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Seven Indispensable Tricks for Writing Comic Books

Tonya Thompson

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As the longtime creative director of Marvel Comics™ and one of the most iconic comic book creators of all time, Stan Lee (1922 – 2018) was the mastermind of a Marvel Universe full of timeless characters and stories that continue to capture the imagination of new generations of comic book fans.

At first, however, Lee lacked confidence in his writing. As he would later explain in his autobiography, he felt that comic books (and therefore, comic book writers) had a low status in the literary world. As a result, he used a pseudonym for some of his earliest comic book work. He writes, I used to be embarrassed because I was just a comic-book writer while other people were building bridges or going on to medical careers. And then I began to realize: entertainment is one of the most important things in people's lives. Without it, they might go off the deep end. I feel that if you're able to entertain people, you're doing a good thing.

As we all know, Stan Lee's comic books not only brought him (and the Marvel company) massive success—they also played a large role in elevating comics to a genre that is well-respected and continuing to grow in popularity. If you have been thinking about writing a comic book and are unsure of how to go about it, here are seven little tricks to keep in mind as you write.

Comic books are becoming more respected in literary circles
Photo by Lena Rose on Unsplash

Tip #1—Focus on story first, then layout second

Even though comic books are often best known for their imagery, as a rule of thumb, when writing a comic book, you should first focus on the story. Stan Lee puts it simply: Comics are stories; they're like novels or anything else. So the first thing you have to do is become a good storyteller.

While we're on the topic of storytelling, if you are unsure which story you want to tell, consider the fact that many comic books and graphic novels published in today's market are retellings of older stories. This graphic novel retelling of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and this comic book-inspired version of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables are great examples. Even Stan Lee borrowed much of his storytelling from classic Greek and Roman myths, so don't be afraid to put a new spin on an old tale if you are stuck on the story part.

Tip #2—Know the end and work backwards

This same piece of advice holds true for writing any type of story, whether it be a short story, novel or comic book. When you know your ending first—before putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) for the first draft—you'll be able to write a more succinct storyline with fewer holes in the plot.

This doesn't mean that you need to know every detail about how your story will end. It only means that you should have a general idea of the major events that will take place at the end. You should know which character will be involved and the overall character arcs for your major characters (particularly the protagonist).

This is especially important if you plan to write a series of comics. Knowing what happens at the end will help you divide the story correctly into segments and end each book on the right kind of cliffhanger (which we'll discuss more in tip #4).

Tip #3—Outline completely before writing

Here's another tip you should follow in the writing process, regardless of what type of fiction you are writing. Having an outline is one of the most important things (if not THE most important thing) you can do before sitting down to write your comic book. You don't need to know every detail at the beginning, but you should have a general idea of your setting, plot structure, major characters, their motivations, and their character arcs as the plot progresses.

If you're stuck at this part, I recommend reading Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! series. While he initially focuses on writing a screenplay, he offers invaluable advice on two different facets of outlining a story for any media. First, he provides a "beat sheet" focusing on the 15 major "beats" that occur within all great movies/screenplays. You can essentially take these beats and fill them in with your story's unique details to have a well-rounded plot outlined quickly. Second, he reviews the essential ten types of stories that encompass most plots. For example, he breaks down the most popular types of stories into easily digestible, overarching themes. A few examples are:

  • Monster in the House (Alien, The Ring, etc.)
  • Dude with a Problem (Die Hard, Open Water, etc.)
  • Rites of Passage (Napoleon Dynamite, Kramer vs. Kramer, etc.)
  • Buddy Love (When Harry Met Sally, Brokeback Mountain, etc.)
  • Fool Triumphant (Forrest Gump, Legally Blond, etc.)

Tip #4—For multiple issues, end on a cliffhanger

I touched on this briefly above, but this is especially important during the outlining process if you are creating a series of comic books. As with any series—and particularly in comic books—ending each issue on a cliffhanger is essential if you want to keep your audience engaged in the overall story you're writing.

In writing comics, it's important to keep this in mind as you outline each issue. If you are creating a series, you should outline the entire series before writing the first comic book, and the outline should be completed before any artwork is begun. Pay special attention to page numbering as you outline and determine cliffhanger cut-off points for each issue, as this will determine the level of interest you are able to maintain with your audience and whether they'll want to purchase following issues (after reading the first).

When writing a comic book series, end each issue with a cliffhanger
Photo by Andreas Fidler on Unsplash

There are also software programs available such as Celtx, which includes a comic book option for its script writing features. Using software to assist with layout and page numbering during the outlining and writing processes helps extensively with this cliffhanger strategy.

Tip #5—Make sure your setting and characters are memorable

Since comic books have limited room for extended exposition, having a memorable setting and unforgettable characters is important. Stan Lee puts it like this: To my way of thinking, whether it's a superhero movie or a romance or a comedy or whatever, the most important thing is you've got to care about the characters. You've got to understand the characters and you've got to be interested. If the characters are interesting, you're half-way home.

When you think back over some of the bestselling comic books and graphic novels (Neil Gaiman's Sandman series and Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead series come to mind), you'll find that two things they all have in common are a unique, intriguing setting and fascinating characters. Both drive the story when limited exposition and dialogue are necessary (such as in comic books) and both will ensure a comic's success if crafted properly.

Tip #6—Notebooks and audio recorders are great for stealing dialogue you hear throughout the day

This tip comes directly from Tony Max, indie comic book author and illustrator of The Golden Silence series. As a writer, he often catches conversations on audio recorders (with the permission of the speakers, of course) to get a feel for the cadence and word choice of everyday conversations between people. He is then able to listen back through and recreate a realistic dialogue in his comic books.

Since comic books rely heavily on dialogue to fill in details of the exposition, creating realistic dialogue should be a focus while you're writing. Often, panels don't have enough room to have a lot of dialogue either, so the dialogue you do include needs to be sharp, poignant, essential to the narrative, and realistic for the genre. Think of it as the bones that hold the narrative framework together.

Tip #7—Phrase books help to find the right words

Phrase books are great resources for writers of all genres in that they can help spark the creative Muse when writer's block sets in (and let's face it, all writers experience writer's block at some point or another). For example, this phrase book by USA Today bestselling author Jackson Dean Chase offers over 500 descriptions of weapons, wounds, wild animals, weather, emotions, dangerous places, and more, plus a combat thesaurus that covers everything, from attack to defense, ranged to melee, and from monsters to magic spells and psychic powers.

Phrase books are valuable tools for writing comic books
Action Writer's Phrase Book by Jackson Dean Chase

Whether your comic book is sci-fi, action and adventure, romance, fantasy, or somewhere in between, you'll be able to find phrase books offering a plethora of information on costume, weaponry, fighting techniques, survivalist tricks, technology, period-correct verbiage, naming strategies, and more. They are really indispensable to any writer's collection of source books and are especially useful in writing comics, where elements like worldbuilding and costume are essential for success.

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