Posted on October 5, 2011 by Flames
We have a new design essay today from Michael Jasper, author of the In Maps & Legends comic series. In Maps & Legends was the winner of the November 2009 Zuda Comics competition hosted by DC Comics. Today Michael talks about the craft of writing the series and the things he learned along the way.
Exploring In Maps & Legends
A lot of great things happened, but the best side-effect of the whole experience is that it made me a much better—and hopefully more effective—writer.
The comic version of Maps actually began life as a prose novel, one in which I’d written, oh, about 100 pages. Then I hit that dreaded middle section, where, you know, stuff really needs to start happening? And I’d gotten stalled out. Stuck in the mud. Blocked.
So I took the initial image of the book—a young woman standing in her apartment, razor in hand, carving a map into the drywall—and I described it to artist Niki Smith. Thanks to Twitter, I’d seen a call-for-writers tweet from her, in which she expressed her interest to draw a story if someone had a story idea to share. She really liked the concept of the map and the way the map opened into another world, and we were off.
I won’t go into all the details of how the comic got to its current state as a nine-issue digital comic miniseries—you can read about that at the Maps website—but here’s a quick checklist of how writing a comic sharpened my writing skills for other projects, whether it’s a novel or a story or even another comic script.
1. Fit your story into a prescribed format. For Maps, each issue was 20 pages, not counting the cover or the last page with the teaser for the next issue on it. So I had to make the story fit into those 20 pages, building to a strong finish to each issue to make readers salivate for the next issue. Once we got past six panels a page, things got crowded. This taught me how to be an efficient writer, squeezing in as much story as I could to fit my page guidelines, but it also forced me to consider pacing and things like chapter length and even the length of a paragraph or sentence. How much white space is there on the page? How will that big block of a paragraph look to the reader? Can I break it up? These are all things I’ve thought about before working in comics, but I now have a stronger sense of how things look on the page, and how to use that to manipulate – um, I mean satisfy – the reader.
2. End your chapters and scenes with a kick. Each page of a comic is like a little story, with a final panel so intriguing that you have no choice but to turn the page. So I always tried to end each page of the comic with a nice little jolt or surprise, something to keep the reader clicking through the pages. Now, as I’m working on a prose novel (ah, how I miss the pretty pictures!), I always need to know how each scene is going to end as well as each chapter, so I can build to that ending. I didn’t do that so much before I did my work in comics. Now, I’ve gotta know the how the scene or chapter ends before I can begin, and it should be some sort of cliffhanger.
3. Show through action instead of description or internal monologue. Remember the little clouds comic artists and used to use (and cartoonists still use on the funny pages) to represent a character’s thoughts? Well, those have pretty much gone out of style in comics today. While the thought balloons have been replaced by the caption box, I think it’s telling that we don’t really need those thoughts if the art is doing its work and the writer and artist has set up each panel properly. Readers rely on the actions of the characters to flesh out the characters’ personality, their needs, and their desires. It’s just that in comics you can see this happening, while in a prose work, you have to have enough words to envision those actions in your mind. And your characters need to act, not just sit there on the page. Your protagonist needs to protag.
4. Describe your setting. In my prose writing, I’d often forget the “establishing shot.” Comics need one, movies need one. This is one panel, usually the first in a new scene, to give readers or viewers a sense of where this scene is taking place. Sometimes I’d gloss over that, diving right into the dialog or the action. Or both. While working on the Maps script, artist Niki Smith would often remind me of that until it stuck. Now, in my current projects, I make sure I get the setting in there early, along with the dialog and action. And also, whenever I read novels or comics, or watch movies, I want to know more about the setting – and I get annoyed when nobody tells me anything about it!
5. Focus on your characters above all else. Why do we still love Batman, Spiderman, and John Constantine? They’ve been around for years, but they still have stories to tell. It’s because they’re fascinating, nuanced characters, and as a result writers keep pulling story after story out of those characters. Sure, there’s also a soap-opera aspect to these characters, in that you know they’ll always be there, serialized year after year, but you keep learning something new about them in the hands of strong writers and artists. So take a look at some of those comic characters and see what the storytellers are doing behind the scenes to make those characters so compelling. And take that with you into your own writing projects.
This list is just the biggest five things I’ve learned from scripting a comic. I could list all the other things I’ve picked up, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog entry.
And so our nine-issue comic In Maps & Legends comes to a conclusion this week, but my learning is far from over. Also, there are some plot threads we’ve left open that I’d like to one day tie together. At some point, I’d love to get back to Kait and her friends. There are always more maps and places to explore, and more writing tricks and techniques to teach myself.
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You can find PDF versions of all 9 issues of In Maps & Legends at DriveThruComics.com.
About Michael Jasper
Michael Jasper has published six novels, a story collection, and over five dozen short stories in Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Polyphony, Writers of the Future, and the Raleigh News & Observer, and other fine venues. His most recent novel is A Sudden Outbreak of Magic (UnWrecked Press, 2011).