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Dilettante 031: More Advice on Writing for an Artist

Steve Lieber

I've been talking to a lot of Dilettante readers recently. (And thanks, by the way, to all of you who stopped by my table in artist alley at Comic-Con this year.) It's becoming clear that there are a lot of writers and aspiring writers reading this column. A bunch of you asked for more advice specifically on working with an artist.

As we discussed in a previous column (click here to read it), comics don't really have an unlimited budget. Yes, ink and pixels can depict almost anything, but you're limited by your collaborators' available time. If you and the artist can afford to put an additional few hundred hours into the project, go ahead and write whatever comes to mind. Include that long flashback to your hero's time fighting next to 600 cavalry in the Charge of The Light Brigade. Set a romantic scene in a busy bicycle factory. And don't forget the dinner table debate between 20 diplomats, each in the elaborate costumes of their native lands.

But the fact is this: the artist doesn't have unlimited time. Here's a panel description that doesn't take very long to type.


We see 600 men of the British light cavalry of 1854 on a hillside at Balaclava. They are readying their weapons and horses.

I'm a clumsy, two-fingered typist and I wrote that in under a minute. It could reasonably take a diligent artist 2 days to draw that one panel. But if I write a bunch of pages like that in a script, it's very likely that I'm forcing an artist to:

  1. Take a lot of shortcuts
  2. Blow deadlines
  3. Give up their time with their family
  4. Give up sleep

In the long term, chewing up your collaborators isn't a good career strategy. So you might want to consider taking a lesson from TV writers and come up with a "bottle episode."

The term bottle episode supposedly comes from Star Trek, where they'd sometimes save money by writing episodes without many extras or new characters set entirely on the Enterprise sets they'd already built. The cast and crew would refer to these as ship-in-a-bottle episodes. As a writer of a bottle episode for comics, you shouldn't feel limited to existing cast or settings. You just need to come up with scenes that will be less strenuous to draw. Think fewer characters, and put them in settings that won't require a lot of research or time-consuming detail. This doesn't have to be less dramatic. Isolating your two leads in their final confrontation at the top of a mountain, or in a dark tunnel is probably a lot more dramatic than having it all take place in a crowded fast food restaurant or in a medical transcription data entry office. Structure it right and a confrontation with a single snow-zombie can be as scarier than fifty of them. If your story absolutely needs a scene that'll be unusually time-consuming to draw, try to "pay" for it by writing a couple of simpler scenes designed to help keep the project on schedule.

How do you know what's unusually time-consuming for an artist? Ask them! Communication is almost always the right way to go.

And speaking of communication, it's important to understand that your characters' "acting"—their gestures and body language and facial expressions, are almost entirely within the artist's purview. That said, you'll probably have story points that need a character to feel a certain way at a certain time. When you have a page like that, it's vital that you and your artist are, well … on the same page. If you have a good way to indicate the character's emotional state by body language, share it with the artist. If not, carefully indicate what the character is feeling in your panel description, and highlight for your artist that it's important for the reader to know this.

Why do you need to highlight it? Depending on how dense the details are in your script, the artist is very likely to be doing mental triage as he or she reads your script: “This bit is a must-include; this is a might-include; this is a won't-include.”

Don't operate under the assumption that every idea you have is a must-include. It won't be. Part of drawing every page of comics is solving problems no writer could possibly anticipate. Sometimes those solutions will require the artist to eliminate or change elements you've described in your script.

  1. They might have to incorporate a change requested by an editor.
  2. There might not be enough room on the page to fit everything you've asked for and still be legible.
  3. The best solution for something in Panel 2 might preclude using your cool idea for Panel 3.
  4. The deadline might be so tight that there's no time to draw the elaborate set piece requested.
  5. They might not have the skill to deliver what was described in the script.
  6. Your idea might have been completely awful. (No, not YOUR idea. I'm only including this is for all those other writers.)

There are a whole lot of decisions that need to be made on every page. When the artist makes those decisions, you want their choices to be informed by the needs of the story. So when something absolutely has to be there, say so and say why:

“Carrie is reaching for the idol with her gloved LEFT HAND. This is important because later on we're going to pull off the gloves and reveal that her right hand was injured in the fight with the snow-zombie.”

“Kobe SMILES KINDLY as he apologizes to his daughter. We're contrasting his warm, likable behavior now with the changes that will occur after the fight with the snow-zombie.”

Note those capitalized fragments. They aren't there because I accidentally hit caps-lock. Capitalizing the important stuff is a well-established way to signal to your collaborators that something is important.

Another way to help make sure the important stuff is communicated is to include reference for it right in the body of your script. If there's a particular expression an actress makes that's perfect for the moment you're scripting, find it on YouTube and grab a screenshot. Is there a certain make and model of a car that tells us everything we need to know about the character driving it? Put that image in your panel description so the artist can visualize it as part of the story from the moment they first read the script.

Another thing that helps your collaborator visualize the page immediately is starting it off this way:

PAGE SEVEN (5 panels)

Telling your collaborator how many panels there are at the top of a page help them know from the start whether this is going to be a page with a couple of big moments or a lot of small ones.

But I think the most important thing you can do to work well with an artist is to think visually. "Show, don't tell" is well-worn advice, because it's still valuable and it's still frequently ignored. In comics, "show don't tell" is particularly true, and it’s a great tool for efficiency. You can use the pictures to clearly establish that your sad, emo snow-zombie is clumsy, and even show how the other snow-zombies feel about it. And you can do it without a word. This makes the artist's job easier because it's clear what their job is, and it frees you to use your captions and dialogue to communicate things that the pictures can't.

Do you have any thoughts about how writers and artists can collaborate more effectively? What about writers and snow-zombies? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Share them with me on Facebook or Twitter. Or post them on Tumblr and tag me.

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