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Terrible Tips Tuesday: My Really Ill-Conceived New Writing Project, Part II

April 6, 2010

My second entry in this blog described my quixotic attempt to turn a novel manuscript called A Hero’s Journey, Tales of the Scarlet Knight, Volume 1 (now that’s a mouthful!) into a graphic novel script.  You can read the entry here.  The gist was that the quest was quixotic because I had no experience writing or even reading graphic novels.

It’s been about a month and I have now completed the first draft of the graphic novel script.  I thought then I would take this Tuesday to update you on what I learned from the experience.  You should definitely take any of my advice on this subject with a grain–or entire shaker–of salt.  Really there are guys who actually know what they’re doing like Will Eisner or Alan Moore or Mark Ellis who have written books on this stuff; you’d be much better off listening to them.  Or maybe like Tim Allen’s character on “Home Improvement” you can learn by doing the opposite of what I do.

Anyway, things didn’t start off all that great because I didn’t really know what I was doing.  On some pages I have 3-4 panels and others I had as many as 10.  And I wasn’t really sure how to describe what the panels should look like exactly.

About the second week of writing, though, I started to settle in and sort of find my groove.  Chances are I still don’t know what the heck I’m talking about, but I started to at least feel I knew what the heck I was talking about.  What I think really helped me was that I actually looked back at the two graphic novels I have in my place:  my copy of Watchmen and a Robotech graphic novel that was included with another item I bought off Ebay.  (Seriously, that’s my entire collection.  I’m not kidding when I say I have no experience with this stuff!)  In particular when I was looking at some of the conversation scenes in Watchmen it occurred to me that even if the characters are largely standing still you can still make it seem different by changing up the angle of the panel.

If you think about each panel as like a camera shot, for one panel you might have Character X facing towards the reader with Character Y’s back turned.  In the next panel it might be that you can see both of them in side profile.  While they haven’t really moved, it doesn’t look static because you’re changing the angle of the panel so that at least it seems like something new.  That really isn’t anything new or shocking.  If you ever really sit and watch a TV show you can probably see where they do stuff like that by going close-up on a character or maybe pulling back and so forth.

With that in mind I got to thinking about each panel like a camera shot.  I even started to call them “shots” which might confuse any poor bastard who would ever try to draw this.  Before long I had developed my own language to describe the panels.  Mostly I relied on these descriptions:

  • Side view:  meaning we see the characters in profile.
  • Straight on view:  the character(s) are facing directly at us
  • Behind character view:  pretty obvious.  A straight on only the character has her back turned to us.
  • Over the shoulder view:  Again it’s kind of obvious–or so I think.  It means the perspective is like you have a camera on the character’s shoulder and you’re looking up or down as the scene dictates to sort of see what she’s seeing.
  • Close-up:  No explanation needed.
  • Overhead:  Basically this would mean like we’re hovering on the ceiling and looking down.

I bet real comic book writers have far better ways to describe this.  Or if they’re really talented they can storyboard what they mean to make words unnecessary.

Anyway, as I got farther into the project I grew more comfortable with this lexicon.  Sometimes I’d even just say “Same as Panel X except…” and then indicate what is slightly different.  That’s a real time-saver.  Or I’d say, “A straight on view but closer so only the head and shoulders…”

I also thought I got better at seeing things in my head to the point where I’d write more specific instructions like, “This should be from ground level facing up…”  In the beginning there’s no way I would have thought of that because I had trouble fixing the images in my head, but over time it grew on me.

I’m not sure how many panels a professional would use per page.  I counted a few pages in Watchmen and realized they were generally using 9 panels a lot.  In the Robotech one it was more like 7-8.  I decided for mine to go with 7-8 as well.  I’d rather have too few so there’s more room than too many so it’s too cluttered.  Though if I knew more about laying these things out and storyboarding it would probably be easier to know how many I needed.  There were times though when I wrote “This should take up the rest of the page” to indicate a particularly dramatic panel should be bigger than usual.  I also figured a couple of spots where I wanted a splash page, which is a page with just one big panel.  Usually that’s when someone died in the story; how much more dramatic can you get?

The one thing I never did figure out was the foley editing–as in sound effects.  Not being a big comic book reader, I’m not really sure what the convention is for sounds like a phone ringing or knocking on a door or plate armor hitting the ground.  As well I was never sure how exactly I should write it when someone screams so I’d just write:  “Aaaaaahhhh!  (or something to indicate a scream.”  That’s something I’d need help on just to find out what the convention is–if there is one.

In the end I came out to 290 pages, which again I have no idea if it’s too long or too short.  I definitely have to at some point go over the first third or so of the script and rewrite to flow better with what I did later on.  There might also be things I want to add or take out.

Overall, I had some fun with this project.  Whether I try it again would probably depend on how badly I screwed up this one.  For that I would need someone who knows what they’re doing to read it.  (Good luck with that!)  There are some things I like about doing this more than writing novels, in particular that you don’t need to worry about prose.  It did give me new appreciation for what novels can do better, which is to expand more on points.  I found I had to cut down conversations a lot, leave out some interesting facts, and eliminate some of my best jokes simply because the graphic novel format, like a movie script, is far more claustrophobic because there’s only so many panels on a page so you have to make them count.  I might write more about this in another Terrible Tuesday entry.

Anyway, because I know you’re chomping at the bit to get a sneak peek at my masterpiece, here’s a random page from deep into the script that illustrates what I’ve talked about:

Page 180

Panel 1:  An overhead shot of the roof of the opera house.  It’s basically a normal rooftop except maybe for some decorative gargoyles along the edges.  Don Vendetta is against one of these gargoyles with a black metal spear through her skirt between her legs.  The Black Dragoon is facing her.

VENDETTA:  Whatever you want, I can get it.

DRAGOON:  I want only your allegiance.

Panel 2:  Closer shot from behind the Dragoon who is towering over Don Vendetta.  The don’s face is looking annoyed.

VENDETTA:  What are you talking about?

DRAGOON:  You and your minions will serve me.

VENDETTA:  We don’t serve anyone.

Panel 3:  Shot from over Don Vendetta’s shoulder.  The Dragoon has his left hand raised, the claws glinting menacingly in the moonlight.  His red eyes are glowing at her.

DRAGOON:  Then you will die and I will deal with your replacement.

VENDETTA:  You think whacking a few punks in the park makes you a big deal?  I run this city.  I’m practically the mayor.

Panel 4:  The same shot as Panel 3 except now the Dragoon is tapping his faceplate with one clawed finger as if deep in thought.

DRAGOON:  Yes, perhaps that is true…

Panel 5:  Side view of Don Vendetta running from the Dragoon, her skirt torn.  Behind her is the claw and bit of fabric pinned to the gargoyle.

Panel 6:  Side view of Don Vendetta falling towards the ground with arms extended.  The Dragoon has a hand raised with one claw missing.  That claw is embedded in Don Vendetta’s right ankle, which is now red with blood.

Panel 7:  Shot from the ground straight on of Don Vendetta on her back now, looking up at the Dragoon.  He’s pointing down at her with a clawed finger.

DRAGOON:  That was foolish.  There is no escape for you.

Thursday I take inspiration from “South Park” to search for meaning in books.


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