Thursday, November 20th
Saturday, November 15th
I promised a very long time ago that I would talk about the process of comic book writing. I've already mentioned that comic book scripts vary enormously from author to author and publisher to publisher, so it's possible that the process I'm going to describe is only one way that these things are accomplished, but this is how I've experienced it.
First, I come up with a story, remembering that it generally has to be quite simple. You can't get a lot on a page, so you have to keep that in mind. I also try to make the story more action-packed than I normally would do in a similarly long stretch of television. It's worth thinking, too, about things that would be hard or expensive to do on TV, since this is your chance to, say, make a character shrink or fade away or turn inside-out, or make a city burn, crumble or float. You can think big on the comic book page. (Although some things stay the same -- huge crowd scenes can still sometimes be problematic, I was told, since you're burdening the artist with a very complex drawing.)
Next, I try to carve my story up into roughly page-sized pieces. I will find out during the writing process (every darn time) that I've overestimated the content of each page and I'll have to simplify the story. Presumably, a better writer would learn how to anticipate that.
It's a good idea to look for act-break like little moments of suspense at the end of each odd-numbered page so that the reader is compelled to turn the page. But, honestly, I don't sweat these too much. If I can make it happen, great. But I don't want to twist the story around to the tyranny of the page break.
Some parts of comic book writing are incredibly specific to the genre, like sound-effects words. You get to figure out how (and where and when) to suggest the sound of a body hitting the ground or a bullet being fired, or a blob of taffy flying through the air. (Answer key: k'thumph, blamm and fweeee!)
My scripts give pretty detailed descriptions of what I imagine for each panel, so when I'm writing the script I have to think visually. I picture an action, and then have to figure out if there's a single snapshot that would capture that action, or if I'll need to spread it out over multiple panels. If there's a conversation, I have to boil it down to its essentials so I don't have pages of nothing but drawings of two people on a park bench. It's a challenge. If you read a lot of comics it will undoubtedly come easier to you. As in all writing, there is no need to re-invent anything. Others have worked out a lot of this already and you can learn a lot by studying how other writers have tackled these challenges.
Once the script is turned over to the artist, I get to communicate back-and-forth with him or her. Artists are, of course, uniquely equipped to tell you what will and won't work to communicate your idea visually, and they have loads of creative ideas of their own. Let them run with it! I find it's best to just make clear what I was HOPING to convey and then let them convey it, because their ideas about this are always better than mine. (On my most recent effort, I got to work with Georges Jeanty, who is a genuine genius -- fantastic.)
I got to weigh in on preliminary drawings and even colors during the latest issue I wrote, and it's fascinating, seeing it all come together. Comic books feel both very autonomous and very collaborative at the same time -- it begins entirely under your control, without the limitations of a filmed production, and it ends entirely in the hands of others. It's one of the most satisfying final products, too, for a TV writer, since it's both a physical object and a lot faster than a novel.
Lunch: juice and Tylenol (home sick with flu)
Jane on 11.20.08 @ 10:42 AM PST [link]
Saturday, November 1st
Hello again, Gentle Readers! I'm fascinated by all the parts of the television writing world that don't generally communicate with each other. Even sitcoms and dramas often seem to live in very different worlds. Get farther out and it's a different galaxy: game shows, daytime dramas, late-night comedy... it's all TV writing, but it can follow totally different procedures. I recently corresponded with Friend-of-the-Blog Syndi, a writers' assistant at Sesame Street. Here's her account of their process.
The Sesame Street writing process seems so simple compared to what you're used to. We have a team of 10 writers, which includes our head writer. The entire group meets a couple of times for some general brainstorming. Then, the producers decide how many of the 26 episodes will be assigned to each writer. Then, to each writer, I assign a show number (we use show numbers instead of titles), a letter of the day, a number of the day, and an assortment of muppet and human cast (per script).
Each writer takes their assignments and brainstorms on ideas for their episodes, then meets individually with the head writer to talk it out. From there, the writer goes off and writes their first draft. The head writer reviews the first draft and speaks with the writer about any changes he would like to see made. A second draft might be turned in, a third, etc.
Eventually, the head writer signs off on it, and the script gets typed up into our script template by our script coordinator. Then I proofread it, and clean copies are distributed to our Research department. The folks in Research all have Master's degrees and PhD's in education, child psychology, etc. Research will review each script and give their comments to our head writer, who has the ultimate power to veto anything (of course, if Research feels very strongly, they'll push hard.) I'll put those research comments that were approved into the script and then the producers will meet on the script.
Any changes that the producers would like to see are communicated to our head writer via our Executive Producer. (The Exec. Producer has ultimate say.) Once those changes are put into the script, it's pretty much ready to be met on in a production meeting. Any changes that come out of the production meeting would constitute a revision, or at the very least, revised pages.
How cool is that? Can you imagine getting your assigned letter of the day? It's easy to get very near-sighted about TV writing, and to think that the whole world is primetime drama and comedy, but there are many fine streets in the world, and one of them is called Sesame.
Look around and make sure you're aiming at the job that really interests you, because there's more than one way to do this.
Lunch: a Caesar salad with garbanzo beans -- nonstandard but delicious
Jane on 11.15.08 @ 02:50 PM PST [link]
Gentle Reader Sharla in Boulder has a great question. She's been writing spec scripts for existing shows, so that she'll have some really great samples to submit for fellowships. With those finished, she's moved on to writing spec pilots, so that she'll have those ready for when she actually needs to get an agent and a job. Don't you love it when someone works their plan? It's inspiring. But she's hitting an interesting obstacle.
"While writing my fellowship spec, I was working with characters that had so much background. Based on what they'd done and said in the past, I was able to craft their dialogue to fit the voices I knew and loved. And even when I did write an off line, when I read back over it, I could usually tell, oh, this doesn't sound like so and so. Now when I'm writing my own characters, I seem to have lost that intuition. Since I've just created them, I don't know what they sound like! [...] In a way, I feel like it should be freeing to write for my own characters, but it's like it's too much freedom. I just can't get their dialogue to focus."
Yes! I know exactly what you mean, Sharla. I faced the same thing when I started writing pilot scripts, and that was after I'd had years of professional experience of writing for other people's characters. This is a great question.
I've found two different approaches that can be helpful:
1. Borrow and combine. There's nothing wrong with continuing to write for characters you know and love, just grafting them into your script. Got a tough, interestingly flawed character? Try using Starbuck's voice. Got a blowhard character? Ted Baxter's voice isn't busy. It's like dream casting only with characters instead of actors. Since the circumstances of your story will make new and unique demands on the characters, the voices will naturally have to be adapted, which will prevent your script from sounding like a series of clips from other shows. You can also combine traits -- give House's way of speaking to a female character or combine two characters to make someone new. It's not stealing, it's adapting. There's nothing wrong with using someone else's springboard to dive into your pool.
The second option is harder, but much better:
2. Identify a type and use it to create your own breakout character. Sometimes, when you meet someone, you realize they remind you of someone else you know. And it's not a physical resemblance, but something else -- a way of dealing with others and a way of interpreting the world. When that happens, you are identifying a type. It's most obvious with crazy people. If you've had encounters with crazy people, you've probably found that some of them remind you of other crazy people you've encountered before, and you've probably developed your own way of dealing with them based on what's worked before. You're predicting their behavior. You do it with less extreme personalities, too. Your cab driver suddenly reminds you of your father-in-law, or your new boss reminds you of your college roommate, and you form certain expectations about how they're going to act, what they're going to find funny, what they're likely to say in a situation. It's the meticulous observation of types that can allow comedic actors to create instantly successful and memorable characters, and it always works best when a type is familiar to us from interactions, but hasn't yet been presented to us as an archetype. The "aging Brit rocker" type is now growing familiar, but not long ago, he was running wild in the world, not yet pinned to the collection board. The "cougar" hadn't been captured regularly since Mrs. Robinson and now she's everywhere. The "teen girl cynic" -- new-ish and ubiquitous! What's the next type to be observed and captured? Find it, pin it down, write the heck out of it! You'll have Barney from How I Met Your Mother or Tracy from 30 Rock and your script will sparkle.
ADDENDUM: Please note that these aren't the only options. They're just two that I have found helpful. You can also, of course, come up with a unique character unlike anyone you've seen or met, or you can pattern a character after one person you know -- there are many ways to go about it. I just happen to like the two I listed.
Lunch: the 2 cheeseburger meal from McDonalds in the car on the way to Norwalk to vote early. VOTE EARLY!
Jane on 11.01.08 @ 07:40 PM PST [link]