How does a writer tell the visual story to an artist?

Telling a story visually is a tough job.  I started learning about visual storytelling from comics editors, who described using lines and color to draw the reader’s eye across the page.  From these editors, I gathered it was important to work with an artist who knew how to tell a story visually, because even great artists may not know.  If the artist didn’t have storytelling down, it was up to the writer to tell him or her what to do.  Eek!  Not something I have been trained to do, but now I have a cunning plan on how to do just that.

First, I asked others comics writers and artists how they tell the visual story.  New-fangled comics writers now write comic scripts in screenplay format, giving relatively little direction to the artists.  I asked for a script from a big name, bad-ass comics writer — whose name I won’t mention because I’m not a name-dropper 😉 — and his old-school, panel-by-panel description gave sufficient direction for an artist who already knew visual storytelling.  I didn’t see anything like “Joe looks to the right to draw the reader’s eye toward the next panel.”  This writer also said it would be foolish to do so (although he used harsher words than that).  He and a few other comics writers have admitted they do give thumbnails to their artist, though rarely.  But what if you were working with an artist who isn’t so good with the storytelling?

Figuring there might come a time when I was working with an artist, I studied a bit on how comics tell stories.  Ideally, this information helps when plotting out panels, but I knew there was more to visual storytelling.  So I read “Visual Story” by Bruce Block, a seminal book for directors and filmmakers that have influenced countless USC grads.  I began the book feeling optimistic that I could master the concepts of visual storytelling enough to communicate with an artist.  As I continued reading, I remembered the 100 reasons why I never wanted to be a director.  Too many variables!  Here are just the broad concepts:

  • Space
  • Line and Shape
  • Tone
  • Color
  • Movement
  • Rhythm

Okay, just imagine telling an artist about line and shape, let alone telling him/her about it in every panel!  Not to mention having the same conversation with the colorist, later.

Fortunately, I stuck it out and read to the end of the book, and it’s not as bad as it looked.  You can assign a symbolic or narrative reason for each variable, then use it as a general rule of thumb for artist and writer alike.  Instead of “calling the shot” on every panel on every variable, Block suggested graphing out each visual variable for the entire story or scene.  For example, let’s say you decide to use flat space to symbolize the claustrophobia your character feels, and open space to symbolize how the character feels when trying to reach his/her goal.  You can map out the character’s arc between these two extremes:

1.  Joe is stuck in dead-end job.  Scene in flat space.

2.  Joe exercises for big race.  Scene in deep space.

3.  Joe doesn’t have the money to enter big frace.  Scene in flat space.

4.  Joe is down, until Sally gives him money for entrance fee.  Scene morphs from flat space to deep space.

5.  Joe enters race and wins.  Scenes in progressively deeper space

Then apply this to a graph.  If this is too confusing, I can whip up a graph and insert it, but hopefully this will be sufficient.

My cunning plan involves working with the artist to develop this graph for each variable.  Then, I won’t have to call every shot or worry about trying to describe a great panel composition.  If the artist and I are on the same page, I can focus on what I’m actually decent at: the narrative itself.

Questions?  If you’re an artist, how would you feel about working with a writer this way?  Do you think this will work?

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