Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Waid Wednesday #2: 101-A (a.k.a. "More Than Words")

Novelist walks into my office. Relatively famous, not as famous as Aforementioned Screenwriter, but a multiple award-winner in his genre nonetheless. And he’s immediately on my bad side because the comics script he has handed me is the dullest thing I have ever read, and I used to be a legal secretary.

It isn’t a bad story. To the contrary, the conflict is clear and intriguing and the plot moves along at a good clip. But the Ambien on the page comes from the fact that the writer’s a novelist. He’s accustomed to introducing his characters by writing hundreds of riveting words describing how they view the world, what their hopes and dreams are, and what’s going on inside their heads from moment to moment. But there is no room for that on the comic book page, so he just left it out, and now I’m holding a script starring a bunch of plot puppets who are indistinguishable from one another, who don’t reveal themselves through action, and who are interesting only in the writer's head.

Comics is a visual medium. That means the writer has to find a way to externalize the conflicts--literally or, with practice, symbolically--and not leave them locked inside the protagonist. I’m not saying punches have to be thrown--not every comic is or need be about Spider-Man--but if comics is the avenue through which you want to tell your story, it had better be a story that is, in its telling, visually interesting. If it isn't, you have chosen the wrong medium. I have been in awe of E.M. Forster's talent since I was fourteen, but I can imagine nothing more tedious than a graphic novelization of A Room With a View.

It sounds absurdly obvious, but I am so continually confronted with writers so in love with their dialogue that I'm going to say it again: comics is a visual medium. Bring every important character on stage by having him or her doing something--spinning a basketball, operating an electron microscope, taking a fistful of vitamins, anything--that instantly tells us something about them. When there's conflict, find a way to make it visual. Witty dialogue and clever repartee are priceless, yes, but probably more than in any other medium outside of, oh, mime, comics depends on the writer showing rather than telling. So give your artist interesting things to draw. Can this dramatic revelation happen in, say, a planetarium rather than in a hotel room? Can this confrontation happen on a Ferris wheel instead of a generic alleyway? Can these characters be acting rather than reacting?

One last time: comics is a visual medium. Use that. I am a huge, huge believer in page one of any comics story of any genre having an unusual image that will grab the reader and draw him in. It doesn’t have to be “super-heroey”--in the right story, a shot of a woman looming over an empty crib has just as much impact as, I don’t know, Superman punching a meteor--but by now, any comic book that opens up with four pages of guys in business suits standing around a generic boardroom is just death. D-E-A-T-H. Every issue, we have twenty-two pages, give or take, to tell readers a story that they paid good money for, so as a writer, I get very nervous opening with (or, once I’ve opened, spending more than about two pages on) something you can see on TV every day for free, without my help. Always think visually. Always, always look at your scenes once they’re drafted and ask yourself if they have more visual impact than two guys in business suits standing around a boardroom. If not, rewrite.

Next: Economy Of Storytelling


Monsterbeard said...

You're smart. I've never been so enthused with something on a Wednesday.

wcmartell said...

The script tip that popped into rotation for Wednesday is about turning emotion and character into action... and not the SPIDER-MAN kind... I used THE PIANIST as my example.


The most difficult part of screenwriting for people coming from another medium is using the actions of the characters to tell the story. What people say is usually a lie, so what they *do* tells us who they are, what they want, how they feel.

Action is character.

- Bill

Louis Porter Jr. said...

Mark Waid, I think I might love you. Once again thanks for the great information on writing.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

So true. It's like my father always said: what can you say with men in suits talking in a boardroom that you can't say better with apes on fire that are punching each other atop a B-52 about to crash into an ocean of red wine and robot sharks? Both express alienation.

Take "Howard the Duck." That's a nice obvious example of taking internal and implicit states and making them big, visual, explicit elements in a comic book story.

Or, to kiss up a little bit, Mark Waid here centered the comic series "X-O Manowar" on fear, which was addressed with a robotic suit of armor, flying saucers filled with terrorists, and lots of women, rather than a dude in a coffee shop lamenting his inability to overcome his fear of failure and small yappy dogs. The former is visual, the latter is not.

The challenge, I imagine, is to tell a story using visual, external elements that isn't dumb or simplistic. "Apes on fire, punching" could express complex emotions or truths, but it's gotta be hard.

Cully said...

I'll add this: If you can, involve your artist. He or she just may have a simpler, more visually effective way to convey what you're trying to get across through dialogue.

Kirk said...

I find that I'm curious. What does a comics script look like?

Mark Waid said...

Kirk--go back and look at last week's entry. I'm gonna do more soon on actual formatting.

Cully--point taken, and one of the things I'm addressing very soon--Artists Are Not Robots.

John Seavey said...

That explains why my attempt to kill Todd McFarlane by saying, "The next thing I'm going to say is a lie. I'm lying now," failed so miserably. :)

Kirk said...

Mark, sorry for a badly written question. Yes, I got - and hadn't before - that it has to focus on the visual. I just...

Do I have to write" "You see spidey's mask lifted enough he can put a finger on a tooth. "I haven't had anyone loosen a tooth before."" ??

(Gah, that was clumsy. Hopefully in falling I've demonstrated my intent.)

Cully Hamner said...

Mark, that's only partially my point. I'm assuming that you mean we aren't simply tools to enable writers to realize what they see in their heads, and that's true. But I also mean that an interested and conscientious artist is a storytelling partner, and can contribute in ways that writers don't always think of. It's not only good for the artist, it's good for the writer. I mean, when you and I have discussed story and the telling of them, I've always found you receptive, engaging, and open to my opinion. That kind of give-and-take, to my mind, ends up making both of us both look good.

You know, if we ever actually, you know, got to, like, *work together* someday...

Anonymous said...

I've noticed the same thing about some TV actors: They can give detailed interviews about their characters complex emotional states and subtle personalities, but onscreen their character is Big Tough Guy or Hot Sexy Girl and that's it

Keith R.A. DeCandido said...

The flip side of this is the number of times, when I was editing prose (specifically prose based on existing superheroes), I had to work with comics writers who were doing prose for the first time. It was the reverse: no character development, horrendous setting of the scene, no understanding of POV, and indistinguished dialogue. That last was the biggest surprise -- I didn't realize how many scripters depended on the balloon pointing at someone to substitute for characterization.

My favorite, though, was that virtually every comics writer who did prose for me ended every line of dialogue with an exclamation point, which is how you're trained (particularly at Marvel in the 1990s before computer lettering took off and newsprint died), but it resulted in an entire story where everybody sounded like they were being played by Brian Blessed.

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