The following is a list of “rules” I learned in the process of developing sequential art (comics and storyboards) skills. I’m certain there are more rules than these, but these are the ones I have collected and documented so far.
The rules for visual storytelling:
- consider how the eye is led through the image…the story flow
- compositions are created based on the grid system and modification on the grid system.
- diagonal lines and diagonal eye leading is exciting, while horizontal and/or vertical eye leading is calming
- consider lighting of the scene. Does the light add to understandability, mood, and or focus?
- consider line weight and it’s effects on the perception of light direction, size, and mass.
- consider line style and it’s impact on emotion.
- design with basic shapes (circle, rectangle/square, triangle)
- circles are safe, rectangles are solid/dependable, triangles are dangerous.
- always draw the moment before, or the moment after the action rather than the action itself.
- remember to consider perspective, both placement of characters/objects within the image, as well as linear perspective to accentuate depth.
- remember to accentuate depth at all times
- Depth cues include: perspective, overlap, size difference, placement in the image, focus, atmospheric perspective.
- do not draw a line or write a word that does not help/support the story
- remember to consider all elements of anatomy and posture when drawing a figure: contrapposto
- only use diegetic story telling if the information cannot be conveyed another way
- compositional focus should land in relation to the rule of thirds or the golden ratio
- centered composition should only be used for final/ static/ calm images
- focal elements should pop, either because of framing or contrast
- Hammer rule: all action should be clear in silhouette. Remove detail, can you still tell what’s going on?
- does the image work in black and white?
- remember no odd tangental or coincidental lines.
- represent form through the rules of chiaroscuro and line weight.
- Acting with the face, body language, and gesture. It should be big acting, clear acting. “Play to the back of the room”
- Contrast is important
- Repetition and variation are important
- balance (either symmetrical or asymmetrical) is important.
- Hitchcock’s rule: the size of an element in an image should directly correspond to it’s importance to the story.
- marks are used to explain form and volume.
- all lines, and/or marks should mean something.
- clarity of story on every page is key. Can someone open to an image and tell what’s going on without reading any of the other images? Details can be lost, but the basic actions should still seem clear.
- Icons should be used to communicate an idea, object, or character quickly. Representational work is usually better than photo-realistic work when trying to convey story.
I am an amateur writer. I have yet to write my first book! (Though I’ve written a handful of shorts, a couple feature length scripts and a myriad of short comic books) That having been said, I’m a pretty good teacher, and I’m pretty good at organizing information, so the following outline is what I have learned about writing that I will use as a guide for beating that first long form text into “professional” shape.
By the way, part of the reason I’m posting this is that in addition to my own writing, I have 3 friends who are currently engaged in writing stories of their own. I hope they can use this as much as I.
Also, remember, just like EVERY art form, one must master the rules, then learn to break/extend them.
The Rules for Writing! Self Editing Checklist:
Quickest read as an overview for most of these ideas: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Dave King
Another excellent text on the subject of storytelling: Story by Robert McKee
A. Character - Read: Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
- Exposition is bad unless it is hidden in action.
- Characterization and exposition – bottom line: characters are interesting when they have an inherent flaw – they are readable when they grow and change as a result of the flaw being examined.
- A Character IS what he/she does
- The past is important to know. Not always important to discuss
Three questions readers ask
- So What? Why should I care?
- Oh Yeah? Come on, I don’t believe ANYONE would do that.
- Huh? What’s happening? I don’t know who’s talking or what they’re talking about.
How to raise emotional stakes
- sexual tension
- signs and portents
B. Point of View – 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person. Have a reason for the decision. Writing in the past rather than the now is always weaker – passive, by definition.
C. Proportion – If the writing of a moment takes a reader longer to digest than the moment itself it is often out of proportion. In other words: If we experience a moment, say a character flings an anchor into the water, but the description of that moment takes a long time to read, it is probably out of proportion, and needs simplification.
- Don’t be a lazy writer: Consider the sentence “You can’t be serious” she said in astonishment. This is an example of lazy writing. There are as many different ways to be “astonished” as there are people. This person is clearly uptight, it has an element of formality to it. Consider “You’ve got to be kidding”, “You pulling my chain, dude?” The line informs the character, and there is no need to insult the audience by telling them the character is “astonished”.
- Another example of lazy writing in dialog: don’t TELL the reader how to interpret the dialog or repeat the dialog in prose after a character has said it.
- Another cue that you are an amateur: “I hate to admit that,” He grimaced – “Come closer” she smiled – “So you’ve changed your mind” – he chuckled = No one outside of hack fiction has ever been able to grimace, smile, or chuckle a sentence.
- c. Listen to it. Does it sound natural? In character? Small words with lots of consonants? Comma splices are ok in dialog if they feel natural. Answer a single question with 2 ideas joined by comma rather than period works (for example).
- Interior Monologue – make certain you don’t interrupt the dialog for excursions into someone’s head too often. It is annoying to read. Keep it balanced.
- A scene MUST always contain at least one emotional reversal to be interesting.
- Using physical actions to break up dialog is important, especially if the action helps highlight or shed light on the nature of the dialog.
- Break Up the information on the page by using paragraphs.
- Remember to “paragraph”. In other words, every time a different character speaks, it’s a new paragraph. Every time you introduce a new idea, it’s a new paragraph. It makes for more pages than an academic paper, but it makes it infinitely easier to read.
G. Once is usually enough – but the rule is 3: Use the rule of three to get across big ideas (a version of something happening 3 times). Once for small ideas.
H. Any idea in the story MUST be developed. i.e. It isn’t enough to mention a pop culture reference – one must expand on the reference to give it weight and/or humor.
- Everything in the story should point back to a central theme
- For more insight read Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald
- Concentrate on Structure – For more on Structure read The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
- The armature: A wise man speaks because he has something to say: a fool speaks because he has to say something.
- Use Jokes as exercises in short form story telling
- Seeing is different than being told – hide exposition in visual storytelling. Have I said this enough?
- Character change should mirror the thematic material
- Always write truth – NOT facts
J. Voice – Write like you talk. Only better.
K. Avoid adverbs! Read On Writing by Stephen King for more insight.
L. Description is interwoven into all of these ideas. Read Description by Monica Wood
M. Good Artists borrow, great Artists steal. Copy your favorite writers, inspect them, figure out why you like what they do. How did they use and/or break the preceding rules. A note of caution: I have noticed that when I say this to students they often begin by citing people they think aren’t great, and therefore it will be easier to copy. In music, students will cite T-Pain before they cite BT or Shostakovich simply because they think T-Pain will be easier to emulate. In cartooning students will cite Bill Waterson (because they mistakenly believe his work is “simple”) or their favorite web comic before they cite Dave McKean or David Mazzucchelli because of intimidation. In writing students will often cite their favorite obscure novelist because they are intimidated by trying to rise to the level of Melville or Dickens. This is exactly the wrong tactic. If one tries to imitate, one will fall short of the imitation, So if one tries to imitate a rag, instead of a masterpiece one will not even obtain the status of rag. Whereas if one imitates the masters one will at least, eventually, not write at an embarrassing level. My personal “mentors” are Dan Simmons and Aldous Huxley…one modern, one classic.
N. Remember to read what is current in the genre or style in which you are writing. Don’t think that just because you loved loved loved Lord of The Rings you are current on Fantasy. Don’t mistakenly believe that reading Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austin makes you knowledgeable enough to write Romance. And please don’t believe that just because you have read every H.G. Wells novel ever written you are ready to embark on your own career writing speculative fiction. For example. I have a friend named Tim Price who is writing a Godzilla parody. He’s perfect for it because he knows that genre and its troupes better than anyone else alive. My friend Karolyn is writing a Romance because she has read a million of them, etc.
O. Repetition and Contrast: The most important theme in all of art creation. There must be enough repetition for readers to feel you are consistent and thoughtful, but enough contrast to keep them interested.
That is my giant laundry list of factors to consider in editing fiction. I hope it helps someone other than me!