In the Working Writer’s Guide to Comics and Graphic Novels, I take a portion of outline all the way through the process, from text to completed art. But how do you–literally—figure out what to show in the panel?
There’s probably a million ways to formulate a script and conceptualize panels. The way I see it, there’s three basic ways to do it.
First, you can work directly from an outline—an outline containing direction in both visuals and dialogue content.
Or you can start from either of those individual elements; (second) working from raw dialogue… or (third) working from specific imagery.
During the discovery and outline process you are likely to get hit with numerous scenes, flashes of imagery and bits of dialogue. Jot it all down. Don’t lose anything due to process restraints. And at the end of the day, if you’re not quite as anal, I mean organized as me, you’ll probably find your scripting process works from an amalgam of the three.
While I can’t say working from any starting point is more efficient or yields better results, 99% of the time I breakdown my scripts (and conceptualize the panels) directly from an outline. After all the outline is a road map. It dictates the narrative movement and the actual story beats, and like I just noted, already contains visual and dialogue cues.
When you work from an outline, much of the conceptual heavy lifting is already done… it’s really just a matter of filling in the finer details. Of course, don’t let my casual demeanor fool you—the details are key…
Truthfully, there is no definitive, secret comic writer method to figuring out how exactly to express your story visually in panels. You have to learn everything you can about storytelling in general and comic writing, fill that little computer in your head, sprinkle it with some intuition and raw talent and simply get to work.
If you keep reading and learning, and keep writing, eventually your subconscious creative and conscious logical mind will start working together to create some artistic, unique and beautiful results.
Well we hope anyway.
Truth is, not everyone is a talented writer, just like not everyone is a talented dancer, painter, teacher, doctor or whatever… but practice and perseverance can sharpen even the dullest blade… and absorbing everything in the Writer’s Guide (and a few other books out there) will get that grinding stone spinning, giving you a decisive advantage to all the other writers who just start cutting.
All that aside, you may find making the following distinction and approaching your conceptualization at two levels, helpful…
First, simply conceptualize and create based on what entertains you.
Watch the movie of your story in your head and look for the parts that stir emotion in you. These are the bits you want to capture. But more to the point, when you watch the movie in your head, REWIND and REPLAY.
Unlike a movie (or comic, or book) that is set and unchanging. At the conceptual level when writing, you have the amazing advantage to spiral your story off into unknown territory. You have the ability to try different things, look at the material from different viewpoints and see which has the most impact on you.
DON’T let that go to waste.
Don’t latch on to the first thing you think of. Take your time. Explore. And remember, you’re not trying to really analyze, you’re just trying to “find” (out of limitless possibilities) the most entertaining version of the movie to watch.
Next, once you see the story in your mind’s eye in an entertaining way, flip on your “professional writer” switch. At that point it’s time to look at the visual you’ve chosen and start asking the harder, logical questions, taking into considerations all the elements of story telling.
At this stage your focus should be on one question. “Can I express what I’m trying to say… better?” or in another way of asking it, How can I make the visual more powerful and meaningful?
While this two stage, analytical approach may sound cumbersome and unrealistic for an entire script… Just like Kung fu, the more you do it, the better you get at it… and eventually, you can do it really effectively without conscious thought.
Beyond this core, two stage approach, keeping the following few things in mind will help conceptualize any panel.
Because the visual element and textual element of a comic panel are both means of the same expression, and both work best when in synergy with one another, you’ll find all these tips interchangeable whether you are starting from a line of dialogue and trying to visualize the art, OR starting with a visual and trying to refine it, or complete it with supporting dialogue.
So let’s get into it.
1) Know the main expression(s).
A place for everything, everything in its place. Nothing in a comic narrative should be superfluous. Everything is there for a reason.
You must know these reasons, or main points you’re trying to express at all times.
Joe leans over and says “Boy, do I hate potatoes.”
OK, why the hell did you just show that to the reader? Maybe it was a joke. The narrative needed a moment of humor to break the intense, grim story.
Maybe the villain of the book uses potatoes as a weapon… Hell if I know, but make damn sure you do.
2) Once you know the main expression, support it.
What else can you do in the panel to emphasize what you’re trying to express?
Ok, Joe’s making a joke, so let’s support that by saying: Joe’s eyebrows are high on his head as he dangles a straw in his mouth, like Groucho Marx. “Boy, do I hate potatoes.” And boy, did that panel just come to life.
3) Show it interestingly.
Steer away from the mundane, from the things we’ve seen a thousand times. Joe’s Groucho routine was fairly interesting, but I could think of a hundred ways to humorously show Joe’s hatred for tubers.
Let your imagination open doors. Perhaps, turning things from overtly comical, to satirical serious would be even funnier. Joe sees a potato and seriously freaks out. Like he’s got a potato phobia or gets violent or something. Which leads me to;
4) Be open to change.
If you’re totally set on what you’ve got, you can never develop anything better.
And the best stories take place when they start to write themselves… trust me on that one. So if you’re thinking Joe should be slapstick comical, but straight-faced dramatic is striking a more potent cord with you, go with it.
5) Conceptualize your panels like a chess player, think a bunch of moves in advance.
Knowing what you want to say and show, and how (more or less) you’re going to say and show it in a panel is great, but don’t forget about the panels coming up.
Exactly like a chess player who plans his moves ahead of time, you gain much more control over the narrative and your reader’s experience if you plan ahead—find ways to connect the expressions of the panels, from panel to panel.
There’s a lot of ways to do this logistically/aesthetically. Check out the article I have on camera transitions… but also from a purely content standpoint:
We’ve established Joe expressing his hatred of Potatoes, OK, we can now cut to a full two shot of he and his partner in crime leaving the diner, discussing their next job… Or maybe we focus on Joe’s slipping on a potato. Or the waitress bringing a whole platter of potatoes to Joe. Maybe as the two guys are leaving, we see a counter of police and they’re all eating potatoes. Or the new guy on their crew is named Joey Potato…
I don’t know where I’m going with this (and I’m making myself hungry), but the point is, if potatoes are important to our story, I’m thinking ahead, seeing how the thing I want to express here in this panel carries over and influences other upcoming panels. I can extend my expression, emphasize it, foreshadow its importance later on, or use it to segue into the next expression I want to make.
Everything is connected. Or not. There’s nothing wrong with moving on to a new panel or new scene that expresses something completely new. The point is, make sure whatever choice you make is a conscious one.
6) I can’t stress the importance of emotional content in panels (and comics in general) enough.
If you’ve read the Writer’s Guide, you know what I’m talking about.
When conceptualizing a panel, it’s extremely helpful to recognize the emotion or sensation you’re trying to convey and the intensity at which you’re conveying it.
As I mentioned back with Joe, we decided the line and panel would come across humorous… but we could have just as easily developed it dramatic; “I can’t eat potatoes. When I was a prisoner of war, that’s all we ate for 200 days.” Joe could be pushing the potato off his plate, or maybe just a shot of the potato alone with Joe’s dialogue off panel would emphasize the tone of that context.
Or sad; “My little girl died from a potato allergy.” Joe fondles a locket with his daughter’s picture.
The point is, emotion is key to developing and expressing a panel. The more in tune you are with the emotional engine of the panel, the more potent and effective it’ll come across.
And being aware how intense the emotion comes across can help with pacing. Being able to have a bead on the emotional roller coaster you’re creating for the reader: mild, mild, mild, intense, extreme, mild, mild, etc. Combine that emotional throughline with some of the other pacing elements discusses around here and you’ve got some real pacing tools at your disposal.
Last point I’ll bring up is:
7) Throw a blanket of subtext over it.
Subtext is the underlying message of your expression… the deeper meaning, that you can’t see at the superficial level.
So if we wanted to keep the panel humorous and express Joe’s fond dislike of potatoes with subtext, we might show Joe sliding his plate toward his partner saying something like “Round food gives me gas. Swap me your coleslaw.” We didn’t come out and say “I hate potatoes” but the implication is there and as it turns out in this instance, we’ve certainly set up something a bit unique and interesting that we can tap for repetition throughout the story, ultimately leading to some funny gags or a big climatic potato moment.
Gosh, did I really just write an article about hating potatoes? What’s wrong with me?
There you have it, some anti-potato sentiments and thoughts on conceptualizing panels. Keep all this stuff in mind and see if your imagery and dialogue doesn’t come to you a little bit faster with a little more pop in its step.▪
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.