February 21, 2011

THE WAY OF THE WRITER: Twitter as Dialogue Coach

While this post relates mostly to writing for comics, it does have it's application to film and prose as well . . .

I have long held that the old maxim about comic books which says they are "part movie, part novel" is completely and utterly incorrect.
Something a little more accurate would probably be they are "part movie, part poem". In other words, to borrow from Conan O'Brien's "If They Mated":


So comics share the illusion of the passage of time and visual language with film; and they share the use of words to convey emotion, motivation, and added information with poetry . . . and together they tell a story in a way that is completely different than both, because comics are able to pull from both the visual and the textual.

But in a more concrete sense, comics share something else with poetry: the careful use of words. In a novel, words are chosen for impact, but there is more freedom because there are more words. In poetry, each word must be carefully selected to express the author's intentions in as concise and powerful a way as possible. This doesn't make one type of writing easier or more difficult than the other, it's just my observation in trying my hand at both.

Comics have a similar goal, but with an added limitation: actual page space. There is only so much room on a page, and every word takes away from that valuable real estate. I remember reading an interview with Neil Gaiman when I was first getting into the actual writing of comics in which he spoke of a single panel in a story that gave him, the artist, the letterer, and the editor trouble because the panel was beautiful, but the entire panel had stuff they didn't want to cover. So the question was what should they cover? What was the least important detail on the panel to cover.

For film writing, dialogue doesn't take up physical space, but time. Every added word adds split seconds, which add up to seconds, which add up to minutes . . . which adds to shooting time and the length of the film.

Enter Twitter. Every time I struggle to write a Tweet, so I can fit it into Twitter's 140 character limit, I find myself thinking about how similar this is to the struggles I have with my dialogue writing in both film and comics. 

There's one big difference: Twitter ALWAYS wins. It is 140 characters no matter what. With comics or screenplays, I sometimes can let myself get lazy. Fortunately, this is where having good feedback from writers I respect my my editors comes in. I cannot stress enough that the MOST VITAL part of the writing process is getting feedback from people whose opinion and feedback you can trust. It's often all too easy to spot writers who believe they're good enough editors of their own work. Yes, there are probably a lot of great writers out there who simply don't need editors. I'm not one of them. And neither are you. (Sorry for being so presumptuous, he said, writing a blog post without the use of an editor.) And even those writers who ARE great, well, usually, they recognize the importance of having a great editor who can make their great writing even greater. (See, an editor would have said, "You used the word 'great' four times." And I would have argued, "Well, I did it for symmetrical reasons or something." And the editor would have said, "Take out the first 'great', it's redundant." And I would have.)

So, Twitter can be a HUGE time waster. In fact, if I ever do Writer S. Blockhead again (a badly drawn comic about the hypocrisy of writer's block), the first one will be about Twitter. But, Twitter can also be a great exercise in word choice. 140 characters is a very comfortable character count for comic book dialogue. Can your dialogue fit into a Tweet? Why not? If there's not a compelling reason, consider revising it.

Or at least having an editor look at it.

~ Ben

Other "The Way of the Writer" articles:

The Weight of the Writer
Holistic Writing
Intentionality, part 1
Nothing New Under the Sun
Intentionality, part 2
It's So Rewarding

February 16, 2011

THE WAY OF THE WRITER: Comic Writers Should Be Comic Artists

How's THAT for a title? I couldn't POSSIBLY really mean THAT, could I?

Well, I could. And do. I'll admit, there's a twinge of jealousy whenever I read Will Eisner's Comics and Sequential Art (a book anyone who wants to make comics should read) and I get to the part where he says (paraphrasing here) the best comics are made by artist/writers. In other words, artists who write and draw their own comics will usually have a better end result than writer/artist TEAMS because the artist who works on his own project knows exactly what he wants, whereas the artist working from someone else's script can never put on hte page exactly what was intended by the script.

Generally, that's true. Some exceptions, of course. For example, not all artists understand story structure or dialogue. And, obviously, many writers can have an image in their head that they would never be able to put on the page because they just don't have the physical dexterity. I firmly believe that writers can learn artistic principles and artists can learn storytelling principles, but storytelling is easier to learn than art because storytelling is strictly a mental discipline while art is a mental and physical disciple. Just like some people will never be able to play drums as well as other people or dance as well as other people or hit a golf ball as well as other people, some people will never learn to draw as well as other people. That doesn't make writing an easy task to learn, just an easier task to learn.

But back to Eisner's statement, there is a qualification: a talented writer/artist individual will do a better job than a talented writer/artist team. But if an individual is not gifted as a writer or as an artist, that person not going to suddenly be able to create a brilliant comic just because he or she is doing both.

So why do I give this post this title: "Comic Writers Should Be Comic Artists"?

Here's why: if you want to be a comic book writer, you need to train yourself as a comic book artist. You need to go ahead and draw some comic book pages to give yourself an idea of how sequences can flow on a page. To give yourself an idea of what can and cannot appear in a panel. To give yourself an idea of and appreciation for the time a pages takes to be drawn. To understand what you are asking for when you write a complex page layout or a huge battle scene (which sometimes cannot be avoided, but still must be understood).

I've taken part in three 24-Hour-Comic days. I've succeeded twice (once went OVER the page limit!) and failed once. Here's one of them (a successful one -- Ballad of the Freak was actually placed in the 24 Hour Comic Day book for that year, in the publisher's words "not because you can draw, but because you actually told a story" -- like he needed to tell me I couldn't draw). Even when I failed, the experience itself was not a loss because each time, I stretched myself creatively and learned a lot about writing for comics.

So I'm not saying that the only people who should be writing comics are people who are artists. The fact is, some artists really are talented as writers and artists and some artists should stick to drawing.

What I'm saying is that if you are a writer, even if all you can draw are stick figures, you should carve out some time to actually draw some comic book pages. Maybe draw a stick figure version of the script you're writing. Maybe just have some fun drawing something no one will ever see but yourself. For me, right now (and this is what made me think to write this blog posting) I'm drawing a comic called Broken Trident:

This is me, in public, exercising those artistic muscles. Laying out pages. Lettering. (Writers, you can't really appreciate how important it is to keep your word counts down until you've lettered a page yourself.) Drawing characters and actions.

They say that if you want to be a writer, you need to read. But I'll add to that from my experiences. If you want to be a comic book writer, you need to read. Read some comics, yes, but read lots of books without pictures. And draw.

What do you think? Am I way off base? Artists, would you suggest it goes the other way round as well? That comic book artists who take the time to write actually become better comic book artists? Let me know what you think in the comments below . . .

~ Ben

Some recommended books for comic book writers:

February 7, 2011

THE WAY OF THE WRITER: What can VW's l'il Darth Vader teach us about storytelling?

I love this ad. I'm not the only one. Not by a long shot. There's a reason they "leaked" this ad before the Super Bowl . . . they knew it was gold, and didn't want it to be lost in the shuffle:

So, aside from being cute and making my nine-year-old giggle like a mad man . . . what can this teach us about storytelling?

A couple things. First, it has to be said, this commercial is great because it is a one minute mini-movie, and it has an definite beginning, middle, and end. The character wants something, the character works hard toward getting that something, and the character grows in the process as he achieves his goal. Hilariously. There's even a three act structure in there. But I'm not going to get into that . . .

But here's what I was thinking about:

This commercial uses the icon of Darth Vader to hilarious effect. And it works. Why? Because we know the character. The imposing, powerful visual of Darth Vader is not just a part of pop culture, but culture in general.

And I was thinking about Darth Vader in the original trilogy of Star Wars and the prequel trilogy. The original trilogy builds this iconic character subtly. There is a LOT of showing and only some telling. We fear Darth Vader. Why? Because everyone else does. We SEE that. We fear Darth Vader. Why? Because he kills people. We SEE that. We feel for Darth Vader's plight. Why? Because he has to choose between a life of power and a sacrifice for this son. We SEE that. Yes, there were some details that were told to us -- that he and Obi-Wan used to be friends, but even that was told to us with an ironic twist. It came from an unreliable narrator.

This is why the original trilogy worked.

And why the prequel trilogy didn't.

No, I'm not going to get on a "the prequel trilogy stunk" geek rant. I have my podcast for that. (If you haven't listened to the podcast, you should. I think you'd like it. It's a few friends just chatting about pop culture stuff, with some comedy "sketches" thrown in for fun.) First of all, it's an easy target. But I want to get into one detail: those prequel movies have so much exposition. So much of those movies rely on what is TOLD to us.

"Show, don't tell" is a common mantra in writing books. And for good reason. Let's look back at the VW ad. Whether you are a geek or not, most likely it worked for you. (Unless you have no soul.) (Just kidding about the soul bit. Of course you have a soul. It's just a dark, bleak one.) (Again, just kidding.) I'd be willing to bet that someone who has never seen Star Wars would get this commercial. Why? Because you know this kid really, really wants to have the force and be able to make things come to him . . . or knock things over . . . or make the dog bend to his will. Why? Because we SEE that. There is no dialogue. No narrator telling us "all he wanted was to have the power". The kid never says to Mom "I wish I had the force". Dad doesn't explain his actions.

It's just good storytelling.

~ Ben

February 3, 2011

Tree Octopus

So this article -- "'Tree Octopus' Is Latest Evidence the Internet Is Making Kids Dumb, Says Group" -- did two things to me.

First, I was outlining the new ArmorQuest graphic novel when I saw that article and needed an idea for a creature that's not a dragon. We'll see if the "treectopus" makes the final cut, but for now it's in the outline.

Second, I read the article. So, some teachers give some kids an assignment to research a "tree octopus" (what, not sharktopus?). And then they give the kids a fake website with information about a "tree octopus". Seventh grade kids. And then they draw the conclusion that, because the kids did as they were told . . . they're dumb. Hm.

Sure, they pulled it off to make a statement about how kids don't have critical thinking skills. But we already knew that. I don't think the problem is that the kids trusted the website. I think the problem is that the kids trusted the people who gave them the assignment! And the kids are not to be blamed.

Now, the tree octopus website is awesome. If I had extra coin, I would get one of their t-shirts from Cafe Press.

But shame on Pearson for doing such shoddy research. That is assuming, of course, that the research that has been reported is actually legitimate. I can't help thinking that an educator group would never actually do this. That they didn't, knowing if they actually GIVE the children a resource the children will USE it, instead give the children an assignment in which the only resource is not legit but the children must find the resource themselves and then determine the legitimacy of the resource by doing further research.

As such, I think the joke is on the news media reporting it. I think the report about the assignment that was a hoax is, in actuality, a hoax itself. Or I hope so. Because if it's NOT, the people who should be labeled dumb are not the subjects of the research, but the researchers themselves.

But thanks to Yahoo! News for reporting on it, hoax or not, because I got a creature at just the right time . . . and if you read the next ArmorQuest graphic novel and see a tentacled beast attacking unsuspecting travelers from the treetops, you know where the idea came from.

~ Ben