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How to Make Comics

Part 1 - Writing the stories:

I often get asked; "How do you start writing a story." Well, you have to start with a simple idea. All of the stories, even all of the Grumbles strips I've ever done over the years could be summed up with a simple, one-sentence idea. Think of it as a Hollywood "elevator pitch." You've got 2 minutes to tell your story in a clear, compelling way to Steven Spielberg, who's trapped in the elevator with you for an express ride to the top of an office building.

For instance, my first comic, Detached, could be summed up as: "The fears a visual artist confronts when dealing with possible blindness." Actually, this story was easy to write. Autobiography is simple. Just tell your story. Fiction is a little tougher. My graphic novel Daemon Process came to me in the form of a question: "What if people could talk to the dead on the internet?"

Now, obviously the story grew beyond that (into 48 burgeoning pages), but the idea is; come up with one simple idea, and build from that. Don't try to start with some complex multiverse, and a ton of deeply detailed characters, but start out simply.

I won't really be able to tell you how to write your comic story, but I can make some suggestions about how to start on it, and how to organize it. This is the method that worked for me.

So, How do you tell your story? Usually the best idea is to think in terms of general scenes you want to have in your story, and get more specific from there. Just make a list... start from the end if you need to, but make a chain of logical scenes that tells your story. OK... now expand on each of your scenes by asking some important questions...


Where does this take place? How does the setting affect the story? Is it somewhere the reader is familiar with? Do you know it well enough? Does it serve the story?

Who's in those scenes? What are their histories? What do they look like? Describe them in a separate list so that you can make them into living, breathing characters. If you listen carefully enough to your characters, they'll tell you the story, and you just have to take it down, like dictation.

What happens to your character? In a story, something has to happen to the characters, somehow changing them by the end of the story. They learn something. They grow. They die. They fall in love. Something has to happen, or you're just wasting your reader's time. What happens also has to drive the story forward. Remember that simple elevator pitch at the beginning of this? The action in the story is what makes that happen. If it's incidental to the story, then cut it, and keep on track.

So you've answered the tough questions, and are ready to start writing it all down. What format do you use. It depends.

If it's for someone else, and if you want to micromanage the storytelling, you can write a highly-detailed screenplay that explains how each panel is laid out and what every character is doing and wearing and thinking in minute detail. On second thought, don't do that. Comics are supposed to be a collaborative art; with the writer and artist working together. Trust each other, and give your collaborator some slack. You might be pleasantly surprised.

What if you're writing something for yourself? Then you can afford to much looser, and rely on your artistic half to fill in the details and make corrections as needed. That's the way I usually work, since I generally write for myself. The last thing I want to show you is the beginning of a script I did in 2008, since it's what I'll be using when I talk about breakdowns, roughs, and layouts:

Right on Time

©2008 by James Burns

Page 1

Panel 1: Wide establishing shot of an old person's livingroom. Title and credits over panel.

Panels 2-5: Various shots of dusty shelves, old photographs, Last frame is of a mantelpiece, with an old clock on it.

Panel 6: Staircase as seen from livingroom.

Page 2

Panel 1: Old man comes down the stairs. He's 80-something, with thinning hair, carrying a cane, and wearing a cardigan.

Panel 2: The old man makes his way slowly across the room, heading towards the mantle.

Panel 3: At the mantle, he reaches for something behind the clock...

Panel 4-6 (one row): He produces a key, and methodically winds the clock. Detail of the mainspring coiling, the key in the slot, etc.

Panel 5: He finishes and closes the face to the clock.

Panel 6: He stands back and looks at the clock. The time is 7:59am.

Page 3

Panel 1 (small inset panel): The clock strikes 8. Large type saying "Bong! Bong! etc fills the next series of panels...

Panel 2 (wide, largish panel): The old man looks rapt, lost in memory, scenes of him dancing with his (departed) wife, him proposing, and unwrapping gifts at a wedding shower; receiving the clock.

Panel 3 (another wide panel): Another series of flashbacks, blended together: Him and his bride running from the church, holding hands on the beach, laughing and talking. Each panel shows them older.

Panel 4 (wide): Man (almost as old as now) talking to doctor, looking concerned. His wife in a hospital bed, her hair splayed out on the pillow. Him at the graveside, in shadow. The "bongs" trail off into silence.


Next up: From Script to Panels