Writers can learn from comic books

Too many adult writers I know denigrate comic books when those very same publications were their favorites when they were younger. That’s a shame because many of those same writers ignore an important difference between illustrated work and their own prose. In short, too many writers make little effort to paint word pictures. And I’m not just talking about setting.

Much like films and stage shows, the setting and action are obvious; the viewer sees it all up front. That allows the writers of those productions to focus on dialog and action in the larger sense–that which advances the plot. If a film character picks something up, the writer doesn’t have to detail the action–it’s obvious. If you’re writing a book, however, that’s not the case. Not to belabor the obvious, but everything readers need to know must come from the text.

Here are some illustrations from a comic about Sabrina, the teenage witch. I think they’ll help to get the point across.

In the very first panel, readers are treated to an image that not only sets the scene but details the action and identifies the point of view character as well. Conveying a similar amount of data in a novel or short story would require a couple of sentences, at least, if not two or three whole paragraphs.

I’m not suggesting that every detail from a cartoon scene like this would need to be included in the prose-only version, but a good bit of it would add some realism.

Following closely on the heels of the opening, the comic dips into the point of view character’s backstory.

And once again we’re treated to details via visual that the writer would have to convey in a word picture. In this case, a subplot has been initiated. Imparting the same level of detail in a prose-only format would require descriptions of both Sabrina and her intended victim. The illustration shows that the fellow about to be tricked is a decent-looking sort, and Sabrina appears to be a pleasant service provider. The panel which clinches the subplot would also need some description if done in a text-only version. I’ll leave the specifics up to you. My point is that this level of detail is often relegated to summary narrative leaving the reader to dream up their own visuals.

Ray Bradbury was known for his ability to paint pictures with his words. Character movements, often as minor as scratching an itch or using a napkin to catch an errant bit of food on a shirt, all provided the quick image-inducing responses that made reading his work enjoyable. It also made translating it to an audio-visual format much easier.  

One of the most ideal places to inject the sort of visualizations I’m talking about is in dialog. Novel characters often chatter on and on with nothing but “he said” and “she said” to differentiate them. Adding details about what they’re doing while conversing gives the writer a chance to identify the speakers without using speech tags. The effect gives readers something to visualize. It’s also a means to further develop characters through mannerisms, tastes, and responses to other stimuli. Good writers never ignore such things; they’re powerful items, and if left unused in a writer’s toolbox, the fault can only lie with one person.

So, the next time you sit down to work on your epic tale of romance, intrigue, or adventure, give some serious thought to how you portray what your characters are doing–not just as plot points–but as part of an on-going campaign to make the overall work more interesting. One might also say, “picturesque.”

Your thoughts, as always, are appreciated!

–Josh

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Historical writing, novel writing, short fiction, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Writers can learn from comic books

  1. Betty Smith says:

    I enjoyed your column. You are, as always, spot on with your suggestions to writers, newbie or seasoned.

  2. Alice Carnahan says:

    Great post! Thanks! Alice

  3. Don says:

    Perhaps Calvin of “Calvin and Hobbs” is also an example of feelings portrayed through the visual.
    And by doing this verbally you have opened up the theater of the mind..Good post

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