As a writer, I’m a firm believer in showing your work to as many people as possible and listening carefully to what they say.
It doesn’t matter if they know anything about story. If something’s not working it’s much better to know as early as possible and deal with it appropriately.
That doesn’t mean you necessarily change the story based on feedback. Writing isn’t a ‘choose your own adventure’ – not for me, at least. But it is useful to have a good think about critical comments, decide if concerns raised are valid, and either deal with them or disregard them from a position of knowledge.
If lots of people are telling you the same thing (“I was bored when…”; “I didn’t understand the bit where…”; “I didn’t care about…” or more happily “I loved this character because…”; “it was brilliant when…“) then that is priceless information. You’d be surprised how few people respond to a story in a detailed way, even if they love it. So the opportunity to act on such feedback while you still have time to adjust the script is golden. Not only can you can make this particular story better, either by adding or cutting elements, but it’s also a great testbed for storytelling theories in general.
In the past I’ve sent people finished scripts or screenplays, people I know, trust, or respect in the business. But for this graphic novel I’ve taken a different approach, because I’m going to draw and letter the story myself.
My normal process involves working out a plot, writing it up as a synopsis, drafting and redrafting till it purrs like a Rolls Royce, and then breaking each scene down into little cards. Each card contains a couple of bullet points explaining what the scene needs to do, how we enter and leave, and what the character progression is within the scene.
I can then pick up any card, in any order, and write something that fits together into a compelling narrative. And what I write first of all is dialogue.
Lots of dialogue.
I’m so damn inspired by the story I just can’t stop writing dialogue. If that’s not the case, something’s wrong.
Through the dialogue, you get a strong sense of character. There are lots of ways to write any scene, different moods, locations, and approaches, and I try various options out until magic strikes.
Sometimes it works straight away, sometimes it takes a while.
I’m always thinking about images and word together, of course: the panels, gutters, balloons and captions as a whole. I can’t imagine a line of dialogue without a corresponding panel image popping into my head. But anything other than dialogue is merely indicated as gaps, or abbreviated prompts. I let the dialogue flow.
A question I always ask myself at this point is ‘What haven’t I seen before‘: ‘How can I play this scene in an original way?‘.
When I read a scene back and it seems authentic, original and compelling, then it’s a green light – I finish writing till the end.
Then It’s time to edit. Edit ruthlessly: cut the start, cut the end, cut anything baggy; refine the flow till it zings.
What I end up with is a story told through dialogue – LOTS of dialogue. If it’s not already in little panel sized chunks, then I’ll go back and break it up into the best possible rhythm for the story.
Normally, I’ll add in panel descriptions next (though not this time – did I mention I’m drawing this myself?). I’m a firm believer in writing panel description and dialogue in separate passes. Good dialogue is often colloquial, obtuse, implied – all the things panel descriptions aren’t. Panel descriptions need to be crystal clear, unambiguous, and succinct: a different style of writing.
With comics you’re always looking for an extra layer of meaning when you write panel descriptions. What information hasn’t been conveyed in dialogue that we can add with imagery, with body language, with symbolism? What nuance can we bring, what pathos or irony? What sense have we not evoked yet: smell, sound, sight, touch, taste. The potential for a panel description to surprise and delight the reader through its interplay with text is profound.
I already know what the basic panel descriptions are: they ran through my head as I wrote out the dialogue. But as I read through the dialogue new resonances appear, new possibilities. Often the panel description I eventually write will be very different to the one originally concieved, much more powerful and inspiring, with greater depth and symbolism.
The trouble is, without panel descriptions, it’s hard for anyone else to appreciate the story. There’s information missing. So how do you get someone to evaluate your story, when you basically just have dialogue?
My answer was simple: write a radio play.
Radio is a completely different medium to comics, largely dialogue based, and with a few weeks of effort I was able to turn in a credible radio play based on this graphic novel. A play which anyone could read and evaluate, to test if the story worked.
This has the advantage of still leaving all the creative storytelling work to be done on the page when I draw. I can still surprise myself, and investigate all the innovations I outlined in earlier posts, while working through a valid story structure.
Of course, the radio play is missing all the additional channels of nuance and storytelling the graphic novel will bring, but it’s still a valid exercise in terms of testing my basic structure. Reading the radio play is a bit like listening to an audio tape of Keith Richards throwing down the riff to ‘Sympathy to The Devil’. It’s not the finished article, but you can tell if it’s a hit song or not..
What I essentially need to know is ‘Does this work as a story? Are the characters and themes compelling? Is the mood and setting evocative? Is there something about this I’ve missed, something fundamentally flawed, something I can fix?’
In order to do this, I took a more formal approach than normal by sending a brief survey to each respondent. For the full results, check my next post on gathering script feedback.