HOW A GRAPHIC NOVEL IS ACTUALLY MADE
PART 3: OF SCRIPTS AND SKETCHES
Here are Part 1 and Part 2 of this ??? part series!
So, let’s get our bearings here. You’ve had your idea and you’ve foole- I mean GOTTEN- someone to agree to publish it. Now, it’s time to actually begin writing your grand masterpiece that will be held up as a shining zenith of art and storytelling for generations to come.
Making a comic is obviously a very personal experience and one in which there are a lot of mitigating factors. I can only speak to my own methods, so therefore the next few entries in this series shouldn’t be seen as “How to Make a Comic,” but as “How Zack Makes A Comic”.
And just oooone laaaast caveat before I start. There are many, many cases in which a comic is created by a separate writer and an artist. This relationship has its own unique perspective and challenges. While I have worked as both “artist” and as “writer/artist”, the bulk of my experience lies in the latter. So, finally and without further ado, this is how I make a comic! No more false starts, I promise!
Whether I’m doing an 8-page mini or a 240 page graphic novel, I have to have a roadmap. I sit down and think about my story and break it into chunks. For longer works, I generally think within the structure of a 3 act play. I just sort of keep dividing and dividing things into sequences and story beats. This is all done with a pencil or pen and written out on paper in chicken scratches to form an outline.
Sometimes I get very mathematical about it. For “Shadows of Endor” (seen above), I knew that I had 72 pages; no more, no less. Having this kind of limitation will almost always work in your favor. Knowing that I had just 72 pages meant sitting down and literally dividing things into their importance to the story and slotting them an appropriate amount of pages. For example, if I have a sequence where Logray battles Charal and I know that it’s a scene that is both exciting and reveals information important to the plot, then I’ll say “Ok, you’ve got 10 pages to show this sequence”. The numbers are often arbitrary, and anything can change at any time. But for now, I have to start somewhere!
Once I have this rough outline, I’ll begin thumbnailing. Now, many people - including artists that are also writing - like to write a script, much like you’d see for a movie or a play. For me, this method is completely irrational and simply does not work. Comics are a visual artform, and it’s impossible (even for an artist) to truly think visually while writing. Many people THINK they’re writing in a visual way, but they are not. If you’re choreographing a dance, do you write it out beforehand? probably not. At any rate, I find it much easier and more fulfilling to thumbnail and script my dialogue both at the same time. If I write a script first, I tend to over write - something that plagues more comics than I care to mention. A picture is worth a thousand words, no?
I have a template on my computer that is two rectangles on an 8.5” x 11” piece of paper. I print up a buttload of these on regular cheapo printing paper. Each box represents an entire page. I have two on there so that I can work in spreads. So you see, the above thumbnail actually represents what it would be like to look at an open book. In the Western world, we read left to right. That means that all your odd numbered pages (starting with page 1) will be printed on the right hand side and all of the even numbered pages on the left.
"WHO CARES? Why do I need to know that? I’ll just do whatever!"
Calm down. Knowing HOW your reader is going to read your comic is essential! You need to know how their eye will flow across the page and lead them from panel to panel. THIS is precisely something that is impossible to write out. Comic pages are like maps. I try to give each panel some thought and think about how it’s going to be viewed. I want the reader’s eye to go certain places at certain times, and not to others.
A good example is the cliffhanger/reveal. If I am in the middle of a scene or sequence, I try to have the bottom right-most panel have some sort of cliffhanger that then leads the reader to the top of the next page. This is particularly useful if I want to reveal something important. I’ll make sure that the last panel on the right-hand page has something like “What’s that?!”. Then, this will hopefully force the reader to turn the page and see what that thing is on the uppermost left hand page, spoiler-free. So remember:
Bottom Right = cliffhanger
Top left = reveal
I also use this physical page turn to start a new scene or to show the passage of time. See how useful it is, now, to plan out your comic by spreads?
My thumbnails can be pretty rough, but I do need to remember that in most cases, I’m not the only one looking at them. My editor will also need to decipher what I’m doing. This stage is intentionally rough, so often I’ll make little notations if I think something isn’t clear, or if I’m just using stick figures, or if I’m planning a palette or style change.
I do write out much of my dialogue at this point since, as I said, I’m working up the script and thumbs at the same time. Occasionally though, I will have a word balloon that will say “Says stuff about the magic horn” or something. This is due to the limitations of already working very small and very rough.
I usually submit my thumbnails to my editor in batches. I’ll also type up a more formal-looking script to accompany the scrawlings so as to save my poor editor a headache. I think working in batches is best so as to be able to catch problems or story issues as they happen. No one wants to write out a 300 page story, only to find out that something important was missed in chapter two!
My editor and I will revise, if needed. We’ll identify things that aren’t working visually, or could be explained with less dialogue, etc. “Broxo” went through this process for almost exactly a year and 2.5 drafts before we were happy with the story. These things take time! Sometimes, you knock it out of the park on your first go, and sometimes a comic needs to be pounded and sculpted like clay.
How’s that for mixing metaphors?
Once everyone involved is in agreement on the thumbnails and script, then it’s on to some very serious drawing!