Hello again, aspiring comics writers! It’s me, Lynsey G, back with a new post about How to Write Comics. In the past few weeks, we covered the basics of writing comics, then went into more detail about how to structure a story and lay out pages based on comics-publishing rules.
Now, let’s get serious about the details.
Describing comic panels is an art form unto itself, because it’s not just description. It’s a finely tuned communication from a writer to an artist (or sometimes a whole team of artists).
As a writer, I know that it be tough to work as part of a team. Writers are often an introverted lot. (I speak from experience.) But here’s the thing: Comics require teams. (Unless you’re a writer-artist dynamo, in which case, WOW! Go you!) So as a the comics writer, it’s on you to work well with others. When you’re writing panel descriptions in a comics script, it’s your job to consider the needs of the artist who will be translating your words into images.
Since I’m just one half of a writer-artist team, I wanted perspective from the other half. So, I talked with Oneshi Press artist in residence and the person who’s made the art for most of my comics so far—Jayel Draco. We put our heads together to bring you this list of tips about how to write panel descriptions!
Sure, you want to describe the scene you’re imagining clearly so the artist can capture it perfectly. Writers can get caught up on making our language beautiful, throwing in flowery language and extra clauses for effect. But remember: Your audience isn’t actually going to be reading your panel descriptions. All you need to do here is communicate your vision to the artist as clearly as possible. And, though some of us writers (myself included) like to think that more description equals greater clarity (because you can add so much more detail that way, amirite?)… The opposite is closer to the truth.
“I’ve seen scripts where people try to put flourish on their writing,” says Jayel Draco. “But writers need to understand that an artist is looking at it, trying to boil it down into its most basic elements, then turn those elements into images.” A whole lot of extra words might serve to overwhelm your artist instead of inspire them.
Remember, you’re not writing prose. Your character’s motivation, backstory, and internal monologue aren’t necessary unless they’re being conveyed overtly in the art. “Anything excessive in the description makes the artist’s job of figuring out what they have to portray harder,” says Jayel. So leave the flourish at home.
But Don’t Leave Out Important Information
Writing a comic is an exercise in finding the happy medium between too many words and not enough information. You don’t want to overwhelm your artist, but you do need to get the important stuff across. That means that, sometimes you need to front-load your artist.
“Your artist is not your audience,” explains Jayel. “You may have plot twists, Easter eggs, and spoilers coming later in the story. Your artist has to know what’s important up front, and why.”
For instance, you don’t want to go into excruciating detail about every item of junk on the shelf in the background. Jayel calls that “micromanaging with irrelevant details.” But, if one item is later going to be an important prop that your character interacts with—tell your artist in the first description of that prop’s location! Your artist will be better off having more information in these instances than too little—they can plan ahead, rather than have to go back to modify earlier work.
Describe the Results
For most writers, prose is our most commonly used and therefore most comfortable mode of writing. But writing a comics script is very different. Rather than telling your audience what your character is thinking and feeling, you need to describe to your artist what your character is doing. The easiest way to think about your job in panel descriptions is this: Focus on what’s physically happening in each panel.
The characters’ motivations, mood, and so on must be made clear by what they’re doing. You can mention a character’s emotional state to your artist, or write the overall mood of a scene so that your artist can make decisions to reflect that. But your job as a writer is to relate how one can tell that these moods are in play. And that’s accomplished by describing the physical results of those moods. So, for example, “Character X squeezes the bridge of her nose and grimaces” is more helpful than “Character X is super annoyed by this tiresome crap.” See the difference?
Don’t Overload a Panel
It may sound obvious, but it can be tougher to remember when you’re writing: Your character can only feasibly do ONE thing in each panel. You can show the result of an unseen action—your character can be facing a different direction than they were in the last panel. But they can’t really be turning around and facing a new direction in one panel.
In other words, your job is to imagine a scene in your head, then pick the best possible snapshot from that scene, and then describe only that moment.
As a writer, I sometimes get grandiose ideas about all the things I want to fit into a panel. In my non-image-making brain, I think I can see someone accomplishing three different tasks while manipulating several objects, all while a bunch of things happen in the background. In my mind, it makes sense. But then I turn a script over to Jayel, and he explains to me that the image I saw in my head was more of a movie than a snapshot.
“It’s important for writers to think about how what they’re describing can realistically be shown two-dimensionally. Before you write it, ask yourself: Is this possible?” he says. When in doubt, pare your down to the least-complicated version of itself. Your artist will thank you.
Formatting Is Your Friend
“Use styling and formatting to clearly separate the elements of your page,” advises Jayel. Your panel descriptions should be visibly different from your dialogue, thus making both the artists’ and letterer’s jobs much easier. Use underlines, indentation, line spacing, and line justification to create a script that’s easy for an artist to navigate. Bear in mind that writers are often “word people.” We understand and experience the world in verbal ways. But most artists are “visual people” who do better with images. What that means is that when you present your script in a visually pleasing way that helps them find what applies to them easily, you’re speaking their language and helping them do their job.
Jayel and I have both seen a lot of comics scripts formatted as if they were typed on an old-school typewriter. Courier New font is everywhere. There are massive spaces between lines. This is a style popular in screenwriting for films and TV. It’s hard to read, it’s confusing, and, honestly it’s kind of weird. We have so many styling and formatting options at our disposal these days, I’m not sure why anyone would write this way anymore. “Don’t try to be Hunter S. Thompson pounding away at a typewriter next to a pile of cocaine,” says Jayel. “Be helpful to your artist. Use the tools you have!”
While we’re on formatting, Jayel suggests, “This is by no means a hard rule, but I find that a page of comic script doesn’t usually need to be longer than a page of an actual comic.” Sure, some pages require extra info (remember that front-loading advice from before?). But if you try to keep your page descriptions on a 1-to-1 ratio where possible, your artist will thank you.
Be a Team Player
Let your artist use their imagination. That’s one thing artists are great at, and it you respect your artist’s style, you need to let them use it. If you crowd the page with extremely detailed descriptions of every panel, that will discourage the artist from doing what they do best: creating a beautiful image. “Give your artist leeway to draw what’s natural for them,” says Jayel. “It will come out better if you do.”
It can be difficult—sometimes painful—to watch your words become images that don’t look exactly like you imagined them. But that reinterpretation is what makes communal art experiences like comics and films so magical. When multiple people combine their creative visions into one finished product, it’s truly a beautiful experience. And like most beautiful experiences, this one isn’t always easy.
This is where we return to the golden rule of comics I mentioned in the first post in this series. Be flexible! Your best chance of making the most amazing comic possible is to communicate clearly and concisely, be open to your artist’s needs, and compromise when necessary!
Okay, folks, that’s all for panel descriptions! Tune back in next week when we take a look at how to write dialogue with your letterer in mind!
Read the rest of the How to Write Comics guest blog series here!
For more on our artist in residence and co-founder, Jayel Draco, check out his website!
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