Sunday, February 13, 2011

5 Easy Tips to Improving Your Storyelling (For Artists)

Let's cut to the chase. You can be an awesome draftsman, but if you can't tell a story, then you're just not going to cut it (this has been true since about 1997). So, five easy ways to improve your storytelling if you're an artist are:

1. Always start a scene with an establishing shot. I don't care if the script doesn't call for one--you're responsible for the visual storytelling and continuity. Unless there is a STORY REASON not to have one, start with one. For drama, you can start with an extreme closeup in panel 1, but then you should immediately establish the scene in panel 2.

Establishing shots tell us WHERE we are exactly--sometimes you establish a skyline in one panel and then a particular building in the next or a particular room, perhaps. They tell us WHO is present and where everyone is located in relation to one another. And they often tell us WHEN the scene takes place--either time of day or a particular time period if the work is a period piece.

2. When creating your characters for a story give each one a distinct feature that is different from the rest. Whenever possible, give them all different silhouettes so they can easily be identified by your reader even from a distance. You want a great example of this: look at the original X-Men by Kirby. Each of the five members had a different silhouette and a different distinctive feature. You want a second example, look at the X-Men from Giant-Sized X-Men #1--new team, and new distinct features for all the characters.

On the Kirby X-Men, you've got a guy with wings, a guy made out of ice, a guy shaped like a gorilla, a guy with a weird red visor and a woman with red hair. All have distinct traits so that even when they're wearing matching uniforms, telling them apart is EASY. Now look at the cover again but clack out the shapes. If those were just black silhouettes, you'd still know the guy with the wings is Angel, the guy shaped like snow man is Ice Man and so on. It's amazing how brilliant Kirby really was. Heck, even Magneto, the villain of the piece has a cool helmet that stands out in the shadows as well.

3. Comprise your panels of squares and rectangles only. And leave a healthy gutter space between them. Easily being able to separate one panel from the next makes for a much easier and more enjoyable reading experience.

The point here is that many new readers (and vets like me who are lazy) just want to read a story. And when panel layouts get tricky, they can get very confusing. Even if reading order still works, often oddly shaped panels will lead to reading errors because the balloon order gets thrown off. Just avoid these pitfalls by only using oddly shaped panels when there is a STORY REASON to do so. And even then, don't do it every time.

4. Now take those squares and rectangles and place them all on invisible tiers (break your page into thirds, typically). All panels on tier one should sit exactly on the same imaginary line. And they should all be the same height and with equal distance between them (or width of gutter, if you prefer that term). Then on the next tier, the same principles apply. Rarely will you need more than three tiers.

Look at both the page above from WATCHMEN and the page below, also from WATCHMEN (because Dave Gibbons is perhaps the most under-rated comic artist of all time--and he's highly regarded as one of the best!). Simple rectangle and square panels. Three tier system. Notice that you intuitively know what panels come in what order. You also have no trouble reading the word balloons and captions in the correct order. It's all right there because of the clean and simple layout.

5. Knock off all that popping out of the panel nonsense. Every time you pop a character's head or blaster, or sword, or leg, or wagon, or whatever our of a panel, you're distracting your reader from what is INSIDE the panel. Keep it simple. Keep it contained.

The greatest comic book of all time (some will tell you) is WATCHMEN and in all of its 12 over-sized issues Gibbons NEVER breaks out of the panel. The entire story is confined to within those panel borders. He never lets the reader break any barrier. While there is much of his work to marvel at, he never intentionally draws attention to how good he is, and that just makes him that much better.

Follow these five steps on your next page and watch how easy it is to read. Watch how clean and professional your pages become--overnight.

Hope it helps. Now go sign up for the Comics Experience art class! :)

Andy

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