Your Writing Process Will Murder You Dead – BKV Edition

by ryankl

I wish every writer took the time to write about their process, or drop hints, or just describe the shitstorm that is the inside of their cranium because I find all of that stuff so helpful and important and powerful and true.
Even when everyone does it different and feels it different and produces it all different.
No writer is the same, but be damned if we aren’t all a face on some weird dodecahedronical 4th dimensional beast spewing self-absorbed tweets and wondering if we are the only one.

Anyway, enough about me, I wanted to showcase this great Brian K Vaughan piece you can read online and is from the mega-huge superfantastic SAGA HC containing the first 18 issues of the title I love so dearly.
He drops plenty of bombs for your process id to chew over breakfast, I wouldn’t be quoting so much as lifting the piece so instead I’ll link to it here:


But I will highlight one line because it’s the sort of thing I find useful to remind myself, and the sort of thing we should all know/remember/practise and here it is:

I try to force myself to use no more than six panels a page, and no more than twelve balloons of dialogue per page, with no balloon exceeding two typewritten lines of text

Think about the myriad reasons to do this. Think of the letterer, allow that person to do their job sanely. Think of the artist, allow that person to have room to do their job creatively/awesomely. Think of the reader, allow them to not be overwhelmed by the page/words/text-slabs/density. Think of your characters, your pacing, your beats, everything. Paring back is good, assuming the intelligence of your readership is fun, and a good editor once told me that whenever you feel you are finished the whole thing could probably lose 10% easy and not suffer at all. And he was pretty well exactly dead on the money with that call.

I’d been thinking about this all this week because an editor asked me to start numbering all the dialogue/captions on the page [nope, I’d never formatted that way before] and I started freaking out because all my pages were running up into double digits. This made me feel a lot better.

As for panels per page, well, man, this is something I’ve loooong stewed over. I noticed way back when that BKV/Pia Guerra’s Y: THE LAST MAN possibly never ran over 6 panels, and always seemed to average around 4, with some 5, a few 3, and that consistency really got to me. Then I read EX MACHINA by BKV/Tony Harris and that book’s like clockwork for 4 panel pages. And then SAGA is 5 panels most of the time.

From there, I started looking at how other comics rolled – obvs WATCHMEN is the 9 panel grid, Frank Miller would rock the 16 panel grid, I noticed the widescreen layout of Hitch on ULTIMATES and Parlov on FURY MAX and soon I can’t read something without counting the panels with the hand behind my back.

But what does this for me? Knowing all this is no good unless it informs you, maybe even elevates you. So for me, I started looking at what my go-to was for panel count on a page. I seem to sit ~5-6 for most pages, on default. But in editing I’m always looking to drop a panel if/when/where I can. I’m doing this tablet view book and I noticed I definitely love 3 panels per tablet page, so 6 per art page. Whereas I’ll skew to 5 if I’m scripting just a plain full page.

Suddenly, you start looking at the splash pages you do – should you do a Brian Wood and pack the pages with density so you can afford that double splash of Conan sitting down [still one of my favourite double splashes of all time, because it’s about emotion] or do you eschew the splashes entirely, like Phillips/Brubaker on CRIMINAL who only ever dropped 1, and it was a guy looking up at a star filled sky.

Panel count is so important because it’s the control you exert over the reader, over time, and over the way the story reads and feels. If you aren’t thinking about it then what the hell are you doing this in comics for?

Anyway, sometimes rules like this are great because they give you a guide, a starting point, and something to keep you on the straight and narrow and not making the crazy noob mistakes [some of my early early scripts called for some insane 11 panel pages, and worse – and you can go way higher than that, but not with the amount of dialogue and people I also wanted in those panels :(].
Then, as always, remember it’s just a suggestion and if you wanna go crazy with a 25 panel page, or a silent page, or silent issue, or splash with no art, or whatever, then at least you’re probably one step closer to doing it with meaning. Because the old saw of not breaking the rules until you know them and show you can use them is so so very true.
Anyway, also read the post because thinking about BKV stressing over his words and hating on himself makes me fell better about myself in all sorts of nasty mental ways.