I was recently given a copy of a very interesting new book called Stan Lee’s How to Write Comics by Stan Lee and Bob Greenberger (Watson-Guptill, 2011), a step-by-step guide to crafting scripts for comic books, co-authored by the legendary comics writer, editor, and publisher and co-creator of many of the medium’s most classic characters, including Spider-Man, The Hulk, Thor, and The Fantastic Four. Lee and co-author Greenberg begin by describing the two major approaches to writing comics – full script (in which the writer details every beat of the story, along with detailed descriptions of each panel of artwork) and the so called “Marvel Style” (a.k.a. “Plot First” – in which the writer works up only a rough outline of the story, which the artist then develops in detail as he/she draws it), and then take the reader through all the steps from creating characters through generating plots and subplots to finishing.
There are also helpful chapters on the basics of writing and storytelling, genres, comic book industry protocols, and professional practices. The bulk of the well-written text consists of the very affable and enthusiastic Lee’s thoughts on all of these matters, but there are also comments (culled both from new interviews and previously-published sources) by many other respected comics writers, artists, and editors, including Marv Wolfman, Jerry Ordway, and Neal Adams. As you would expect from a book on graphic storytelling, it’s also loaded with terrific illustrations.
I don’t know much about comic books – I read them when I was a kid, but haven’t been a regular peruser in years – or how they are produced, but I found this book to be fascinating; in part because it gave me insight into the mechanics of a terrific pop art form, but also because I was intrigued at how similar comics scripting is to screenwriting. Both are forms of dramatic storytelling; both are concerned with similar elements – character, plot, dialogue, action, comedy, and catharsis; and both require their authors to do their best to tell their stories in primarily visual terms. Both are also intensely collaborative forms: a comic book writer’s work does not stand alone – as How to Write Comics makes abundantly clear, the text is as subject to interpretation (sometimes quite radical) by the artist in the same way that a screenwriter’s work is interpreted (sometimes quite radically) by a director, cinematographer, production designer, and cast. It’s also amusing to note the differences between the two forms – how the extended action sequences that are so much a part of modern movies don’t work at all in comic books, and also how the dialogue in comics is not written until after all of the art has been formalized. (I can only imagine how happy some screenwriters would be if they didn’t have to worry about writing dialogue until after the movie was cut and scored.)
Stan Lee’s How to Write Comics is a nifty look at a fascinating creative and technical process, as well as an excellent primer for anyone interested in dramatic and visual storytelling; for those reasons it will make an excellent addition to any screenwriter’s library.
While we’re at it, here are some other books that might be of interest to screenwriters:
What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting by Marc Norman (Harmony Books, 2007): A thorough and entertaining chronicle of the craft and the profession by the Academy Award®-winning co-writer of Shakespeare in Love.
Writing with Hitchcock: The Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes (Faber and Faber, 2001) by Steven De Rosa: An excellent account of the creative partnership between the legendary director and the often overlooked screenwriter who crafted the witty, clever scripts for four of Hitchcock’s greatest films: Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry, and The Man Who Knew Too Much.
The Art of Directing by John W. Kirk and Ralph A. Bellas (Wadsworth, 1985): This is a book about stage directing, but the sections devoted to script analysis and determining a play’s narrative throughline provide one of the best primers in dramatic construction that you will ever find.