I do my best to answer every question that comes in on the website and across social media.
Someone recently asked, “How do you write to your artist’s strength?”
As a mercenary writer I don’t often have the luxury of knowing who’s illustrating my script. So if you’re a freelancer like me, a lot of times, in real-world practical execution, writing to an artist’s strengths is a moot point.
You just write the best script you can write and cross your fingers whoever gets it, makes the script shine.
That said. If you do know the artist on your script, taking some time to fine-tune your writing to the artist’s strengths (and weaknesses) can create a much stronger final product.
(By the way, if you know who the artist is on your script, but never worked with them before and want to get to know their strengths, weaknesses (artistic likes and dislikes), just look through their body of work… AND ASK!
As I say almost daily somewhere, comic scripting is all about communication.
So back on point…
Writing to an artist’s strength is pretty straight forward. You include and showcase more content of what the artist is good at.
Going a little further we can generally say, less direction is required from the writer on an artist’s strength, where more direction (and attention) is required on an anything an artist is weak in.
In an effort to give you a little more guidance than that, let’s list some common strengths:
If you’re scripting for an artist who’s got human anatomy nailed down, call for more full shots… and focus on putting the characters in action. Let the human form take center stage.
For example, let’s say one of your female characters is a ballerina. Don’t have the scene where she fights with the boyfriend in the car, or sitting at a bar stool where body language is minimal and stiff. Have the argument in her dance studio when she’s in the middle of practicing her routine.
If perspective is your artist’s jam, include a lot of establishing shots. Exteriors, especially city streets or long shots usually offer perspective possibilities in spades. Also, keep your panel counts per page down if you’re gonna push perspective shots—they generally need a lot of room.
Of course don’t overwhelm the artist with complex perspective panels that take 6x longer to illustrate than an average non-perspective panel. The idea in writing to an artist strength is to give them more of what they draw well, not give them only what they draw well.
So your artist is a master of expressing story visually. You’ve just hit gold, cause now you get to let him do a lot of the heavy lifting (shhh, don’t tell the publisher). Anytime I work with an artist who excels at storytelling, I loosen up the script. I spend extra time on the story’s structure (character arcs, theme development, symbolism etc.) and telling the bigger messages. Leave the smaller, execution level messages to the artist.
None of it is more important than the other, it’s simply a matter of time management. When your artist is a really good visual storyteller, you can split the workload.
Sort of opposite of how you handle anatomy, if your artist drops eyes and expressions like nobody’s business, give them the page real estate to show it off—close ups, lots of close ups.
Just make sure you don’t misinterpret this and tumble into the black hole of talking heads—which I passionately advocate as the scourge of comics. If you want an idea of how you can inject a lot of close ups into action sequences, watch a few spaghetti-westerns. Seriously, they’re a bit stylized, but they’re sure to give you inspirational direction when it comes to close ups.
Depth of Field
I have a friend who’s brilliant when it comes to spacial relationships (he’s not an artist). Some folks are just real good at knowing and seeing where things sit in three dimensional space.
If your artist is one of those cats, you can make your scenes a little more complex, with a few more moving parts. Literally, open up your stages—use bigger spaces, and like the old Outer Limits opening used to say, think of “the vertical and the horizontal” while you’re writing. If you stick to a lot of close ups with not much going on in the background, you’re not giving the artist anything to work with.
Consistency in illustration is really more of a prerequisite for overall good art rather than a stand-alone strength. So if you’re writing to an artist who you know has a weakness in consistency, you’re boat has a leak—better call that Flex Seal guy.
You can try to compensate by giving the artist new locations and putting the recurring characters in new costumes and contrasting situations (avoiding repetition and the need for a lot of consistency). But as long as your story has any recurring characters or elements, you always need consistency in the art. It’s a tough one to deal with for sure… you ever consider screenwriting instead?
Backgrounds and Detail
Though separate aspects, these two often overlap so I’m listing them here as one entry. Every once in a while you’ll get lucky to work with an artist who has OCD when it comes to details. Often these guys crush backgrounds, creating cityscapes or environmentals that make your jaw drop.
If you’ve got one of these artistic geniuses on your script, give them the raw materials to create a masterpiece. Include ample detail in your descriptions and playing to this artistic strength, it may be the one time you can get a little “purple” in your scripting.
Whereas most artists will blow past ornate, almost superfluous description, people who eat detail like it’s going out of style tend to soak it up like a sponge.
If you open up the detail in your descriptions, be sure to communicate with the artist and make sure they’re on board with the level you’re delivering. Even artists that appreciate all the minutiae can be overwhelmed… and an overwhelmed artist never produces their best work.
Use of Lighting
Artists that are masters of lighting can create mood and emphasize emotions like a hot knife through butter.
Good lighting lends itself to strong intimacy.
Try and work your story to put an emphasis on smaller, more emotional scenes. There’s only so much you can do showing the main characters EXT. DAY, CROWDED FOOTBALL STADIUM PARKING LOT, but EXT. NIGHT, ALLEY LIT WITH ONE STREETLIGHT opens a lot of possibilities. (I wouldn’t actually write the sluglines like that by the way.)
When scripting find the emotional center of each scene and push the script to unique settings and environments with potent and interesting lighting, to support that emotion of the scene. (Often this will revolve around low-key lighting—I talk about lighting a bit in the Worker’s Guide to Comics and Graphic Novels). Hold your horses there Hitchcock, you don’t need to go crazy explaining how the light is falling, just specify what kind of light is present and let the artist take it from there.
If your artist has that uncanny ability to make a pig look like a pig, a dog look like a dog and a horse look like a horse, Huzzah! You may now include a variety of four legged friends in your script.
If your artist doesn’t show an aptitude for creature anatomy, you’re probably best leaving the furry, scaly or feathery friends out of the script as much as possible.
The placement, arrangement and flow of art are all core considerations to any good comic artist. When you’re working with someone exceptionally good at composition it’s another time to step back and loosen up the script a bit. Give the artist more room to do what they do.
Artists strong in composition usually express a more distinctive or unifying style in their work. If you really want to compliment compositional strength, take the time to learn and understand exactly what your artist’s style is… then develop scenes catering to that compositional potential.
For example, if you have an artist who loves to work with bold, sharp, angular panel frames, cutting across the page from every direction—that doesn’t lend itself to quiet, slow material. For that artist, inject a lot of noise, movement and energy into the script.
If you have the luxury of knowing who your artist is on your script. Take the time to get to know them.
Then take the time to write for them. It will boost the synergy of the comic significantly.
Lastly, keep in mind an artist’s weakness is just as important as their strengths. Altering your script to leave out bits and pieces your artist isn’t good at, is just as important (maybe more) than putting in the stuff they excel at.
And contrary to what I said in the beginning—about asking an artist—artists aren’t always quick to reveal their “true” weaknesses in a quick phone call or email. Sometimes you need to get them drunk first or sneak into their house when they’re not home and read their diary.▪
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.