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Comic Tutorial #1: How to write awesome panel descriptions
180 rules, framing, scene choreography and more tips!
Hello and welcome to my first comic tutorial - an ongoing series where I share my expertise and experience of how write, produce, print, market, fund and sell your comics.
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So, to kick off, I wanted to give you some insights into how my main comic series Killtopia was written, and share some key rules that I use when scripting and framing panels. If you manage to write clear, descriptive and consistent panel notes, artists will be able to ‘see’ what you see in your head when writing the scene more clearly, and the art will look closer to how you imagined it as a result.
Here’s a starter example: Note that the panel descriptions and art don’t exactly match - this isn’t a bad thing at all, as we’ll soon see…
Let’s dive in!
1. How much is too much?
Over the years, lots of people have asked me at comic cons or over social media about how much panel description is enough, and at what point does it become too much?
Let’s weigh it up like this:
Too much description: From conversations I’ve had, people often worry that if you over explain every tiny detail of what’s in a panel, then the artist won’t have much room to express themselves and put their own spin on the scene. Alan Moore’s opening page of Watchmen is an example I see used a lot when describing a panel that has too much description (have a look through the link and keep this example in your mind, as we’ll come back to it in a moment).
Not enough description: I’ve often heard the inverse described as not giving enough for the artist to fully understand what it is you’re trying to show, and that your panel description could be misinterpreted, so the art comes out totally different from what you were imagining, or in the extreme - it could be totally incorrect.
I understand both sides. As a writer, my job is basically to use the panel description as a brief to the artist, so they know what to draw - kind of like a movie director would direct their actors, which is a comparison I’ve heard a few times over the years.
I really love working with the artists I team up with, and I work with them because they bring their own unique style to my stories, and in turn they’ll realise and elevate my script through that style. So if I over-describe the artwork in my scripts, I do run the risk of quashing their creativity by being too prescriptive.
Using the panel below from Killtopia #3 an example: it might not look it - based on just how much is going on in this panel - but the actual panel description in the script was very short. We’ll touch on an important aspect of this later - establishing trust between you and your artist (and vice versa).
2. So there’s pros and cons - what’s the answer?
My take on panel descriptions is this:
Panel descriptions should be as long and as descriptive as a scene needs them to be.
Which I know isn’t the most helpful answer, but I’m going to explain my approach to this, along with some more script-to-page examples to help you visualise it.
When I explain more in my descriptions:
Locations: I explain panels in great detail when the comic moves to a new location. It makes sense to over-describe what the place looks like, how it feels, the atmosphere, any background details that help flesh out this new part of the world we’re seeing for (potentially) the first time. You want your world to ideally feel like a believable character in its own right, so readers feel like it’s a tangible place they can imagine, feel and most importantly… care about.
Here’s an example from Killtopia #1:
Notice how the panel description still hasn’t been followed 100% exactly, but I did give more of an explanation of how this new place looks, how it feels, where the characters are framed in the image, including some background detail. This is an example of trusting when your artist knows best - in this case, there was no way to fit everything I wanted into the scene - such as the blimp in the sky - but I did give enough scene setting to make the description understandable.
I’ve gone even more descriptive than this in other scripts but I knew my artist Craig Paton would ‘get’ what sort of place I was talking about, and he’d be able to put his own spin on this location. This is what I was referring to earlier in relation to building trust with your artist. It’s okay to give feedback to an artist if they didn’t quite get the panel description right (and in some cases that will likely be your fault, but don’’t sweat it!)
However, it can take time for artists and writers to click together and understand how each other work. But for this panel - as dense and detailed as it is - I gave Craig just enough to establish the kind of place The Heap is, and gave him space to bring his awesome architecture and line work to the table. He’s also a big cyberpunk fan, so I knew he’d understand my thinking for the scene. He nailed it! (maybe we both did?)
Scene geography + consistency: Sometimes, you just can’t get away from including a scene where characters have a conversation about something. I’m going to do a whole tutorial on how to make your character dialogue ‘sound’ believable and how to avoid exposition, but when the plot demands that two characters have to have a talk about something, then you can use your panel framing to help keep it visually interesting.
Here’s a mini breakdown, followed by some examples:
If the characters are having a conversation in one place, keep flipping the ‘camera angle’ or have your characters doing something while they talk to keep the visuals interesting.
Here’s an example from Killtopia #3 with art by Clark Bint and colours from Lou Ashworth:
Notice how I really get descriptive here for what is a visually simplistic scene. The reason is that the characters are having a conversation in a single room and I want it to be interesting and engaging for the reader.
The second panel even cuts away to the thing they’re talking about, just to help the reader visualise the technology they’re referencing and to get us out of that room for a moment - it’s a trick I use a lot, especially when characters talk about their past. I’ll cut to a flashback (usually black and white to show it’s in the past) just so you can really visualise what they’re discussing.
Notice how the characters aren’t just standing around chatting. Their demeanour and expression changes based on what they’re discussing. Blaze is a laid back character, so it makes sense that she’s be kicking back in her chair, not even bothering to stand up to greet her friends. Stiletto on the other hand is a typically strong and brash character, but in this sequence she’s had a blow to her confidence, so we see her nervous and twitchy for the first time in the story.
Also, and this MEGA important! If you do flip the ‘camera angle’ of your scene 180 degrees, make sure the position of your characters is consistent with the angle change. It ensures your scene geography is consistent and readers can follow the action / where characters are in relation to the scene.
Put simply: Let’s say in panel one, character ‘A’ is on the left and character ‘B’ on the right. If you flip the perspective 180 degrees, character ‘A’ should now be on the right and character ‘B’ should be on the left.
Like in this scene from Killtopia #2 by Craig Paton. Notice the perspective flip between the characters looking up at the screen, then seeing them looking at it from behind:
3. Write what feels right to you
In the end, don’t sweat too much about how much description you give. As long as it makes sense to you and the artist (and they clearly understand what you want them to draw), then you’re most of the way there.
And don’t forget that good collaboration takes time. Ask your artist if the level of description is working for them (and artists: be sure to tell your writer if you need more clarity or description!).
Once you and your creative team really gel and get to grips with how each other works, this process will become far simpler - and you can start to strip back the amount of description you write in non-critical panels.
Good luck, and as always, chuck me a comment or a message if you want to know more or get a second opinion on anything - I’m always happy to help!
Want to see a part two to this guide?
This is just the start of my comic writing tutorials. We’re going to cove a lot of useful stuff here, and I’m not fully done on panel descriptions yet - as there’s even more to discuss.
I want these guides to be genuinely useful for you, so please let me know what else you’d like to see, and I’ll add it to my list.
Thanks for your support!