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Thread: The Comics Panel Time-Master--PART 1: The Problem

  1. LeeNordling Guest

    The Comics Panel Time-Master--PART 1: The Problem

    Determining a topic for this first original column was a lot like walking into a Baskin Robbins and having to choose between Chunky Monkey and Coconut Pineapple; they both taste great (if you like Chunky Monkey and Coconut Pineapple), but I wasn’t quite sure which would satisfy my craving.

    “What craving?” you ask, getting to the heart of the matter (as you always do).

    “Well,” I begin, “if I tackle thematic storytelling, as I first considered, this column might start to read like it’s only for writers, and not necessarily even comics writers.”

    “But knowing your story’s theme is important,” you reply, helping to dig me out of the hole I dug for myself, while simultaneously reaffirming why I’ll tackle this topic soon.

    “Yeah,” I muse, “but I’d like to write something that addresses the specific craft of comics, something that artists, writers, and even readers can think about.”

    “But there are so many possibilities,” you note, finally seeing all the available ice cream flavors.

    “Yep,” I agree, “but there’s one topic that always seems to come up, one topic that new writers always seem to stumble over, an initial misconception or stubborn determination that causes their scripts to topple editors, artists, and readers like a dominoes daisy chain.”

    “What’s that?” you wonder, truly curious how there could be one thing that causes such chaos.

    “Time,” I reply, “and how it exists in a comics panel.”

    “Is there time in a comics panel?” you ask.

    “Yes, and no,” I reply, sucking you into wanting to read more. “And how much time, or whatever there is in place of it, is entirely up to you, for you are…”

    “The Comics Panel Time-Master”
    (or why people should stop trying to write movies on paper)

    PART 1: The Problem

    The comics panel is a marvelous creation.

    It contains a single image that represents one or more frozen moments of time, and it’s up to the writer to figure out which moment (or moments) will best serve the story, specifically within the context of panels that may precede and follow. (We’ll discuss sequencing panels another day; for now, we’re just concerned with discussing the nature of one of them.)

    We could stop right here if there weren’t so many ways to screw this up, but there are, so let’s get back to basics, the stuff that Scott McCloud makes so clear in Understanding Comics, the stuff that needs to be embedded at the core of the craft, the stuff that just can’t ever be forgotten or ignored, the stuff that makes comics different from every other medium.

    “If Scott McCloud makes it so clear,” you begin, “what have you got new to offer?”

    “Great question,” I reply. “If people applied what Scott and others taught, then they wouldn’t make so many of the mistakes I see them making, which means they either haven’t learned the lessons well, don’t take the lessons seriously enough, or simply don’t realize the magnitude of their mistakes. Maybe they think some really important stuff is optional or open to stylistic interpretation, when they’re really just making bad creative choices, which leads to flawed scripts that somebody somewhere down the line will have to fix. And because the flaws in the scripts somehow get fixed, and the work somehow gets published, the writers somehow end up getting more work, become known, and become influential, new writers learn the wrong lessons from these weak writers, and the level of industry craft continues to erode.”

    So let’s frame this discussion with a segue to a specific growing problem, then, after having described why and how scripted panels often fail in their level of craft, we can come back to what does work and why.

    To state the obvious, something too many comics writers concede then ignore, comics are not film.

    Film is ruled by the clock, rolling out story at x-number frames per second, and we are captive viewers to that, experiencing what unfolds, as the filmmakers created it, through sight and sound. As viewers, we have no control of time, (unless you want to get technical and consider the pause and slow-fast buttons on your remote).

    With sequential art, we view storytelling panels at our own pace. We take as much or as little time as we wish to look at page compositions, images in panels, and to read captions or balloons. We can sit back and ponder each aspect of each element or flip through pages like The Flash.

    A movie has a fixed period of time to unfold, and a fraction of a movie is a minute, which takes…um, a minute to watch, whether it’s all action, all dialogue, a still-camera showing nothing, or a wildly spinning camera showing everything.

    In contrast, a fraction of sequential art is a panel, and that can take a second, a minute, an hour, or whatever period of time the reader chooses to absorb it. That length of time, however, will also depend on the work made by the creators. It depends on the size of the panel and what was put into it: how many words, how many balloons, how much or little drawing, tone, and/or color. A reader can bask in the beauty of a panel for eternity or give it barely a glance on the way to the next panel.

    So where do so many writers go so wrong in trying to write comics like movies (even if they don’t believe they’re doing so)?

    Well, both media tell stories with pictures and dialogue, and if you stop at this broad observation, ignoring how different sound is from the written word and how different moving pictures are from still images, there really doesn’t seem to be much difference between the two. (That’s certainly the way Hollywood looks at it.)

    The film script format exacerbates the misconception.

    It requires scene descriptions, names of characters speaking, and dialogue, just like comics scripts, so, to the untutored comics writer, it makes a certain amount of intuitive sense to simply chop up the film script action into smaller bits for comic script action, and dump the dialogue into appropriately placed balloons.

    Simple. No big deal, and if there’s a problem, the editor or artist will fix it.

    How many times do you think I’ve heard this last remark from writers who don’t realize that it’s their responsibility to craft their comics scripts well?

    Welcome to the first missteps toward learning to write comics badly.

    Let’s go back to a line above. Most untutored writers “chop up the action into smaller bits”; they make smaller actions from bigger actions, instead of converting action into juxtaposed frozen moments of time.

    Let’s take a look at a simple and fairly common example of this mistake.

    Here’s a series of actions: “To save the beleaguered Boy Scout from further jostling, Johnny Action Jr. leaps a picket fence, grabs the two pint-sized bullies from behind, clubs one with a Teddy bear, and jams a candy cane up the other’s nose.”

    Here’s how I too-often see the action broken down into panels:

    “Johnny Action Jr. leaps a picket fence.”

    “He grabs the two pint-sized bullies from behind, clubbing one with a Teddy bear.”

    “He jams a candy cane up the other one’s nose.”

    Where did this series of panel descriptions go wrong? Can you see it?

    Time’s up.

    How can Johnny Action Jr. grab both bullies, presumably with both hands, while clubbing one with a Teddy bear…in the same panel?

    Answer: he can’t; it’s at least two panels worth of images, if all the “action” elements need to be included.

    What else is wrong with the description?

    If it matters to the writer where Johnny Action Jr. is located in his leap over the picket fence, then I see a potential problem between him and the artist, if the artist didn’t correctly guess that location.

    Maybe Johnny is just beginning his leap; maybe he’s just over the fence, in mid-leap; maybe he’s just landed, and there are action lines behind him showing the completed leap.

    This is what happens when untutored writers write action in comics; their visual intent isn’t clear.

    Now, maybe the writer doesn’t care where Johnny is in his leap over the picket fence. I’ve certainly heard enough writers say, “It’s not my job to write layouts. That’s up to the artist.” I’ve also heard enough artists express the same sentiment.

    There’s a good point here, which we’ll get into later in a discussion about different comics script styles, and it is perfectly fair to relinquish certain aspects of the sequential storytelling to the artist.

    However, to keep this discussion on the track, let’s go back to my qualification above: “If it matters to the writer where Johnny Action Jr. is located in his leap over the picket fence…” Anybody reading the script will be able to visualize where her or she sees Johnny in relation to the picket fence, but what happens when the visual interpretation is significantly different from what the writer expected to see drawn?

    What happens when the writer thought he’d written the description clearly but hadn’t?

    Maybe the artist is asked to make changes.

    Maybe nothing happens, because the artist is used to writers who don’t understand how to write visually.

    And maybe something happens, because the artist is fed up having to deal with writers who don’t take responsibility for what they write.

    If the interpretation of writing into drawing matters, then the writer is obligated to designate the frozen moment of time, or at least to impart the dramatic importance of what he hopes to accomplish in the panel. Only then does the writer have legitimate grounds for discussing how well an artist’s layout interprets the description.


    Because if it’s worth the time to correct an artist’s layout, then it’s worth the time in the first place to give the artist enough information to create the panel well.

    And that means it’s a writer’s responsibility to learn to write so his or her intent is clear.

    When I critique these picky little examples of poorly crafted writing, writers usually get the point; they really do.

    But they also tend to discount the mistakes as minor--mere oversights, really; no big deal, because it doesn’t seem to affect the story--and this is where they falter, because this kind of poor writing really is a big deal in sequential art.


    Because when they don’t recognize the fundamental flaws in their comics-writing craft and work harder than ever to improve it, they will make the same mistakes again.

    And again.

    And again.


    Because they need to stop thinking in a film narrative form and start thinking with their sequential art toolbox.

    Because they need to stop writing movies on paper and start writing comics.

    This takes learning, training, and a dedication to the form.

    That’s the problem, so what’s the solution?

    The solution is actually scary-simple.

    And that’s what we’ll discuss next week: controlling time, becoming a Time-Master.


    Lee Nordling is the owner and founding partner of The Pack (, a comics-related content provider for the publishing industry. He is also author of “Your Career In the Comics,” an overview of the newspaper comics syndication profession and industry.

    If you wish to contact Lee separately from Comics Pro Prep, please write to him at lee@projectfanboy.

  2. drgerb Guest

    My inner geek is shouting, 'First!'

    This one really hits home. I had a script edited in TPG a while back. A script I was totally pumped for. A short 8 pager / scene from a larger project I've been working on. Then I got it edited and I was dumbfounded at how Steven (and other people) didn't see the awesomeness I saw. Then I realized... It's really easy to understand your flaws when somebody's there to point them out for you. You take stuff for granted, and you look into the mirror and see what you wanna see. That's the catch.

    In this script, there's the main character's zombified wife. I describe her as 'the girl' half the time and 'his wife' the other half. And there's some flashbacks where she's human, then she's zombied in the present day. Well I wasn't clear. I had some people asking me if there's two girls in this story, whether the zombie is his former wife, people totally dumbfounded over my LACK OF CLARITY, that instead of being able to enjoy the story, they were constantly lost, trying to figure out where in the story they are, as readers.

    And that, in short, is how you fail as a writer. Be clear and be precise. And that's the catch with comics. They require so many people to create a comic, that the writer types one thing, he see's something else, hands it to the penciler, who sees something else, then to the inker, who inks the wrong lines, to the colorist who messes up the colors, and to the letterer who blocks off the great artwork.

    I remember hearing Quentin Tarantino sees his movies in his head as he's writing them. Like he can envision the scenes, the shots, hear the sound track, all that. And that's all fine and dandy. He can do that. And him overseeing the entire film, from concept to production, let's him put what he sees in his mind down onto paper, and into the camera lense, edited perfectly, and into the theatre. With comics, it's more of a relay race. Or one of them races where you run your ass off, hand the thing to the next person, then you sit and catch your breath and watch while they run to the next. And in the end of the race, it's not about which team had the fastest person, it's about which team ended it the fastest. The same goes for comics. Tarantino might be the fastest person on the track, and in movies that's all great, but with comics there's SO many interpretations that you HAVE to be clear. You gotta be precise. If you aren't, that's when stuff goes wrong.

    Luckily, I'm hoping to be an artist / writer.. Which seems to make it a littler easier for me to think visually, and hopefully draw my own stories. I couldn't imagine just writing up a script, tossing it to some artist, and not seeing it until it's published. Or lettering somebody else take that thing, and basically put my creation into their hands. I'd feel so vulnerable. But that's why we gotta be precise. Clear. Don't let people misread what you thought you said. Anyway...

    Another great post, Lee. Eagerly awaiting next week's column, where we expand on this single panel idea and become Time-Masters! Gasp. Hah.

  3. StevenForbes Guest

    I'm waiting for Calvin. I really am.

    Because you hit on one of the things I saw in TPG time and again. (I'm not really going to mention B&N too much here. I think it's a given that we're going to hit on a LOT of the same things.) Anyway, back to the moving panels, and something I'd like for you to come back to and 'splain a little better, because I think that the majority of the people here are going to miss it.

    A few examples out of TPG.

    A couple are walking down a street. The man is being pulled along by a woman, who's doing a half-dance, half-skip type of movement as she goes down the road.

    A woman is holding a flashlight in her hand, waving away dust with the hand that holds the flashlight.

    Two characters speaking three times each between them in a single panel.

    One is a moving panel (or extremely unclear at the very least), one will not come across well when drawn (not necessarily a moving panel, but definitely awkward when drawn up), and one is a full conversation in a single panel that covers art and breaks the boundaries of time within that panel.

    These are all descriptions that Lee is talking about. They have lack of clarity, they do not take into account Time, and they will come off badly when drawn.

    This happens A LOT. You can go into almost any script in TPG to see it. The biggest one is not thinking as a panel as a frozen moment in time. A lot of you know it, but some of you get excited and forget it, or you come really close to skirting the line with your verbiage that you could be called for writing a moving panel.

    To keep to the movie analogy started by Lee, I believe it is perfectly fine to think of your script as a movie on long as you know HOW and WHEN to use the Pause button.

    Personally, I see all of my stories in my head as a movie. I see it running through my head, and when I get to a part that I like, a part that is crucial to telling the story, I press Pause on the movie in my head, freezing the scene, and I describe that panel as I see it. This gives me a frozen moment in Time, and it allows me to describe what I see. I'm not trying to describe what I see as the movie "plays," because then the moment is no longer frozen, and this gives rise to moving panels.

    Just another way of looking at it.

    Now, to get back to the Mamet-ian verbiage (and I know this because Lee knows a TON of great books to read for sequential, visual storytelling), Lee, could you please go over "converting action into juxtaposed frozen moments of time." I think it's important, and I don't want the readers to miss it, and go away scratching their heads.


  4. LeeNordling Guest

    Thanks, Roberts.

    But next week we're not going to expand on the single-panel idea; we're going to take a Fantastic Voyage into the single panel, and learn how to write ONE panel with intention.

    When we've accomplished that, when we fully understand how to produce a panel that has the moment or moments of time we intend, then we shall be Time-Masters.

    And then we can take another huge step for comics writers: learning to put two panels together with that same level of intention.

    Thanks for your continuing contribution to the column, Roberts.

    As we proceed, I hope more readers will post questions about what we're discussing.

    My goal for this column is create a meaningful dialogue that will allow readers to come to personal conclusions about the craft of sequential art and the publishing businesses in which it's utilized.


  5. CalvinCamp Guest

    Ah... moving panels. This is a good place to start, Lee. A very good place. Because I think it's about the stickiest, and hardest to explain, problem involved in writing comics.

    And, as if it wasn't sticky enough on its own, we get different writers and artists who don't even agree on what is and isn't a moving panel. Is it how it's worded (one of the more infamous things that Steven and I don't entirely agree on)? Is it too many actions in a single panel? Is it an action that can't be shown?

    And then there's what I see as, potentially, the even bigger problem with people who are aware of the moving panel issue, but don't fully grasp it. And this exacerbates the other problem you bring up - lack of clarity. These writers sometimes get so paranoid that they might be writing a moving panel, that they'll write themselves in circles to avoid it, only to end up with a panel description so confusing that the artist can't reliably tell what the heck the writer is trying to describe - and usually what they're trying to describe wasn't a moving panel to begin with. I've had to come to the conclusion (and have even advised, though with some misgivings because I hate to downplay the moving panel problem) that this is a worse crime that a moving panel. A moving panel can usually be fixed fairly easily by the artist (though it may not be the best fix), simply by adding another panel. A panel that can't be understood from the description is a bigger problem, in that, if the artist can't understand it, he can't fix it at all.

    A talk about moving panels is, I think, going to have to address a number of factors. How to know when you've got more actions than can be shown, how to know when a particular action simply can't be shown in still images (regardless of the number of panels used), and, not only how to avoid both those situations, but how to know when the implied movement the writer is looking for isn't a moving panel in the first place. And, if that weren't enough, it'll also have to address the visual tricks, like ghosting and motion lines, (which someone inevitably brings up) that can allow what would normally be a moving panel to work. And it's going to have to address all of those factors in a manner that people can easily grasp (which, based on the discussions I've been involved in, is a lot harder than it sounds).

    I think you've got your work cut out for you with this one.

  6. StevenForbes Guest

    Thanks, Calvin.

    I knew you wouldn't fail me.

  7. LeeNordling Guest

    Welcome back to the trenches, Steven.

    I think it's fine for comics writers to think of how they wish scenes in their stories to proceed from beginning to end, but I really am, next week, going to try to get comics writers to stop imagining their stories as movies on paper, and start thinking of them as stories told through the sequential art medium.

    Why the distinction? Why do I think it's important to tear writers away from the comics-as-movies misconception (yep, misconception)?

    Because I'm trying to tear out the default switch to how the events in the story proceed.

    I wrote a fairly simple story for the upcoming Digital Webbing anthology; the pitch and outline were in time-progression prose. I recognize we need to block stories out that way.

    But, when it came to scripting the page, I went into full-blown comics-thinking mode.

    What shall I accomplish on this page? How do I want it to be perceived? What's the dominant image (if any) or how do I want to write a particular grouping of images so a series of gags will be funny and flow into the next series of gags.

    I'm not saying that folks will need to write in my script format--there are many to choose from, which we'll get into later; I'm saying (writing, actually) that folks will need to shift from story progression to comics script mode, and that's not an easy transition.

    It's intuitive to just break down big scenes into small scenes and tell the story in short prose bursts.

    I'm trying, with this column and the next, to turn that intuitive step toward something that better suits sequential art storytelling.

    Anyway, that's the goal.

    So I really do believe that trying to write movies on paper is a misstep.

    I think writing comics so that they can be adapted to movies is fine, and if that's the goal, then writing comics well is a better step toward achieving that goal.

    To be clear, I also think it's fine if a reader picks up a comic and thinks, "Wow! This would be a great movie!"

    But that conclusion comes from the work of a concept, character, story, writing, drawing, coloring, and lettering, not from a camera that rolls at x-number frames per second.

    To write something that feels like a movie on paper requires two things: understanding film, so the writer knows what he or she is trying to simulate, and a great level of comics craft to achieve the simulation.

    I'm working on the latter.


  8. JohnLees Guest

    Great column, Lee.

    Yes, writing comics might seem ostensibly similar to writing a screenplay for a film, but when you get into it, it's a different beast. I've also worked in the screenplay format in the past, and though of course a script will be seen by the directors, the producers, the studio reps, etc, at its core a film script is a document for the actor. As such, in writing it you're really catering to the actor, with the main focus being the dialogue. Scene setting stuff is concise, and it's a big taboo to talk about camera angles or anything that really gets into the composition of the scene. That stuff is left for the director, the cinematographer, or whatever key figures are oThin-set with a shooting script they've worked out where all that technical stuff is included. With a screenplay, you're almost taking the visual element out, and it's really the dialogue that's key.

    With a comics script, however, it's different. Here, you are screenwriter AND director. It's not enough to just tell what the characters are saying, or offering a rudimentary setting of scene. Quite the opposite from taking the visual element out, with comics visuals are everything. You're not writing something to be in motion like you are when writing for stage or screen, you're writing something that is still. If a screenplay is a document for the actor, then a comic book script is, at its core, a document for the artist.

    This may seem strange for me to say, after me ragging on Barri in the last Proving Grounds for getting too wrapped up in the details of the image to craft a coherent narrative, but when writing a comic book script, I feel it doesn't do much good to think of it in terms of scenes. I have to break it down into pages, then into panels. This is a page with 6 panels, and each panel tells its own story.

    And that's the key, something I know I haven't mastered yet. Your panels aren't just window-dressing for you to plaster your lovely dialogue on top of. Every panel is a work of art in itself, something that tells the full story of that one frozen moment in time. So when you're writing up a panel description in your script, what you are doing is selling the story of the image to the artist, if that makes any sense. You're not telling a story in motion. You're looking at the still picture fully formed in your own mind, and you're describing it to the best of your ability. You're trying to do that image in your head justice in your description of it, so that you're giving the artist all the tools they need to capture the spirit of that image in your head with their reinterpretation of it. That one image tells a story. The rest of the images on the page surrounding it join with that one image to tell a bigger story. Then the 22 pages of panels - each with a story of their own - that make up a whole comic book tell a bigger story than that. And so on and so forth.

    Comics are a visual medium, and as writers it can be hard to get our heads around that, to think that's it not about our writing abilities, it's about pitching the ball for the artist to hit out of the park - they're drawing it, they're telling the story. Even your most visible contribution as writer, the dialogue - that has to be viewed visually as well. This is something Calvin taught me, actually, in the most recent script I submitted for the Proving Grounds - how the way you break up your dialogue into different bubbles can create a better impression, visually.

    Anyhoo, that's my rambling trail of thought. I'm not speaking from any position of knowledge or experience - I'm just a student, I don't really know anything yet - but that's how I view time in comics. Each image has to tell its own story.

  9. LeeNordling Guest

    Hey, Calvin.

    You've actually nailed an important point.

    And I will do my best to sidestep it.

    "WHAT??!!" you write. "Why would you sidestep it?"

    Because when a discussion is about "moving panels," the battle is already lost, the core, most important point is already passed by.

    Writing "moving panels" is trying to write progression prose or film action.

    If a writer is really thinking in sequential storytelling terms, he's concentrating on one or more frozen moments of time per panel. When this occurs, the challenge is to write that moment or those moments.

    Get writers to think in comics terms, and then to become self-editors (another topic for this column at a later point), then most of us will read their scripts and understand their intent.

    Some writers will write lengthy descriptions to become clear; some will write short abbreviated paragraphs. If the writer's goal is clear to the artist and/or editor, then the script has succeeded.

    So, the next column will concentrate on making sure folks understand what they need to accomplish for each panel.

    If they understand that then they won't even be thinking about writing moving panels, and should be able to spot this slip-up after they make it.

    And yep, we'll get into action verbs versus passive verbs, which are often at the heart of most critical discussions on this topic.

    I'll probably tackle that one at length in the scripting styles columns, too.

    Nice discussion so far, gents.



  10. StevenForbes Guest

    Quote Originally Posted by LeeNordling View Post
    If a writer is really thinking in sequential storytelling terms, he's concentrating on one or more frozen moments of time per panel. When this occurs, the challenge is to write that moment or those moments.

    THAT'S what I've been trying to say for SUCH a long time! THANK YOU!

    And thanks again for this column, Lee. Just like everyone else, I'm still learning, and I still crave lessons on different areas.

    This information, and the discussions involved, aren't anywhere else. Thanks for taking the time to do it.

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