Write a Comic Book
Have you ever wanted to create a comic book, but you haven't been quite sure where to start, or what to do? Comics are a rich and fun art form that is finally getting the respect it deserves, combining gorgeous illustrations with face-paced dialogue and stories. Though there is no one "right" way to write a comic book, there are some threads that any burgeoning writer would do well to pull.
Drafting a Compelling Story
- Think of a short, visual story to translate from your head to the page. Comic books are a blast because they merge written words with cinematic images, blending the best of both novels and movies. Remember this when considering stories -- you want something with big, fun images and visuals as well as a fair amount of conversation and dialogue. While there are no wrong ideas, some things to keep in mind include:
- Keeping stories visual: A long passage where a character is musing or thinking may be hard to express in comics, though not impossible. Similarly, a conversation story in only one room is likely better suited for a short story, since you don't have many pages of new visuals.
- Streamlining the story: More characters, locations, and action is great, but it significantly increases the workload on the illustrator. The best comic books tell their stories quickly and efficiently, using both dialogue and visual cues to keep things moving.
- An Artistic Style: Truly great comic books have art that fits seamlessly with the tone of the writing, like the dirty, water colored V for Vendetta, compared to Marvel Civil War's bright, cartoonish, and action-packed comics. If you're an artist, this may be easy. But even writers should think about the type of story and artwork they love. What kind of mood does it strike, and how can your story do the same?
- Draft out the plot of your story in paragraph form. Just start writing, not worrying about form, content, or how it will look on the page. Once you have your idea down, get the pen flowing. Put the characters or idea in motion and see what happens. If you throw 90% of this away, that is okay. Remember the advice of writer and animator Dan Harmon, who claimed that the first draft is 98% terrible, but the next one is only 96% bad, and so on until you have a great story. Find the 2% that's awesome and build off it:
- What characters are the most fun to write?
- What plot points did you find yourself most interested in exploring?
- Are there things that you thought were good ideas that you just can't write? Consider ditching them.
- Talk this draft over with some friends to get advice on what they love and how to go forward.
- Create round, flawed, and exciting characters. Characters drive plots in almost all great movies, comics, and books. Almost all comics are the result of a character who wants something but is unable to get it -- from villains trying to rule the world (and heroes trying to save it) to a young girl looking to figure out her complex political environment (Persepolis). The fun of any comic book, whether about super heroes or average Joes, is following a character's trials, tribulations, and personal flaws as they try to accomplish their goals. A great character:
- Is round. Has both strength and weaknesses, just like anyone else. This makes them relatable. We don't like Superman just because he saves they day, but because his awkward alter-ego Clark Kent reminds us of our own awkward, nervous days.
- Has both desires and fears. Great characters want something they can't have, and this conflict makes your story. It is no mistake that Bruce Wayne, the Batman, is deathly scared of bats -- just like he is scared of failing his city and parents. This makes him far more relatable than a weirdo in a cape.
- Has agency. Whenever a character makes a choice, make sure it is the character deciding to do it -- not the author forcing the character to do it because "the plot needs it." This is the quickest way to lose your audience.
- Introduce a problem, fail to solve it, and then resolve the problem with a surprise to create instant plot. If this sounds too simple, it is. But it is the genesis of all plot. You have your characters, and they have a problem (The Joker is on the loose, the Avengers broke up, Scott Pilgrim got dumped). They decide to fix the problem, and fail (The Joker escapes, Captain America and Iron Man start fighting, Scott Pilgrim has to fight 7 exes). In a triumphant final push, your characters finally prevail (Batman defeats The Joker, Cap and Ironman usher in peace, Scott Pilgrim gets the girl). These are your major plot points and you can play with them however you want. But knowing these three stepping stones ahead of time will save you a lot of writing headaches.
- "First act—Get your hero up a tree; second act—throw rocks at him; third act—get him down." -- Anonymous
- Make life hell for your characters -- it makes the payoff more rewarding.
- You can always play with this structure, and you should -- don't forget that (spoiler alert) Captain America gets assassinated shortly after peace is brokered in Civil War. But this moment is great because it plays off the three-act structure, even as it breaks it with a second, surprising climactic moment.
- Whenever possible, convey information visually instead of through dialogue or exposition. Say, for example, you have a character who needs to turn a paper in or they fail their class. You could have the character wake up and tell their mom "I need to turn this paper in or I fail." But this is simple and unrewarding to the reader. Consider a few ways to tell this same plot point visually:
- A page of illustrations where the character frantically runs through the door, down the hall, to the office, and then finds it "Closed."
- A sign on the wall labeled "Final Papers Due TODAY!" that the character walks right by when leaving class.
- A single shot of every other student turning in papers, with your character alone at the desk writing furiously, or with his head in his hands.
- Using your drafts and paragraphs, create timelines for the action and characters in your story. Try to be really methodical about this, boiling down each plot point and action into it's essential moment. Think of these as each page of the comic book -- you want the story to be progressing with ever flip of the page.
- What is crucial in each scene? What moment or line of dialogue pushes each scene into the next.
- In any storytelling form, each scene must end in a different place than it began for the readers, plot, and/or characters. If not, then the whole book is just spinning it's wheels!
- Fill in the dialogue, workshopping it with friends to make it realistic. Finally, once the story and characters are in place, it's time to nail down the dialogue. The trick is to make each character sound as human as possible, but there is actually an easy way to do this: have humans read out each character. Invite over 1-2 close friends and read through the dialogue like a script. You'll hear instantly when people can't quite get the words out or sound unnatural.
- There is nothing that says you can't write dialogue first, either! If you like play-writing or screenwriting, you may be more comfortable drafting out scenes in dialogue as opposed to timelines.
Building a Mock-Up
- Use a mock-up to test out your ideas, style, layout and pacing without sinking too much work into the idea. A "mock-up" is basically a sketch of the entire comic book, page by page. They don't have to be detailed as the bigger issues layout. Instead, figure out how many frames or lines of dialogue fit on each page, where do you want any "special pages" (like full-page frames), and will the format of each page be identical or change depending on mood? This is where you start merging the words to the pictures -- so have some fun.
- If you're not artistically inclined, you don't need to worry about hiring an artist just yet. Instead, just focus on the basics. Even stick figures can get the point across and help your visualize the final book.
- While this is "only" a mock-up, you still must take it seriously. This will be your blueprint for the final project, so treat it like a sketch for a painting and not some throwaway practice run.
- Create several timelines: one for what should be shown to the reader in the story, what action needs to occur, where character development will go, etc. Other timelines will need to be made for each character, so you know what their life has been so far, where it is going, etc. These will help you keep the pages and stories straight, visualizing where each character needs to be at each portion of the book.
- Divide a blank page into panels for your story. Keep in mind pacing, so if your main character has just discovered the bones of a monster in her backyard, the reader gets to have a nice big picture to look at and take their time viewing.
- Using your timelines as a guide, fill in the panels with either descriptions or sketches of what action should be seen, and what dialogue should be heard. Remember that dialogue is actually seen in a comic book, so it literally needs to fit in each box. Try not to jam too much at once.
- That said, some comic books choose to let the dialogue balloons spill into other frames, creating a somewhat looser, chaotic feel.
- For longer monologues or speeches, consider connecting the speech bubbles together from frame to frame. The same person is giving the same speech, just with different action underneath.
- Keep your script page and graphic page side by side as you work. Many professionals will use two pages, one for the script and one for the pictures. Remember, the trick of comic books is your balance between words and visuals, and this is easiest to see side-by-side. You can tick off each caption and frame as you work.
- For example, the script might go: "[Page 1.] Spiderman is swinging down the streets and spots 2 police cars chasing a yellow sports car. caption1: Hmm it's strangely quiet today... caption 2: Uh Oh.. guess I spoke too soon!" Then on the other page would be the picture of Spiderman swinging down the street and the two blank caption spaces.
- Hire an artist, or finish the work yourself, once you're happy with the mock-up. If you've been diligent about clean professional work, you might be able to turn the mock-up itself into the book. Otherwise, get to work on the actual thing, using your mock-up as the guide. Sketching, inking, and coloring a comic book is a serious undertaking. But it is also a ton of fun.
- If you're getting an outside artists, send them the script and ask for samples. This helps you see if their visual style is right for you.
- Illustrating a comic book is a topic worth it's own tutorial, as it is a challenging and exiting art form.
Getting Your Book into the World
- Consider starting a free web comic to build interest and buzz. The internet age gives you endless opportunity to market and publish your own work that should not be discounted. In many ways, shorter internet comics have replaced physical comics books as ways to build towards the inevitable graphic novel, which is usually all of the strips collected in one book. Even better, use your web comic to expand on the stories or characters in the book, enticing viewers to buy the "real thing."
- Getting up on social media every day, even if only for 20 minutes, is essential to build some traction online and get potential readers.
- If you can point to a large follower list, on any platform, publishers are more likely to see and like your work. Having followers tells them there are people already who want to buy the book.
- Make a "hit-list" of comic book and graphic novel publishers with work similar to yours. Look up the authors and publishers of your favorite comics, leaning towards ones with a similar tone or subject as your comic. Be sure to branch out, too -- this list cannot be too big! Remember that, while working for Marvel or DC would be a blast, it is very rare for first-timers to get picked up by the big guys. Independent and smaller presses are a much better bet.
- Get contact information, including email, website, and address, for every company.
- If applying for graphic novels, be sure to check if the publishing house has a specific division for graphic work, or if they take all submissions the same way.
- Submit samples of your work to your target publishing houses. Head online and see if the house accepts "unsolicited submissions," meaning you send them the work even if they don't ask. Read all the rules and guidelines, then send in your absolute best work. You won't hear back from everyone -- but that is why you keep the list as big as possible.
- Any cover letters or emails should be short and professional. You want them reading about the story, not about you!
- Make sure artistic samples are included with the story.
- Consider self-publishing and marketing your book yourself. It's a daunting proposition, but it is very doable. While printing in full-color is expensive, you can always stick with black and white. Furthermore, you get creative control over the entire book, allowing you to make sure your vision gets onto the page unfiltered.
- To self-publish a comic book, simply create a PDF from the pages using Amazon Self Publish or a similar site.
- Understand off the bat that the world of publishing is not always easy or fair. There are so many manuscripts that hit the desks of publishers that many are thrown out without being read. This isn't to discourage you -- many amazing books get through, too! -- but rather to prepare you for the hard work ahead. Having a book you love and feel proud will make the slog of publishing much, much more bearable.
- Don't forget that even the most famous authors were rejected 100's of time before success. It may hurt now, but working through it separates published comics from unpublished.
Doc:Comic Book,Comic Strip,Political Comic
- Don't forget, PAGE 1 will face the inside front cover, so don't have a 2-page splash until page 2. Likewise, page 22 will face the inside back cover.
- Try to make your 2-page splashes start on an even numbered page.