YOU ARE HERE: a "comics window" gives your writing grace and power - Jessica Abel

YOU ARE HERE: a “comics window” gives your writing grace and power

Carla from La Perdida, seen through a window

N.b.: Hey, cartoonists: this post is primarily aimed at people writing prose or comics scripts, but for those of us who make comics already, this is a great method to use to break down scenes before actually drawing anything. In fact, it’s the analog version of Visual Scripting using InDesign that I explain here, that has totally revolutionized my writing process. (And effectiveness. And efficiency.)

Sign up to get your printable “comics window” and use instructions, along with a demo video, at the bottom of this post.

Sometimes a thing I want to write feels fully formed in my mind, until just the moment I sit down to write it. And then suddenly it seems to collapse into a black box. Writing it feels like wading through hip-deep molasses. Nothing is clear, nothing comes easy.

Maybe you’ve felt this too: you get through a draft, feeling like you’re forcing it. You just can’t tell if what you’ve written bears any resemblance to what you intended.

Anyone would tell you: you need to gain some perspective on the thing…but how? You don’t always have an editor or writing group handy.

What you need is a new point of view.

small png of a comics window (comics grid)I find it interesting that the comics grid, sans actual comics, looks like a window—a window on stronger writing.

You know the old adage, show, don’t tell? It’s never more true than when you have to imagine each moment in your story as a drawing. You don’t even have to actually draw anything to make it work. This is a brand-new tool, and it will give you a completely new perspective on your own writing.

This activity is designed to tear away the layers and give you new clarity on what you’ve really written. You can use this method to streamline and make your work zoom, or you can use it to build a rock-solid skeleton on which to build layers of clear and specific description.

Pacing, rhythm, and time as it works in physical space, montage as a storytelling tool, imagining “camera angles,” all will give you new insight on your work, and give you a kind of second sight on your characters. What kind of advantage can you glean from thinking through a character’s “acting” and body language, and how will that be reflected in the way you write the character’s dialogue, or your description?

Reorganize, pare down, dramatize, and reassess your work. No drawing is required, but you can certainly draw if the urge strikes you!

How to do it:

  1. To try it out, choose a scene you’ve written. It should be something that happens in the world, not an essay about ideas, but it can be fiction or nonfiction, an action scene or a very thinky one. The easiest place to start is with a scene that centers on dialogue or internal monologue.
  2. Print out some comics “windows,” i.e., comics page grids (you can download one, with instructions, here),
  3. Think: in the first moment of your scene, what are the characters literally doing? Where are they in space and time? Even if the scene opens with a thought, where are the characters while thinking? In what position are they sitting? What are they doing with their hands? What expressions are on their faces? Act this moment out yourself to get a better sense of it.
  4. Start in panel 1. Write down a quick description of what, literally, the characters are doing, and where and when they are doing it. We want just the facts, don’t bother making it flowery or beautiful. Bullet points are fine.
  5. Then, in the same panel, write the thought or words that happen in that moment, and draw a word balloon around them to differentiate them from the description.
  6. Then move on to panel 2.
  7. How do you decide where to break between panel 1 and panel 2? You use the concept of “atoms.” As soon as your character experiences a change in his or her feelings, or changes physical position (a little or a lot), or something exterior happens to him or her, that’s a new atom, and needs a new panel.

“Atoms are the (more or less) discrete dramatic actions that make up a scene. You mark atoms where there’s a distinct change in action, even one as basic as a character sitting down in a chair. You also mark an atom each time the emotion or purpose of a scene changes.”

Mastering Comics, page 26.

  1. So, panel 2. Write a description of what is happening. Take note of physical details you “see” around the characters, and what kind of emotions they holding in their bodies or on their faces. Try it out with your own body: get up and move around—act it out. Make the face.
  2. Continue through the scene. Each time there’s a new atom, make a new panel. When you fill up six panels on your grid, get out a new grid and keep going.

Notice how:

  • Your understanding of characters’ motivations becomes clearer when you “study” their faces and body language.
  • The relationships between characters become more clear when you “see” how they interact.
  • The sequence of events in a scene becomes crystal clear.
  • You can more easily tell the difference between what you intended to say and what you actually wrote.
  • You better understand how time is passing in a scene.

For each panel, you can also think through a multitude of other visual aspects that may give you insight into the moment. For example:

  • How much time passes between this panel and the next?
  • How close are we, the readers, to the action? Are we right on top of the character, or far away, with a full-length view?
  • Is the POV subjective, where we can only see the character’s hands? Or are we looking her in the face?
  • Is it dark and shadowy, or bright?
  • Are we looking down on the characters, like they’re ants, or up at them, like Superman?

As you can see from these directions, this activity is very helpful if you actually intend to adapt your writing to comics (or film, for that matter, though making functional storyboards is quite different from making comics). By placing the atoms in panels, you’re able to think through the visual storytelling even if you can’t draw well. And if writing comics is your goal, you’re definitely going to want to read this post, about the full-strength version of visual scripting, using Adobe InDesign.

But for prose writers who have no intention of making comics, why bother with all this? You can’t publish it in this form. And this is hard work. You may think you’re not a visual person. You may write long stretches of omniscient-narrator monologue and observation. I know I do, and that’s a tough case.

But force the first image to come by acting it out, just start to think, what could this look like? and you’ll find that you’re as visual as you need to be to work this out. You may think of your work as more internal, but brains exist in bodies, and the internal is expressed in the world through how we live. Thinking through how your character is moving in space, her expressions, will give new layers to your understanding of her even if you never tell us what those movements look like.

Comics asks you to think about atoms, which are really discrete moments of feeling and action, as well as about non-verbal storytelling, and about physical interaction with space. You can write prose all your life and never have to think about these aspects of story. But once you do, it’s like a third eye opens. Instead of airy, vague notions of how a scene happens, it’s suddenly incredibly concrete. You can almost hear the sound of the character setting down his coffee cup on the table, smell the bakery next door, see the micro-expression of exasperation flit across his girlfriend’s face.


Now take your comics grids, and rewrite the scene in prose. You will have to discard most of your specific description. That’s OK. Everything you’ve done and thought will infuse your sense of the scene and allow you to write it more clearly and with more power.

I taught this activity in an undergraduate creative writing class at Bryn Mawr College, and here’s some of what students had to say:

“With my story I saw that my climax was too general. I mean, I realized that there were actions and thoughts my protagonist needed to have to make it real or believable.”

“It made me see was I was mentally assuming but didn’t really look closely enough to see.”

“The protagonist was more of an idea or a figure instead of a character with clothes and habitual hand motions and so forth. And I finally saw her face, even though I couldn’t draw it.”

“Writing words doesn’t always let you see the steps or the pieces, but sketching the cells did.”

“When I went back to scenes in ‘La Perdida,’ I saw more clearly how Carla’s body language opposes her dialogue and I understood her mental confusion.”

“I used the technique of sketching to revise poem #8. Consequently I added a stanza of ‘setting’ detail (as if it was short fiction) and my workshop group thought the details actually brought the reader into the poem more.”

“I am going to do this for all my writing—making notes, drafting, revising. It’s the best. And maybe try it to understand better when something I’m reading is confusing, a novel or—I don’t know if this would work—a nonfiction book or a text book”]

If you try this out, and I hope you do, please let me know how it goes in the comments!

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