Tag Archives: creative writing

Writing for comics: how much is too much or not enough?

I don’t talk a whole lot about my day job here; I spend the day doing it, so it isn’t something I feel that inclined to write about. Oh, I love my class. In fact, I’m not shy to tell students it’s the best class in the program. Of course, I’m biased, but I get to talk about comic making all day! What’s not to like about that?

Teaching comic writing in a primarily moving picture program can be tricky. Most of our students want to write for film or television (though we have a growing number of students who want to write novels—which I find funny, because we’re not a program geared to teach that…guess they should do better research!). What they’re taught in those classes—and know that I’m not contracting what they’re taught in the classes that teach moving pictures, I just don’t have that experience—is to write very little “directions” for a director, and of course, write nothing that can’t be filmed.

They often bring that thinking into my class and it’s frustrating to try to convince them that what we’re doing in comics doesn’t negate what they do in moving pictures, it’s just a different “gear,” a different kind of writing.

I’m in several “creator” groups on Facebook and recently a thread went around about details in writing for comics. To sum up, most of the artists complained that the writers don’t give them enough details…and then complain when the art is done that something is “wrong,” or “missing.” I place that blame completely and fully on the writers.

And yet, comic companies often suggest in their submission guidelines to “write only a sentence or two” for each panel’s description. While that may be possible, as noted in the paragraph above, it often isn’t enough.

Comic writers can’t be vague in the writing and expect artists to read their minds or know their intent by words they haven’t written. Comic writers have to give artists all the information needed, and then some. Comic writing can be less than formal; in fact it can be very conversational because the writer and artist are partners in producing.

So how much is too much and how much is too little in a comic script?

My suggestion is always write with the idea that the artist has no idea what you’re talking about and that you’ve never worked with that artist before. Not only do you want to describe to them the (single) action that is happening in the panel, but you can tell them the mood of the panel overall, the mood of the characters in the panel, the tone you want in the panel (and on pages).

Always remember, the comic artist is your collaborator, not your audience.



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The trouble with adaptations

One of the joys of my current class (Writing for Comics and Animation) is that I get to talk about adaptations and the art of doing one in comic or graphic novel form. As fans of popular properties, we’re always excited about the aspect that something we really enjoy will be presented in a different format: when we’re a fan of a book, we want to see the movie; when we’re a fan of a game, we want to read the comic. The problem with adaptations is that there is no possible way to make everyone happy. Let me ‘splain.

Most writers, when tasked with the responsibility of an adaptation want the freedom to make changes, most of them subtle, but changes nonetheless. Most of the time writers are forced to make changes of some sort simply to fit the medium. Since I’ve only ever done comic adaptations from other formats (I’ve done film, game and novel all to comic), the biggest challenge is fitting it all in. So the writer has to take the number of pages allotted by the publisher, and figure out what parts are vital and what parts can be cut or reduced. There’s a lot of work in that the writer wants to be true to the original…but there are only so many pages. In comics, the pictures don’t move!

The problem with changes, though, is hardcore fans of the property don’t want you to change it in any way. They’re hardcore fans because they love everything about it. They love it so much they just want to see the exact same thing but in a different way. Trust me, if you fiddle with their beloved story, you’ll hear how wrong you were to do so!

Don’t believe me? Think of recent films that have been released based on novels or games or comics. How many times did you hear someone commenting on the “changes” made? I heard people talk about the recent Ender’s Game adaptation and how it made changes at the end. Some liked it, some didn’t. Or what about the superhero movies? Just spend some time googling (what a cool new verb!) them and you’ll see endless debates not only about how good or bad the films are, but how “true” they are to the original (I personally hated the fact that the web in the Toby Spider-Man was biological—I thought it changed the character of Peter Parker too much!). I also remember seeing Starship Troopers when it hit the theaters. At the time I was so mad because it was nothing like the Heinlein book on which it was based. However, I saw it a few years later (it a group setting where the group wanted to see it, not me! So I just went along like a good guest!) and—knowing that it was nothing like the book, I thought it was a decent sci-fi movie. It was NOT the Starship Troopers of the book, but it wasn’t a horrible movie (this is in reference to ONLY the first film, fyi).

Then there are those fans who want to have something different, who prefer to get something that adds to the original so they don’t just get the same thing. Stray too far, though, and it ceases to become an adaptation. If you remain close, it’s “based on.” However, when you write completely original material simply in that setting (as I did for Planet of the Apes: Blood of the Apes), then it isn’t an adaptation at all. Those, from a writer’s point of view, are fun to write.


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Plotting for Multiple Characters (part 2)

I want to pick up right where I left off last week. If you missed part 1, you can get it here.

So, once I have this down with 4-6 entries for every character on my chart, I start weaving them together to build a timeline. Essentially, what I’m doing is deciding what has to happen before the other thing happens AND—maybe more importantly, in what order I want them to occur in the story. Back in the day when I wrote everything longhand, I’d draw lines and put numbers beside the entries. With excel, I just shift things around. I’ll use numbers for my example here. You’ll also note that I know I want the protag to have the relationship with the love interest; I’m not sure how they meet at this point. That’s okay, because as I begin to fill in the blanks, I can manipulate that to make it happen.

Protag 1 Protag 2 Antag Love interest
1 Parents killed. Lost in woods. Discovered by Mountain Man 2 Wins award for science essay. 3 Comes in 2nd with science essay. Wins nothing. Completes high school under care of single mom.
4 Lives with MM who teaches tracking, hunting and other survival skills. 5 Kicked out of college—accused of copying essay but did not. It was, however, based on research from Mom. 6 Father kicks out of house for losing. Immediately moves across country. 9 Graduates college with computer science degree. Hired by NSA to hack Chinese government computers.
8 Leaves MM to go to big city where he meets Protag 2 in an alley near death. 10 Begins job at high tech espionage firm. 7Joins gang in Eastern coastal city. Quickly establishes reputation for brutality. HOW DOES SHE MEET PROTAG 1?
While “espionaging” is captured and tortured and brainwashed. 11 Promoted in gang to a capo and given a territory. Moves (takes some of his underlings)
Dumped in an alley in the big city. Catches Protag 2—remembers her. Attempts to kill—THINKS he has.

This gives me a rough outline to start working from. Now, keep in mind that before I get to the task of writing, I figure out the goals and motivations for all the characters (at least the primary characters) and I have an idea of what I want their big character arc to be. In fact, I do that before I start charting this out—I’m kinda going by the seat of my pants for the characters in the example and I hope/trust you can look past that for the bigger picture. But what it also means is that the characters can change as I create, but that’s okay, it’s part of the creation process. It also means that my chart/grid is considerably longer than what I’m showing you, and it’s also wider with more characters. One of the things this can help you do is get all your characters “screen” time.

I’m hoping you can use your imagination and fill in the blanks with your own characters and ideas.

I’ve seen it done a different way, but it always felt more formulaic to me. It looked something like this:

A Character
A Character B Character
A Character C Character
A Character B Character
A Character

At which point in time, your A character rotates off (to the left or rather, to the far right) and the B character becomes the A character while the C character becomes the B character. This is mostly a formula for EPISODIC work.

Like I said at the beginning, though, this is just the strategy that I use…Hope it helps you some.


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Plotting for Multiple Characters (part 1)

Seems my writing posts have been popular lately, so this will be another one of those and I hope you enjoy it and get something out of it.

I’m often asked how to plan out how to interweave storylines with multiple characters, or to create “B” and “C” stories. So this blog will walk you through my process and hopefully give you a new strategy for working multiple plots into episodic, short or long form narrative. It’ll be tough to cover them all effectively, so I hope what I do cover you’ll be able to translate to whatever format you’re personally working in. Keep in mind, too, that this is how “I” do it and it is certainly not the only way to effectively work with multiple characters. It’s worked for me, so I’m sticking with it.

So the first thing I do when I know I’m working with multiple characters is to create a grid chart. I use Microsoft Excel these days, but I still have—somewhere in a box—the hand written copies of the charts I used to plot out Cat & Mouse and some of my other early comics. I write my characters’ names across the top, generally the more prominent characters first. Like such:

Protag 1

Protag 2


Love interest

Support 1

Support 2


After I’ve got that figured out, I start dropping in the important events of the characters, usually leaving a few spaces between each entry because I know I’ll add stuff and move stuff around. I try to stick with things that are visual and have high conflict content or are major events in the life of the character. When I’m done entering stuff in, my chart looks something like this:

Protag 1

Protag 2


Love interest

Parents killed. Lost in woods. Discovered by Mountain Man

Wins award for science essay.

Comes in 2nd with science essay. Wins nothing.

Completes high school under care of single mom.

Lives with MM who teaches tracking, hunting and other survival skills.

Kicked out of college—accused of copying essay but did not. It was, however, based on research from Mom.

Father kicks out of house for losing. Immediately moves across country.

Graduates college with computer science degree. Hired by NSA to hack Chinese government computers.

Leaves MM to go to big city where he meets Protag 2 in an alley near death.

Begins job at high tech espionage firm.

Joins gang in Eastern coastal city. Quickly establishes reputation for brutality.



While “espionaging” is captured and tortured and brainwashed.

Promoted in gang to a capo and given a territory. Moves (takes some of his underlings)


Dumped in an alley in the big city.

Catches Protag 2—remembers her. Attempts to kill—THINKS he has.


This is just for an example, so don’t get worked up about it. You’ll notice I’ve a little more about P2 than P1, but it’s usually not that way. Besides, I don’t ever worry about that at this stage because the characters are still being formed (you’ll also note that much of this reads like “backstory” and would likely be cut ANYWAY—just bear with me so you can get the idea). While I don’t do it in my sample here for you, I do try to take the entries to MAJOR conflicts because what I’m working to do is make sure the character intersect with one another at those points of conflict. After all, we know that’s where the heart of our stories are, right? CONFLICT?

Okay, I’m already at 600 words…so you’ll have to come back next week for the rest.


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My outlining process

My last blog on outlining vs letting it flow seemed to be a fun topic for many, so I thought I’d actually go through an “outlining lite” here. Keep in mind, this is the way that I try to do it, which is to say it isn’t the only way, just a way.

Stories can have multiple forms of origin (one of the most common questions asked of published writers is “where do you get your ideas?” The answer, of course, is EVERYWHERE!), but once the basic idea is there, the root story elements should be the same. Sometimes I start with what I think is an interesting character, an interesting situation, an interesting event…whatever. There’s no right or wrong. I’ll often scribble out some generics about the idea just to get them down on paper.

THEN, I start the outline process, I mean, there’s got to be a story, right? So what is that story to go along with the interesting character, etc? Based on the notes I have scribbled, I answer four basic questions: 1)whose story is it? 2)what is that person’s goal? (must be a TANGIBLE/ACHIEVABLE goal!); 3)what or who gets in the way of that happening? (whos are almost always better than whats) and then 4)does the person from #1 achieve the goal? They do not have to achieve it in order for the story to work—in fact, we’re often drawn to protagonists who fail, but we should have some resolution.

The first question may not be as easy as it initially looks, but it’s usually the one that I get answered first because I’m drawn to interesting characters more than anything. Once I answer that, I start working out what it is they want more than anything else. This is the thing that drives the character’s actions—all of them! Obviously, you can get into the wants vs. needs debate, but this is my blog, so we’re talking about what does the character want? What they want can definitely change, but you won’t know that until you start answering #3 and #4. That goal must be at the forefront of all the character’s actions or somehow related to it.

With #1 and #2 answered, I move on to #3. It is at this point that I generally have to come up with the antagonist (remember, I said whos are better than whats). I go through a mini-version of what I just did for the protagonist. The antagonist should be working to stop the protagonist from accomplishing their goal…and when you figure out the why, you suddenly find yourself answering a #1 and #2 for the antagonist.

With that answered, NOW you have conflict! And conflict is what readers/viewers want to read/see. We’re drawn to it and will keep coming back to see how it ends.

And once you’ve got that done…you have yourself a mini-outline that you can start fleshing out to a full-blown work!

So, I really will get back to normal posts here someday…for my own writing sake, I’m hoping that day is sooner rather than later. I do have a lot of exciting things beginning to happen with projects I’ll be pitching in the coming weeks and I’m excited to share those so you can see the cool art I’ve been seeing.

See you next week!


Filed under Columns, writing

Outline? Or let it flow?

One of my recent responsibilities for a class assignment was to respond to student essays about certain aspects of writing: influences, how to start a project, etc. One common comment about starting a writing project always makes me think, “hmm. Yes, you haven’t written very many things, have you?” That response always goes something like this:

When I start a new project, I just write. I don’t worry about the characters or the plot or the story, I just write and see where it all goes. I just let the character (or story) take me where he wants to take me. (This is not an exact quote, for those of you thinking such things!)

This line of thinking gets us to the debate of whether it is advisable for a writer to write as the muse strikes and just let it flow out of the brain and fingertips, or to compose an outline and then work from that.

When I sat down to write a novel the very first time (not Buying Time, a different, unfinished one), I wanted to just start writing and “let the character tell his story” and/or “let it flow as it hits me.” I’d heard a few writers talk about composing like that and I wanted to try it. I wrote forty-thousand words. I was well on my way. But when I hit that 40k mark, while I thought I had some nice scenes, I had no STORY. And you know, story is king!

When I sat down to write my next novel (finished, but unsold), I outlined extensively. I revised the outline quite a few times in order to work on pacing and conflict…y’know, story stuff. The writing went fast…and the characters STILL told their story, I just knew where it was going.

When I sat down to write my next novel (now we get to Buying Time), I did a combination of the two. I had a “concept” but not a story. So I thought I’d write 10-15,000 words and see how it felt, but I didn’t want to write 40k words that went nowhere again. Once I got to that stage (10k words), I stopped and examined the piece for what was there and pulled the story out of it…and then did a rough outline. Once again, I knew the story and the words came more quickly.

When I reached that 40k mark in my first book, I had no idea where the story was going. And if I—the writer—didn’t know where the story was going or what it was, how could I expect to sell it. Notice, I didn’t. Oh, sure, I may revisit it one day and see if I can find the story there…but for now, it’s simply 40k words of everyday scenes.

It’s a little easier to let it flow when writing a novel, though. There are no real “markers” you have to meet—it’s whatever floats your boat. With other kinds of writing (film, television, comics, etc), outlining is vital because you have limited “time” frame in which the story must fit. You can’t (normally) just write until the story plays out, you have to fit it into the chosen format. This requires good outlining or you’ll find yourself with a bunch of words that may sound good but mean nothing.

There are pros and cons to each, I guess, but ultimately, for most writers, outlining has to enter the process at some point. I guess that’s why I always suggest writers do it earlier rather than later. It’s a lot easier to revise in an outline stage than when you have seventy-five thousand words.


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In the Spirit of Thankfulness part 1

All these posts going every day on Facebook got me a bit in the thankful mood…but there was no way I was going to keep up with that. So, I offer, here in its entirety, my 30 days of thankfulness! So, I’m thankful for…

30 life! I don’t know that I’ve ever taken it for granted, but the recent scare made me consider it all the more.

29 my wife! (and just for all you snarky folks looking at the numbers—it isn’t a countdown or a count UP, it’s supposed to represent the 30 days of November!) She’s better to me than I deserve! I love you, BJ!

28 my job. In this messed up economy which only looks to get worse, I’m glad to be doing something I enjoy: teaching creative writing to (mostly) pretty motivated students.

27 my daughter. Even though I’ve tried to convince her to stay OUT of the arts because it’s the pathway to a lot of potential heartbreak, she’s multi-talented and incredibly smart, too…if she’ll just apply herself I have no doubt she’ll be incredibly successful(on both counts!).

26 having a roof over my head. Even though I’d really like to sell my house in Oxford so that I can get my family all back under one roof all the time, I know we’re fortunate to have a home with electricity and running water.

25 my son. Also incredibly talented (can you say FIRST CHAIR bay-bee!) and smart, I appreciate the fact that he’s just as happy geeking out with me playing war games as he is doing anything else.

24 my doctor. When we first moved to Oxford, Dr. Will Dabbs was just the kooky doctor we took the kids to see. Over time, however, he’s become my doctor and my friend…and I DO trust him with my life!

23 facebook. Yeah, yeah, I know. I can hear all the groans now. But I’m of the age that I can remember life before social media and there are a lot of names on my facebook “friend list” that I didn’t speak with that much and that now I get to at least keep up with them now and again. For writer-types who dwell in caves, it’s nice. And even though I hid EVERYONE during the last election season—that’s over and I can now enjoy posts again.

22 technology. I’m a technogeek, I admit it. I love technology. And even though I’ve fought (and still do) the idea of me carrying around a cellphone, I LIKE what they are capable of…I just don’t want to have to carry it around.

21 my parents. I’m blessed to have the best set of parents in the world. How they managed to allow me to continue to live in their house when I was a smart-aleck teenager, I’ll never know. I’m thankful for the way they raised me and for the values they taught me.

20 my church. When you move around as much as BJ and I have, it’s difficult to get “settled” with a church family. We’ve been fortunate, though, in that every place to which our names have been on the roles, they’ve welcomed us with open arms: FBC Muscle Shoals, FBC Loretto, FBC Piggott, Yellow Leaf BC, and FBC Oxford.

19 my books. Yeah, I know this sounds like a very materialistic thing…and maybe it is, but I’m still thankful for them (and for BJ allowing me to surround myself with them). Maybe it’s a writer thing, but I do love to—when I’m in “thinking” mode—to just sit back and take in the surroundings of my books, looking at the titles and recalling the emotions of the read or the particulars of it.

18 BCW. Or Byhalia Christian Writers Group. I was shocked by the lack of anything remotely faith-based in Oxford (aside from the Churches, of course) and really expected to find multiple writers group in Oxford…I mean, it’s OXFORD, the home of Billy Faulkner. Byhalia, Mississippi was the closest group I could find…and they treated me like a long lost brother. I don’t get to go as often as I’d like (for various reasons—one of which it’s an hour drive one way), but I know they remember me in their prayers—and how can one NOT be thankful for that?

17 my bed. Traveling makes you realize just how much you appreciate “your” stuff. And while BJ made me buy a mattress for the apartment in Florida, it’s still not “my bed.” And being a reenactor, I sleep on the ground every now and again. Yes, I’m very thankful for my bed.

16 Spalding. Yeah, one of my alma maters makes this list. It’s not that I am NOT thankful for the others—I am—but Spalding has that special place in my heart, mostly because, I think, the admin and faculty there have embraced the idea of nurturing the writer. It’s the first “hall of higher learning” that did NOT scoff at the body of comic work I have.

15 Spalding peeps. So, yeah, I can’t mention Spalding without mentioning my classmates/colleagues who helped make the program what it is…and ALSO embraced my comic geekiness, some of them even sharing that. There are lots of names I could mention, but the Devil Dawgs (don’t ask—long story) are deserving of special call-out for my thankfulness: Marjetta Geerling, Kat Shehata, Karin Goodwin, Rebekah J Harris, Mary Knight (one of my favorite Yankees!).

(so this is longer than what I thought it would be…to be continued)


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