writing-toolby John Ostrander

Absent any overall topic occurring to me, maybe we’ll try the ol’ shotgun approach – a bunch of writing tips with the idea that, if there’s enough of them, some should work. (My friend William J. Norris used to describe my sense of humor that way – if I just kept talking, a certain percentage of it was bound to be funny.)

Da tips.

Cast your characters. This can be short-hand for a character and can help with dialogue. Who would play your character in TV or movies or who would provide their voice if the character was animated? It doesn’t have to be a living actor; heck, it doesn’t have to be an actor at all. It can be somebody you know or knew, friend or foe or relative (the last can be a combination of the first two). It can be a politician or your boss or a co-worker. Somebody you find distinctive and whose voice is inside your head.

Using a person as the template can help you with how the character acts, who they are, how they physically express themselves. Mannerisms, habits, nervous tics can all work into the character. The cadence of how the template speaks, verbal habits, and so on can help you as you write the dialogue. It’s sometimes easier to identify these traits in others than in yourself. That gives you perspective on them.

These traits are all shorthand – you still have to do all the basic hard work of who they are, their background, and what they want but this can help, especially if you get stuck.

You/Not You. All your characters are you; all your characters are not you. You have to find the point where you and your character intersect if you’re going to write the character honestly. Every character – the good, the bad, main characters, supporting character, one line wonders – lives inside you. However, you also have to detach from them a bit. You have to have some objectivity in portraying them. Give them their own life. It’s like parents with kids; at some point, the parent has to acknowledge their kid ain’t them. The dichotomy between you/not you can be tough to master.

Make Them Turn the Page. In comics, you don’t want to end the page with a completed action. You want something to happen at the end of the page that leads the reader to flip it. Start the blow at the end of the page, let it connect on the next. The moment can be a question asked that then gets answered on the next page. Doesn’t have to be super huge or super dramatic; it can be a simple “Why?” Just so long as it  leads the reader to the next panel, the next page.

Write Large. Literally. There’s a certain math that goes into writing comics – about five panels per page, maybe two or three balloons/captions per panel AT MOST. Hard to make sure the words aren’t overcrowding. When you’re typing it, pick a large font size and make it 150% normal size. That makes it look like a lot and reins you in but when you reduce the font before you send the script, the words fit the page as it will be printed. You have to leave room for the artwork, after all. No, seriously, you do.

When In Doubt, Cut It Out. If they can cut lines from Shakespeare, and they should and do, they can cut lines from you. If a line or scene or character is not progressing the story, it needs to go. If it’s in there because you love love love how it sounds, take a real good look and see if it serves the story or it’s just an exercise is self-indulgence. This is what they mean when they say, “Kill your darlings.” Less is almost always more.

The Map Is Not The Road. It’s good to have an idea of where you’re going, to know the ending, to have a plan, to make an outline. However, nothing is better when the characters kidnap the story and take it in a different direction. That’s when it most comes alive – when the characters tell you, “Screw it. We’re going over here.” If you’re wise, you simply follow. Let the characters write the story. Every time I’ve done that, it’s magic. When I get stubborn and refuse, the story sucks. Don’t suck.

Finally, there really is only one way to write – and that’s whatever works for you. Anyone who tells you differently is trying to sell you a system. There’s no one foolproof way – including mine. Listen to everything, pick out the things that make sense to you and apply them. Hopefully, there was something here that will help you.

If not, keep looking. Now go write something.