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Rogue Mutt Classics: Devil in the Details

August 1, 2011

In hindsight, trying to write a graphic novel script wasn’t the best idea.  Actually I didn’t even need hindsight because I figured going in it wasn’t the best idea–though not as bad as trying to learn to roller skate!  For the most part I found this kind of scripting to be really boring and limiting.  I think I’d rather try writing books and let someone else develop them into movies, comics, etc.  Not that that will ever happen!

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Last Tuesday I talked about my project to convert a regular novel into a graphic novel.  One thing I lamented was that in a graphic novel you have a lot less room for details than a regular novel.  That’s because in the graphic novel format, like a movie format, there’s a lot less room to work with unless you’re making the graphic novel 700 pages long.  I know virtually nothing about that but even I know I couldn’t get away with that.  A conversation that in a novel could be 5-10 lines long in a graphic novel to fit onto a page might be only 3-4 lines long.  That means you have to focus on conveying the most important points.  There’s no time for small talk.

OK, here’s an example I hope conveys what I’m talking about.  First up, the version in the novel:

She awoke calling her mother’s name a few hours later.  When she tried to sit up, Becky’s hand gently pushed her back down.  “Don’t sit up yet,” Becky said.

From where she lay on her side, Emma had a good view of computerized monitors pinging away with her vital signs.  “Where am I?” she asked.

“The hospital.  You had a pretty nasty fall on the steps.”  Becky shook her head.  “What the hell were you trying to do?”

“There was an explosion.”

“Most sane people run away from explosions.”

“I’m sorry.”  She closed her eyes until Becky and I thought she must have gone back to sleep.  “Did they find it?”

“Find what?”

“The monster.  It was big and black and it had claws, but it looked like a man.  A man with red eyes.”

“I think I’ll have to ask the doctors to cut back on what they’re giving you.”

“It wasn’t a dream.  Or a hallucination.  I saw it.  It ripped my dress.”  Emma turned her head slightly to see Becky.  “Didn’t they find the marks on my back?”

“They found plenty of marks on your back from when you slid down the stairs, kid.  That’s why you’re lying on your side.”

“Oh.”  With a sigh, she closed her eyes again.  “I saw Mom.  In my dreams.  She was an angel.  Her and Daddy.  They wanted me to find something.  It’s important.”

Becky flicked aside a tress of hair that had fallen into Emma’s face.  “Whatever it is, it can wait until you get out of here.  OK?”

“But—”

“It was her.  I know it was.  She was trying to tell me something but she didn’t have much time for details.”

“I believe you, kid, but I doubt the doctors will.  And the police.”

“Police?”

“There’s a detective outside.  She wants to ask you some questions.”

Emma’s nose wrinkled at this.  “Oh, her.  She was at the museum.”  Her eyes widened as a thought finally struck her.  “What about Dan’s presentation?”

“They’ve put it on hold for now.”

“Oh no.  He worked so hard on it.”

“He’ll just have to wait a little longer.”

Emma thought for a moment before a brief smile crossed her face.  “Your boss was there.  He hit on me.”

“Sounds like him all right.  Did you slap him?”

“No.”

“Next time.”  Becky looked towards the door.  “Are you feeling up to answering the policewoman’s questions?  I’ll be right here with you.”

“I don’t think I’ll be much help.”

“That doesn’t matter.  Do your best.”

The mattress bounced up as Becky’s weight lifted from it.  She opened the door, letting in Detective Donovan who, from the way her fingers twitched, hadn’t smoked a cigarette in quite some time.  The detective pulled up a chair so she could face Emma.  “We had some excitement tonight,” she said.

“That’s putting it mildly,” Becky said.  “Could you just get to the point?  She needs to get her rest.”

The two women glared at each other for a moment in a contest of wills.  Detective Donovan finally nodded.  “All right, let’s not beat around the bush.  What did you see when the museum went boom?”

Emma closed her eyes as she thought.  “I went upstairs and it was hot.  I couldn’t see much with the smoke and dust.  Then I saw a pair of red eyes.”

“Red eyes?”

“Yes.  They glowed red, like lights.  It was this creature.  Like a man, a really big man.  He had these claws.  I tried to get away, but he hit me.  That was it.”

“You think these red eyes could have been night vision goggles?”

“No, these were different.  They were eyes.  Not goggles.”

“She’s probably still woozy from the fall,” Becky interjected.

The detective closed her notebook.  “You’re probably right.”  She reached out to give Emma’s hand a light shake.  “I hope you feel better, Dr. Earl.  Then we can talk about what you saw.”  She made it as far as the door before stopping.  “One more thing.  What was your boss doing up there?”

“My boss?”

“Dr. Brighton.  We found him in the wreckage.”

“Is he—”

“He’s dead.”

“Oh my God.”  Emma tried to sit up until Becky pushed her back down.  “He was probably sleeping.  Sometimes he’d fall asleep in his office if he’d been drinking.”

“So he had a drinking problem?”

“I don’t know if it was a problem, but he did drink sometimes.”

“You saw this?”

“I saw the empty bottles in his trash bin.”

“So you’d say it was an accident?”

“Of course.”  Her skin turned more pale than usual as the other conclusion came to her.  “You think he was murdered?”

“It could be.  Someone might have known he was up there and set up the explosion while there were plenty of witnesses for an alibi.”

“That’s terrible.  Who would do that?”

“I don’t know.  We’ll try to find out.  I’ll see you later, Doctor.”  The door closed with a slight click, leaving Emma and Becky alone.

“I think she thinks I did it,” Emma said.

“Don’t worry about it, kid.  Just get some rest.”  Emma didn’t need any encouragement for this, her body going limp as soon as she closed her eyes.  Of course her problems wouldn’t go away that easily.

OK, ad now’s the graphic novel version:

Panel 1:  Close-up of Emma’s face, her eyes opening wide.
EMMA:  Mom?  (Small lettering)

Panel 2:  Wider shot of Emma in a hospital bed, wearing a green hospital gown.  She’s lying on her side with her back bandaged heavily.  Around her are various monitoring devices.  Becky is sitting in a chair next to the bed, a magazine in her lap and her face looking relieved.
BECKY:  You’re awake.  Thank God.

Panel 3:  Close-up of Emma’s face, her eyes wider now with confusion.
EMMA:  Where am I?
BECKY (not shown):  You’re in the hospital, kid.  You took quite a spill.

Panel 4:  Becky is standing over Emma now, her face suddenly stern and hands on hips.
BECKY:  What were you doing?
EMMA:  There was an explosion.
BECKY:  Most sane people run away from explosions.

Panel 5:  Emma is looking down at the floor.  Becky has a hand on Emma’s shoulder, her expression softening.
EMMA:  I’m sorry.
BECKY:  It’s all right, kid.  The important thing is you’re safe.

Panel 6:  Close-up on Emma, her face looking terrified now.
EMMA:  The museum!  Dan’s presentation.  Is he…
BECKY (not shown):  He’s fine.  Everyone else is fine.

Panel 7:  Emma is trying to rise, but Becky has a hand clamped down on her arm.
BECKY:  Don’t try to sit up.  Just relax.
EMMA:  No.  I saw Mom.  She said…
BECKY:  What it is can wait until you’re better.

Page 75

Panel 1:  Wider shot of Becky’s back and Emma lying on the bed.  Behind them, in the doorway, stands Detective Donovan, who for once does not have a cigarette.
DET. DONOVAN:  She’s finally awake.  Good.

Panel 2:  Donovan stands beside the bed now with Becky on the other side, a finger raised in warning
BECKY:  She just woke up.  She’s not ready to be interrogated.
DET. DONOVAN:  That’s for me to decide.

Panel 3:  Becky has moved to stand toe-to-toe with Detective Donovan, her finger almost touching the detective’s chest.
BECKY:  Leave her alone.  She didn’t do anything.
DET. DONOVAN:  She was lying on the stairs near the area of the explosion.
BECKY:  That doesn’t prove anything.

Panel 4:  Donovan has a notebook now and is eyeing Becky with a smug grin.
DET. DONOVAN:  Are you her lawyer?
BECKY:  No, I’m her best friend.  Becky Beech.  B-E-E-C-H if you want to write that down.
DET. DONOVAN:  Thanks.

Panel 5:  Donovan is pointing to Emma with her pencil while Becky’s fists have clenched in rage
DET. DONOVAN:  Miss Beech, I’d advise you to get out of my way before I have you locked up for interfering with a police investigation.
BECKY:  You wouldn’t do that.
DET. DONOVAN:  I just want to ask your friend what she saw.  That’s all.

Panel 6:  Wider shot of Emma looking straight on while behind her Donovan is standing over the bed.  Becky is in the doorway, still looking angry.
BECKY:  I’m going to find her doctor.  He’ll throw you out.
DET. DONOVAN:  Don’t worry, this won’t take long.

Page 76

Panel 1:  Donovan sits in the chair Becky vacated earlier, looking down at Emma, who is still lying on her side.
DET. DONOVAN:  You want to tell me what you were doing up there when the museum went boom?
EMMA:  I don’t know.  I thought I could save some things.
DET. DONOVAN:  What things?  Anything valuable?
EMMA:  Samples.  Documents.

Panel 2:  Close-up of Donovan with an amused smile as she writes in her notebook.
DET. DONOVAN:  You wanted to save rocks and reports?
EMMA (Not shown):  Yes.

Panel 3:  Wider shot of Donovan sitting over the bed, looking more serious now.
DET. DONOVAN:  So what did you see?
EMMA:  There was a monster.  Black.  Spiky.  Red eyes.  And claws.
DET. DONOVAN:  A monster?

Panel 4:  Close-up on Emma, whose eyes are watery and is looking worried.
EMMA:  I don’t know how else to describe it.  He was man-shaped but he looked like a monster.  I tried to run, but he clawed me.  And I fell.

Panel 5:  Wider shot of Donovan tucking the notebook into her pocket while Emma is looking dreamily at the wall.
DET. DONOVAN:  I guess you’re still woozy from whatever they gave you.  We’ll talk again when you’re more lucid.

Panel 6:  Donovan is standing with her hands raised in supplication while in the doorway, Becky stands with a doctor.
DET. DONOVAN:  It’s all right, Miss Beech.  I was just leaving.

Panel 7:  Becky and Donovan are standing toe-to-toe again, with Becky raising a finger in warning again.
BECKY:  If you come back, I’m calling your supervisor and filing a report for harassment.  She needs her rest.
DET. DONOVAN:  You can go ahead and try that, Miss Beech.

Panel 8:  A tight shot of Emma’s eye, sort of like the close-ups of Marie’s eye.  Only in Emma’s the angel-like figure we see is the “angel” of Emma’s mother.
EMMA:  I’ll find it, Mom.  For you.

So what I hope you can see is that in the novel version there’s a lot more talking because there’s more room to work with than on the page of a graphic novel.  That’s really the main benefit of the regular novel versus the graphic novel.  Really on the whole as a writer I think I like the novel better just because I have a much bigger canvas to work with.  Of course part of that is I’ve written dozens of novels and I’ve written only one graphic novel script; if I had more experience some of that advantage might be negated, but not all of it because the graphic novel, like a movie as well, is a more limited format.  There’s just more room in a regular novel for describing places and characters and their thoughts.  Though in a graphic novel you don’t need to describe places and characters so much because it’s a picture.

As a reader the graphic novel format would be better simply because it’s less work for me.  I don’t have to imagine what things looks like because I can see what they look like right there on the page.  Heck, even if you’re a semi-literate redneck you can follow a graphic novel just by following the pictures.  Not so with a regular novel.  That’s not intended as a put down; it just seems to be a fact to me.

That probably says something about the relationship between writer and reader.  As the writer I love to go in-depth with the characters to describe what all they’re saying and feeling.  I like to give you all the information about their pasts, likes, dislikes, and so forth.  When they talk I want it to seem real, not truncated.  As the reader, though, I really don’t care as much about that.  If I’m reading something like this story I’d rather it just get to the point, which is something that’s pretty much necessitated in a graphic novel or in a movie because you don’t have the space for luxuriating on details.

When I’m writing a “literary” novel that detail is probably more important just so that I can impress people with my artiness.  But writing a superhero story does it really matter?  I’m thinking not.  That probably goes for a lot of genre work as well.  The details we as writers think are oh so important really aren’t to the reader.  That’s why editing can be such an arduous process and why editors and agents tell you to “kill your darlings.”  Because in the end the reader is probably reading the book on his/her lunch break or in bed or on the can; they’re not studying it like a Monet painting in a museum.  So just get down to business.

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5 Comments
  1. I’m sure you’ve read Watchmen so I just wanted to talk about how Alan Moore was able to squeeze a lot of content into it. He broke up the panels with pages of text that you read like the kind you’d find in a regular book. I really liked that about Watchmen and think it’d be another way to go about the process with a few pages devoted to illustrations followed by more pages of text.

    • When I was trying to do this script Watchmen was the graphic novel I leaned on the most, it being one of about four that I own. The others are Batman ones, plus I have a couple of compilation ones like the first 12 issues of Batman and Superman from the ’30s plus the whole Batman vs. Bane storyline from the early 90s, some of which might make it into The Dark Knight Rises. I kind of want to reread the Batman Vampire trilogy now that I’m reading “Dracula.” There’s a great idea for the inevitable Batman reboot because then you could have vampires too!

      • How would you do the art for it? That to me seems like the most challenging part. Good artists are hard to come by. I’m gonna put out a shout out here in this comment to my favorite comic book artist of all-time, George Perez. Oi…the world will be a sadder place when he is no longer with us.

  2. You have to learn to think in pictures — you’re a novelist, so you’re used to thinking in words. Movies and graphic novels are where “show, don’t tell” really means something.

    For your waking up in bed series, you could have divided the page down the middle. The left side shows her waking up, and her conversation. The right side shows her memories, in pictures with few words.

    Or, on the left, panels without words: her waking up, eyes opening, Mom there, etc. On the right, her memories, with the words in voice over. Then, on the next page, you have the hug, etc., with “most people run away from explosions.” I’d say 90% of your information has to be in pictures in graphic novels.

    If I could draw, I’d find that easier, because so much can be said so quickly. A scene that takes three pages to describe can be one single panel and more effective.

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