Diving back in to this series on How to Write Comics, first, let’s recap. Last week, we went over some of the very basic rules-slash-guidelines for writers to keep in mind. For those who missed that post, here are the takeaways: Be clear, be flexible, and learn to compromise. I also provided a few links to examples of comics scripts so you can get a feel for their structure.
Now, I want to talk about The Big Stuff. How do you translate your grand idea for a story into a series of visually arresting pages and panels? And how do you make sure those pages and panels are pretty and effective at telling that story? While you’re at it, how do you ensure that those pages and panels are written so that your artist(s), letterer, and readers really get what you’re trying to say?
Let’s start big—story structure and pagination—and then zoom in on the smaller stuff.
Story Structure & Pagination
- Because comics are usually a group effort, there are script-writing conventions in place that ensure everyone on your team is speaking a similar language. These general rules also help your creative team work well with publishers, printers, and other folks on the less-creative side of comics production.
- One of these conventions is the four-page rule. In printed comics, books are printed with page counts that are always multiples of four. (For example the Oneshi Press Anthology series uses the four-page rule, and we prefer eight-page short comics.) This means that, if you write a 23-page comic, there’s an extra page hanging out, which can leave the publisher in a bind. So the industry standard is that comics are written in four- or eight-page increments. Sticking that that rule where possible makes things easier for everyone.
- In light of the four-page rule, it makes sense to write comics as a series of shorter arcs within longer storylines at both the micro and macro level. So, within the larger story structure, you can break longer stories down into twenty-four-page arcs. Then deconstruct those further into eight- or twelve-page sequences. And separate those further into four-page scenes. Basically, you want your story to flow in such a way that, if it needs to be cut off at a four-page mark, or interspersed with an ad or extra art, the cut will come at a place that feels good to the reader.
- Knowing these page breakdowns can really help you, the writer, plan the structure of your comic before you begin drafting. Rather than feeling overwhelmed with possibilities, keeping the four-page guideline in mind gives you a starting point to plan a page count, figure out where you want the high and low points to go, decide how much down time your characters can have between climactic events and how much detail and backstory can fit into your comic. You know, pacing!
- Of course, webcomics can be written without any page count or end in sight. However, if you’re working on a webcomic and have the desire to turn it into a printed book at any point, the four-page rule can be worth keeping in mind as you proceed.
- Page layouts are a massive part of comics writing, but every writer and every artist has their own unique way of working with them. There are a few basic questions you should ask yourself before you start a new page:
- Where should this page start, and where should it stop?
- What’s the most important moment on that page, and how will you make it stand out?
- How much action needs to happen on this page, and how many panels does that require?
- It’s not necessary for every page to be its own story—you don’t need a beginning, middle, and end. But each page should be able to stand on its own in a smaller sense. You want it to move the overall story forward, and to start and stop on relatively important moments that feel satisfying and cohesive to your reader. Some scenes must play out over several pages, and that’s fine—but each page withing that scene should be able to convey a distinct part of that scene. This is a rather esoteric thing to put into words, so here are some helpful hints to help break it down.
- Okay, so that pages-should-stand-alone thing? Wellll… Remember that pages that face each other (aka two-page spreads) in a print book can be viewed by readers as a single unit. That doesn’t mean each spread must be cohesive—sometimes it can’t be. But comics readers are usually visual folks, so when you can please them by writing two facing pages that work together, do so. For instance, if you have a a really sweet action sequence that plays out across just two pages, try like heck to make those two pages face each other so that your artist can create a two-page spread that’s gorgeous, cohesive, and effective.
- Also remember that your first page will usually be on a right-hand page, and your last page (if it’s a four-page-rule-adherent story) will be on a left-hand page. That means that both your first and last pages will need to stand on their own, without a full-page-spread effect. So write accordingly—you’ll want those pages to be impactful with just the space they take up. These can be good places for splash pages—full-page art pieces without many panels breaking them up—because they tend to really draw readers in with striking visuals. Or, if you’re using a more standard panel breakdown, try to weigh the impact of your first and last panels so that you start on an intriguing panel…and end on an high note.
- Get creative with your page layouts when you can! Not every page needs to be rows of same-size panels. That can get monotonous to readers. Play around with different setups that will emphasize the emotion or the action in play. For example: Is your character striking an epic pose? How can you structure the page so that the pose in question is even more striking? Could this be a splash page with smaller inset panels around the edges? Could the character’s pose be a central design element that breaks up the page?
- Remember to remain flexible. That’s one of the cardinal rules of writing comics! Your artist may have ideas about page setup that didn’t occur to you. And those ideas might be really, really helpful! Or they may disrupt the flow of the story as you want it to be presented. Either way, that’s how creative collaboration works: Other people’s ideas are an integral part of the process. It’s important to give your artist freedom to make the experience of working with you rewarding. And it’s just as important to be clear about what you need the comic to express. Communicate, communicate, communicate!
Panels on Pages
- In the same way that pagination conventions help you plan your story, panel conventions help you plan pages. So, while it’s possible to have a ton of small panels on a page, most comics pages average around six panels. Some have only one (e.g. splash pages, above), some have twelve, some have more. But six is a pretty good average to keep in mind when you’re writing.
- You need to consider the complexity of artwork in each panel needs when you’re planning a page. If there’s a lot happening in each panel of a many-panelled page, it may look too crowded. And, the smaller each panel must be to fit on the page, the less your artist will be able to fit into it. That’s both because of size restrictions but also because of time restrictions. Most comics artists aren’t looking to take a day on each panel—and if they are, they’re probably expensive.
- If you’re writing with a specific artist in mind, study that artist’s style! It will guide you as you imagine your pages and panel set-ups. If you haven’t yet nabbed an artist, you may want to keep your page layouts in more generic territory. Sure, you can find an artist to work with you on your fifteen-panel-per-page, fifty-seven-page graphic novel. But it’ll be way harder to find them. Plus, the more difficult your pages are to complete, the pricier the completion will be.
That’s all we’ll say about panels for now. Next week we’ll dive much deeper into writing panel descriptions that work for you and your artist(s)! In the meantime…got questions about pagination or page layouts? Leave them in the comments below!
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