I Learned That Layout Is Everything When Writing For Comics

I’ve mentioned previously that learning to write for the comic book page required a major shift in my own mind in terms of how I constructed a narrative. I wanted to touch on how much this new medium changed how I planned action and dialogue in the story of Code 45.

As someone more familiar with prose – novels, short stories, and of course the journalistic work I’ve been doing for over a decade – considering the visual sequence of a story added an entirely new dimension to the creative process.

When I first started working with my artist Joe Ng and my graphic designer Angela Hodge, my biggest blind spot was accounting for how the flow of a scene would move from one page to the next. In a novel, it’s no big deal if a character speaking at the bottom of a page requires you to flip to the next one to continue the same thought, and in fact the only real considerations for layout have to do with chapter breaks (excluding of course, those fancy text technicians who love to play with the form).

Even without the dialogue visible, it’s clear that there’s a flow guiding the eye from one important point to the next on this page.

On a comic book page, however, layout is everything. Not only in terms of what’s being show in each individual panel, but how those panels combine to form a page. Taken together, layout can transmit just as much information, emotion, and plot as the words themselves, and in sequence, those pages can build towards a larger whole that compounds what is being presented. Asking a reader to turn the page in the middle of what until then had been an important visual moment can instantly break the spell that’s been cast by the story and halt any momentum that’s been gathered.

After working through early drafts, Angela and Joe made it clear to me that there were certain aspects of the script that I needed to rethink in order to more effectively present the story rather than chopping it across multiple pages. I had been guilty of thinking of each issue as a chapter, with the first page and the final page as chapter breaks, but in reality individual issues had their own internal ebb and flow, with natural start and stop points for sequences that had to be respected.

Gradually, I learned how to recognize these sequences and present them so that they either fit onto a single page, or moved them to parts of the book where two open pages faced each other, essentially doubling the canvas available for the action and dialogue in question. This lead to some hair-tearing as I struggled to fit crucial plot points into the space available at a particular point in the story, which often meant going back in time and rewriting the script to properly situate what needed to happen.

Despite initially chafing at the restrictions of a single 22 page issue, once I came to understand how to leverage them to my advantage and I found I could actually use those requirements to heighten the impact of what was on a given page. Understanding the medium better helped to make me a better writer, and also improved how the story of Code 45 was told.

Click here to read the first 8 pages of Code 45 for free!

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