How to get better at writing comics?

Think your comic can improve? Whether it's art or writing, composition or colouring, feel free to ask here! Critique and commentary welcome.

Postby Nougat on Sun Apr 23, 2006 9:03 pm

I completely agree with qwanderer, especially on this point:

qwanderer wrote:...if you don't make a comic more than a combination of the two then it's just an illustrated story. The page design and the interaction of the two are what make comics unique.


This special feature is the difference between sequential art and other arts--the reason why I consider it to be a seperate artistic pursuit (and therefore why I think it shouldn't be lumped with illustration or animation, although at most art schools it still is). I think one should avoid going straight from script to final comic--there should be many drafts in between that involve the words and the pictures(/sketches) together, interacting on the page. Make these in-between drafts, leave them alone for a few days, and come back to them with fresh eyes to see how they would read. Don't be afraid to edit heavily. Change a word, change a line, change the position of all the word balloons, change the "camera" angle, change all the panelling, change the focus of the scene, cut the scene entirely. Don't let yourself reach a point where you don't want to bother throwing something away simply because you've already inked and lettered it.

When you're writing and drawing, try to be ever vigilant of the relationship between your words and pictures. Consider the effect of making the two mirror each other exactly, or symbolize one another, or directly contradict one another, or pull out second and third meanings from each other.
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Postby Caduceus on Wed Aug 23, 2006 12:39 am

Comics are not like writing a script. The words and images are of one conception in the best comics. I find Toy Division to be exemplary in this regard; the words and images are like one gesture. I think we should all be asking you for advice! Your words and images act together like a 1950s magazine ad and I mean that in a complimentary way.

There are no rules. Some comic writers write a script. Some just let it flow on the page. Take every bit of advice you get with a grain of salt.

Also, your archives are broken. Try going to previous page from the latest comic. Doesn't work. Might want to check that.
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Postby ChaosBurnFlame on Tue Sep 05, 2006 1:10 am

Writing Comics:

Get... an... editor.

Seriously. Best advice i can give. And make sure it's someone that you know, and hope, will throw your ideas back at you and say'This sucks!".

I must say, Phalanx was the best editor I ever had in that regard, followed by FAUB and CW.
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Postby Christwriter on Tue Sep 05, 2006 10:05 am

1. Understand that you will never, ever, ever get to see your work the way another person does. You are way too close to it. Something that makes sense to you can make no sense at all to the reader. Something that means one thing to you can mean something else to the reader. Ask people for advice, and then follow that advice.

2. Show. Don't tell. Show. Only have a character talk about it in dialouge if it's natural. If you can't fit it into the dialogue in a given situation, LET IT GO until you can. Do not write dialogue to explain things. Do not write contrived situations so that your characters can explain it. The only time your characters should be explaining something in dialogue is if another character doesn't understand it. Do not have your characters say how they are feeling. Have thier faces show it. I find a character glaring angrily to be more powerful than a character saying "I'm mad". A frowing character is more powerful than a character saying "I've got a bad feeling about this". Don't have your characters talk to themselves unless they do that a lot, about innane things.

3. Use other people's ideas as rarely as possible. By that, I mean those "gee that would have been good if the writer hadn't screwed it up" things that spawn off new ideas. If you have an overwelming desire to re-write someone else's characters to "fix" your favorite story, either call the fan-fiction what it is and use thier cast, move away from the "fix" as quickly as possible or DON'T DO IT AT ALL. As long as you're writing to "fix" someone else's work, your own work will suffer.

4. Pay attention to other people's characters, for tips on how to write your own. Pick movies or books with strong central characters and pay attention to what makes them strong. Sometimes the weakest PERSON ina movie can be the strongest CHARACTER (for example, the triple-crosser who collapses under the FBI's questioning). Also, listen to your own characters. They tell you things. They tell you a lot of things.

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Postby Caduceus on Tue Sep 05, 2006 4:37 pm

christwriter wrote:
2. Show. Don't tell. Show. Only have a character talk about it in dialouge if it's natural. If you can't fit it into the dialogue in a given situation, LET IT GO until you can. Do not write dialogue to explain things. Do not write contrived situations so that your characters can explain it. The only time your characters should be explaining something in dialogue is if another character doesn't understand it. Do not have your characters say how they are feeling. Have thier faces show it. I find a character glaring angrily to be more powerful than a character saying "I'm mad". A frowing character is more powerful than a character saying "I've got a bad feeling about this". Don't have your characters talk to themselves unless they do that a lot, about innane things.



Gotta disagree with this. Dogmatic statements like this imply that there is only one way to write a story.

Some examples of comic artists that made use of some "Telling":

Carl Barks often had narration that explained what his characters were feeling and used internal monologues that explained why they felt how they did.

Osamu Tezuka and Will Eisner would use narration to encompass longer periods of time, often using some heavy-handed explanation of what individuals and sometimes entire cultures believed.

Most of the great adventure comics were wordy. Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Prince Valiant.

R. Crumb often has almost Brechtian dialogue with intentionally unnatural speech that comments on the action.

Are there some comic artists that do use the "Show don't tell" method? Heck yes! A few of my favorites:

Daniel Clowes. He doesn't use narration at all in Ghost World and the characters never express themselves honestly. There is quite a lot of narration in Ice Haven but it is largely unreliable narrators (a trick that I would love to see in more comics.)

Los Bros. Hernandez. Their works are often labrynthine journeys to understand the characters.

Charles Schulz. The Peanuts had a lot of beautiful pantomime.

So I have no problem with the concept. What I don't like is the idea that it is the only way to write.
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Postby Christwriter on Tue Sep 05, 2006 6:34 pm

Well, then we're just going to have to disagree. The rule, as I've been told by everyone from my writer's groups to Terry BRooks to Stephen King is Show. Don't Tell. It's not a hard-and-fast rule, but it's a guideline that just about every professional I've talked to uses.

If you can broadcast the information through what's going on in your pictures, don't add a speech bubble.

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Postby Biev on Tue Sep 05, 2006 6:38 pm

Thank you! I've been itching to say the same thing. I once got lectured by a litterature teacher because I chose to start my story with the ending, and then backtrack to explain it. Apparently this was turning her whole world upside down. Whatever...
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Postby Joel Fagin on Tue Sep 05, 2006 7:40 pm

Telling has it's place. Action moves too fast to do anything but and we're used to getting the physical appearance of things instantly simply by looking at them, so again telling is appropriate there.

Showing is best used for the things that we cannot see directly, such as emotion, thoughts and so on.

I think people say to "show not tell" so you're always trying to show. If it doesn't work and is not appropriate, you'd fall back on telling, but it's important to get into the habit of trying that first so it becomes second nature.

- Joel Fagin

PS. Show and Tell tutorial!.

PPS and Edit: Although I have just noticed it has some links that seem to be absent.
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Postby KingofSnake on Tue Sep 19, 2006 1:46 pm

70% of my comics are on the drawing board for at least 6 months before they are realised artistically, and in that time there are three writers criticizing the joke and tweaking dialogue, until we get a product that flows realistically, and is as funny as it can be.

the other 30% are comics where we're like "crap i need something to happen in between the time the security gaurds thing they vaporize kung fu joe with their flashlights, and the time willard scotts evil band of squirrels lose the blueprints to the time machine.
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Postby Rcmonroe on Wed Sep 20, 2006 11:58 am

One of the "themes" of my strip is portraying the way people interact. I do this by "showing" the way people talk: what they say, what they don't say, and how they say what they're saying. It may seem like I'm doing a lot more "telling" than "showing," but I'm comfortable with it. There's hardly any action in my strip anyway, so there's not much to show.

All that sounds like I'm defensive about my showing/telling ratio, but I'm not; I just never thought about it before and I'm glad this thread made me do so.
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Postby Maker on Thu Oct 05, 2006 1:53 am

Neil Gaiman and Stephen King has been mentioned. I want to add Brian Michael Bendis and Grant Morrison; these are four people who love to write about writing. (And, one might add, four extremely successful writers.) My advice is, listen to them.
"I’m not asking you to accept everyone and everything the same, I’m not defending the rights of KKK or anything. I’m asking if you can accept the possibility, the idea, of any one ideology or belief system or faith or doctrine or lifestyle that may be just as good as yours. I want you to look at the world in all its splendor and glory, absorb its millions of cultures, imagine that you know and love every single living person, and ask yourself, really ask yourself - don’t cheat and look to anyone or anything for answers, but figure this one thing out all by yourself:

"Do you really think you’re better than everyone else?"
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A trick that I've found helpful

Postby Glambourine on Wed Nov 01, 2006 7:29 pm

I'm a huge fan of Al Capp's Li'l Abner, especially the 1940s strips and some here and there up to about 1955. And one of the best tricks Capp uses is this: make every panel in your comic interesting. You can look at any Li'l Abner strip from back in the day, take a panel out of context, and find it at least nice to look at and kind of amusing, at best hilarious.

Categories are crap, but in general: if you're a serious cartoonist, try making every panel of your comic carry some dramatic weight, even when taken out of context. If you're a humorous cartoonist, try making every panel of your comic funny in some way. If you're into sexy cartooning, try to have every panel make me want to buy a lot of merchandise featuring your bisexual goth magical gamerchixx indie-rock characters flaunting their asses. The rule of thumb I've used: try looking at the panel completely out of context. If you could show a panel of your comic completely out of context to someone who's never read your comic before, and after looking at that panel, they laugh or frown or whatever you want them to do, your comic as a whole is going to be memorable.

This isn't a hard-and-fast rule, and it changes the feel of your comic substantially and limits what you can do with some subject matter--it tends to speed up your pacing and to "flatten out" the dramatic effect of some strips. But it's a really, really good way to get better at writing comics, and even if you do this for a while and decide to drop it at some future point, you'll still have the weird brain architecture nagging at you with every panel you draw and write, telling you: "Make this better. Make this more interesting"--which is in no way a bad voice to have in your head.
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Postby Lifeofthekalahari23 on Mon Mar 26, 2007 12:03 pm

1:Always use original characters. This is important. Before you start the comic, write out what you think who they'd be like. Never use stereotypes(I guess Hoertenz is kinda a stereotype)Think about who they would act, their opinions, throw it all together and you've got a character. Never mold them off of other characters.
2:Forth wall breaking is funny, if used it the right moment. Sometimes it is an important part of a storyline, it can make a very funny one indeed, but used it the wrong time, its just plain tacky.
3:You don't need to be PG-14 to MA to make a serious, dramatic comic. I have not used a dramatic storyline yet, I might, sometime, but I've noticed many cartoonists who write dramatic comics feel thats they have to cover it in naked people cut in half swearing. Not that I've seen comics that use that, but they add many, many swears. Just at least use swears and such at the right moment.
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Postby Fabio Ciccone on Fri Mar 30, 2007 8:25 am

Ask yourself: "What would Bill Watterson do", and you're set! Believe me, I'm not joking. Check your favourite artists and try to comparse your work with theirs, try to think something like "hey, if this was a [FAV. ARTIST]'s work, he would come up with something better than this. What can I do to make something the same level?"


For the record, I could never match Calvin & Hobbes standard. But I'll keep tryin' :)


BTW, Toy Division kicks serious @ss :D
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Postby Wraithwriter on Fri Mar 30, 2007 2:45 pm

I'm just getting started here, but when I hit the drawing table and consider my imaginary text bubbles, I try to keep one thing in mind. KISS (Keep it simple, stupid)

When your trying to write a story, getting too complex or putting in too much dialogue can be a chore for your audience to read out. Plus, MOST irl conversations are simple and to the point anyway. The only time its not is when people are amung friends, and let themselves rant because they're in good company, or leave sentances unfinished because their buddy knows how they're going to finish it.

It was like chewing on a brick to get my first page out. I needed something short to explain the beginning confrontation, something to show the usual way the main character gets into trouble. It still feels like chewing on bricks, but you don't start out a Robert Jordan or Douglas Adams; you practice.
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Da Moooood!

Postby ArcoJawa on Tue May 22, 2007 3:01 pm

Heheh, well theres more to writing well then writing well you know. It hard to think and incidently write and draw if you, your body, and your mind aren't set up for it. This means getting the right enviroment for work to ensue. Think about this:

Mood Music:
Now this might be a little difficult to use as I would suggest you use music that fits the situation, but not everybody likes the kind of music that fits a certain situation. Just find something you like that is as close as possible to the mood you want in the comic. Further more you might want to test it out a bit, I found that I couldn't work with certian music I enjoyed simply because it had words and they distracted me, but im certain this varies based on the person.

Hunger and Thirst:
I don't think people give their stomach enough credit. Trust me, if your HUNGRY or THIRSTY you WON'T be able to work. This falls under the category of a "distraction".

Energy:
Hyper people can get a lot done. Sounds weird but it's true. Being wide awake and full of energy can help you think clearly and focus, and it's not as hard as everybody thinks. First of all you have to be well fed and hydrated (see above). The easiest way is to use some type of energy food or drink. Another way is to exercise. Close to exercise is simple stretching, which can be nicer for people who don't really dig exercise. Also fast reaction adrenaline-pumping situations can fill you with energy. This could be Dancing, High-Adrenaline Video Games, even Slap Jack!

So, your psyched up, filled up, and pumped up, now all you need is

Cool Down:
Yes a cool down, I know you just made yourself hyper and it's good to have all that energy but it in itself can be a distraction. Just take a short break, nothing over a few hours though, you want to calm down but you don't want to lose the effect.

Anyway there's my ten cents...
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Postby DarkElf92 on Thu May 24, 2007 7:12 am

I have had a lot of trouble with this personally, so I'm going to say what I try to do. This is WEBcomic writing advice. It isn't the same thing as writing say, a novel (which I've learned, and am learning, the hard way.) or a graphic novel, or even a short story. The story can be the same. It's the pacing that must be different. A webcomic-er must hold the readers attention between several days, rather than a few seconds that it might take to turn the page in a graphic novel. so my advice is a list of things to remember:

1 PACING. remember that your reader will have at the very least 24 hours (or 48 or 72) between this page and the next. slow paced drama is not the way to go. take a look at one of my comics. you'll see what not to do. ^.^'

2 SUSPENSE. this goes with pacing. it's nice to instill suspense as much as possible at the end of every page. This is another thing that makes it different from a book format. If you get to a boring bit in a book, what do you do? skim it, and get on to the next good part. If you get to a boring bit in a webcomic, you may not bother going back to the site the next week/day/month to see if anything happened.

3 CLARITY. do you tend to give your characters tons of backstory? well, remember that ina book that can be covered in a few well placed paragraphs. in a thrice-weekly comic it might take up to two weeks for a "flash back" to establish story. unless it is of vital importance, try to keep the story, "here and now" not always referring to random past events and having flashbacks. NOTE: I've seen this done well (Girl Genius) but also botched which makes the story VERY hard to follow (a number of not-named-here comics) even if the art is good, the reader will get frustrated and give up after a confusing look at the archives to try and make sense of everything.

4 PLOT. well, yeah plot is nice. as I said, you can do anything that a book can. but if you are just starting out, maybe a political drama in the 12th century is not the way to go. try a simple fantasy (no historical reasearch nessecary) or school (you don't have to have a lot of "setting the scene" there, we all know what a school is, and how it works...right?) story. Once you've nailed writing character interactions and pacing your story there, you can move on to the uber-complicated and interesting story that's been bouncing around your head.

well, that's my little 'words of wisdom' . oh, and if you go to my webcomics, you'll know I'm an awful hypocrite. I can't pace drama to save my life, I have a huge amount of backstory, and the side-plots are tangled. but I try for the above rules.

I know I've just repeated things others have said, but hey, they bear repeating!

happy writing-

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Postby Tashasworld on Sat Jun 02, 2007 8:46 am

My writing advice, long version with examples first, followed by the short version:

When I wrote my first (unpublished) novel, I used people I knew as "templates" for the main characters. This gave me a shortcut to writing their dialogue and scripting their actions -- all I had to do was think of how each particular person would respond to a particular situation. My mistake was in plotting the story to rigorously, however. I didn't give my characters room to develop in their own way, and when they did, they often made a hash of my plot. I kept having to force the story back toward the resolution I wanted, not the resolution the story demanded. But it was a good learning experience.

When I wrote the sequel (also unpublished), I got about halfway through before I stalled completely. I could see where the story should go, but no way to get there from where I was. I set it aside for about a year, before dusting it off and taking a hard look at it and thinking, "What if I called this character?" It was hard to do, since it was a character that was loosely based on me, and the main character to boot. I went back to almost the beginning of the story, and changed it so that one character died instead of surviving the events that set the story in motion. After that, everything flowed on its own. it was the right thing to do for the story, even though it meant a massive rewrite (over 100 pages). Another learning experience.

When I started writing "Tasha's World," I again used people I knew as "templates," intending to make the comic about me and some of my friends, but with the names changed. I had a few ideas of stories I'd like to tell, but ultimately let the characters decide where the story would go. They've developed their own personalities along the way, and bear little resemblance to the people they were originally based on -- to the point of taking the strip away from the direction I had originally intended. I was originally going to have something life-changing happen to the main character, because I thought it would be interesting, then realized it was something that wouldn't work with her and would change the dynamic of the strip too much (and probably derail it completely). So, naturally, it's happening anyway, because that's the direction she chose. And because I have about a year's worth of scripts already written for the strip, I know it works. >_<

Short version:

(1) Give each of your characters their own personalities, and (this is the important part) listen to them -- even if it means scrapping a plotline or putting it on hold for awhile. Otherwise, it won't feel natural to your readers. If you find your stories getting derailed too often by a particular character who has to be forced into acting a certain way, then maybe that character needs to be changed or replaced.

(2) Don't be afraid to throw out anything that isn't working. Even if it means going back to the beginning and starting over. It's hard to do, but sometimes it's necessary.

As for art (keeping in mind that I'm not an artist, and drawing does not come easily to me) , one thing that has helped me was to visualize everything as simple shapes (circles, squares, triangles, etc.). This especially helps when drawing animals and inanimate objects. When I was drawing a superhero comic, I also used Barbie and Ken dolls as references to help me visualize how the characters stood, moved, and interacted. It's severely limited, but it does help. As does a knowledge of proportion and anatomy (plenty of good resources have been listed for that).
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Postby Dark Spider on Wed Jul 18, 2007 5:47 pm

Here are some writing tips. I'm sorry if it sounds vague or unfocused. I'm sorting and condensing like several books of knowledge into a post.

1. Make sure your characters have 3 dimensions.

-The first dimension is physiology which has to do with the character's bodily characteristics (race, height, weight, hair, etc).

-The second dimension is sociology which has to do with the character's history (like how the character grew up in his hometown, or with his family or friends).

-The third dimension is psychology which has to do with how the character views and deals with his life based on the first two dimensions. For instance, let's say your character is fat (a physiological trait) and his parents made fun of him for it (a sociological trait). Then your character will be very self conscious and defensive about his fatness (a psychological trait).

2. Remember this quote: "Characters are at their best when they're doing something...but they're only memorable when they're striving for their something."

What the first part of the quote means is that since you only what your characters at their best, you should always try to have your character do SOME kind of action, even when they're talking. It makes them look interesting.

What the second part of the quote means is that if you want truly memorable characters, you have to give them a goal of some sort and you have have them struggle to achieve that goal. That way the character will always be "doing" something (and thus interesting) and the audience will have something concrete to follow about the character. This allows the audience to connect with the character too.

3. As much of everything you write should be "in conflict". What this means is that if you have 2 people talking to each other, they should be having a conflict of some sort. If a character has just entered a brand new setting, he should have a conflict with it of some sort. When I say conflict, I mean a disagreement. Conflict doesn't have to mean a big fight or anything.

We humans LOVE conflict, so having everything "in conflict" always keeps reader interest.

4. Stimulus, Thought, Reaction. Something happens, your character thinks about it, then your character reacts to it. Rinse and Repeat. This is the VERY BASICS of scene structure. In fact, this is all plot writing is really. Just writing a bunch of stimuli and reactions, causes and effects.

-For example: Natalie tells Stephanie that she hates her. That is a stimulus for Stephanie. Stephanie now thinks about this statement, thinking that she hates Natalie too. Stephanie reacts to Natalie's statement by telling Natalie that she hates HER. Stimulus, Thought, Reaction.

5. The key to writing a good story is to have a well rounded character, and give her a goal that she will spend the whole story trying to obtain. The more obstacles and conflict that she wades through and overcomes in pursuit of her goal, the better the story will be. But make sure the obstacles and conflicts are plausible to the story, and rise in intensity from the beginning to the end of the story.

6. If it doesn't sound right to you, then it probably isn't.

7. This one is VERY important: Creating and Revising are two seperate activities, so don't EVER mix them together. Use your creativity and imagination to create the story first. Then once you get everything on paper, THEN you start revising. When you revise WHILE you're in the creative process, it's very VERY damaging to your story and your personal psyche. DON'T DO IT!!!

Those tips I gave you are only the "TIP" of the iceberg on writing. I didn't really dive into dialogue, premise, plot, conflict, characterization, and other fancy writing terms (for the most part, I didn't want to go into a long post and bore you). I really suggest reading up on creative or fiction writing, or taking a creative writing class. The information they provide is invaluable. There's a whole world of knowledge out there on writing that can really help a cartoonist out. It helped me out, that's for sure.

BTW, the advice in this thread is awesome! Every last bit of it.
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Postby Mysticela on Sun Nov 11, 2007 6:04 pm

some of the best writing occurs with not planning it, and just making it up as you go along ^_^
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