Tag Archives: Comic Writing

13Oct/20

Craft: Brent Larson – Subtext in Dialogue

Since I’m a screenwriter, and movies offer more in shared experiences than comics, I ask you to consider this scene from Pulp Fiction

JULES (Samuel L. Jackson) and VINCENT (John Travolta) drive down an LA street. Both wear identical black suits.

VINCENT: Where are we going?

JULES: To find this guy who stole our boss’s briefcase, which has something weird and glowy in it.

VINCENT. You think we’ll have to kill this guy?

They pull up to an apartment building. They get out and open the trunk, where they have an assortment of weaponry.

JULES: Probably.

VINCENT: How many guys you think are up there?

JULES: Four, maybe five? But I’m not worried. Life is meaningless. I just try to plus it up by being dramatic.

VINCENT: Aw, don’t be so gloomy. I enjoy life, especially when I’m taking drugs. 

JULES: Yeah, I guess. You know, we go back a long way, don’t we? I enjoy our friendship, mother blankity-blank.

They walk into an apartment, surprising several young guys lounging about.

VINCENT: Don’t be afraid, we’re not here to kill you… haha, kidding! We’re both psychotic!

If Quentin Tarantino had written that, he’d be running a Payless Shoe Source in Bakersfield and we would never know his name. His masterful ability to craft dialogue definitely applies to comics. I’ve tried to incorporate several principles into my comic Kayless, but I’ll expound on just one because it’s such a pitfall in my own writing… using subtext and avoiding the information dump. 

For those who haven’t seen Pulp Fiction, in their actual opening conversation, Jules and Vincent talk about, in order, drug laws in Amsterdam, how Europe is different from the US, the Royale with cheese, their boss’s wife, and what a TV pilot is. After they burst into the apartment, they discuss burger joints and Jules’s favorite Bible verse. All the information I wrote into the example is covered, it’s just barely said in the dialogue. Meanwhile, the audience is asking, Who are these guys? What do they feel about this horrific act? How is Jules fundamentally different from Vincent? All these questions are answered in a conversation that seems inordinately centered on nothing.

Movies, and comics, are a visual medium. That means we have an entire palette of information presentation apart from words. Facial expressions, postures, and random actions all communicate something. If a man tells his wife, “My mom wants to visit this weekend,” and his wife says “Oh, good,” and starts cleaning the silver candlesticks, this says a lot – her mother-in-law stresses her out, makes her feel inadequate, is maybe nitpicky. And the dialogue, albeit brief, complements this. She doesn’t feel free to tell her husband how she feels, which then tells us something about him, too. Maybe he’s oblivious or compares her to his mom. So many things you can use as a writer, all of which would have been stifled if, instead, she’d said, “Oh, great! Not again!”

Upcoming cover to Kayless #3: Thomas Hedglen, Ryan Brooner, Mickey Clausen

Here’s a personal example. In the upcoming Kayless #3, Scott visits his father in prison. They talk about Scott’s military record, why his dad is in prison, and how he feels about it. That’s the information side of things. But what’s really going on is a battle for power. Scott’s dad has kept him under his thumb his whole life, and Scott desperately wishes to tell him he can’t control him anymore. Comic real estate is smaller than a movie, so I had to be choosy with my words and move things quickly, but that didn’t mean the conversation had to be info-heavy. I’ll let you read it and tell me if I succeeded. 

Whenever I write dialogue, I then go back and check if it’s solely conveying information. If so, I look for ways to rewrite it as subtext, or present other visual elements to communicate what’s needed. Writers are often obsessed with their own cleverness, and I am no exception (neither, I suspect, is Tarantino). If I detect any of those self-serving impulses in my dialogue, I rework it so it sounds organic to my characters. Ultimately, I want my readers to think my characters are clever, not me. I’m always happy to share the credit.

10Mar/20

Craft: Sidney Williams – 5 Guidelines and a Few Thoughts on Comics and Captions

Hello again, Silverline Family. I had the pleasure of being able to talk with author and comic writer Sidney Williams. In terms of comics, some of his titles include The Mantus Files, Bloodline, Sirens, Marauder, and The Scary Book. In my personal opinion, he is a master in terms of suspense and dark or unsettling themes. He is also one of the most reliable and professional individuals I know. He agreed to contribute a piece about the craft of writing comics. In the following entry, Sidney talks about Captions, how he views their place in comics and how he uses them when writing himself.
-Tim

5 Guidelines and a Few Thoughts on Comics and Captions
by Sidney Williams

I’d like to say a few words in defense of captions.

Media evolve and affect each other. Film impacted the detail and flow of the 19th Century novel as the 20th Century moved forward. Literature affected comics then film affected comics, eventually comics affected literature and so on.

Comics, of course, draw on prose fiction. Heavy use of prose narration is characteristic of some early comics. Check a reprint of one of the ‘50s EC Comics (https://www.eccomics.com/history) titles such as Tales from the Crypt, and you’ll find instances of dense text blocks and speech bubbles with characters saying a mouthful.

EC stories were inspired by, or culled from, pulp magazines, so that’s possibly one culprit. Ray Bradbury wound up adapting his own stories for them, often preserving the narrative voice of the source material in pieces like “The October Game” in Shock Suspense Stories #9. (Link: https://comicvine.gamespot.com/shock-suspenstories-9/4000-517/)

Read more about Ray Bradbury’s relationship with comics and graphic novels
https://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2019/08/ray-bradbury-comic-book-hero/

You don’t even have to look that far back,. As recently as the 1980s and Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil, the captions are almost novelistic.

Over time, narrative prose has given way to more reliance on visual storytelling in comics reflecting perhaps what many filmmakers and theorists consider the ideal, where speech and images convey the story with no intrusive narration. But in the ‘80s you’d get passages like:

“He feels the cut of the October wind hears the dull throb of New York City below him. He wonders when the city started making him sick.” — Daredevil #226, January, 1986. Story by Denny O’Neil & Frank Miller
(Link for Marvel Database on issue: https://www.marvel.com/comics/issue/8214/daredevil_1964_226)

That certainly gives us a look into a Matt Murdock’s soul.

I’m not saying comics script writers need to be Charles Dickens or Bradbury or even ‘80s Miller.

I would suggest that comics, while they’re a visual medium, aren’t film. They’re of the printed page. They afford some tools not available to filmmakers. The right use of those tools help make the comic book and graphic novel world more dynamic and enriching.

So what’s the rule of thumb for captions? In a word, judicious. In an expansion on that thought:

1. Captions should be used to expand or enrich the reader’s experience, never as a crutch for the writer.

If you just need to tell us it’s Los Angeles, “Caption: Los Angeles” will do.

Maybe a few more thoughts in black and white are in order to stimulate conversation and the creative imagination.

2. If we can see it, you don’t need to tell us what we see.
That’s the big duh of comics writing, but sometimes if you don’t print things outright in black and white text, people don’t pay attention. If we can see a hero approaching a vampire’s crypt, opening the coffin and positioning a stake over the heart, don’t tell us: He positions the stake over the vampire’s heart.

If you use a caption for a scene like that…. [Note from the editor: I will cut that caption SO FAST]

3. Make sure a caption provides insight into character, the hero’s soul, spirit or philosophy.
That’s not an excuse to go full Kierkegaard, but if it tells us something more than we can see like that Miller passage above, the reader’s invited to think, not just look on.

Caption: He hesitates as the stake’s whittled point rests against flesh.

Caption: Is this a life he is about to end?
Or something different?

Caption: What should the act of terminating the undead be called?

Gives us a little more than:

SFX: Thunk!

Vampire: Aieeeeeeee!

4. Captions should fit the world established in the comic book or graphic novel.

You might not want to get heavy-handed with captions. When can they be used artistically? In something like Image’s Fatale from 2012, the comic’s world is inspired by film noir, where voiceover narration was used to carry some of the flavor of the first-person crime novels of Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain that helped give birth to the noir style. You’ll find far more effective captions in evidence in Fatale or in something like Frank Miller’s similarly noir-inspired Sin City, which started in 1991.

5. First-person narration open a character’s thoughts.
Speaking of first-person narration, that has supplanted the old comics staple the thought balloon. Thought balloons are so passé they’re almost out of sight in the rearview mirror. First-person captions, on the other hand are still handy. The staking contemplation above could easily be rendered in first person.

When the concept was fairly new, you’d get a tiny little mug shot of the character inside the caption box, and the text would be in quotation marks. The convention’s familiar enough that that’s not needed any longer, though sometimes we get cues such as the caption being the color identified with the character. John Constantine’s first person captions match his raincoat in Justice League Dark, for example.

Just apply all of the judicious thought to first person as you do any captions. Do they help the story? Add something to character or thematic texture without getting heavy handed? Then deploy.

Those are just a few thoughts. Nothing’s set in stone nor a replacement for your own careful observation or environmental scanning as you read the comics you enjoy. Don’t just read. Take note.

Meanwhile…

Creators went on with their work.

Caption Marauder:

My way-back Silverline title, the noir-inspired Marauder, used a bit of first person narration. Note quotation marks were still the convention in those days.