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B&N Week 120: Undrawable Panel Descriptions

| April 9, 2013

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There’s another Tuesday with us! Haven’t you been loving this? Spring has sprung, the weather is warming, the trees are budding…and I have to drive through wooded areas to get to work, so I’ve almost hit young deer on my commute. Yes, I’ve slowed down. But I love this time of year. Renewing and refreshing.

This week, I wanted to talk about something that is near and dear to my heart. I want to talk about what writers put in their scripts that can’t be drawn for one reason or another. Either an action that cannot be drawn, or an emotion that cannot be depicted in art…writers are putting these in their scripts, and the scripts are paying the price for it.

Let’s talk about actions first. You know how I love giving examples. Here’s an example that gets written every so often:

Panel 3: Max is giving Sam orders on what to do.

Let’s make some assumptions before we get into the problem at hand. The first assumption is that the reader already knows these characters. The second assumption is that an establishing shot has already been done. The third assumption is that the previous two panels have been a logical, natural progression that led us here. Those are all assumptions we can make.

What makes this undrawable is that there isn’t a hint of a direction given to the artist as to what to draw. Is Max whispering in Sam’s ear? Are they turned away from the camera conspiratorially? Is Max pointing to something off panel that Sam has to take care of?

Don’t do this. Don’t write “directions” that the art team cannot take action on. The script is not for you. It is written by you, but it is not written for you. The script is for the rest of the team, letting them know what it is they have to do.

The other thing a script is not is entertainment. Yes, you can be entertaining within the script, giving notes and the like to the team in an entertaining fashion…but the script is not a prose piece to be read with a “what happens next” feel. I’ve seen some scripts that are written just that way, and none of those scripts can be drawn.

There is a distinct difference in providing entertainment and providing directions. Make sure your scripts come down firmly on the “providing directions” side. Otherwise, the creative team, starting with the artist, is going to as you a lot of questions…questions that the script is failing to answer because you’re too busy being entertaining instead of doing your job of providing directions.

Let’s look at it another way: you’re out in the city. You want to get somewhere, but don’t know which way to go. You ask someone on the street. Instead of providing you directions, they tell you what happened at certain corners and blocks. These stories are short, but entertaining. However, they also don’t tell you which way you need to go. They’ll tell you the streets you need to be on, but not whether you should make a left or a right turn at Albuquerque.

Another thing that newer writers do is something I think of as “layering.” They’ll write something like this:

Panel 5: Fighting panic, John gets a steely glint in his eye. You can tell he’s keeping the fear just at bay.

The first layer here is fear, and the second layer is calmness or determination. In general, an artist cannot draw that. How is that supposed to look? And if it looks like one thing, will the other be able to come through?

Generally speaking, subtle emotions are not something that can be drawn, and as such, they should be left out of scripts. Here’s what’s going to happen if an artist tries to draw the above: John will look calm. He might even have a sneer on his face, with a slightly curled lip. You will not be able to see any fear in this panel. This means it won’t look like what you’re going after.

Clean emotions, folks. The cleaner, more pure the emotion, the easier it will be to draw. Drawing is the name of the game, right? Give the artist every opportunity to succeed. Subtle emotions aren’t going to work, in a general sense. You want exaggeration. You want the reader to make no mistake as to what the character is feeling. The only way to do that is with a single, clear emotion.

The last thing I want to say about undrawable panels are moving panels.

Panel 1: Scott draws his gun, fires, and then jumps out of the way of the barrel rolling toward him.

This is at least two panels. Scott can draw his gun and fire, in one panel, and that is accomplished with speed lines. However, he cannot do the jumping out of the way in this panel. That takes another panel for him to do.

Lots of newer writers make this mistake. They pile in the actions, not stopping to think that these are static images that have to be drawn.

Comic book scripting is a learned trait, folks. It isn’t natural for us to think in consecutive still images. We’re used to media that allows for or describes movement: film, television, novels. Comics are tricky in that they have to give the illusion of movement within a still image. That’s done with dialogue, and that illusion is built to even greater effect with consecutive panels within a scene.

This is where comics come closest to animation. Consecutive panels that build the illusion of movement. The only thing that blows it away is the dialogue. You have dialogue within the panel, which can lengthen the time that a particular panel takes, but animation has the dialogue running concurrent with movement.

Moving panels are the hardest thing to overcome for a newer writer. It’s natural, again, because thinking in still images is a learned trait. With practice, it will come.

With practice, all of this will come. But you have to put in the work. You have to. These three things are traps that are easy to fall into, but with some patience, some guidance, and some effort, you should be good.

Homework: Take out a comic or three, and just take a few panels out of each, and script them. I’d prefer if you did at least one action panel, since moving panels are the most prevalent problem for newer writers. But when you’re looking through the comics, look to see how clean the emotions are. You should be able to tell what single emotion is being shown in the panel. Write down the comic, issue number, page number, and panel number, as well as the emotion being shown. This will provide a reference for you to go back to later.

See you in seven.

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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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