Tagged: Comic Book Writing

National Graphic Novel Writing Month 2018

National Graphic Novel Writing Month Day 3: Plot First vs. Full Script

National Graphic Novel Writing Month 2018

Day 3 of #NaGraNoWriMo. Now that you’ve decided the format your graphic novel is going to take, you have to decide how you’re going to write it. For that, we have to discuss the two major schools of comics writing: Plot First vs. Full Script.

Plot First is occasionally known as “Marvel method” because Stan Lee used it a lot when he was creating the Marvel Universe and writing eight books a month in the 60s— he would pitch a plot to artists like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Don Heck, etc., discuss it with them and maybe type up a quick page or two for notes. Then the artist would pencil the story, after which Stan would script the captions and dialogue to fit the art. The advantage for the writer is knowing what the art looks like, and how much room there is for text, when scripting. The disadvantage(?) is that the writer loses control over pacing and composition of the art, and may get surprised when the art comes back and there’s this silvery surfer in the middle of the story, or some other addition or omission. We don’t recommend this method at all unless you have an existing relationship with the artist and editor and trust them.

It can also lead to a sort of laziness on behalf of the writer: Frank Miller’s recent one line in a plot that John Romita Jr. turned into TEN PAGES of artwork.

Full Script: writing a complete script with panel descriptions, based on which the artist then draws the story. Advantages: the writer has more control over layout and pacing, although an artist will still find ways to misinterpret your script. Disadvantages: it takes longer to write (and may not save the artist any time), and you may need to tweak your dialogue and captions to fit the art anyway.

Because we don’t want to slough too much of the writing onto the artist for our purposes, we’re going to discuss Full Script. There’s one other method, but we’re going to save that for a bit later in our discussion, because we’re going to use elements of it in writing our script.

So what does a full script for comics look like? Well, it can look very deceptively like something it should never be… which we’ll discuss tomorrow.

John Ostrander: The Digital Dog Ate My Homework. Honest.

When doing my writing lectures/classes, near the start I always ask who in the class would consider themselves to be storytellers. A few raise their hands and then I tell everyone to raise their hands.

We’re all storytellers. We all use story in our daily lives. They’re the atoms of our social interactions. The example I give is if you’re a student and you’re late with your homework assignment you should have a good reason why. Make it a good story. “My dog ate my homework” no longer qualifies – if it ever did. In fact, given how much everything is done on computer these days, it would have to be “My digital dog ate my homework.” It’s not any more compelling than the old version, but it might be considered moderately clever.

Deadlines remain a factor long after you leave school and nowhere is that truer than in comics. In his editorial capacity, my good friend Mike Gold once warned me I had moved past deadline and was approaching the funeral line. He also once rang the doorbell of a truant artist (he happened to be in the artist’s home town on other business). Editors showing up on your doorstep can be unnerving.

In my earliest days as a pro writer, I did everything on typewriter (first manual and then electric; rumors that I chiseled them on stone tablets are just mean). I didn’t have a computer until later and, even when I did, some companies (including DC) were not equipped to receive them electronically. So that meant printing them up on my dot-matrix printer and then rushing them off to FedEx for overnight delivery.

Unless you called in your package by a certain time, usually much earlier than you had the work done, you had to take the package to the nearest FedEx office. If you didn’t hit the office by closing time (usually around 6 PM), you had to make the Midnight Run to the main FedEx office out by the largest airport around. More than once, Kim was the driver while I finished collating the pages, stuffing them in the envelope, and addressing the delivery slip. Let me tell you, Speed Racer had nothing on Kim. She’d run stoplights and take stop signs as suggestions to be ignored. Often, we’d meet other local freelancers also making the death defying Midnight Run. It almost got to be a club.

It was something of a step up when I could fax the script in; that could be done at any time. It still wasn’t completely convenient. These days it’s all done electronically. For instance, this column will never see paper.  As soon as it’s finished, it’s a rush to Hotmail and then to the hallowed halls of ComicMix. It doesn’t have quite the same romance as the Midnight FedEx Run but, on the other hand, there’s a lesser chance of a traffic fatality. And fewer chances for an alibi although the possibility that my steam-powered computer (a.k.a. the digital dog) ate my column is potentially truer than the classic excuse.

Of course, all this could be avoided by simply buckling down and doing the work on-time but, hey, where’s the fun in that?

Right, Mike?

Dennis O’Neil: Let There Be White!

All right now, settle down. Here it is, already the new year and we haven’t even started yet. Started what? That’s just about the kind of question I’d expect from you, mister smarty pants!

We can begin with a gripe, follow with a premature digression and then maybe segue into a topic. Ready for the gripe? Here goes: Geez, a lot of stuff sucks!

But let me tell you about my early days in the writing dodge. When I was groping through the universe, certain of very little, a person or persons whose identity I’ve forgotten told me that clarity was of high importance. Or maybe even crucial. I believed him/her/them and conducted my professional life accordingly, and it seemed to me that the perpetrators of the novels and comic books and films and plays and short stories I was absorbing mostly did the same. (Poems? Maybe not so much. That Ezra Pound can be pretty rough going.) Murkiness was, by and large, not considered a virtue.

But murkiness – lack of clarity – comes in diverse forms. There’s plain old bad sentences and bad plotting and bad acting and unfocused photography and bad editing and inconsistency and showing off at the audience’s expense – for example, sticking in obscure allusions or foreign phrases. And let’s not forget the obvious, bad printing. We’ll end our incomplete catalogue with this: not giving the audience what it needs to understand the action.

Let’s glance, sideways, at some items that really scorch my grits.

  • Credits, titles and production info – words on the screen – that use white or light colored lettering against white or light background.
  • Credits and so forth that don’t remain visible long enough to be read.
  • Actors who mumble lines
  • Credits shrunk so small, usually to accommodate some kind of advertising, that they can’t be read.

Credits that don’t stop running until the show’s a quarter over. Okay, maybe that one’s more mine than yours. I want the damn things shown and then I want to forget about them instead of perching on the edge of my seat waiting to find out who directed the thing

The assumption on the part of the creative folk that everyone in the audience knows the backstory and the characters as well as they do and so that info doesn’t need to be established on later appearances. (A novelist friend once said that every important element of a novel should be established three times in three different contexts. Sound advice. I wish I followed it.) This is especially pertinent these days when here’s a lot of long-form drama happening on television. And by the way: the sins I’ve just mentioned aren’t are seldom committed by the creators of these shows, though maybe they could work on the credits a bit.)

Okay, does that end the griping? Not likely. But it does end the griping for now. Stay braced for further bitchery in the future. We can assume there will be some.

Dennis O’Neil: The Editor Pitch

Big Rock Candy Mountain Supergirl

Long time ago, as I was coming out of one of those anonymous buildings that house the motion picture business, a lovely young woman smiled as though she recognized me. I didn’t recognize her, or almost anyone else in southern Califormia, so I had to assume that she had mistaken me for someone else: Director? Naw. Producer? Naw. Guy who changes the light bulbs? Maybe. Or did she perhaps think I was a writer? Well, as a matter of fact, that’s what I was. I had just been talking to an editor and a studio executive and been informed that a check would soon be forthcoming.

What I’d been doing there, that summer’s day in Hollywood, was pitching a story. My words were my pitch. Next part of the process would be a return to New York and the execution of a script. Now, I’d never before sold fiction to television, but the procedure I was involved in was pretty familiar. It was the procedure I’d followed in selling dozens of scripts to DC, Marvel, and Charlton, which were all comic book companies. Yep, the rituals for the initial contacts in the two businesses, comics and teevee, were virtually identical. (The monetary rewards, alas, were not, but that’s a lament for another occasion.)

That was then. This isn’t. My recent professional contacts with the funnybook dodge, over the last decade-plus, have been spotty, but all of them, with a single possible exception have involved my delivering a written pitch to an editor before beginning a script. The talking part of the editor-writer encounter seems to have vanished. Let us pause while we gnash our teeth, rub ashes into our sackcloth tunics, tear our hair (and good luck doing this to me) and then shrug and get on with our day. So the rules have changed. So what hasn’t?

Exactly. Let’s not think about what ought to be, damnit, let’s think about what is. And then get on with it. If I were to voice a complaint, maybe in a coal bin at midnight, in the very softest of voices, it would concern efficiency and fairness to writers.

You, writer guy, has a conversation with editor guy. Questions are exchanges, Suggestions are offered. When the writer guy finally goes to the elevator, both parties know what’s expected, the exact nature of the task ahead. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be any confusion and/or misunderstanding, but maybe there will be less because there will be less opportunity for them. The writer won’t lose time doing rewrites – and for freelancers, no kidding, time is money – and the editor more likely to get the job on deadline and waste red ink doing corrections.

Is everybody happy?

Oh, you know better than that. This isn’t the Big Rock Candy Mountain. But the with the preliminary conversation – the verbal pitch – the job would be done, expertly and professionally, and you could watch this week’s episode of Supergirl with a clear conscience.

Well, almost clear. You know what you did.

John Ostrander: Close to Home

Shock. Outrage. Fear. These were my immediate reactions to the terrorist attack on the offices of the French satiric magazine, Charlie Hebdo, last Wednesday. This one strikes close to home, despite being in France. The main targets – and victims – were an editor and several artists at Charlie Hebdo and the reason given were Muslim outrage at caricatures of the prophet Mohammed, a big no-no in Islam. The magazine, the artists, were exercising their freedom of expression, their opinion, and it supposedly offended some radical Muslims.

I don’t think that’s what is really going on. I think that’s the excuse.

There is a purpose to terrorism over and above the act itself, over and above the shock and horror of the violence. The site Terrorism Research says “Terrorism is designed to produce an overreaction and anecdotally, it succeeds at that almost all the time.” The ultimate target of the terrorists are not the initial victims but the general public.

Think back to 9/11 and the World Trade Center. Think of the time when the first plane struck. The second tower was hit slightly later – time enough for the news cameras to be there and capture it. Remember how the images of video played and re-played.

There are videos connected with the attack on the offices of Charlie Hedbo and they are being re-played as well. I know when I see them, when I think about the attacks, I am enraged and part of me wants violent terrible revenge. That is not the better angel of my nature and I know that.

As a writer, I put my protagonists through hell because that process strips away the layers and reveals who they really are. My tenet is that if something is true in writing, it is because it is true in life. We may think we know how we would react in a given situation but, until that moment actually arrives, we don’t really know.

As a people, as a civilization, we are in that situation now. As I write this, the French police report that terrorist sleeper cells in France have been activated over the last 24 hours. CNN reported that a senior U.S. law enforcement official said “This isn’t going to end.” Nor do I think it will be confined to France; I think inevitable that the attacks will come to our shores as well. After all, we are “the Great Satan.” How will we respond? In the past, we have responded with Abu Graib, the war in Iraq, the cells at Guantanamo. Is that who we are? Is that what we must become to survive?

I am a pop culture writer and I tend to have violent protagonists. They don’t turn the other check and often seek revenge. I could be accused of promoting that viewpoint with my work; I like to think I’m allowing people to vent that anger through fantasy rather than advocating the approach but perhaps I’m just being self-serving. I also know, however, that all the characters that I write are damaged and scarred by their approach and I hope that I write them that way.

In our lives we can’t control what others do; we can only control – hopefully – our reactions and how we respond. In the same way, we cannot control or even prevent what these terrorists do; we can only choose how we respond.

It will come down to this – how much are we willing to sacrifice to feel safe; how much are we willing to endure to be free? We might think about Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address with which Steven Spielberg chose to close his remarkable film, Lincoln: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive. . .to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

If we cannot, then the terrorists will have in fact won.


Dennis O’Neil: Batman’s Toys and Storytelling

batmanAll right, everyone quiet down and take a seat. I’ve been asked to remind you about the pep rally and don’t forget that finals are week after next. Now, where were we…

Today we’ll begin with a brief review of the material we covered last week. You’ll remember that we began by discussing what Batman’s mortal enemy – I refer to the Joker, of course – called Batman’s “wonderful toys.” We mentioned the Batmobile, the Batplane and that line-shooting device, the technology of which would surely be revolutionary though Batman seems to take it for granted. Putting the shoe on the other foot…the Joker, who does not appear scientifically inclined, mixes up some sort of disfiguring goop that can be passed off as over-the-counter cosmetics – in itself, no mean feat – and then smuggles it into retail packaging throughout the city. His point is to distress the citizenry and apparently he succeeds.

I explained these wildly improbable events by suggesting that the screenplay which encapsulates them is a hybrid of funny animal/funny person cartoon shorts, the likes of which were movie theater staples when I was a nipper and can sometimes be found on television, and crime drama: call it badge opera, if you like. The critter on the screen, human or otherwise, has what he needs when he needs it and we don’t care where he got it, only how he’s going to use it. Outrageously, we hope.

But, for a moment, consider: Could the script have been written in such a way that the anomalies are explained? Well, don’t expect me to write it, but the answer is a qualified yes.

I choose to believe that the very bright guys behind Hollywood computers are capable of the kind of mad ingenuity the job would require. In fact, they and other scriveners do something like it every day.

Let me remind you of a basic: art, which includes storytelling, involves a process of selection: the writer determines which incidents, real or imagined, will best tell his story and those are what he shares with us. He has to determine how deep into the story he wants to go. Go too deep – put in too many trivialities – and he risks boring his audience; put in too few and the thing might not make sense. Do we care where the hero bought his trusty .45? Probably not, so don’t bother to distract us with the sales slip. But if the plot requires him to shoot the sweat off a bumble bee at 100 yards, maybe we’d better have some idea of how he acquired that skill, lest in wondering where the skill comes from we lose interest in the hero and his world.

It seems to be a matter of degree, doesn’t it?

Ol’ Nobel Prize-winning Papa Hemingway had opinions on this matter and they’ll do to end this session.

Know what to leave out.

Write the tip of the ice-berg, leave the rest under water.

Is that the bell already?


John Ostrander: WWGJD?

Warning: spoilers below.

“Look at the flowers.”

A seemingly innocuous line that should set shivers through regular fans of the TV series, The Walking Dead. (more…)

John Ostrander: Sequels and Prequels and Remakes, Oh My!

Fox Movies has announced the possibility of re-making the musical [[[West Side Story]]] because Steven Spielberg has evidently expressed an interest in doing so. A part of me, a large part of me, wonders if that’s a good idea. The original won ten Oscars and is considered a movie classic. So – why? Why do a remake? It might be different but will it be better? How likely is that?

It puts me in mind of Gus Van Sant’s shot by shot re-make of [[[Psycho]]]. Why did he bother other than as an artistic exercise? Why did the studio okay it? One of the justifications I heard is the younger generation won’t go to the original because it’s in black and white. Seriously? They can’t be that shallow.

At one point there was talk of doing a re-make of [[[Casablanca]]] as a film. That was fortuitously abandoned. There was a TV prequel to it in 1983 that lasted about a season. There was also a TV remake of Going My Way which starred Gene Kelly in the Bing Crosby role and Leo G. Carroll in the Barry Fitzgerald part. This one actually had a large impact on me; I was in the 8th grade at that point and it made me want to be a priest. My “vocation” lasted only a little longer than the series. But the TV series was my first experience with the material and so the TV series was always my “real” Going My Way.

Famously, there was the [[[Godfather]]] sequel that was better than the first film. Less fortunately, there was another sequel which was lesser than either of the previous two films. Likewise, the sequel to the first [[[Star Wars]]] film was, by most peoples’ account, the best film of the series while the third one was far from that. Then Lucas, in his supreme wisdom, went back and did a prequel to the original trilogy. The technology certainly was superior but the story – not so much. For myself, I wanted to know what happened next – which was the basis for the [[[Star Wars: Legacy]]] comic book series that Jan Duursema and I did. Disney, having bought the franchise, will do a bit of both – they’ll push on to Episode VII, set thirty years after [[[Return of the Jedi]]], but they’re also developing stand alone films about young Han Solo and young Boba Fett. So they’re looking forward and backwards. That could make you dizzy.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a sequel, prequel or remake. It depends on the reason you’re making it and/or the story you have to tell. Sometimes you look at your earlier work and you see the flaws and think, “Man, I’d love another shot at that.” You feel you’re better at what you do, you’ve deepened as a person, you have more to bring to the material. The danger, of course, is that you could “improve” it to death.

Perhaps the remake is an existing property that you didn’t create. Me, I’d love a shot at [[[The Shadow]]]. Love it or hate it, Howard Chaykin achieved his own vision of the character when he took it on, as did Andy Helfer with artists Bill Sienkiewicz and Kyle Baker. Not traditional and perhaps neither were MY vision of the character but they were interesting and valid and reflected its creators.

I’ve done my own fair share of prequels, sequels, and remakes. Some have worked, some haven’t but in each case I tried to get down the essential concept of the book or character. My run on DC’s [[[Suicide Squad]]] was partly a continuation but mostly it was a re-make. The big question should always be – what story do I have to tell? Is it worth telling? Is it worth the reader’s time and money?

When you get right down to it, those are the same questions for any story you tell – new or remake. The story should always be its own justification.

Photo by nickstone333

Dennis O’Neil: How Long Can You Go Without Faking It?

Story ideas are pretty malleable. I once presided over/rode herd on/sweated out an 1,100+ page continuity that began as a plot for two 15-pagers.  Hemingway is credited with writing a story in only six words.  (Go on. Google it.  I’ll wait.)  I did something a while back, just a bit over 500 words, that, I think, qualifies as a story, though some might disagree, (and because we cherish the First Amendment, if for no other reason, we welcome their dissent.)

Slick magazines, back when my mother was reading them, featured stories complete on one page.

Superman’s origin, which, you might recall, involved an exploding planet – we’re not talking small, here – was originally told on one page and the first Batman story ran a mere six pages, but it was very close to a Shadow novel that must have been in the neighborhood of 45,000 words.

[[[The Great Gatsby]]], often cited as a great novel, is 47,094 words. [[[War and Peace]]], ditto on the great novel label, goes 587,287.

So, is there a point to all this?  Let’s try to find one.

Story ideas, and literary forms, might be malleable, but that doesn’t excuse scriveners from the labor of plotting and structuring. You can’t just plunk yourself down at the keyboard, decide you’ll do an 1,100-pager and begin to perpetrate the opening of this Sahara of a continuity. No, check that: you can begin the aforementioned perpetration, but a prudent person might advise against it. The danger is that, toward the end, you might find a lot of loose ends that defy knotting, or you might have given your characters problems that they can’t solve and still stay true to whatever else you’ve established.  Or you might just run out of plot. Then, you begin to improvise. You fake it. You pad. Are you, by now, boring the reader? Admit the possibility, anyway.

It happens.  A person far wiser in the ways of Big Media recently confirmed what I’d read somewhere.  Sometimes, writers and producers of television entertainment begin a protracted and complicated storyline with no clear idea of how they’ll get from A to B. They make it up as they go along.  Sometimes they get away with it.  Sometimes.

I know that some Nineteenth Century literary luminaries – Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoyevsky to name two – serialized their novels before publishing them in hard covers.  I wonder: did they make it up as they went along?  Did they do outlines?  Plot summaries?

What we did, my comic book colleagues and I, was make pretty detailed outlines, in consultation with our freelancers. We all knew what story we wanted to tell and had a reasonably firm idea of how it should end.  There was a few small disagreements: some of my merry men wanted the outline to be detailed; I wanted to leave wiggle room and preserve the option of someone having a better idea along the way.  But we generally knew where we were going and how to get there.

One more thing: that outline assured us that we had enough plot to justify the number of pages we were planning to occupy.  We could and did permit side plots to run in parallel with our central story, but we wanted none of that padding stuff.

Is here any padding in the preceding 551 words?  Well…

John Ostrander: Short Form and Long Form Storytelling

My favorite new show on TV this year is The Blacklist. It’s on opposite another show I enjoy a lot, [[[Castle]]], which is now in its sixth season. Assuming it makes it (and I certainly do hope it’s renewed). I wonder if I’ll still love The Blacklist five years from now.

The new trend in American TV appears to be serial anthology shows such as [[[American Horror Story]]] and True Detective. Both take a season to tell a complete story and then the following season tells a different story but in the same genre. [[[American Horror Story]]] often keeps most of the same actors but then casts them in different parts. You tell the story and then you move on, giving a complete beginning, middle, and end.

There’s a lot to be said for that. The BBC series, [[[Broadchurch]]], told a good story – so much so that I wonder how they’re going to do a sequel as they evidently plan to do.

With a long running series, you have to find ways to keep it fresh if you want to keep the viewers coming back and the reasons for continuing the show are often financial and economic ones rather than creative ones. (more…)