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Story to Script Posts

Narrative through Panel Descriptions

[ Main site recommended reading: Visualizing Panels, Panel Descriptions, Visual Writing… there’s another one, but for the life of me I can’t remember which one it is, I’ll come back and update here when I remember.]

Panel 3:

Frank Castle shoots the Kingpin.

I see this kind of panel description all the time in comic scripts. I see folks, even established writer folks, defending it as legitimate loose scripting. I generally call it insufficient, lazy writing, but above all, I call it missed opportunity.

Remembering back to the Working Writer’s Guide to Comics; the four essential elements of every comic panel are:

  • Emotion
  • Comictography
  • Mise-en-Scene
  • Movement

All four of these are absent in the above panel description.

But even forgetting the four cornerstones of comic panels, we can simply ask “what is this panel telling us in the story, other than the action at hand (which we could only hope, has significant implications)?

Answer: literally, nothing.

Every panel in a comic is a chance to control and express the narrative of the story. While it is possible to do this with broad, loose strokes, the devil truly is in the details.

Hey, whaddya know, dialogue/narration can make a huge difference in expressing narrative throughout a comic… but for this article, let’s ditch dialogue and focus just on the panel descriptions.

Also keep in mind, much of the time you will express deep narrative movements through a sequences of panels. Sort of reverse engineering things backwards from the kind of panel descriptions above is a bit tricky… eh, screw it, let’s revisit this panel description anyway and see if we can’t improve it, actually expressing the narrative through added details;

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Defining Genre

Unless you were born and raised on a deserted island, you’ve been exposed to fiction your entire life and have an innate understanding of genre; the classification of fiction based on shared form, style and subject matter.

I’ve been working on a breakdown of genre conventions in the primary genres I work in. This article is going to expand on the essence of recognizing and defining genre for your work and serve as a prelude to that material.

Genre

If we traveled back in time to the creation of the first “story,” it would be void of genre. Even if it dealt with goblins, trolls, knights, dragons, wizards, and fantastic realms, it would not be classified as “fantasy.” It would simply be the story, as there would be no other pieces of fiction to compare it to.

Genre emerges only through the collective view of numerous works.

Through this collective view and categorization of fiction, genre gives rise to conventions and obligatory scenes; traditional, typical, and expected expressions. For this reason it’s important to recognize your genre(s); in order to satisfy readers by both delivering and subverting what is expected.

You can recognize genre before you write, using it as a guide in your discovery process, or, you can assess genre after you’ve written, using it as a guide in your editing process… either approach can be successful (though perhaps the most effective technique is to employ both).

 

The Four Base Genres

Regardless of genre, all good fiction delivers a complete experience and expresses a wide range of human emotion. However, the base genres (as I refer to them) have a more intimate relationship with one specific emotion. I define the four base genres as follows;

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Stealing the Life of Your Story

Today I’m going to discuss a couple of prime culprits responsible for holding back writers from doing their best work. Most applicable to novice writers, but let’s walk through it and remind ourselves the wrong way of doing it.

The most effective story you ever write is the one you don’t write at all… the one you allow the story to write for you.

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch touched on it when he said “Murder your darlings,” famously paraphrased years later by Stephen King, “Kill your darlings.” If refers to of course, having the objectivity to edit away the pieces of fiction you’re in love with, but really aren’t necessary for the narrative.

Ultimately, Quiller-Couch and King are talking about inflexibility; an unwillingness to change or compromise. And today I speak of it more generally than merely editing back parts of the narrative that don’t work… but rather, having the flexibility to write the pieces that do work, in the first place.

Approaching writing rigidly, with a distinct unwavering image in your mind, creates an environment where you’re trying to find (and often force) pieces to fit the puzzle.

Where as writing from a flexible mindset, allows the story to unfold, as you may here often, naturally or organically. Creating the puzzle as you go along, the story takes on a life of it’s own.

I always tell folks think of your job as a writer like a conductor of a symphony. It’s not your job to play every instrument, but to select the arrangement (choose what the story will express) and direct all the instruments toward that expression.

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Getting Drama on Point

Strong dramatic moments are key building blocks in story.

Even in an action oriented spectacle, moments of high drama engage the reader and develop the empathetic bond to the characters. In a drama genre story, the drama itself drives the narrative. No matter how you crack it, it’s dang important to understand how to effectively convey drama in the scene.

While establishing and expressing drama relies on bringing together many (if not all) of the writing fundamentals, here are two not-so-obvious considerations that will inject your dramatic moments with “high-octane, crazy blood.” <For you non-Mad Max fans, that’s a good thing!>

First and primarily, time.

Second, consequences of actions/decisions.

Technically, drama is a loaded word in the creative writing world.

It can mean different things, at different moments, to different people. After all, “dramatic” is an adjective, meaning sudden, striking, exciting, impressive, etc. And such descriptors apply to so much of writing an engaging script.

Before we go on to define drama, let’s take a look at a close, important cousin, that sometimes masquerades as drama, I speak of course, of tension.

In the writer’s guide I define tension as “heightened emotional state derived from an immediate danger or threat.” The reason why tension often gets labeled drama is revealed in the first part of the sentence–heightened emotional state.

Heightened emotional state is the core of good drama.

Think about it when was the last time you read or saw a really good dramatic scene where the characters involved were indifferent? I’m gonna guess, no time recently. 

So for this article and for your future writing, consider the following definition of drama;

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The Ultimate Fight Scene

In Fight Scenes that Resonate I break down a half-dozen basic considerations for scripting effective fight scenes.

Welcome to the Pro class where we go “a bit” further and break down, the ultimate fight (or battle) scene. In truth, it would be more accurate to call it the complete fight scene or narrative fight mechanics–I took a little creative liberty with the title.

Every fight scene can be measured on a scale, with one end delivering a complete, engaging narrative and the other delivering and incomplete or non-existant narrative.

Below are the narrative fight mechanics for a complete fight scene. I recommend building out as much as you can into the main fight of your issue. Though in a perfect world, you will also apply as much as you can to each and every fight in the story (discussed more shortly).

First, let’s define what a fight (or battle) is.

Fight: A violent struggle involving the exchange of physical blows or the use of weapons.

Easy peasy.

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Complete Character Arcs

I’m really big on two things, Master Theme and Character Arcs.

If you run with the Character Arc fundamentals in Storycraft for Comics, your story’s in good shape… but let’s take a moment to flesh them out even further.

I’m gonna assume you already know what a Character Arc is and instead of giving the primer, jump right into it.

Act 1:

Focus on the Character’s flawed side of the arc.

While it may seem counterintuitive, the more you push the crappy version of your character at the beginning, the more potent and effective the arc will be when it completes.

Act 1 is the beginning of the arc.

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Scripting Unforgettable Panels

Take a moment and think back to your first love. Try to recall what you loved about her or him. No really, close your eyes and try to pull up the memories.

Whether your first love was a brief encounter or a long, enduring relationship, you won’t be able to recall every single moment and every single thing about that person you so adored… especially, if your experience was many years ago.

Story is no different.

After a person reads a story (even immediately after), people don’t remember the entire story.

They remember the feeling of the emotional journey and key moments.

When you write.

Write so people fall in love with your work.

If you develop your story proper, it will be deep and complex, engaging the reader’s emotions on multiple levels and fronts. However, like cleaning up, putting on your best duds, and best cologne, you can make the emotional impact of your story nigh irresistible by focusing on two areas; the emotional center, literally, the heart of the story and the heartbeat of the entire narrative.

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Stories without Character Arcs

Genuine story delivers a thesis about how we writers see the world. Our underlying message is our Master Theme. At its most fundamental level, genuine story is new understanding revealed through change.

The most effective vehicle of this new understanding is the character arc.

A flawed character’s struggle to reach his true potential, framed in the context of a Master Theme—our thesis of the world—reveals that thesis to be true or false.

Change being the key basis by which we judge the results of the struggle.

In most cases, if the character changes for the better–reaches his true potential–the Master Theme rings true. If not, if the character is set in his ways, unable to change, the character has failed. <Though the validity of the argument of the Master Theme can be expressed either way, depending on the author’s approach.>

The character arc is the most effective means to engage a reader because people relate to people more than we relate to anything else.

The empathetic bond to a well written character, allows us to tap into the entire human experience, comprehending and relating to fiction on multiple levels. Every piece of the experience supports and emphasizes the underlying Master Theme–the sum of the parts equal more than the whole.

Whenever you start discussing genuine story and the necessity of complete, well-executed character arcs, there is always a voice to the contrary side; “character arcs are not required” they claim, quickly reciting famous/successful character that don’t appear to arc: James Bond, Captain Kirk, Indiana Jones, John McClane, well pretty much most action heroes… and as it turns out, most serial superheroes (more on this in a second).

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Scripting an Outside Outline

At the end of the Working Writer’s Guide to Comics and Graphic Novels I go through the main method I use to write a script directly from a comprehensive outline…

It’s fairly straight forward and the most efficient method I know–at least when it comes to working on your own projects. That is to say when you’ve developed the outline yourself, have a good grasp of where the story is at any given moment and have some degree of flexibility with the page count (or at least, ample time for editorial passes to make the content fit).

As a freelance comic writer, there may come a time when you are required to work directly from a client’s outline.

In these instances you’re likely to find yourself under more stringent restrictions with specific direction such as; “Take exactly what I’ve written in my outline and turn it into a XX page graphic novel…”

Tackling a project like this with the process I outline in the guide will certainly still work, but it may not be the most efficient method. I present the following method as a strong alternative method.

I’m going to showcase material from a Manga outline I wrote for a client a while back, working title “Wolf.” Like the process explained in the Writer’s guide, I’m only going to focus in on a small section of the outline… It’s not important that you don’t have context for the story–just pay attention to the process.

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Symbolism

Symbolism is an advanced level of subtext that can be applied to virtually any aspect of story telling. Adding it to a script pushes your brawler of a script to the next higher weight class.

The technical definition of symbolism is as follows:

Symbolism (sym•bol•ism) noun: Putting ten pounds of meaning in a one pound bag.

In Storycraft I mention the core types of symbolism;

  • visual symbolism
  • symbolic names
  • symbolic actions
  • symbolic situations.

When you sit down to add symbolism to your story, the first thing you need to clarify is; what do you want to symbolize? Sounds like a question from Captain Obvious, but really, if you don’t know what you want to express, how can you find a symbol for it?

And more to the point, when writing a story, there will be a multitude of elements you “could” symbolize… In order to see the forest for the trees, you need to stop and recognize the key elements worthy of deeper subtext/emphasis and…

How are these expressions working to serve the narrative?

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