Panel Descriptions

Though I talk about Loose vs. Tight scripting on page 17 of the Working Writer’s Guide to Comics and Graphic Novels, I decided to make a fancy graph and continue the discussion.

I opted not to label the Loosey Goosey end of this graph “the Marvel Method,” because some folks coming to comics for the first time might not be familiar with the history of the industry, and think that’s the end of the spectrum to mimic.

Instead I’m calling the loosest end of the spectrum at face value, “Outline Level Beats.”

Outline level beats mean exactly what it sounds like, instead of delivering specific panel descriptions, the writer only notes core narrative beats. For example; “Daredevil and Kingpin fight,” or “Spidey heads home defeated.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum we have “Fully Detailed Panel Description.” This panel description goes into the specifics delivering and controlling the narrative with maximum effort and potentially depicting and controlling (or at least suggesting) the visual presentation.

Couple things to note before we get into some examples;

1) More input from the writer, less input from the artist does not imply the artist does not have input… only that they have less. Artists always play an integral role in the storytelling of a comic regardless how much the writer gives them to work with.

2) The 1-10 level ratings is arbitrary just for this explanation. The important thing to understand is the ends of the spectrum and where your writing falls.

3) Actually, a third and perhaps most important thing. As always with writing, there isn’t really wrong or right, there is only method of execution. In other words you may prefer to deliver loose scripts, that’s great. Or you may prefer to deliver tight scripts, that’s great too. An artist may prefer a complete balance of 50% super loose script and 50% super tight, fantastic.

The important thing is having self-awareness, to make sure you are delivering loose when you mean to deliver loose and tight when you intend to deliver tight. Problems arise when you think you’re delivering one, but deliver the other.

Ok, let’s get to the examples;

I’m gonna use this purty, likely familiar image above to script out some examples on the spectrum. Kind of reverse engineering. As I’ve said before, movies give context I couldn’t otherwise give (say if I grabbed X-Men 121 page 4 panel 3).

 

Level 1 – Outline Level Beat

Page 3: Indy swaps a bag of sand for the Golden Idol.

Ding <carriage return>.

That’s it.

That’s an example of the extreme end of a Loose script (also known as the old school Marvel Method).

It’s actually more challenging to articulate a single panel in the loosest end of the spectrum because the loose end of the spectrum tends to cover a lot of ground in a single broad stroke. These broad strokes cover micro-scenes or multiple setups in a single declaration.

Notice narrative control is minimal. Little or no emphasis is put on how we’re getting from A to B, only that we get from A to B. While arriving at B in itself could reveal some sort of message (especially in context of the greater story), the message expressed in the beat itself is either broad, minimal or non-existent.

Notice direction is pretty much non-existent. What’s the bag of sand look like? What’s the Golden Idol look like? How is Indy physically swapping the two items?

NICK SAYS: Writing this loose, isn’t really writing. It’s skeletal outlining. It’s leaving the actual writing/story development to someone else, the artist. If you’re co-creating with someone, and want to spend the time going back and forth a whole bunch, refining and tweaking and building your IP, loose end spectrum could be the way to go… but I reckon for most writers, we’re more interested in controlling the narrative and expressing a specific narrative vision from the outset, and creating a more coherent reader experience–as such, loose end spectrum writing is not viable.

Writing in this end of the spectrum crosses over to thin panel territory. Something I flag on scripts all the time.

Keep in mind, if you’re writing for someone else expecting a “full” script and you deliver a lot of Outline Level Beats in your writing, your client is most likely going to feel like you’re cutting corners and delivering subpar work.

 

Conversely, let’s take a look at how I’d breakdown this same image on the other end of the spectrum;

 

Level 10 – Full Description

PAGE 03 —————————— scene 2 (2 pages)

Panel 1

INT. CAVE – DAY – LOW

Indy looms over an ancient stone pedestal constructed of two cylinder shapes stacked atop each other. The bottom shape sits about three feet in diameter rising chest high, the top cylinder sits in the middle of the lower, no more than twelve inches in diameter and half that high. Untouched by human hands in 500 years, the lower section of pedestal lies overgrown in moss and spindly vines. The lack of vines and moss on the upper section puts emphasis of the Golden Idol-a polished gold over-sized head with exaggerated simian features. A light from an unseen source above drops down directly atop the Golden Idol, further emphasizing it with an angelic-like glow. A glow that reflects on Indy’s face.

Indy reaches toward the Golden Idol, holding one hand out alongside the glimmering artifact, his fingers dancing in anticipation. His other hand gently cradles an old weathered sack partially filled with sand, flopping over on itself. The sack and the idol are nearly identical in size, about the size of a small loaf of bread.

Indy bites the tip of his tongue, his eyes locked on the prize before him with steadfast determination. Over two years of his life spent chasing down the idol about to conclude in the next few seconds. Beads of sweat form on his brow.

An ancient Mayan statue wielding a bardiche stands frozen in time, enshrouded by vines in the background. The blade pointing directly towards Indy’s head, symbolic for the danger at hand.

A massive stone wall also covered in vines, looms behind Indy. The entrance to the idol chamber, a simple narrow archway, dwarfed in the proportion by the immense size of the chamber. Indy is far removed from escape. Isolated from the rest of the world.

It’s just him and the idol.

INDY         To rush, would be a crime… Cause nice n’easy does it, every time.

Notice narrative control is high. How many points of narrative support can you find in this panel description? I’ll list a few;

  • Indy is standing before his goal of the scene (or possibly sequence or act).
  • This panel has high significance.
  • The panel has high tension.
  • Symbolic foreshadowing of danger and something about to go very wrong.
  • Support for tone and mood.
  • The dialogue expresses humor and characterization (ok, I took liberties adding lines from a Sinatra song, you get the idea).

Notice visual direction is high. We described what the bag of sand looks like. We described what the Golden Idol looks like. We described how Indy is physically attempting swap the two items, among other things. We even noted the angle of the shot should be Low (giving Indy a sense of strength and emphasizing his intensity).

NICK SAYS: Writing at this end of the spectrum is the pinnacle of good scripting. By delivering full descriptive panels, the writer creates the most immersive experience. Of course you must not overwrite, and expressing potent narrative control and visual direction succinctly is the mark of a writer at the top of their game.

 

Now that we’ve covered the extremes of the spectrum, let’s land somewhere in middle;

 

Level ? – You Decide

PAGE 03 —————————— scene 2 (2 pages)

Panel 1

Indy looms over an ancient stone pedestal overgrown in moss and spindly vines.

He reaches toward the Golden Idol, the sole reason for his visit to the ruins, with steadfast determination. Beads of sweat form on his brow.

Amid the chamber of immense size, all overgrown with vines and greenery, an ancient Mayan warrior statue stands guard in the background.

Clearly this panel description contains more information and direction than the loose end of the spectrum… but if you feel that it lacks a bit in narrative emphasis and control, and lacks a bit in direction, good on you mate, it definitely does.

If you examine a lot of looser script writing, you’ll notice a reliance on adjectives and a distinct push towards describing the feel and tone, rather than visualization. Of course, this only makes sense, as a looser script writer writes closer toward the Outline Level Beat end of the spectrum.

NICK SAYS: There are tons of mechanics behind writing a good story.  Novice writers write without little or no consideration to these mechanics. They write what comes to them quickly. They write looser because it’s easy.

A script filled with missed opportunities will never become a book expressed to its full potential.

I’m not going into the specifics of how to write a solid panel description here, the necessary elements to touch on etc, I do that in the Writer’s Guide and throughout the rest of the site here. The point of this article is to visually show the difference of panels written at different points of the spectrum, so you can recognize them when you’re scripting them in your own work.

Whether you write loose or tight, always be deliberate in your choice. Know what you want to express in the panel and give the artist enough ammunition (details) to get the job done in spades.

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.

Leave a Reply