13 Rules For Making Comics

by Kevin Cross

1. Write. Then rewrite. Then rewrite again. Etcetera…

After you’ve figured out who your main character is and what genre your story will fall in to, write a rough outline. Don’t worry about how it looks or if there are tons of misspellings. The outline is for you to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks while figuring out  the beginning, middle, and end of your story. When you are satisfied with your rough outline, write another more detailed outline. Then write the first draft of your script. Put it away for a few days. I guarantee that you’ll find flaws with your first draft after you come back to it with fresh eyes, so write a second draft. Once the second draft is finished, if possible, show it to someone whose opinion you trust. Show it to someone who can be honest with you. Don’t get butt hurt and remember to say thank you! If you can’t show it to anyone… you guessed it… put it away for a few days. In my experience, no script is ready to go until at least the third draft is written, so get cracking on your next draft. Put it away again, but let it sit for a month or two while you work on something else. Use this time to nail down your character designs or design the environments your story takes place in, for example. After some time has elapsed, pull out that third draft. See if the story feels finished. You may want to show it to someone again or maybe you find more flaws or have ideas to make it better. You might need to do more drafts or less if you are a brilliant genius. Make sure that you know exactly what the story is, in and out, before you draw one line. It’ll save you headaches in the long run.

2.  Read!

Read stories without pictures. Don’t just read comics in your genre, and for goodness sake, don’t just read comics. Doing so can make your comic come off as derivative. I’m not saying you shouldn’t read those comics at all. They can help you learn the language of comic storytelling, but please, vary your diet to see what works and what doesn’t work from storytellers that have come before you. Study that sh*t! I know its cliche, but reading does make you a better writer.

3.  Keep It Simple Stupid!

Comics are about communication. Get rid of superfluous details! They can be distracting and take you out of the story. Simplify and go for clarity in your storytelling.

4. Show the environment on every page. 

This might sound like a no-brainer… Your readers need to know where your characters are. At the beginning of a scene, establish the environment that your characters are in. For example, you may have a scene with two people talking in an office on a college campus. Show an establishing shot of that campus first. Move the viewer into the office. Show as much of the office as possible, and I recommend, draw the characters’ full bodies within that environment. In subsequent panels, even if you have a close up of a talking head, put elements from the environment in the background. You don’t have to draw the full background in every panel, but put enough there to remind your readers where the scene is taking place.

5. Vary your shots.

Changing shots adds interest, can help with pacing, and adds drama. If you have a wide shot, do a tighter shot next. Have a medium shot? Maybe try moving in for an extreme close-up next. Changing the angles of the horizon line, like in the case of a worm’s eye view or bird’s eye view, or tilting your shots within a panel can affect your reader’s emotional response and build tension within your story.

6. Make your characters ACT!

Stiff characters with stiff movements are plain dullsville in comics. Push your acting! If you have a character that throws a punch, exaggerate reality and make your reader feel it. When you’ve drawn a dynamic pose, try pushing it just a little farther. This goes for scenes or whole stories full of talking heads too. Push body language and don’t forget how much acting is done with the hands. One more time now just to make sure… Push your acting! Make it dynamic! Exaggerate reality!

7. Pay attention to line weights.

Line weights help to differentiate planes, shows focus, and shows where the light source is. As objects move further back in the viewing field, they lose focus. So the line weights are smaller than the lines of objects closer to the eye. To make characters stand out from the background, you may want to use a thicker line around them, while using a thinner line for inside detail. Say your main character is pointing at something and the light source is coming from directly above. The line on the top of their outstretched arm will be thinner, while the bottom contour line will be thicker to show shadow and weight. In simpler terms… Lines closer to the light source are thinner. Lines farther away are thicker.

8. Pick a different palette for each scene.

If you are coloring your comics, picking a different palette for each scene can establish an overall mood for that scene and help it stand out from the other scenes in your story. This is a great storytelling device. Colors can be saturated and loud for bombastic scenes or muted and calm for quieter scenes, for example. If you are not coloring your comic, I recommend a 50-50 balance of black and white in each panel and on each page.

9. Incorporate lettering into the artwork.

Draw the lettering, word balloons, and narration boxes into your artwork from the beginning. This way you know exactly how to compose your shots and don’t have to force lettering into awkward spaces that they may not fit in later. That looks amateurish and distracts from story flow. If you are going to do digital lettering, at least do your lettering in your thumbnail and penciling phases.

10. Make your readers want to turn the page.

Pay attention to the page turn. End each page spread with a cliff hanger, large or small, that makes your reader excited to keep going. If you can end each page with a cliff hanger or gag… even better!

11. Don’t be too precious.

You’ll never be perfect, so don’t worry about it. Keep moving. Do your best. You’ll get better as you go. A wise man once said, “Finished is better than perfect.”

12. Turn on, tune in, drop out.

In other words… Get everything ready for a day of comic making. Immerse yourself in comic making. Turn off all the distractions that waste your time and get in the way of comic making, like the internet. (Unless you need it for reference and/or research.)

13. Season to taste.

I hope my “rules” have helped you, inspired you, or made you think about how you make comics. If there’s a rule you don’t like, throw it out. Modify it to suit your style. Just go make good comics.

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