Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Waid Wednesday #3: Economic Storytelling

If you’ve set your sights on writing an original novel or a prose piece, you can generally type to your heart’s content. There’s no hard-and-fast space limitation. American comics, on the other hand, tend to be 22 pages. It’s a totally arbitrary number; since their invention in the 1930s, comic book stories have been as long as a hundred pages and as short as one. In the early 1980s, industry leaders DC Comics and Marvel Comics, factoring profits versus creative costs, arrived at 22 as their standard page-count, and other companies settled in at about the same, give or take. (As the E-I-C at BOOM!, I allow 22 pages for first issues and 21 for ensuing issues, leaving room for a “what has come before” text recap after the opening scene.)

Twenty-two pages is not a lot of space. Believe me. Having written a bazillion comics, I still find myself more often than nine pages into a script and realizing to my horror that I’m only about a quarter of the way through the story I wanted to tell, and the next thing you know, I’m making fresh coffee and tearing up the floorboards to rewrite.

The best tools in a comic writer's toolbox serve the cause of Economic Storytelling. Your foremost task is to convey the maximum amount of story in the minimum amount of space. Don’t misunderstand; “story” is not the same as “plot,” and I’m in no way suggesting that every page you write be weighted down with a hundred lines of dialogue feeding me more exposition than I can possibly digest. But a plot, as I’m gonna presume you already know if you’re reading this, is simply what happens. A story takes a plot and adds emotion, timing, style and mood, and as loudly as I rail against comics that spend an entire page showing a character filling a glass from the kitchen faucet, I’d still rather read a story that was involving but breezy for 22 pages than one that was dense but dull and unmoving for eight.

Shorter comics stories are even more of a bitch to script. Eight pages, six...regardless of length, you still need to show me a conflict and a resolution or else it’s not a story, and there is no time to screw around. At BOOM!, I get a l-o-t of eight-page scripts that, for no good reason, burn up the entire first page with a slow zoom into a New York restaurant kitchen. This makes me homicidal. If your story is about a chef and geography is incidental, just show me the damn kitchen. Tick, tock. I love RESERVOIR DOGS, but if you handed me a comics script that began with four pages of gangsters debating the merits of Madonna, I would not only reject it, I would break your keyboard.

In a 22-page comic, figuring an average of four to five panels a page and a couple of full-page shots, a writer has maybe a hundred panels at most to tell a story, so every panel he wastes conveying (a) something I already know, (b) something that’s a cute gag but does nothing to reveal plot or character, or (c) something I don’t need to know is a demonstration of lousy craft. Comics are expensive. Don’t make me resent the money I spend buying yours. Every single moment in your script must either move the story along or demonstrate something important about the characters—preferably both—and every panel that does neither is a sloppy waste of space. This is one of the reasons why Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ WATCHMEN is so revered; it’s a tour de force example of Economic Storytelling because there’s significance to every word and every image.


Monsterbeard said...

You know, if you're getting all of these eight page comics with the whole first page zoom in on New York... well, I mean, clearly there's an audience for that, right? Unless all your writers are cribbing together their stories...

Mark Waid said...

"...well, I mean, clearly there's an audience for that, right?"

Yes. It's called a television audience.

Or, to answer your point seriously, it annoys me because it's a lazy use of the medium. It plays to a weakness (movement) rather than a strength (capturing a lot of information in a single image that the reader can linger on at his/her own pace).

SH Cone said...

Excellent, Mr. Waid. I've toyed with comics for a while but the theory behind them always seems more elusive than its television and film sisters.

Thanks for summing up your experience with us here.

Louis Porter Jr. said...

Just wondering Mr. Waid, but do you feel that a writer that can master the 8 page script format would be have greater ability to tell 22 page stories?

Martin said...

This isn't the first time I've seen this sort of commentary from a professional writer, except in the case of the other writers, they were talking about short stories versus novels. The very same issue occurs when writing a short story. You don't have room to be wasteful.

Kid Sis said...

"Mr. Waid." heheheee.

Re: your profile text...want to borrow Hero? He's quite the lovebug.

Glenn Hauman said...

I've been telling people that 22 pages a month came about because that was the maximum an average penciller could be safely relied upon to produce a month. (No, gentle reader, George Perez does not count as average.) Nowadays, it's also about the amount a very detailed colorist can produce a month as well.

Sadly, many pencillers can't hit that level reliably, which leads to delays, fill-ins, etc.

It should also be noted that when most people speak wistfully of the days when Perez did five books a month and Sal Buscema did three, etc., those were also the days where 17 page issues were the norm. Today's artists have to do about 30% more work an issue. (If you're a colorist, it's about 100% more, thanks to the current state of the art.)

MiraiGen said...

It's funny too because novels that dick around entirely too much annoy the crap out of me.

Maybe I'm more suited to comics after all.

Great article.

Cully Hamner said...

Glenn, it's interesting that you bring up the 17-page story; I mention this to people all the time. I'll point out, though, that, usually it was a lead feature of that length and an 8-page backup feature, with the rest of a 32-page comic being filled out with ads and text or letter columns.

If I were in any way an editorial influence on a company, I'd experiment with bringing back that lead/backup format to monthly comics. I know a lot of guys that can't quite make 22 pages an issue, but could probably pull off 17 ( or 16, which would amount to two backup stories a month!)

And economy of storytelling would kind become a necessity, wouldn't it? ;)

+3 Pants of Quietude said...

I find it funny that you mention the whole zoomy-pan-motion... thing, then cite Watchmen as an example. The first page is, after all, one of the most brilliant outward zooms in comics history.

Granted, the zoom tells us everything we need to know, establishes one of the Big Themes of the book (enormous consequences emerge from small details), and is in all other ways a masterpiece of economic storytelling, but it's still a zoom... thingy.

Can you tell I'm still tired from Christmas morning? XD

Really digging this, Mark. Can't wait for the next one.


Marquis said...

(b) something that’s a cute gag but does nothing to reveal plot or character,

I dunno Peter David seems to slip in a fair amount of gags

Alan Scott said...

But his gags usually reveal character, occur in the background where they don't take up space, or both.

And when they don't they tend to jump out at me as annoying.

Justin said...

I think the window of time between now and the point where the Nathan/Sophie shippers and the Sophie/Parker slashes even show up just got significantly smaller.

I really enjoy the show. The best compliment I can pay is that while I really enjoy the show (I'm an easy sell in that regard as I like a lot of severe garbage), in none of the episodes so far has anything happened that made me overtly rail against the plot while I ranted about how stupid it was. Not even some of my all time favorites have that trophy.

Mike Wagner said...

Reminds me of Ecclesiastes 6:11

"The more the words the less the meaning and how does that help anyone?"

Works for comic books too.

Keep creating,

Keith R.A. DeCandido said...

*waves to Mark*

I wandered over here from ComicMix. Besides, even though I've been working for you for a couple of months now (working on the Farscape comics), we haven't actually spoken since the old days when I was working for Byron Preiss.

Anyhow, I know what you mean about the limitations of 22 pages, particularly when Mr. Big Shot Rockne O'Bannon (I love you Rock; no, really!) crams the plot full of a ton of stuff (all with a note at the top expressing confidence in my ability to make it all fit; but no pressure *gulp*).

I made it even harder on myself with the Star Trek comic I did that'll be out in April: an Alien Spotlight one-shot that's actually three seven-page stories (the third of which has a double-page spread). Man, talk about having to compress your storytelling (especially since each story had a framing sequence; geeble).

It can honestly be a relief to go back to prose and stretch my writing muscles a bit..............

Christine said...

Hi Mr. Waid!

First, thanks for the column. I've been writing your bits of wisdom on note cards for years now, and now they're in a handy interactive format.

Second: I'd love your take, both as an editor and as a writer, on two techniques:

1 - Captions

I often overdo captions, probably because the theatre bug always makes me want to monologue, and captions can be a monologue broken up over corroborating or subverting images. Does it seem to you that captions are used more and more lately in popular titles? What are the ideal ways to use a caption as a character-revealing and/or story-telling device in a short or long comic?

2 - Frame Narratives

Not a problem unique to comics, but when is enough enough in terms of frames? When is a flashback suddenly so big that the present-day story around it becomes a frame narrative?


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