Three Rules for Writing Visually

Acclaimed comics writer Ron Marz (Green Lantern, Silver Surfer, and Amazon Studios’ own Blackburn Burrow) knows about telling stories visually. Here are his three rules for doing it well:

By Ron Marz

I write comic books. Yes, that means my job is to write the words that go in those little “bubbles” on the pages … though we actually call them “balloons” (bubbles are in bath tubs and champagne, not comic books).

My job is also to try to figure out the most visual way to tell a story. Comics are visual documents. They are words and pictures together, making something more uniquely powerful than either could accomplish separately. A comic-book script is like a long letter to the artist, most often breaking down the action by page and even by panels, suggesting pacing and storytelling to the artist. The artist interprets the script, bringing his or her own sensibility to the page, choosing how best to convey the visuals. The magic lies in the collaboration; the creative energy of two (or more) minds working toward the same goal. 

A generation ago, comics were artist-driven, often to the detriment of sensible stories and three-dimensional characters. Now the pendulum has swung the other way, and comics are writer-driven, often to the detriment of visual excitement. The comic industry needs to get back to more of a balance between writing and art, as in the 1980s, when seminal works like “Watchmen” and “Dark Knight Returns” were created. One of the ways we can do that is for writers to be more attuned to writing visually, and making artists full partners in the creative process. Which brings us to … 

Three Rules for Writing Visually 

Rule #1: “Show, Don’t Tell” This one seems obvious, right? But I’ve had more than one comic artist say this exact thing to me: “If I have to draw one more scene of people sitting around a conference table talking, I’m gonna lose my mind.”

Yes, there’s a certain amount of necessary information that must be conveyed via dialogue in every comic. But just showing people talking is generally the most visually dull way to do it.

Issue #4 of “Blackburn Burrow” opens with a flashback sequence, showing ancient Mayans summoning, battling and entombing their “god,” with Colonel Richards narrating what’s happening. It’s considerably more interesting to show those events, rather than just two pages of Richards talking.

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The Particular Pleasures, Literary and Otherwise, of Elmore Leonard’s “Justified”

Elmore LeonardArthur Smith is an Assistant Curator at The Paley Center for Media, and a longtime Elmore Leonard fan. In this guest post, he writes about Justified, the popular series based on Leonard’s work, and shares insights from the show’s creative team.

“It has to be a character that appeals to you, you like to see him perform … it works or it doesn’t.  And I have been lucky that they’ve made all my stuff work.”

—Elmore Leonard at the Paley Center for Media on the creative team behind Justified

Elmore Leonard’s novels tend to be shelved in the “Mystery” sections of most bookstores, but they aren’t mysteries, really; the plots of his crime stories can be serpentine, but the reader is always kept abreast of exactly who is doing what, why they’re doing it, and usually what kind of hat a character favors, who his favorite movie actors are, and what they like on their pancakes.

The stories often revolve around crime, but Leonard’s work isn’t really about hard-boiled action or seedy transgression; his stories are about the particulars of human behavior, and most particularly in the way people talk, how they construct their identities and relationships out of language, how character is revealed through dialogue.  Leonard’s books are comedies of manners, driven by the exploration of wonderfully specific characters thrown into sharp relief when placed in the extreme circumstances of traditional crime fiction plots.  Leonard isn’t as interested in the mechanics of a heist as he is in the ways people involved in a heist relate to one another, how they express their essential natures and personal style through nervous exchanges, bluff bravado, calculated insults and cool rejoinders.

Leonard’s irresistible characters and inimitable way with dialogue have made his books a popular source of movie adaptations for decades, but the resulting films have mostly been disappointing, as the narrative demands of cinema have too often focused on the twisty plots of Leonard’s novels at the expense of the wry characterization and eccentric detail that distinguish the writing.  A handful have gotten the balance right:  Get Shorty emphasized Leonard’s comedy and crackled with energy; Out of Sight caught the funky, downbeat vibe of Leonard’s milieu and added movie star charisma; and Jackie Brown embraced both the sardonic hilarity of Leonard’s dialogue and the soulful undercurrent running through the tale of unsatisfied, aging characters quickly running out of options in life. To this list add the terrific television show Justified, now early in its fourth season on the FX network, which has won critical acclaim, a raft of industry awards, and intensely dedicated fans.  

U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens, the hero of numerous Leonard stories and the principal figure in Justified, is the quintessential Leonard protagonist:  cool under pressure, lightly ironic, and self-assured due to a faith in his essential competence (there are resonant echoes of director Howard Hawks in Leonard’s work, as both men prize self-control and competence as the signal masculine virtues, and both can be very funny about it).  Timothy Olyphant plays Raylan perfectly, with an offhand charm and a suggestion of deadly steel just below the surface.

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Leonard, Olyphant, and Justified co-creator and executive producer Graham Yost spoke at the Paley Center for Media about the series, and their conversation highlighted some of the things the show does right in transplanting Leonard’s vision to the small screen while succeeding as an uncommonly entertaining and compelling work in its own right.

Here are five of them:

Raylan is a hero.

In an era of quality television drama defined by morally ambiguous anti-heroes (see Mad Men, Breaking Bad, etc.), it is refreshing to spend time with a character of utter moral conviction.  Raylan is quick on the draw and doesn’t hesitate to use deadly force, but, as the title says, his actions are justified.  Raylan doesn’t spend a lot of time agonizing over his actions; he gets the job done, and there is enormous satisfaction in watching him do it.

Justified is not an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard book

Justified makes liberal use of Leonard’s characters, dialogue, and situations, but it is its own animal.  Leonard’s work is a jumping off point for the show, not a blueprint to be rigidly followed.  In the discussion at the Paley Center, Leonard recounts he told the producers to take his Raylan material and “hang it up and strip it for parts.”  It’s a strategy that has worked out beautifully.

Justified is a television show

Movies demand ruthless compression in storytelling; in most cases, no element that does not advance the plot can be allowed to eat valuable time.  But so much of the pleasure in Leonard’s books is a kind of “hang out” quality, an immersion in the situation and setting, an opportunity to listen to the characters talk about whatever is on their minds.  The open-ended nature of a television series makes this experience much easier to reproduce.

FX told Yost to pursue longer story arcs and to make sure to spend a lot of time with “the bad guys”

Justified is not tied to the rhythms of a typical television procedural.  It largely eschews a “case of the week” structure to focus on a continuing season-long story, which means the villains of the piece get plenty of screen time.  This is a very good thing, as no one writes “bad guys” like Leonard.  Fully dimensional and beguilingly colorful, characters like Walton Goggins’s Boyd Crowder, Margo Martindale’s Mags Bennett, and Neal McDonough’s Robert Quarles make every minute spent with them on screen a treat, and delving as deeply into the motivations and personalities of the antagonists makes Justified an uncommonly rich and compelling viewing experience.

“The goal is high quality fun”

So proclaimed Yost at the outset of the panel discussion referenced above, and that simple mandate is also central to Justified’s appeal.  The show has real emotional resonance and evokes a wide range of responses, including terror and grief, but the overall effect is one of delight…in a story well told, in fascinating characters fully realized, in the endless pleasure of all of that delicious talk. 

To learn more about The Paley Center for Media, visit the website: http://www.paleycenter.org.

Exclusive Guest Post: Five Noir Films I Love, and Why I Hate to Go to the Movies

ZandriVincent Zandri is the bestselling author of Murder by Moonlight (currently the subject of a book trailer contest at Amazon Studios). Zandri offers this dispatch from the intersection of movies and noir:

I don’t go to the movies.

Wait, scratch that … I love the movies. Or, films, I should say. It’s just that you’re going to be hard pressed to find me spending a Saturday night at the local mall, buying over-priced popcorn and sitting through the latest Adam Sandler flick while some high schoolers are chatting it up behind me and the seven-feet-six basketball player seated in front of me blocks the entire screen.

OK, I know, going to the movies isn’t necessarily for the guys, but more for the gals. And it’s what you do for someone you love who is constantly doing things for you that she doesn’t necessarily enjoy doing. Like bellying up to a bar for instance.

But while we’re on the subject, I have a serious confession to make. Until recently, I’ve been single for a long time, dating here and there, enjoying some short-lived relationships, living the George Clooney life more or less, only without the bucks or the Hollywood good looks. In any case, I always find myself telling my date, or prospective date, how much I love to go to the movies. It works like a charm, every time. All I have to do is ask a girl if she’d like to go to a movie this Friday night and dinner afterwards and her eyes will light up and boom, I’m in.

So what I do after that is wait a few days and then I’ll sort of suggest we save the movie for another time since I can only get an early dinner reservation at this really cool restaurant. Usually she agrees and from that point on, I keep promising a movie, but it usually never happens. And that’s usually when the relationship fizzles out … go figure.

Problem is, in my business, I can watch movies all the time, anytime, via Netflix or Amazon Instant Video or even YouTube. In fact, I probably watch and re-watch half a dozen movies per week. Watching movies and reading books are essential as a fiction writer. Like a musician listening to other bands, watching movies not only sparks my creativity but it also makes me a more enthusiastic writer. I find myself watching not only as a professional, but as a fan.

The  movies I like to watch and, as I’ve already pointed out, re-watch, almost always fall into the noir or hard-boiled categories. The top-5 noir films I simply cannot stay away from are as follows:

1.      Chinatown: Hands down one of the best hard-boiled, wise-guy detective flicks ever made. The Robert Towne script is said to be perfect but the performances are even better with Jack Nicholson playing the sarcastic gumshoe and Faye Dunaway the femme fatale. Look for the scene in which Jack slaps Faye around while trying to figure out if the kid upstairs is her sister or daughter. “My sister, my daughter, my sister…!!!” Classic.

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Guest Post: Screenwriter Derek Haas on the 3 Things You Can Do in a Novel But Not Onscreen

Derek HaasDerek Haas is a writer of movies (3:10 to Yuma, Wanted), creator of TV series (Chicago Fire), and acclaimed novelist (the just-released The Right Hand). In this exclusive guest post, Haas explores the ways in which storytelling varies by form:

I was once asked:  what are three things you can do in a book that you can’t do in a movie or TV series?  An interesting question… a. because why three?  Why not 5 or 7 or 1?  And b. because there actually are three main things you can do in a novel you can’t do in a movie or TV series. How did my interviewer know the exact number to ask?  Anyway, here are my answers.

First, you don’t have to worry about a budget. At all. If you want to write that the main character drives a motorcycle through the biggest earthquake ever to strike Los Angeles, have at it. If you want to have characters jumping from Russia to Prague to London to Washington DC to LA, no one is going to stop you. If you want five-hundred assassins attacking the Olympic Opening Ceremonies … all you have to do is put it down on paper. Of course, you can’t do that in a movie script or you’ll give the President of Production at the studio a heart attack. Unless you have Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp in the movie together, then you can do anything.

Second, you get to move inside the heads of your characters.

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From the Hollywood Economist: The Real Story Behind Those Weekly Box Office Numbers

Edward Jay Epstein, entertainment industry expert and author of The Hollywood Economist 2.0: The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies (one of the best books on the business of film) explains the realities of the weekly box office “horse race.” Who’s No. 1 doesn’t necessarily align with who’s making money, and here’s why:

Even the numbers themselves are misleading. The reported “grosses” are not those of the studios but the projected sales of tickets at the movie houses in the U.S. and Canada (which is counted by Hollywood as part of the U.S.). Whatever the amount actually is, movie houses remit about 50 percent to the movie distributor, which then deducts, off the top, its out-of-pocket of costs, which includes advertising, prints, insurance, local taxes, and other logistical expenses.

For an average big-studio movie, these costs now amount to about $40 million. So, just to stay in the black, a movie needs $74 million in ticket sales. … Most Hollywood movies nowadays actually lose money at the American box office and make it from ancillary markets.

Meanwhile, the outcome of the box-office race has little importance to theater owners, because each of the major multiplex chains books all of the studios’ wide-release movies. Their only concern is the total number of people who show up and how much popcorn, candy, and soda they buy, since that’s where their real profit comes from. In numerical terms, the movie-going audience has been shrinking since 1948.

The studios focus on the cumulative revenue their movies take in over many platforms, including both domestic and foreign movie houses, DVD stores, pay-TV output deals, and TV licensing. Even though its ancillary benchmarks can be higher when a movie is No. 1 at the box office, the film can fare very badly in its cumulative results.

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