We live in an age of information overload.
If you want a career as a writer, one of the first things you must do, is:
Stop Following Bad Advice.
I recently saw someone on social media say, “If you want to LEARN how to write comics, just read a bunch of scripts from famous, successful writers.”
Rolls up sleeves, “It’s clobberin’ time…”
If you are an experienced writer, heck if you know the basic fundamentals of writing, you can assess other peoples’ work and often take away some valuable insight.
If you are inexperienced, coming to writing for the first time, or know next to nothing about writing, reading a bunch of scripts from famous people, is not going to teach you anything.
Here’s why the first one works and the second one does not.
When you sit down to analyze a script, the teacher is not the script you’re reading. Static material can neither confirm nor deny your conclusions… the TEACHER IS YOU. And you can only draw conclusions based on what you already know.
If you don’t know anything, what the hell do you think you’re gonna teach yourself?
You think you’re going to sit down, read a Bendis script and all the secret complexities of creative fiction are going to appear in your brain?
- The concept of “pacing” will suddenly pop into your brain?
- The difference between tone and mood will suddenly appear before you, “Hi I’m tone and I’m different than mood because…”
- The internal and external elements of the character arc will become clear, along with their direct connection to the Master Theme.
This would be like sitting down in an operating room, watching a bunch of open heart surgeries, and expecting you suddenly understand the complexities of the circulatory system, how medications affect the heart and affect the procedure, what causes a higher risk of stroke and how to specifically avoid it, the list is endless.
You could mimic what you see, but you can not understand the deeper complexities at work. Not unless you come to the table with some sort of knowledge of heart surgery.
Some of you may think I’m being negative. I can hear people whining already, that I’m just trying to sell books. Neither of these are the case.
I’m trying to put you on the most efficient path.
The path most likely to keep you in the game as writer.
The path that will lead to faster, deeper comprehension and better composed stories and scripts.
As far as my books go, there are a million books published on core writing and story comprehension, you don’t need mine to get the basics under your belt. But make no mistake, you should at least have the basics down before you start analyzing other peoples’ scripts.
Let’s break it down further.
A comic script appears at three levels.
1) Surface level format.
2) Surface level narrative.
3) Subtext level narrative.
So you don’t know anything about writing and read this From Neil Gaman:
Page 3 panel 2
CLOSE UP (ALTHOUGH THE BACKGROUND REMAINS CONSTANT) OF THE BLACK WOMAN.
ohh, ok, I should write panel descriptions in all caps, I should include camera direction and my panel descriptions should be really short.
Wow, this comic writing format stuff is super easy.
Then you read some Bendis, like this panel from New Avengers:
Panel 5- From behind Luke and Jessica Jones looking wide to the apartment.
This apartment is established in Daredevil 43, so get the reference if you can.
Luke’s apartment is pretty shitty, low rent for a street level superhero living in Harlem. There is clothing everywhere and a couple of superhero souvenirs he has picked up over the years.
This is the opposite of the Batcave. A ghetto bachelor pad with plasma screen TV and entertainment system, couch, two windows on either wall.
But ll of it has been and is being subltly transformed because of new fatherhood.
On the wall is a big framed picture of Powerman and Iron Fist in his yellow shirt disco days.
Luke and Jessica are looking to Ms. Marvel and iron-man, Iron-man is a huge tank in this regular sized room.
And what you want me to say, Stark?
Wait a second, this isn’t written in caps… and it’s way longer. In fact there’s quite a number of differences between the two.
Nobody writes comic scripts the same way, so throw format right out the window. You’ll have no idea who’s format is more efficient or yields better results and why, by reading a bunch of famous peoples’ script.
(And if you’re thinking format doesn’t matter, you’re both very right and very wrong.)
Surface Level Narrative:
As I already pointed out, understanding and analyzing the narrative of a comic script only goes as far as what you already know… If you don’t understand the concept of Narrative Drive, you’re not gonna suddenly learn it from reading a Gaiman script.
Oh God, here go the whiners again;
But Famous McFamous writer never took a writing class in his life and never read a writing book, all he did was read a bunch of scripts and then went on to write the most famous story of all and sold a million books.
As always, let me remind you, for the 1 guy who does the impossible, 5,000,000 guys crashed and burned.
If you are not a genius mutant and try to follow what they did, you’re in for a world of pain.
Also, for the handful of Famous McFamous’s out there, those genius mutants, don’t NEED anything. They operate at a level so far above everybody, they don’t need to read and learn anything from anybody.
They can just create incredible art.
Subtext Level Narrative:
The subtextual stuff in the script is the deeper meaning stuff in the script.
A good story has a lot of it and there are lots of specific techniques to getting it in there.
The subtextual level of the script is particularly hard to analyze and recognize because by its nature it’s open to interpretation.
For over simplification, you read a script and think the message of the story is “Good guys finish last”, you identify a number of specific spots that support this Master Theme… ok, so how do you know you’re interpreting the writer’s script accurately?
You don’t, because it’s a static script and you’re the teacher and student at the same time.
You could be completely misinterpreting the writer’s intent and technique.
There’s no way to know, unless the writer is there, actually explaining and teaching what he did, what he was trying to achieve.
Lastly, I leave you with this.
The Incomplete Picture and Unseen Technique
When the novice sits down and reads a famous writer’s script, realize, you’re only looking at part of the product. A comic script, by itself is not complete. Only when the script is realized in art, do all the pieces fall into place. Can you accurately assess how a writing technique will translate into the final product?
Is that image in act 1, something you find symbolic, really effective enough to carry its meaning to the end of the issue?
If your mind can’t take leaps and bounds, that leaves a HUGE margin of error to account for.
And if you wait to compare the script to the final comic, you have the lovely added complexity of ANOTHER ARTIST’S interpretation thrown into the mix.
That smart idea you discovered in the script, did that actually work in the final comic, or did it work because the artist’s hand changed it in some way to make it work?
Once you understand story and the mechanics of writing, analyzing other folks’ work can be incredibly valuable for comparing your own techniques, searching for patterns and trying to decipher how the writer approaches and solves problems… Where the strengths AND WEAKNESSES of their own unique style shines through. But when you’re first starting out, don’t put too much weight in trying to decipher what famous people are doing. It’s far more important to get a fundamental grasp of writing before you start figuring out what other people are up to. ▪
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.