Writing Stories In Different Formats, by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)
I’ve had the privilege to write for a few formats that are not novels. Namely, I got my start working on comic strips and was very entranced with that industry for a long time. I also spent a few years working in comic books, and because of my comic book Emo Boy I was given the chance to work on a feature film screenplay for a proposed film adaptation. I’ll talk here about those unique processes.
All of them are of course very different from prose writing, for teens or otherwise. While the heavy lifting of creating an airtight plot remains the same for any form of writing, and believe me that can easily be the most effort-intensive part of the process, there’s less focus on detail, generally because an artist or director will be supplying the actual images needed. Your job is strictly telling the story.
Comic strips may seem the easiest but I’ll always maintain that it’s a great boot camp for writing. You only need to do a small number of panels, usually one to four, with minimal dialogue, a small cast of characters and usually just the one scene. To do that well, to tell a full story AND elicit a laugh or a heartfelt moment, or to make someone stop and ponder something for a moment, is difficult. To do it day in and day out, week after week, year after year, you’ll understand quickly how hard it is to keep that momentum going. Every strip needs to set up who is talking, where they are, what the context is and then somehow turn that idea on it’s head by the end of the strip in a clever way. Sometimes a comic strip will have a storyline that goes on through a week or a month; Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame occasionally would play a game and see how long he could keep an idea going. Watterson is especially famous for pushing boundaries and testing the limits of the form. But through these storylines you can never assume a reader has read the previous instalments. You have to assume they’ve never even heard of your strip. So not only do you have to carry on the story, but you have to address it as if this is the first instalment of the story and find a clever or quick way to recap. Every strip is essentially a tiny standalone story.
Comic books have a bit more space to play in. You can grow from a 3 panel story to a full 3 act story. Comics generally have 24 pages to tell your story in; whether it’s a standalone story or part of a longer arc, which has become more common in the past decade or two. Comics are a very visual medium, so it’s often the artist who tells the story in terms of movement and dynamics, and the speed a scene may pass along at. The writer is generally setting up the scene and delivering the major actions and dialogue. I can draw decently, so I had written and drawn my comics. I’d usually come up with a long list of potential plots, as most of the issues of Emo Boy had anywhere from one to three short stories (Issue 11 had 11 stories). Once I had decided on a plot, I’d spend a day or two coming up with jokes, scenes and a general three act structure, and when it was time to write I’d keep those notes handy and often write the full issue in one sitting. The majority of the month I would spend doing all the art.
When I started work on the Emo Boy movie, I had to learn a lot about structure and writing a long-form work. With books and movies, that freewheeling speed and quick note jotting was no good, I needed to really sit down and put everything together like a puzzle. Theme, recurring motifs, and strong set pieces all became important. I had to really think of big visual moments that would look good in a trailer, I had to see everything on a screen in my head. I had to learn to cut for the first time, because, at 90 pages, you need a clean, strong storyline and you have to be aware of any scenes that divert from your story or don’t in any way enhance or add to the story. Real estate is precious in a screenplay: scenes are generally short, a few pages long at best, so you don’t have the freedom to stroll at your own pace the way you do in a novel. You can’t spend a page talking about the flowers your character just passed. A novel can be a thousand pages or it can be 300 pages, you set your own pace. A movie needs to hit the right beats at the right times and hit them strong.
One of the best things about novel writing is the control you have over it. There’s no space demand of a comic strip or even a movie, there are far fewer hands in the production. It’s essentially you and your ideas, particularly at the start when the blank page truly is an invitation to your own world, as large or small as you feel comfortable existing in.
There’s always an option for a writer whether to express a story as a comic, a movie, a video game, a novel, a blog, a news article… there’s always a need and a place for good writing.
Stephen Emond’s author website: www.stephenemond.com
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