A Lesson in Visual Writing

I recently came across this panel description in a script posted to a public forum.
“Twelve rebellion members were trekking through the jungle. One young member was struggling to keep up because of the weight of his bag.”

Besides the obvious problems—passive text and past tense (don’t tell artist what the characters did or are going to do, say what they’re actively doing)—there is no visual writing in this passage.

I only touch the surface of visual writing in the Writer’s Guide to Comics (it’s a very broad subject) but it’s really an important component to comic scripting.

Now, I know some of you are “loose script writers” and have no problem advocating:

Panel 1
Twelve rebels march through the jungle. One young member falls behind, struggling with his overweight pack.

You can do this as a loose script, but really, let’s be honest, you’re leaving ALL the work on the artist’s shoulders. And truth be told, a lot of times, if your artist is not an excellent storyteller, your script is likely to suffer.

So how can we take this two line poorly written passage and turn it into visual story-telling eye candy?

Well first off, we’re at a disadvantage because our source panel description isn’t really expressing anything relevant. It’s really only (loosely) conveying setting and showing the characters, an Establishing shot.

Since there was no dialogue, no expression of emotion and no visual details, we don’t have any idea where the story is going. So let’s just pull out a couple of things and focus on those.

Panel 1
EXT. JUNGLE — EXTREME CLOSE
A mosquito the size of a rhinoceros feeds on a dirty, sweaty, hairy neck, just below the matted, grimey, jet-black hairline. Blood spills from the puncture point. The victim wears green military fatigues, chains which hold dog tags (the actual tags unseen) and a green low-profile military jeep hat.

Panel 2
MEDIUM
A line of soldiers march through a dense jungle trail, overflowing with foliage, spiders, centipedes, worms and flying insects.
Quarters are so close we can only see the first two men in line clearly.
The first soldier swings a machete, hacking away at bright purple flower covered vines.
Immediately behind a stocky soldier carrying a heavy machine gun against his shoulder, slaps the back of his neck hard. He grimaces in pain.

SOLDIER Filho da puta! These mosquitoes…

Panel 3
CLOSE
A soldier with a thick mustache clinches a turnaquette around his shoulder with his teeth as he walks. The bandage is a bloody mess. A bad bullet wound. A handful of mosquitoes buzz around the bandage.
A couple of Miltary decorations above the man’s shirt pocket are in frame. The green and red, golden shield flag of Portugal clearly seen.

SOLDIER (OP) They’re worse than sharks.

Panel 4
EXTREME CLOSE
TIMMY’S thin, scrawny legs in military shorts, buckling as they walk.

Panel 5
EXTREME CLOSE
Timmy’s forehead sweating profusely.

Panel 6
LOW
Timmy, a young soldier, no more than 15, walks toward the camera with a large bag slumped on his back. Timmy has dark rings around his eyes, drips sweat and breaths hard.
A soldier coming up fast alongside Jimmy slams him in the side of his pack, putting him off balance. He’s stuffing a wad of crumpled money into the boy. We can’t make out that it’s money.

SOLDIER VEJA! You lose any more, and you’re going to lose your head.

Panel 7
WIDE
The soldier walks past Timmy joining his companions, practically ignoring the boy.
Timmy looks at the oversized bag on the jungle floor next to him with narrowed eyes of disgust. His arm is clutching some of the bills the soldier just handed him, the rest are scattered on the floor. We still can’t make out the bills are actually money.

Panel 8
LOW
Moving away from the camera, Timmy struggles to catch up to his companions. The overstuffed bag, dwarfs the boy’s body.
Large in the foreground we see one of the bills clearly. A $100 US bill.

Ok, so clearly these 8 panels contain way more info than the original 2 line panel description. That’s actually part of visual writing, knowing what to show and how much time to take to show it… but that’s neither here or there right now, the key to this lesson is not the amount of information, but the way it’s revealed.

A focus on visual information. Visual storytelling.

  • I showed the harsh environment of the jungle.
  • I showed the soldiers to be soldiers, military decorations, weapons and wounded, hinting to the plot of the story.
  • I showed the Portugal flag and hinted to a Portugal location through a little Portugese.
  • I showed the boys struggle.
  • And I visually showed the importance of the bag and used a direct visual cue to reveal what it was.

Visual writing. Key to comics.▪

About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S.  Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.

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