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Dilettante 021: Ten Ways to Add Life to a Page

Steve Lieber

Telling stories with comics is a long haul. A painter or a songwriter can sometimes go from conception to completion in a single session, fueled by the enthusiasm that comes from a new idea. A comics story tends to take a lot longer, and the work of drawing a page might come months after a scene was initially imagined. Or the artist and the writer might be two different people, with the artist drawing a scene not out of excitement, but just because it's in the script. You're going to have some pages that just lay there, and don't engage you. And if you're not engaged, the reader won't be either. With that thought in mind, here are some techniques to deploy to get some life back into a dead page.

Before I go into the list though, I need to remind you that your goal should always be STORYTELLING. If the scene isn't interesting, the problem might be that there's nothing happening to engage the reader—no relevant conflict, no attempt to overcome an obstacle in pursuit of a goal. If it's your script that has problems, fix them rather than trying to obscure them with clever pictures. And if you're illustrating someone else's script, read it the way I suggested in Dilettante #008 (click here to read). With any luck, the answers to how to bring the page to life might be implicit in the story you're telling.

If you're still at a loss, here, in the spirit of Wally Wood's "22 Panels That Always Work." are ten options for bringing a dead page to life.

1. Contrast

Contrast is always interesting, and it can make elements in a panel comment on each other. Your shabby romantic lead never looks so worn down as when you show him next to a spotless butler in a tuxedo. Juxtapose opposites. Big vs. little. Warm color vs. cool. Dark vs. white. Curvy vs. angular. Plain vs. lavish. Young vs. old.

2. Props

Build a scene around a single striking prop or detail of setting. It could be a gorgeous, exotic object, or something rough-hewn or oddly sized. Make it memorable. Ideally, this will tell the reader something about the character it belongs to.

3. Mood switch

Life can be perverse. There can be funny moments at a funeral, and deeply sad incidents at a child's birthday party. Sometimes you can leave behind the dominant mood of a scene for a panel and insert something incongruous in there that, just for a moment, reminds the reader that this isn't a one-note world you're creating.

4. Movement

Even in an essentially static medium like comics, movement is a continual source of interest. Your characters don't have to stand around when they have that important conversation. They can stretch, bend, twist. Let them fiddle with their glasses, rubs their hands together, reach to tie a shoe, wave away an insect. These sorts of gestures can do more than just make a page more lively, they can make characters more interesting.

5. Approach to Layout

If you've been sticking to a grid, maybe introducing unusual panel shapes, or a montage or poster-ish approach to a page will wake things up. Be careful with this one. You almost always still want to control the order with which your reader receives information. A free-form design just means you'll have to take extra care with how you guide the eye around the page.

5. Take Something Out

You don't have to treat every panel like a window that accurately records everything that would be visible from a given point of view. Try vignetting the important parts of a panel and letting the parts that aren't important fade into the white of the page, or an ambient background color. Book and magazine illustrators of the first half of the 20th century were brilliant at this, and you'll encounter a ton of intriguing possibilities if you seek out their work.

6. Character Moment

Sometimes your character has to do something prosaic. Let's say shopping for groceries. If you've got a page of your character shopping, find a way for them to do it that tells your reader exactly who this character is. Does he kick an apple into the cart like a hacky-sack? Does he pile the cart alarmingly high with junk food and whistle as he pushes it? Does he unknowingly knock over displays as he passes?

7. Parallel Story in the Pictures

If the dialogue in the scene carries all the required information, you can perk things up by running a parallel narrative. While the off-duty cops have their big conversation at the diner counter in the foreground, maybe a new family in the background can be seated, get their baby into a high chair, place an order and struggle to get him to eat. Just be sure to stage it so that the reader doesn't forget that this is the cops' story.  

8. Moment of Beauty

Most of the time you want your reader to be paying attention to the story rather than what an impressive draftsman you are, but there are time when these goals reinforce each other. If this is a place in the story where it's appropriate for the reader to stop and be impressed with how beautiful something or someone is, you can let your drawing be a little flashier, or more detailed than you usually would. It signals to the reader that this is something of significance. And if you're stuck drawing a page with absolutely nothing to care about, it's always a good idea to at least do some cool picture-making to provide some measure of value for your reader.

9. Restate the Relationship

Use your pictures to remind your reader what's the status of the relationship between two things on your page. Does the boss have all the power? He can blow smoke at his underling, or take a sandwich from him, take a bite and hand it back. Is Louise's crush on Janine unrequited? Show Janine looking anywhere but at Louise. If Michael is heartbroken that he didn't make the basketball team, put his brother's trophies where you can juxtapose their rigid poses of triumph with Michael's slouch of despair.

10. Build the World

Do some research and show your reader something real and (we hope) relevant to your story. As the brash young pilot and his older, wiser trainer cross the airfield talking about the mission, you can show all the fascinating things the ground crew have to do to get a plane ready to take off.

I'd love to hear some of your ideas about how to bring life to a static page. I'm @steve_lieber on Twitter and I'm on Facebook at Share your ideas!

Steve Lieber’s Dilettante appears the second Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!