Friday, 20 July 2012
Mistakes Were Made - Part One: The Process
One of the things I always find fascinating about talking to writers is that no two seem to structure their writing time in quite the same way. I've had people's eyes widen in terror when I try to explain the system I've evolved and I've had more than one moment of gut-fucking vertigo when listening to another writer talking me through theirs. I've spoken to people who can blurt out a 22-page script in a day, people who work full-on "Marvel style" (giving a plot outline to the artist and only scripting the dialogue etc. once the pencils are already done) and people who claim not to know how the story's going to end until they've finished writing it.
These methods all seem to work perfectly well for the writers who use them, and they're all utterly wrong.... for a certain value of "wrong" - that value being defined as the degree to which they bewilder me.
So, with all this in mind I thought it might be worth spending a post or two on the way I write comics... by which I mean the right way...
...for a certain value of "right".
Anyway, here goes.
By comparison with, for example, prose narration, a typical comics panel is a jack-in-the-box filled with dynamite and hammers. Just let that image sit for a moment, then I'll go on.
Reading prose is essentially a linear process, the words delivering their meaning in strict sequence under the writer's control. By contrast, the art in a comic panel sort of BLAMs you in the face with all its information at once. You know in an instant who the participating characters are, what they're wearing, what they're doing and what their physical surroundings, emotional states and relative positions are. There's more, of course - a lot more, and it all hits you within a heartbeat of first dropping your gaze onto the page. Only after all of this information has been absorbed do we even get into the complicated matter of what's being said or thought - and all of this is happening in every panel on every page.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that writing a comic is almost closer to composing music than prose. I probably should've just drawn you a picture.
Personally, I tend to take about a week to write a 22-24 page script around whatever else I'm doing. I have set goals each day, otherwise I tend to get nothing done. People with better impulse control can probably afford to be a bit more flexible, and for that I hate them.
My starting point, assuming that I have a synopsis and character set I'm happy with, is a pretty obvious one. I write a page-by-page story breakdown of the chapter/issue I'm working on, and a list of scenes I'll be featuring. For no good reason, I tend to do this on paper. Once my scenes are blocked out in loose sequence, I just write a line for each page of the script, detailing the rough action or any significant dialogue beats I want to hit.
Once the page-by-page is set down, I switch to working on a computer and start breaking the action down into panels. I average around five panels per page most of the time, and try to be sparing with the full-page splashes. I could probably rattle off several more paragraphs on panel timings and so on, but that's probably better left for another time. The main thing is that by the end of day one, the story is already essentially written. I know what's going to happen in each of the hundred or so panels, and I've usually got a good idea of how the dialogue's going to play out.
Days Two & Three
These are my dialogue days. This is something else I could get really granular about in the detail, but basically I dialogue out eleven or twelve pages each day and try to stay on the right side of thirty words in a panel. I tend to agonise over every word I cram into a character's mouth, so taking two days over dialoguing like this lets me really focus in on it.
Days Four & Five
With the dialogue and captions in place, I go back over the script and start layering in the full panel descriptions. This is where the musical composition angle I was talking about earlier comes in. I consider each pass I make over a script to be a discrete "track" in the overall composition. The basic rhythm of the story comes from the page and panel breakdowns, then I go back over and add in the dialogue track, caption narration track and (sometimes) the sound effects track. Finally, on days four and five of my writing week, I'm laying down the tracks for action, location and the all-important physical performances of the characters. Each of these elements could support a blog post of its own (and probably will at some point), but I'm really just looking at a broad overview for now.
That's about it for my so-called "process". As with most storytelling methods, it exists somewhere on an axis between survival mechanism and mental illness. That said, it does get the stories out of my head in a way that still allows me to feel as if I'm in some kind of control of them.