Learning to write comic books is like mastering any other art or discipline—it requires study. But unlike creative writing or painting, comic book writing is still very much an emerging art form at the academic level (though, it is steadily growing and becoming more accepted). What this means for the beginning comic book writer is that your training is largely in your hands.
There are no teachers standing at the front of classroom and filling your head with knowledge. There are no homework assignments to reinforce the lessons you’ve learned. There is no grade at the end of the semester for you to measure your progress by. So, how do you learn to write comic books?
One way, and by far my preferred way, is to learn by writing annotations.
What is an Annotation?
When I was in graduate school studying creative writing, I had a poetry professor, Dr. Waters, and he imparted the concept of an annotation unto me. For every class meeting, he would assign a selection of poems for the class to read, and our homework assignment would always be to choose one of the poems and to write up a two-page analysis of the poem’s craft. And that was an annotation.
The idea of an annotation is to look at what you want to study (in our case a comic book) and to dissect it, to see all of its moving parts and how they work, so that you can take that knowledge and apply it when you go to create your own comic books.
When I first started out writing comics, the first thing I did was write annotations. And my early annotations were chock-full of good information, but it was all over the place and fragmented—discussing pacing, dialogue, structure, and a lot of other important stuff.
What I realized, though, was that Dr. Waters’ method, while incredibly useful, needed some adjustment, a little bit of laser-focusing. So, rather than write up an annotation on all of the moving parts of a comic, I would choose one aspect of craft (pacing, dialogue writing, characterization, etc.) and I would write an annotation about how the comic did that specific thing, with special attention to how it did it in a way only a comic book could do.
How to Write an Annotation
How you write your annotations really comes down to how your organize and process information. It will be different for every person. Still, there is loose template you can follow to get started.
Choose an aspect of comic book writing craft.
The first, and most important, thing you have to decide before diving into annotation writing is what it is you’re trying to learn. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of writing skills that go into creating an epic comic book script, so pick the one you think will move your writing forward and get started. Off the top of my head and in no particular order, here are a few important ones:
- Story Structure
- Action Scenes
My advice, though, is to start general with some of the larger-scale parts of telling a comic book story, like story structure. I say this because if you spend your time learning to write great dialogue, but haven’t put in the hours to learn about story structure, you won’t have a story to put your dialogue into, right?
Choose a comic to study, carefully.
This one seems like a no-brainer, right? Well, it is and it isn’t. Of course, you have to pick a comic to study if you’re going to going to write an annotation about it. Here’s the thing, though: the comic you choose has to be one that strongly demonstrates the skill you are trying to learn about.
If you want to learn about character arcs, you need to study a book that has strong character arcs. If you want to learn about structure, you have to write annotations on books that are written by writers with the strongest sense of structure. I won’t go so far as to say it’d be a total waste of time to pick up any old comic and try to learn about an aspect of craft. Every book is a learning opportunity. But when another book does something masterfully, wouldn’t you want to learn from that book? Let me put it another way. If you wanted to learn golf, who would you rather have for an instructor—the captain of your high school’s golf team or Tiger Woods?
Read the comic book, at least twice.
If you’re going to study a book to see how it masterfully executes on an aspect of craft, you obviously have to read it. But I suggest reading it twice, if not more. The reason for this is pretty simple—the better you know the story, the better you can understand the writer's craft and explore how that craft helped to create that story.
The book I study most often is Watchmen, for obvious reasons. And I return to it often and have written more than a few annotations for it. But every time I return to it, I always re-read at least the chapter I am studying, if not the whole book, because I know that I won’t get the most out of it if I forget important details. Also, it's a fantastic story.
Write Your Annotation
So, now you’ve decided what you want to learn about, you’ve picked your book, and you’ve read it a couple of times. Now what? Now, you organize your thoughts, and you start getting them down on paper.
I mentioned earlier that there’s no set way to approach structuring an annotation. It really depends on the person writing it. I can talk, though, about how I structure my own, and you can use that at least as a starting point as you develop your own annotation style. My structure is pretty basic:
- Recap of the story
- Thesis about writer’s use of craft
- Exploration/Analysis of the use of craft
I know it might feel redundant to be going over the story again, especially after you’ve read it two or more times, but I think this important. At the very least, it keeps the story fresh in your mind. At the most, it might reveal some new angle of the craft that you hadn’t noticed the first few times you went over it. It’s a bit of extra work, but I always recap the story in a quick paragraph, and it pays off more often than not.
Next, I write a second paragraph discussing the element of craft I wanted to explore and try to make a definitive statement about the ways the author uses it throughout the comic book. This feels very academic, like a thesis, but I think committing your thoughts to paper gives you a guide for the exploration part of the annotation.
And lastly, I pick 3-5 examples from the comic book that effectively demonstrate the skill I am trying to learn, and I write a paragraph for each. In each paragraph, I explain how the example shows the skill, what the desired effect of the skill is in that instance, discuss how I think it achieved its effect, and I try to end with a statement about how the skill can be mimicked and applied in new ways.
One quick note on my annotations. I mentioned that annotations tend to differ from person to person. Well, mine tend to differ from annotation to annotation, and that’s okay. I believe in tailoring my annotations to the topic I want to learn about. For example, if I wanted to write about every page-turn in a 22-page comic, I might not work in paragraphs for the exploration part of the annotation, and instead I might work with a spreadsheet. The point is, there is no wrong way to write a comic book annotation.
With just a little discipline, you can learn a lot writing annotations of comic books, and it doesn’t cost you anything. And what’s really great about learning to write comic books like this is that there’s no wrong way to do it. It’s a complete adaptable model of learning. On the flip-side, though, you'll only ever get as much out of it as you put into it.
Pick an aspect of comic book writing craft you want explore and improve on, choose a comic book you feel utilizes that craft element well, and write your own annotation.