This article comes from the archives over at my personal site: drezzworks. Since I’ve taken down a lot of the ‘blog’ section that held this information, I decided to bring this series over here to Webcomic Alliance for proper curation.
Originally, when I created this article, I was posting updates from the current state of my production of a printed book for my comic series El Cuervo – The Latin Assassin. But I felt it might be a disservice to those folks who are just starting and have no idea how to put pen to paper and make a graphic novel or any printed book from scratch. So I’ll take ‘er from the top and show you everything I’ve done to get from the idea to the printed book.
I’ve heard it a million times before. You get people who find out you’re making a graphic novel and they’re ready to tell you their grand idea and concept for one they’d love to put together themselves. Tell me if this sounds familiar –
It’s a multi-volume epic that spans generations and has dozens of characters and all the bells and whistles of a movie like [INSERT EPIC MOVIE] and it’s going to be so amazing and thought provoking but it will have a ton of action, and it’s going to have that same visual flair like [X DIRECTOR] but be rendered in a [NAME ARTISTIC STYLE] somewhere in between what [NAME ARTIST] and [NAME OTHER ARTIST] can do. Pretty cool, huh?
And I’m standing there like this…
I used to be really receptive. But after hearing that same description a million times, I just cut to the chase and ask where their outline is or where their plot synopsis can be found – 90% there isn’t one.
Here’s a tip: Don’t waste your time telling people about your BIG idea until you figure out how big it actually is on paper. Once it’s down, you’ll realize it’s too big and try to pare it down to something that’s a bit more readable.
I hate to break it to you, but it’s still not concise enough. Cut it down, then cut it down again until you’ve got a strong core. Then you can build outwards again if you must.
You’re probably wondering – “How do I do that?” The answer is quite simple. Prepare a basic outline.
People have their methods for constructing outlines, and there’s no right or wrong way to go about this process (or any of the other process methods you see in this article). Pick the one that works for you.
When I prepare a story outline, I usually have a good idea of where I want the story to go and have already crafted out scenes and moments within the story that I’d like to incorporate. There are times my thoughts don’t have any structure, but I have an idea of where I’d like to end up once the story has been told. In order to organize everything, I will fire up Microsoft Word and start writing with bullet points.
I’ve also written things out in point form in notebooks, etc. It doesn’t matter what order the ‘scenes’ that play out in my head come out as. I just focus on getting them out and on paper. I’ll figure out where they go after. Believe me, I throw everything in there. Moments, characters, details like the kind of car a character drives, facial features, snippets of dialogue, etc. As long as it’s down and in front of me on paper/word doc.
Re-arranging and Cleanup
Now that I have my ideas and concepts down, I’ll create a timeline and pinpoint when and where each event takes place. This is where I can see the number of events taking place at one time, or the lack of – and make adjustments to the scenes. I do this to fill/extend space or re-order scenes to lessen the amount of overlapping action.
Another Tip: When you have a sense of time in your story, it is much easier to write scenes and transitions from events to events. Without that timeline, you run the risk of jumping around and confusing your reader. Unless you’re writing about time-travel, it’s good to try and stick to a linear timeline to start.
Once you have all of your scenes plotted, you can get creative and throw in the classic flashback or flash-forward to spice up your story. Make sure you map is intact first. Having to go back and fix continuity and time-space errors is a real pain.
Just ask Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, the writers of LOST. They tried to do too much with too many characters and lost the essence of what made the story good and easy to follow from episode to episode.
I prefer to stick to the mantra of keeping it clean, and keeping it simple. You can always add more after you’ve established your time-frame.
I like to use a character background spreadsheet to fill out the details of each individual character I have. I also won’t introduce a character until I know more about who they are and what motivates them. Here’s a sample of my Character Reference Sheet for El Cuervo.
You’ll see that each character can be fleshed out in detail. This forces you to make a character with depth, before you’ve even put pen to paper. Having this reference sheet is great, because you can always refer to it when you’re writing. Always ask the question “Is it in my character’s nature to do [X THING.]” Now you have an answer, instead of making it up on the fly.
There is nothing worse than having a poorly constructed figure as your leading character, who has no depth or room for growth because you haven’t taken the time to develop them fully prior to writing for them. Before you decide to write dialogue for this person, make sure you give them a reason for using that voice.
Sub-dividing Your Outline
I now have a setting, a basic outline, a timeline and now my characters. It’s time to be more detail oriented. I like to divide my outline into more manageable blocks, which will become my chapters. Within the outline, I’ll try and find some natural breaks in the action, and use that as the endpoints and startpoints of each chapter.
As I’m working on writing, I prefer to keep each individual chapter as a separate file on its own. Don’t ask me why I like each chapter in a self contained file, but I do. I think it may have something to do with keeping my current work away from past and future influences – and allowing me to focus on a particular section of the book. Perhaps it’s a way of resisting the temptation of jumping ahead and writing the climactic battle before I’ve established how the battle started in the first place.
Here’s what that file looks like:
I’ll take the section of the outline that is going to be used in the chapter, and flesh it out a bit more if there’s specific actions I want to focus on in the writing of the chapter.
The actual writing is a bit more in-depth. When I was creating El Cuervo as a weekly webcomic, I struggled to find ways to make it efficient enough for me to script, do the artwork and post. The easiest solution was to use a 6 panel grid format for the pages.
SIDE NOTE: This gave me some flexibility for displaying the content in a widescreen monitor format 3 panels x 2 rows), or a traditional vertical page format (2 panels x 3 rows). At first it seemed easy – and I convinced myself that doing it in a standard ‘boxy’ grid format was the best approach. Thing is, it lacked that ‘OOMPH’ that readers want when reading a long-form comic. There were no panel breaks, no bleeds – just action contained in boxes like the old school comics. I wanted more.
What you’re going to see in the script is that 6 panel format. Each page is laid out with the numbers 1-6 corresponding to the specific panel on that page. You’ll see my method for describing the scene, and any dialogue or narrative.
I set a page count of 30 for a chapter. I start off with the page, followed by the panel number, the action within the panel, and the dialogue (italicized and indented). Everything is really simple – basic descriptions, basic dialogue (short and snappy).
Writing Tip: Take a couple of minutes and really look at what you’re describing in the panel description. This is one of the most fatal flaws in script writing – describing too many things happening in that moment in time. If you have an action sequence, stick to one action per panel, otherwise, your artist will probably kick your ass for being contradictory in your description.
If your character is walking, don’t make them perform another complex action other than looking or gesturing. If you describe an action like this:
Jimmy is walking along the street when suddenly four ninjas jump out, and he’s forced into a defensive position.
Jimmy: “Only four of you? Come on!”
What’s wrong with this picture? Well, for one, you’re describing multiple actions taking place AND a piece of dialogue. That’s BAD form.
You have two choices – extend the action by adding frames (in my case, I can’t do that since my frames are fixed) or you cut down on the action and be more economical with your storytelling.
Once I’ve hit thirty or so pages and fulfilled all the action points I needed to hit, I’ll take the script and start thumbnailing.
I’ll get into the drawing aspect of creating a graphic novel in the next post. Until then, make sure your next project is organized and written well!
Andrés ‘ Drezz ‘ Rodriguez is an illustrator, author, and podcast personality. In addition to creating the comic book series ‘El Cuervo – the Latin Assassin,’ he provides WA readers with periodic articles (like this one) to help improve their comic process and their production.