Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Whale Blubber, Backpacking, and Scripting

What do these things have to do with each other?  Literally, not much.  Figuratively, quite a bit. 
In the old days, whales would be carved up by workers called flensers.  They carried knives that were well-suited to the task of separating Mr. Whale from his body fat, great big honking things that looked like polearms and were called flensing knives. 

(photo courtesy of

They sure weren’t subtle, but then again, neither are whales. 

There’s an old maxim that backpackers use (at least, my scout master taught it to me) that applies when planning what to take when you need to carry everything on your back:  Take half of what you think you’ll need, and then take half of that. 

Now we come to the comic script, where less is almost always more, and the best rule in editing is usually to take your big ol’ flensing knife and carve away excess dialog and exposition with extreme prejudice.  Just hack it away, like whale blubber.  End up with half of what you think you need, then halve it again.
You see, what gets forgotten in a visual medium like comics is that it’s visual medium.  The pictures are there for a reason.  Worth a thousand words?  Not always.  Sometimes it’s a hundred, and sometimes it’s ten grand.  The point is, with a picture showing the reader what’s happening, there’s no need to tell them what’s happening. 

In a comic, use your words for other things, like driving the plot forward or developing the characters.  Use them for exposition as little as possible, and to describe action and emotion not at all.  

I’ll say it again- it’s a bad idea to have any words in your comic that tell the reader what’s happening on the page (Suddenly, Mary heard something!  Suddenly, Tom tripped on a log and fell!)  It’s a very, very bad idea to have anything that tells the reader how to feel about something that’s happened on the page. (Suddenly, Mary heard something!  She was very frightened!  Suddenly, Tom tripped on a log and fell!  How terrible!)  Show, don’t tell!  My examples may be corny, but look at your work carefully or, better yet, have someone else read it and tell them what to look for.  You’ll be surprised how often this happens, even if you’re a veteran.     

I’ve been working on a new project with Pam Bliss.  It’s one of those back-burner projects that started as a raw idea; set to simmer on low, it’s taken shape over the last year as we passed a script back and forth, working on it in odd moments.  We finally achieved a critical mass of goodness and coherency and it now has the green light.  I took to the script with my flensing knife, trying to peel it down to its lean skeleton, taking off a year’s worth of accumulated fat.  Something happened then that’s never happened before.  Pam sent it back to me, saying I’d trimmed off too much.  I’ve never trimmed off too much before.  It’s very hard to do.  

So don’t be afraid to make deep cuts.  Nine times out of ten, something that sticks out as flabby can probably be handled by a character’s expression or by information in the panel.  If it’s not character-building or moving the story forward, it probably doesn’t need to be there.  When in doubt, cut it out. 

More to come.