], and the other one is simply wrong.

I’m talking about being overly prosaic when writing panel descriptions, and the inverse of that, being way too sparse. One leads to problems of too much information and moving panels, and the other leads to a white void.

Both are bad, and we’ll come to examples in a little bit. But let’s take a look at them one at a time, shall we?

Being overly prosaic does a few things to the internal mechanics of a script that become a challenge for a newer writer to break out of. The first thing that happens is that the panel descriptions become overloaded with descriptions. Descriptions that no one’s going to care about, let alone see. The panel descriptions will start to balloon to over one hundred words, and the artist won’t want to read them.

Remember, the artist’s job is to interpret the script. They have to have the right information, in the correct amounts, and if you provide anything other than that, or less than what they need, then you’re wrong.

Being prosaic leads you down the path of telling the story to the creative team, rather than letting the creative team do their jobs in order to tell the story. The creative team is not your audience. Very few outside of those creators are going to see the script; so why are you spending so much time trying to tell them a story in it?

The next thing that happens is that you get moving panels. Comics are a static medium. All the images drawn are going to be still images. This means that, as a scriptwriter, you have to learn to think in still images. This is not a natural thing. It is a learned trait, and as such, there is a learning curve to it. The more you do it, the better you’ll be [as long as you’re steadfast in your learning].

Because you’ve ballooned the now-moving panel description to well over one hundred words, naturally, problems will start to occur within the dialogue.

Hopefully, the mistake won’t be made to put quotation marks in the dialogue itself. Not unless they’re used correctly. No, what usually happens is that dialogue that is more fit for a novel starts to creep into the script. Longer passages that are full of pith and merit start to get in there, and then the writer doesn’t want to condense in order to make it fit better within a balloon and within the art. [Remember, folks, that the lettering is part of the art as well.]

Here’s an example of a prosaic panel description, and the accompanying dialogue:

 

Panel 3: Jeremy and Jesse hug, look longingly in each other’s eyes, and then kiss. This kiss is something they both feel down to their very soul, so the camera should be in a tight close-up on them. The reader should be able to feel the power of this kiss, their hands caressing each other’s back, Jesse’s hand in Jeremy’s short, brown hair before going to unbutton his dark plaid shirt. Tears stream down their faces.

Jesse: Jeremy, I’m sorry. I’m miserable without you. I wanted to get back at you, to hurt you, and now, I’m just…

Jesse: Can’t we put it back together? The way it used to be? I love you. Don’t you still love me? Have I hurt you that badly?

Jeremy: Shut up. Just…shut up and c’mere…

Okay, yes, that’s terrible. Terrible and melodramatic and terribly melodramatic, while being terrible at the same time. And I see approximations of that all the time.

Let’s actually break that down, shall we?

The first thing to look at is the element header. It’s Panel 3. Does it matter what page we’re on? No, not for this example. What’s important is that this is not Panel 1. If it were Panel 1, then we’d have to worry about whether or not we’re already in a scene, or if we just started a new one. That isn’t a concern with this example. We already know we’re in a scene, so we don’t have to place the characters in a location. We already did it before we got here.

The panel description itself is 74 words long. There are things that are absolutely wrong with it, too. This is a moving panel, with at least three different actions. Four, if you break them up into distinct motions [which would be your prerogative, depending on space]. There’s the hug, the look [this can be combined with the previous panel], and then the kiss with the streaming tears [with the placing of the hands in the hair], and then there’s the unbuttoning. Three or four panels, crammed into one.

There are things that can’t be drawn here, too. Such as the kiss being felt in their soul. The artist can’t draw that.

Then it’s asking for a tight shot, which is fine, but there’s all that movement to contend with, as well as the dialogue.

There are fifty-three words of dialogue here. Too many for the tight shot that’s being asked for. It’ll cover all the art, and that’s not ever a good thing. Art will always be covered, but you never want to cover up anything important. A tight shot with this much dialogue will cover important stuff.

And that dialogue doesn’t feel like a comic, does it? To me, it reads like something out of a trashy romance novel. Aspersions to the actual content aside, it doesn’t feel like it belongs in a comic. It feels like prose. It feels like something you’d find in a novel or short story.

Then there’s the other approach. The “white void,” as I call it. This is when the writer doesn’t give enough to give a sense of time and place. That means the artist has a white void to fill, and that can be daunting, because they don’t have much information to go off of. These scripts, to me, are harder to work from, because the writer isn’t giving much of a sense of anything. You see more white paper than you see of script, thus, the “white void.”

Going with the sparse approach, it’s very easy to leave things out. Writers can forget any of the questions that need to be answered for establishing shots—those being Who, Where, What, and When [and very often, they forget to answer more than one]. They can also forget to have the characters act. A lot of times, I’ve found that newer writers will have characters standing around doing nothing. That’s never a good thing.

The dialogue gets better with the sparseness, though. It doesn’t sound like it belongs in a novel. Just beware of it sounding like bullet points, which can also happen.

Here’s a perfect example of an overly sparse panel description.

 

Panel 3: Jesse and Jeremy are kissing.

Jesse: I’m sorry, Jeremy. I love you so much, I—

Jeremy: Shut up. Shut up and c’mere…

I could get it down further than that, but I wanted to illustrate that we’re with the same characters doing the same thing.

Okay, again, there’s no need to say where they’re at. That should have been done in the establishing shot. But let’s say this is the first time the audience is seeing them. How does that change the dynamic of what must be done? [No, the dialogue doesn’t support it, but it’s a good mental exercise to try.]

What are we missing here? Some would immediately say “camera angle,” and they wouldn’t be incorrect. Others may say “emotional context,” and that wouldn’t be incorrect, either.

Some might think to start asking questions: why kind of kiss are we talking about? Is it the way a father kisses his mother, aunt, or grandmother? His sister? Or is it how two people who are in love would kiss each other? The answers to those questions would inform us as to where to put the camera, as well.

In all actuality, while this panel description is sparse, there isn’t all that much wrong with it. As long as the setting is firmly established somewhere, it’s fine.

However, if all of the panel descriptions look like this, chances are high that you’ve under-written.

That’s about all I have this week. See you in seven. A little bit more about panel descriptions, methinks, and then we’ll start talking about lettering.

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Category: Bolts & Nuts, Columns

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

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