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How to write a comic
By BBC Maestro
Have you always wanted to write your own comic book? There’s no time like the present. And with this guide on how to write a comic, you’ll have everything you need to get started.
This guide on how to write a comic takes insights from Alan Moore’s BBC Maestro storytelling course. In his course, the enigmatic master of the comic book world shares his secrets on how he uses world-building, language, characterisation and a little bit of magic to create the unforgettable stories that have earned him an army of dedicated fans.
A brief history of comics
Before we dive into the details of crafting a comic, let’s explore the roots of the medium.
Cartoons are largely considered to be a precursor to the comic book, and have been popular since the early 1800s. Many consider The Yellow Kid In McFadden’s Flats - a comic strip created by Richard F. Outcault in 1897 - to be the first ever comic. Early comic strips also emerged in newspapers and were frequently used for political commentary or satire.
Later, in the 1930s, comic books featuring superheroes brought the medium to the attention of the masses, and comic books entered what is known as their ‘Golden Age’. In the late 1930s to mid-1940s DC and Marvel brought superheroes like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel into the hearts and minds of a generation. Then, following the end of World War II, tastes in comic books changed somewhat, and science fiction and romance became popular genres.
In the 1950s, there was a backlash against comics, with many claiming that comic books were corrupting the youth of the day. In a bid to keep their industry thriving, comic book publishers established the Comics Code Authority which set out a number of standards for comics, including good always triumphing over evil and rules on how crime was depicted.
Comics have evolved over the years. In 1964, writer and critic Richard Kyle coined the term ‘graphic novel’ as a way to describe the more ‘artistically serious’ comic book strip, and from the 1970s onwards, the rules around the content of comics were once more relaxed as a new generation of artists and writers stepped in to depict darker subject matter. It was also an important period for representation in the comic book world, as major publishers including DC and Marvel took steps to redress the balance by introducing more people of colour to their universes, such as Blade, Black Lightning and Storm.
From the mid-1980s, the anti-hero became a popular trope in comics. These were heroes with dark sides and a new level of depth to their character. Prime examples of comic book anti-heroes include the protagonists in Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen.
Today the influence of comic books on popular culture is evident everywhere you look. From the latest blockbuster movie to the graphic novels topping the bestseller lists, and TV shows like Sweet Tooth, The Boys, Heartstopper and The Sandman all inspired by the original comics.
After that whistle-stop tour through the history of comics, let’s now dive in to how to write a comic, and later we’ll share how you can try to get your comic published.
Writing your own comic
1. Finding ideas
Have you always dreamed of writing your own comic? First you need to come up with an idea. Every great comic has a great story at its core. So how can you find that initial nugget of inspiration?
In his BBC Maestro course, Alan Moore shares a number of ways he finds inspiration. Here are some methods you could try to stimulate comic ideas:
- Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. The ability to imagine what someone else’s life is like is essential for a writer. Having empathy to others’ situations, imagining what their hopes and fears are, and being able to see the world from their perspective, can all spark creative ideas.
- Use writing prompts. Alan recommends looking in junkshops for items that might spark creative ideas, such as old postcards, or using a set of specifically designed writing prompt cards.
- Keep learning. Research and an understanding of how the world works is another way you can fire up your imagination. “Try and find out how situations work. How people work,” says Alan. “How all of these things that make up the material world about us, how they all fit together. Find out about history. Find out about physical science. Find out about all of these things until you understand the physical world.”
Another great tip is to always carry a notepad. After all, you never know when inspiration may strike.
Want more writing ideas? Read this: 10 Ways To Generate Writing Ideas >
Once you know roughly what you plan to write about, you’ll want to decide early on whether your idea is best suited to a series of comics or a standalone publication. As a writer you should follow your instincts - does this feel like an epic saga? Or is it more of neatly contained storyline, with a punchy plot and obvious ending? There’s no reason you can’t bring your characters back for a reprieve at some point, but deciding what you want your comic to look like now can help you plot out the structure of the piece.
2. Plotting out your story
Now you have your story idea, it’s time to work out how you’re going to tell that story. What is going to happen in the story and when it’s going to happen. In other words, you need to work out your plot.
A simple way to plot out your story is to use the 3-act structure: set up, conflict, resolution.
- Set up: First you should show your main character (the protagonist) in their day to day lives and introduce the world of your story. The ‘normality’ of their world, if you like.
- Conflict: Then you must introduce something or someone to disrupt that normality. Most stories have what’s called an ‘inciting incident’, which is an event that kicks off the main conflict of the story.
- Resolution: At the end of your story your comic will build to a climax (often where the protagonist faces off with the villain, also known as the antagonist) and some kind of resolution will be reached. The resolution of your story doesn’t necessarily have to be a happy one, but it does need to give your reader some kind of closure on the plot.
This is a very simple plot structure, but if you’re writing your first comic it’s good to keep things simple. The 3-act structure is a favourite of many writers for good reason - it works.
Find out more about plot and story in this article: What’s The Difference Between Plot And Story? >
3. Creating characters
Now you have your story idea and the plot structure planned out, it’s time to start creating some compelling characters to drive your story forward.
“When it comes to creating characters I’ve found that the best approach that you can use is to start from the assumption that if you had been born in different circumstances, a different place, a different time… then you could have been any other human being on the face of the planet given the right circumstances, given the right background, given the right time and place,” says Alan.
“I choose to regard personality and identity as like a huge multifaceted crystal of which we as individuals choose only to polish one facet, which is the personality that we will have throughout our lives. As a writer you can explore the other facets. You can rotate that crystal and look at some of the other faces of it.
“If you can do that then you can imagine a whole range of alternate personalities for yourself. You can inhabit the characters, rather than seeing them as another person. I mean, ideally all of the characters in your story are yourself. We are told that all of the characters in our dreams are us. And that is obviously true. And the same goes for our stories.”
Strong, memorable characters are often the focal point of a comic book story. From the hero to the villain, the love interest to the sidekick, when you’re creating your comic book characters you must make sure they feel authentic and real (meaning real to the world of your story, some villains have tentacles, after all). One way to achieve this, before you even sit down to write, is to complete a character bio for each central character. You can download a free character bio template here to give each of your characters a backstory, purpose and description.
Need help crafting a compelling villain for your comic? Read our article: How To Create A Sympathetic Villain >
4. Finding your style
Writing style distinguishes your work from that of other comic book writers. But how can you develop a unique writing style? And how exactly does a writer find their ‘voice’?
Alan Moore recommends reading as widely as you can to help you find a true sense of your own style.
“As a prospective writer, I would urge you to not only read good books. Read terrible books as well. Because they can be more inspiring than the good books.
“If you're inspired by a good book, there is always the danger of plagiarism, of doing something that is too much like that good book. Whereas a genuinely helpful reaction to a piece of work that you're reading is ''Jesus Christ, I could write this shit''. That is immensely liberating.
“To find somebody who has published who is doing much, much worse than you. And by analysing why they are doing so badly, this will immensely help your own style.”
As a writer your use of language can also help you stand out. Clever use of rhythm and literary techniques like juxtaposition can add colour and life to your prose.
“Rhythm is not just for writing that you're going to read aloud. If you're writing a page of text, the reader of that text will be creating the rhythm in their own head,” says Alan. “This is the immense importance of having rhythm in your prose - because it's mesmeric, it's hypnotic, and you can carry an awful lot of material on just the rhythm of a thing. It's a brilliant element for actually enchanting and getting the reader into the mesmeric trance that you are trying to create.”
By learning the craft of writing and honing your writing technique, you can stand out from the many other comic book writers who are lining up waiting to be published.
Struggling to start? This article should help: How To Overcome Writers’ Block >
Formatting a comic
Now you’ve got your idea, your characters, your style - it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty. If and when you decide to approach a publisher, it’s important to consider the formatting of your comic. Plus you’ll also likely collaborate with an artist at some point, creating images to bring the story of your comic to life.
First up, let’s look at some of the comic book lingo you’ll need to familiarise yourself with.
Comic book lingo
- Panel - This is one image that usually has a border and can come in many different shapes, however the most common are square or rectangular. There may be any number of panels on a page, but it’s common to see 6 panels per page in a traditional comic book. There are several different types of panel, including:
- Splash - This is a full page panel.
- Double-page spread - This is a panel that extends across two pages.
- Inset - A panel within a panel.
- Bleed - A panel that extends off the edge of a page.
- Gutter - This is the space between panels and is often white, although can be other colours to help set mood and tone.
- Caption - This usually contains text and tends to act as a narrator to the action.
- Word balloon or bubble - This shape contains text that represents dialogue in a scene.
- Thought balloon or bubble - Similar to the word balloon, a thought balloon shows the inner thoughts of a character in a scene.
- Borders - These are the lines that surround a word bubble, thought bubble or even a panel. The weight and style of the line used for the border can depict the tone of what’s happening and can even show a character’s personality.
- Sound effects - A form of stylised lettering that depicts significant sounds in a scene. Think of the traditional BOOM, POW, WHAM etc.
Collaborating with an artist
Generally speaking, there are two approaches for comic writers to work with an artist. Some writers favour a collaborative approach with an artist, and create a comic book together from scratch from the very beginning. Using this approach, comic writers ‘team up’ with someone they feel they can have a good working relationship with and whose style complements their writing. There are many famous examples of longstanding comic writer and artist collaborations, such as Stan Lee and Jack Kirkby, or Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard.
The other approach is to write a full script for your comic, with detailed panel descriptions, which you can hand over to an artist to create the illustrations for your comic.
Comic book layout
Getting the layout of your comic right is essential to help your reader effortlessly follow your story. Your panels must work together to tell the story of each scene and each panel must move the plot and characters forward.
For new comic book writers, it’s a good idea to start off with the classic rectangular grid of panels and keep things simple. This helps you control the pace of your comic and makes sure the visual flow is clear. You can still use more elaborate panels, like splashes and bleed, but use them sparingly and only for significant moments in the plot.
As you become more experienced in writing comics, you can try out some more complex page layouts. But remember - a page layout so complex that even the most seasoned comic book reader can’t work out which panel comes next, is hugely distracting from the story.
Perhaps one of the most difficult parts of writing a comic, is getting the balance between dialogue and what is shown in the artwork. Always keep your medium in mind and consider whether dialogue is required, or whether you’re best to show the action in a picture.
Remember, you aren’t working with lots of space, so try to take a less is more approach to your dialogue.
In the very best writing, each character will have their own distinct voice that seems natural and authentic to who they are. Your character bio (see above) should help you here. A good tip is to read your dialogue out loud. Does it sound natural? Is this really how this character would talk?
And finally, don’t get too attached to your dialogue. Chances are you’ll have to change it once your script is placed on a panel, so it may need to be cut down to fit.
For more advice on writing dialogue, take a look at this article: How To Write Good Dialogue >
Perfecting the word to image ratio
Anyone who has ever cast their eyes over a comic will know - the format of text plus imagery is what makes the medium so distinct from other forms of storytelling. The interplay between graphics and prose can be challenging to get right and involves a high level of collaboration between a comic book writer and an illustrator.
“Try to avoid redundancy between the words and the image. Don’t have a caption telling you that the hero goes downtown to sort things out, if the panel has got a picture of the hero going downtown to sort things out. That’s redundancy. You only need to tell people things once,” says Alan.
“There is a certain important ratio to balance the page between the text and the images. Keep it to about 210 words per page. If you’ve got a six panel comic book page, you should have no more than 35 words per panel. If you’ve got nine panels on a page, it’s 23 words per panel, and if you’ve got four panels on a page it’s about 52 words per panel.
“In my workbooks, I’ve got my tiny scribbled pictures with the dialogue written in next to them, and each of the patches of dialogue has got a little mysterious circle with a number in. That is the number of words in that particular balloon or that particular caption, so that I can add them up and make sure that there’s not too many words in that panel so that the artwork isn’t being squeezed.”
Now you’ve put the work in and have finished your comic, it’s time to start thinking about getting it out there.
Before you even think about approaching comic book publishers it’s a good idea to drum up some interest in both your new comic, and you as a writer. So establish yourself - work on your social media following, post parts of your comics online to drum up interest, and enter competitions. This will help build your credibility as a comic book writer in the eyes of publishers when you do make an approach.
Types of comic publisher
Next, think about what publishing route would suit you best. Here are some of the options:
- Self publishing. By self publishing you retain more control over the finished comic and you won’t have to share a cut of the money your comic makes with your publisher but you also won’t have access to a pre-established audience or experienced comic book marketers.
- Small independent comic publishers. Generally-speaking, indie publishers are more likely to be experimental in the type of content they put out. So if your comic is a bit ‘out there’ this could be a good route to investigate.
- Medium sized comic publishers. As a first-time comic writer, approaching a medium sized comic book publisher may be your best option if you think your story has solid mass appeal.
- The big comic publishers (DC, Marvel etc.). Every comic books writer’s dream is to be snapped up by DC or Marvel, but realistically you’ll need to be more established before you approach the heavyweights of the comic book publishing world.
- Book publishers that publish graphic novels (Scholastic, Pantheon etc.). If your comic has a strong literary element to it, this could certainly also be a route to explore.
Research your publisher
Regardless of the type of publisher you plan to approach, doing your research on them is absolutely essential. Many comic book publishers are focused on one particular genre, so find the publishing house that best suits your work.
Next read the submission guidelines carefully and thoroughly. These guidelines will contain everything you need to know about approaching that specific publisher, including whether you need to include a query letter or whether they accept unsolicited submissions etc.
If you do need to send in a query letter, take your time crafting it - this is your chance to make a good first impression. Outline your accomplishments, detail your work, and most importantly explain why you think you would be a good match with the publisher (this is where knowing what else they’ve published comes in handy). Be sure to include contact details so they can get in touch if they do like what they hear.
A publisher may ask you for a sample, so pick an impressive section of your writing. Showcase the best of your prose, dialogue, scene building and characterisation. Ideally you want to leave the submissions editor desperate to know what happens next in the story.
Once everything is sent off - be patient. It can take weeks, or even months to hear back from a busy publisher. The next step may be asking to see your full script, so make sure it’s polished up and ready to send over when they ask for it.
If you’re lucky enough to meet a submissions editor in person and have the chance to pitch your comic idea, then you could follow up with a proposal if they seemed keen. A comic book proposal tends to include a letter (similar to the query letter), an outline of your plot, some character bios, information on the setting of your story, some sample pages and illustrations and your contact details. The proposal should be 2-5 pages long, not including your script.
Start writing your comic
There are plenty of resources to help you hone your writing craft, take a look at this article on the best books on writing for inspiration. Plus you could also look to the existing world of comic books and learn from some of the greatest comic book writers.
Here is a list of the comics every aspiring writer should read:
- Watchmen (1986) Alan Moore
- V for Vendetta (1982) Alan Moore
- Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) Alan Moore
- From Hell (1989-1996) Alan Moore
- The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999-2019) Alan Moore
- Persepolis (2000) Marjane Satrapi
- Maus (1991) Art Spiegelman
- Blue is the Warmest Colour (2010) Jul March
- Hellboy (1994-present) Mike Mignola
- The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes (1988) Neil Gaiman
- Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) Frank Miller
- Kingdom Come (1996) Mark Waid and Alex Ross
- Judge Dredd in 2000 AD (1977-present) John Wagner
- Scott Pilgrim (2004-2010) Bryan Lee O’Malley
- The Walking Dead: Compendium One (2009) Robert Kirkman
Now all that’s left is to sit down and start writing. And if you need fuel for your creativity, take some inspiration from the legendary Alan Moore:
“The three things that fuel my creativity are firstly my incredible ego and my desire to be the best writer in the universe, secondly tea, and thirdly biscuits, particularly those half chocolate ones that have a cow on the back.”
Alternatively, you could try Alan’s online storytelling course here at BBC Maestro and learn from the master himself.
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