Writing comics has made my long-form fiction better. It forces me to think in original ways, and to work creatively around the medium’s restrictions. I hope that sharing my experience here may help writers explore new voices and techniques.
In the Beginning
The comic strip I make, Ramen Empire, is illustrated by Zach Stoppel and has been since we started in 2012. The difference in his art as time had passed was striking. Here are some comics we made over the years:
Zach’s art had undeniably evolved, and in the process, improved. Some will inevitably read this and prefer the earlier comics, I can safely say that when looking at 4 years' worth of comics, the art has gotten better.
And to my surprise, the stories got better, too. Our first comic story was a stab at making fun of hard-boiled detective tropes, and I wrote myself into a corner in such a way that I couldn't make an ending, so the story ends abruptly with no closure.
Then, this year, with no sense of having grown or changed, I was asked by one of my old English teachers to come give a talk about writing at a conference in Kansas. I'd finished two novella-esque comic stories and hundreds of gags strips, and they all made sense and had endings and narratives that worked, and no amount of self-deprecation could deny that my abilities as a writer had evolved and grown the same way as the artist's ability to draw.
Practice Makes Not Perfect
If I'd gotten better, it was just because I practiced, right?
No. I don't believe it for a moment. Pick up a musical instrument you don't know how to play and screw with it every day for a year. You'll get more comfortable with it, but without knowing what or how to practice, practice will not lead you to becoming a better musician. It's highly possible to practice your art in a way that does not improve it.
With that in mind, here are three aspects of writing that I’ve learned to practice from my experience with a comic strip. Don’t worry, they’re not limited to writing comics, so they may help you even if you don’t write or dabble in this medium.
Use deadlines to force yourself to finish writing anything at all.
You have to finish stories to show them to publishers, and if your idea and execution are roughly what they need, that’s all that will matter. I wrote a piece called Shot by Sniper for the Machine of Death anthology and only beat their deadline’s buzzer by a day or so. There was no time for extensive editing, and I essentially gave them a rough draft. They liked it. They polished it, sent me proofs, and then published it.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t recommend submitting unpolished work to publishers. But having some work to submit is better than having an unfinished piece. Deadlines are the most effective way I’ve found of consistently making my way to endings.
Here are some tips for setting deadlines:
- Be accountable. Deadlines we set for ourselves can feel artificial and ignorable, but it’s a question of prioritizing. Put your writing first. If you can’t owe yourself work, owe it to a friend, or a writing group. In the earliest days of Ramen Empire, we only had ten or so readers, but the idea that Zach and I owed them comics on certain days of the week was compelling. Set deadlines and tie them to some part of your life that makes them feel real and important.
- Be realistic. Don’t set “Finish rough draft on December 15” as your only deadline. It’s a huge beast to tackle. Break it down into more specific deadlines, like “Finish outlining on August 2,” “Finish chapter one on August 15,” “Write two scenes a day through September,” and so on.
- Seriously, Be realistic. Don’t set insanely ambitious deadlines. You’ll only sabotage yourself when the inevitable happens and you miss them. Make them ambitious enough to feel the pressure and excitement, and no more.
- Be flexible. If you see halfway through your project that you’re way behind your deadlines, stop and re-evaluate. Reset your deadlines to something that might work for you again.
You’ve probably heard a hundred voices tell you to put your butt in the writing chair on a regular schedule, but if you can’t afford regularity (I certainly can’t), the next best advice is to give your writing a deadline. If those deadlines feel real, as real as they do in classes or in jobs you care about, you will make an effective practice at finishing your projects.
2. Constrained Writing
Blank pages can be intimidating. Being able to write absolutely anything can be shackling to creativity. So instead of trying to break through this paralysis by force, constrained writing tasks have you first fill the void with rules.
A common constrained writing exercise is writing without the use of to be (am, is, are, etc.). A similar exercise is to write without the use of the passive voice.
Exercises where you avoid common chirps are quite helpful, but we can do a lot more with constrained writing exercises. Have characters who can only speak sentences in word values divisible by 3 or 4. I use this trick to make sure characters speak differently from each other.
Or make every single sentence in your paragraph go backwards through the ten sentence patterns, and then forward through them again. This helps you write stories without repetitive sentence types.
The exercises will inevitably produce good, bad, and interesting-but-unusable writing. But it will all be editable, and far more valuable to you than blank space, and you’ll learn a lot about your own preferences and weaknesses as a writer.
Writing comic strips comes with its own unique constraints, which have been working very quietly on my writing habits. There are two main ones. The first, and biggest, is that by the end of a comic strip (or page), there needs to be a concrete, finite end to at least an aspect of the narrative. Maybe a punch line. Maybe a cliffhanger. Maybe a sad or shocking realization. Whatever it is, I've got 3-6 panels to do it, and I can't take any more or any less than that. It's a frustrating and at times compelling restraint.
You can achieve a similar and useful constraint in prose by turning panels into paragraphs. The constraint could be worded something like: the narrative, emotion, or interest must be significantly forwarded every 3 to 6 paragraphs. It's a good practice because it forces you to think in terms of the reader's interest, and it gets you to make those difficult creative decisions about what part of an idea is worth watering and what part is worth weeding.
Once you’ve got rules in place—as few or many as you think will be useful—if you’re still stuck, plug in a high concept with some modifiers. “What could I possibly write?” becomes, “How can I retell Rapunzel, but without hair, no tower, and have every 3-6 paragraphs be load-bearing?”
3. Constrained Editing
Because I am the letterer of the comic, as well as the writer, I get the final say over how the words are set to the page. Despite this, I think the artist does more of the writing than me.
A comic script is boring. It has to be. It needs drab, blunt descriptions, with dialogue set apart from detail, and sound effects set apart from both. Sometimes it’s intertextual, with a link to a building or a pose, in addition to a description. It’s a tool for the artist, though, and not something that was meant to be read for pleasure. I write comic scripts expressly for the purpose of my buddy Zach being able to conjure his own telling of the story.
This means that, for Ramen Empire, I write a lot of insipid things like Panel Four: Interior. Night. Frank storms angrily into the room. This kind of thing is a serviceable description, but miserable for pleasure reading. The expression of Frank’s anger as he enters the room is entirely in the hands of the artist. Will it be a fist-throwing tantrum? Will it be a quiet sulk? I won’t know until I see it. (And from experience with working with Zach, specifically, he will rebel against any more than loose guidance.)
The result of this is that when I end up with the textless panels, there is often times a subtle contradiction between Zach’s depiction of the action and the words that are supposed to be coming from the character’s mouths. Zach usually takes this as a sign that he’s failed, but I consider it a vital part of editing the comic. The dialogue wasn’t coming from a fully-formed being until he set one into existence, and now that someone is there to deliver the line, the line must be modified for them—much like an actor and a director will change a film script. I think that every comic we’ve made has been forged slightly stronger for this step.
Also, though, the art is much harder to change than the words, so it’s our agreement that, should any last minute, editorial problems arise, I will do my best to make the comic function with new text before sending anything back to the art table. This is, to me, another form of constrained writing, and it’s often quite a productive one.
Here's an example:
Writing the same scene out, differently, while keeping all of the broad strokes roughly identical, has been of immeasurable value for me as a writer. It helps erode at self-doubt because I can juxtapose two scenes (as above) and know instinctively which one I prefer. And dissecting why I prefer one over the other helps inform the rest of the edits going forward.
In the sci-fi novel I’m currently editing, I’ve done this with a number of scenes that felt off-tone. Rewriting pieces of the story helps me spot good, new directions to move in, and to quickly identify approaches that aren’t working. In prose, there’s a lot more freedom. I can change more, but I find that keeping as many of the broad strokes as possible is beneficial, and keeps me from going off on tangents that I ultimately don’t use. And matching pre-set emotions to new dialogue is helpful, because it eliminates a problem very similar to the shackle of a completely blank page. The task becomes constrained in a way that helps eliminate paralysis.
You don’t have to have a pocket artist to use this step with images, either. You just have to be creative. Grab some tool, say a Pinterest board, and fill it with pictures of people who are in expressions and poses that match the emotional flow of your scene. Do this after your rough draft is finished and use it as a kind of mental map of your story. Make sure you agree with how these images jibe with your prose.
Even the act of searching for specific images can be insightful, since it’s forcing you to think about your writing in a new way.
Then – at least, following my model -- edit to eliminate slight contradictions. Make sure the sadnesses are sad in the way that's most suited to your vision and narrative, and that the ambiance of your world matches what you feel when you look at these pictures you’ve collected.
If you try any of this and it works or if you try it and hate it, let me know in the comments. I want to hear from you!