Though captions in modern comics are generally a shadow of their former self, in my book they’re still an indispensable tool for the comic writer.
Of course captions (CAP) deliver narration in comics, be it an all-knowing omnipresent unidentified narrator, or a specific character’s inner dialogue.
Captions can lay out base details;
1 CAP Brooklyn, around midnight.
or the tried and true;
1 CAP Meanwhile…
They can narrate story.
1 CAP Brooklyn, around midnight. The hardest rain the city’s seen in two decades.
They can substitute for off-panel dialogue…
1 CAP Good Lord, I’ll never find a taxi in this mess.
They can substitute for thought bubbles.
1 CAP I should have stayed home.
You probably already know what Point of View (POV) is–we’re talking story voice here, not camera angles.
3 CAP I’ve never considered myself lucky. Losing more money at cards in a single night than most people make in a lifetime isn’t really something I like to brag about, but the truth is, if I had it to do over again… I wouldn’t change one damn bit of it.
Second person (rare):
3 CAP You thought your luck would never run out. You thought you were unbeatable. All in with jack high against the mafia’s most experienced hitman. Shows what you know.
Third Person (limited: the narration is limited to the perspective of only one character):
3 CAP Jimmy thought his luck would hold. Why shouldn’t it, the last twenty fours had been the luckiest of his life. He dodged bullets, fell out of a four story window without a scratch to show for it and outran two angry pit bulls. A game of cards was child’s play.
Third Person (omniscient: the narration is all-knowing):
3 CAP Jimmy knew his luck would hold. As long as he had Lee’s magic monkey paw sitting in his pocket, the game was in the bag. Or so he thought. The ex-con sitting across the table stroked the snake fang medallion around his neck. The medallion had eaten three men’s souls… and was ready for its fourth.
I like to think of POV as a technical style of writing. You can choose which style you want to narrate in, without actually choosing a specific narrator (yet).
The other side of the equation is the more creative side, the character perspective.
While you may write the entire narrative in a single POV (recommended) every character in the story has their own perspective on things.
In long prose novel fiction writers working in third person omniscient (probably the most common POV), have to avoid jumping around into too many different characters’ heads. Doing so can quickly confuse the reader and muddle the story.
In comics, this is even more so the case.
In most stories, you want to stick with one narrator. With a broad brush, I’ll say most of the time, this is also the main character/protagonist/hero.
Generally, the one narrator story gives the most direct, intimate and complete story.
Think of sitting down at the table with six friends, all equally good storytellers. If you wanted to hear a good story, do you think you would get more from listening to one friend speak for 60 minutes, or each friend telling you their story in 10 minutes?
I recently edited a script where the writer opened with one character narrating. Switched to a second mid-way through the book and threw in a third near the end. Three perspectives is bad enough, but now imagine that the scenes jumped back and forth between them… which it did.
And then just for good measure, picture a writer who uses L-cuts and J-cuts in their script. (Good effort, but with multiple narrators became even more confusing.)
Unless you’re specifically writing an ensemble cast story, my recommendation is almost always, stick with one narrator. Before you move to juggling multiple perspectives, learn to use a single omniscient one first.
If you’re running an ensemble cast story or absolutely want to showcase multiple perspectives, here are a few quick tips to consider.
1) Unique voices are even more important.
Make sure your characters (narrators) have unique voices. You really want the reader to know who’s talking, just by the diction alone. Think Spock from Star Trek, or C3PO from Star Wars. You know their dialogue without seeing them speak it first hand.
2) Use the narration to your advantage.
Use the narrative to actively segue into each narration. Basically you tell the reader who’s about to narrate. Of course, you don’t want to come out on the nose and say “ok, no here’s what Bill has to say…” but you want to make it clear, leave no confusion, Bill is about to say something.
On the transition out panel that segues into the narration, put some sort of direct emphasis on the character that’s going to talk.
(For example, two cops sitting in a car and one asks where Bill is. The other cop responds by saying, he’s trucking that load to Oakridge. Then the next shot you show a truck racing along and begin Bill’s narration. So you didn’t come out and say, “ok, Bills about to talk… but you put a direct spotlight on Bill, priming the reader for Bill’s narration.)
Leading with the narrative is more complex than it sounds to pull off well. Especially if you have multiple narrators and are jumping all over the damn place.
In these instances. Segue into the narration the first time you enter the scene and spend extra effort and attention creating drastically different environments for the scenes. If you establish bill trucking on the road and James on the space station, the reader should have a better grasp of who’s narrating what…
3) Different Visuals.
Consider using a different visual treatment for each narrator. Different colored balloons, different font or text style, whatever… If your alternate perspective(s) supports a drastically different visual, let’s say your alternate perspective is a robot or demon or something, this can work well.
But generally, I don’t like this approach too much as you usually have to use establish the styling with the character in a non-caption usage first. Often this could mean having the character deliver all their dialogue in the different color or style. Suddenly your comic is awash with different colored balloons and fonts. Eyesore.
No matter what POV or how many perspectives you incorporate into your comic, the key point is to pay attention. Try to read your script through the eyes of someone coming to it for the first time… and do everything you can to keep things clear for your readers.▪
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.