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Jesse Hamm

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Lesson 1: STORYTELLING [Jan. 26th, 2007|04:00 am]
Jesse Hamm
I'm currently teaching a class on comic art. Below is a modified summary of the first 90 minute lesson, on laying out your story. I'm always trying to maximize the clarity and usefulness of my instruction, so I welcome your feedback.


Cartooning isn't about drawing well, it's about telling a story. We all tell stories (such as anecdotes about things that happened to us, or to people we know); this lesson is about learning to do that with pictures, even the simplest pictures. Later we'll learn drawing techniques, which will help our stories look better, but we'll begin with the more important task of learning to tell stories. A well-told story will hold the reader's attention even if the art isn't great. None of the instruction below requires any special drawing skill to implement.


1. Study the script.

What is the action (the characters' overall activity) in each scene? What is the theme (the characters' attitudes, and our attitude toward the characters)? Write these down, scene by scene, and keep referring to them as you work.

2. Pick out the key events.

The action and the theme will determine the key events. What part of each action best communicates the theme? That part is the key event.

If the action is a character going to work, and the theme is his stress over being late, then him navigating traffic is a key event, and him tuning his car radio is not. If the action is the same but the theme is him getting psyched for work, then his tuning the car radio is a key event, and his navigation is not. In his own reality, he may be both navigating traffic AND tuning the radio, but readers will be bored or distracted if we include nonessential events in our telling of his story.

3. Diagram the pacing.

Draw a timeline that represents the length of the story, and divide it into segments which each represent a key event. The length of each event/segment should correspond to that event's importance to the story. (Even if an important event is brief, it should still be given a longer segment to emphasize its importance. The extra space can be spent introducing the event.) This step will spare you from spending too much space on less relevant events, or from breezing through important events too quickly. Or from running out of pages!

4. Divide the key events into individual moments on the pacing diagram.

An event with more space on the diagram will be divided into more moments. So, if the event of a character's driving is given much space, it may be divided into several moments like "waiting at a stoplight"... "entering the freeway"... "changing lanes"... etc. If that event is given less space, it may afford as little as one moment, such as "speeding along the freeway."

Estimate and make note of the duration of each moment -- split-second, several seconds, a few minutes, etc., so that you know what it can depict. For instance, a split-second moment can depict a falling object frozen in mid-air, and a longer moment can include dialogue -- but not vice versa.

These story moments will later become your panels.

(If you're drawing from a full script written by someone else, much of this pre-drawing work will have been done for you. But since most writers have a poor grasp of static visual narrative, you may want to do this preliminary work anyway, to improve the visual storytelling as much as your collaboration allows. Determine where the script is inadequate, and suggest changes, based on the work you do above.)


5. Use overhead maps to plan the environment of each scene, and to diagram the characters' behavior, like moving pieces around a gameboard.

Number or label each moment on the map: a character entering the room, a character handling a prop, a character exiting, etc. This will prevent characters and props from being in the wrong places when you later draw the scene. Too often, a cartoonist will draw the computer desk facing away from the window in panel 1, and then realize that the character is supposed to be gazing out the window as she types in panel 5. Or, he'll draw two characters conversing from either side of a sofa in panels 1 through 3, forgetting that one character must stomp the other on the foot in panel 4. Diagramming every moment at this stage will prevent such gaffes.

Include props in your environments which clearly and simply communicate the setting. Choose lighting, to indicate time of day, locale, and mood. Position the light source (and the resulting shadows) for clarity.

This planning will allow you to focus on the actual drawing when you eventually draw the scene, instead of trying to correctly position things on the fly and keep them consistent in your head.

6. Choose viewing angles.

Every angle of view has a certain emotional charge: proximity connotes intimacy, height connotes superiority, a tilt connotes imbalance, etc. Every angle of view also allows you to see certain parts of a scene and not others. For each story moment, choose an angle that both communicates the theme and clearly reveals the action. So, a moment in which the character unlocks a car would be seen from the side he's unlocking, so that his hands and keys will be visible, and it won't look like he's breaking in, or taking a leak. If he's feeling pressured, we may view him from slightly above, indicating his sense of inferiority. If he's feeling superior, a view from slightly below may suggest his confidence.

Also, take care that each angle follows smoothly from the previous angle. So: if the next shot of our guy is of him driving away, the viewing angle should repeat background details from the shot of him unlocking the car, to establish that he hasn't been driving around town between panels. Also, the car should not drive off in a direction opposite the one it was facing in the previous panel, since that would confuse readers (or force them to imagine a distracting U-turn). And so on.

7. Choose panel frames: the size and shape of your panels, and what sort of borders each panel will have (thick, thin, ragged, bleeds, borderless vignette, etc).

Base the size and shape of each panel on the durations estimated in step 4 -- the longer the duration, the broader or larger the panel (usually). Action is also relevant: lateral actions tend to benefit from horizontal panels, vertical actions from vertical panels. The sizes and shapes you grant the panels will help determine how many panels to include on each page, and their relationships on the page will help determine their size and shape. Experiment until everything fits, referring often to your pacing diagram.

The page-count for each key event should not exceed whatever fraction of the story you granted that event on your pacing diagram. So, if your story is 100 pages long, and you've granted a certain event 12% of your story, that event should take 12 pages. If you divided that event up into 50 moments, those 12 pages will have a total of 50 panels. How those panels are distributed over the 12 pages will depend on the shapes and sizes you give them, as well as on factors like whether you want to end a scene at the end of a page, or save a surprise for the next page.

8. Arrange composition and cropping (positioning of elements within the panels' borders), for clarity and emphasis.

When should the subject of the panel be in the center? When should it it be off near the edge (or top, or bottom)? When should it be cropped, or cut off, by the border? The theme and the action will help answer these questions. If the focus is on what the character is about to do, such as our guy unlocking his car door, it may be effective to leave more space in front of him than behind him, drawing our attention to the lock in front of him. If his speedy travel is the focus, it may be effective to leave more space behind him, to suggest that he's covering ground. Since the viewing angle and panel shape have already been established with steps 6 and 7, deciding how to crop and compose the panel at this stage will be simple.

Be sure to include the speech balloons (if any) in your compositional sketches at this stage. Rough in the lettering before you begin the art, adjusting the composition to accomodate it. Panels or other pictorial elements (such as props or figures) can bear adjustment, but adjustments in the size or shape of lettering are distracting, so lettering should take priority.

Another tip: if you need to fit a scene into a narrow panel (or a panel of any odd shape), it's helpful to first sketch the scene on separate paper without regard to the panel's shape, and then plot the borders of the panel around the key elements of the scene. You can then refer to this sketch when drawing the scene within the panel on the actual page. (Trying to cram a scene's key elements into a confining panel at the outset tends to result in skewed perspectives and stiffly-posed characters.)

There -- now your layouts are done, and you're free to focus on the work of pure drawing: perspective, anatomy, textures, facial expressions, and all that jazz. Or, leave your layouts in stick-figure form, for a purely no-frills read.

[User Picture]From: patrickdean
2007-01-26 02:09 pm (UTC)
Thank you.
I'm currently writing a story in three acts and my usual comic-makin' habits are making the scripting process a big mess. I'd hope the story isn't a big mess because I honestly have a vision of how this story is going turn out.
After reading this, I think I'm ready to take these approaches and start from the start.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2007-01-29 12:39 am (UTC)
Cool; let me know how it goes!
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2007-01-29 12:45 am (UTC)
Yeah, I think it's best to retool (or at least reconsider) the visual choices that come to mind at the writing stage (if not postpone them altogether until the layout stage). Writing and drawing seem to play on different strengths.

I read one cartoonist say that the first choice that pops into your head is usually the best, but I think the opposite is true. Usually the first choice is the most cliched.
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[User Picture]From: david_porta
2007-01-27 04:52 pm (UTC)


Sounds like a lot of work!

Why would anyone make comics for free?
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2007-01-29 12:45 am (UTC)


Easier than making a movie!
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[User Picture]From: david_porta
2007-01-29 01:24 pm (UTC)


Ha ha!

Well, cheaper, anyway, if you don't count your labor cost.

Movies are collaborative. Get the camera operators at the cable foundation to work on your project gratis, get acting students to act gratis, etc.

No, wait. I can make a comic without doing much work! I'll be the editor. All I have to do is get someone else to write it gratis, someone else to draw it gratis, someone else to ink it gratis, someone else to letter it gratis, I'll edit it, get someone else to print it gratis, someone else to distribute it gratis, and voila! I'm a comics creator! Stan Lee is my inspiration!
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From: hermespique
2007-01-31 05:15 pm (UTC)
First post on LiveJournal; I come from the link on Journalista.

For a summary, that was very complete. It mentioned everything I could think about while reading it, and it made me realize some things I didn't think about and that will surely come in handy in future projects. Point 5 reminded me of the lined script from comic's sister industry. Don't know if that was the influence, but I think comic pre-production and production could learn a lot from animation and movies.

I'm curious. Did you read Making Comics from Scott McCloud? It covers a lot of what you said here, and it could be a great textbook for your class.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2007-02-01 08:40 am (UTC)
Thanks Hermes. Glad for the feedback. I have read Making Comics; an excellent resource.
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From: (Anonymous)
2007-02-04 01:43 am (UTC)


hey, nice work so far... from (me).. the worse half the finds story and art getting away as the boarding progresses.

I do the script, too. can't blame that.

got a style issue coming up? Ie: marvel's 'full-facial every five panals'
vs. a fight every two pages?

formula, i know. from the be-yourself, meet the market and do as your told
progression. Like man = muscle , hustle, brains, comics = being there, market and sticking to a plan.

so... what works?


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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2007-02-05 12:53 am (UTC)

Re: stylism

Sorry; I don't understand your question.(?)
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