Future Shocking: Week 2

Wherein I talk something of the grammar of comics (its nuts and bolts) and draft zero and themes.

So far, in both weeks I’ve sketched out notes for myself, and then talked word vomited out everything I can think of, so I ask forgiveness if I’ve forgotten anything or doubled up on some things.

The plan this week was to go back over scripts and talk about themes, but instead, I started with a little breakdown on terminology / grammar of comics.

A story is made up of a scene. A complete comic can contain a story or it may be made up of multiple issues (or episodes)

Since we’re talking future shocks specifically, I’ll talk about how I think of those.

A future shock is made up of four pages, each page should end on some sort of minor cliff hanger, and if you’re doing a scene change (moving locations, jumping around in time) ideally you’d do that on the page turn (so the new location is on the new page) some time’s you’ll have a lot of scene changes, in that instance you may need to think about making sure they’re on a tier of their own.

A page is further broken down in to panels, and a number of panels across a full page is referred to as a tier.

(Apologies for the basic nature of these description, just wanted to make sure we’re all talking in the same language)


Int – short for interior (ie the inside of some location)

Ext – short for exterior (ie the outside of some location)

Close Up – A head shot or close up (obviously) usually of a character.

Extreme Close Up – brings in even closer to the action. Maybe close to a feature on a characters face. Possibly a close up to some other important element (so the button on a console, or a gun in someone’s hand)

Mid shot – an panel featuring a character usually from waist height up. Good for doing dialogue with more than one character.

Long Shot – taking a long lens – often things like the exterior of a building, used for an establishing shot (so, for example, Panel : Long shot, exterior of the daily planet. Dialogue[from building] “KENT!”)

An establishing shot establishes location and where your characters are. In books you may only need to establish a location once (“He entered the library. Walking alone he ventured up the stairs. He considered where he was.” – at all times we know he’s still in the library) in comics you need to have at least one panel to show location (sometimes this can be saved for the end of a sequence as a reveal – so we follow a character through a long corridor (with narration talking about how he’ll be free at last), and at the last panel we reveal they’re about to sit in an electric chair to be executed, and the establishing shot then functions as a twist – changing the meaning of the narrative.

You need to constantly reinforce location, sometimes you do it through small details (a large establishing shot of a library, followed by shots of a character in front of books. As a writer you’ll write the specifics of the establishing shot but you’ll just assume the artist will keep a reader conscious of where the characters/story is set by adding enough background detail to do that. As an artist you’ll be looking for panels that will work effectively as establishing shots, sometimes the writer will specify that a panel is an est shot, sometimes they won’t and you’ll infer it from their description. But a scene without an establishing shot is a scene set in a limbo place, without time, space, or dimensions. Which is great if that’s what you’re going for, but mostly that’s NOT what you’re going for.


(The greatest use of keeping establishing shots to the end is the scene in Silence of the Lambs where Clarice is about to knock on the door of a sweet little old lady, and the swat team is about to batter the door in of the serial killer – but because Jonathan Demme cleverly left the establishing shots to the end of the scene, he’s able, right at the last second to pull a great twist and show that no, in fact, Clarice is at the killers home and the SWAT team are at the little old lady’s – that’s a clever use of establishing shots)

I like to empathise at all times, even when dealing with close ups, midshots, etc, you have to really keep in mind the need to leave room for lettering. The golden rules are: top left quarter of a panel should be considered “dead space” – ie nothing important in there, just background, or other insignificant detail, because that’s prime real estate for lettering and characters should always be speaking left to right, in the order that they speak (that seems obvious and easy, but it’s surprising how much of an art making that choreography works is, sometimes you need to cheat angles, hide things, reveal things, move people, etc, to make every panel stick to that form)

On a single person midshot/closeup the rule of thumb is dialogue will be to their left. If your scene has two people talking and you’re cutting between those two then-then you’d normally leave room for one on the left and the other character would have dialogue space on their right. This is actually a pretty common technique in tv interviews – where the gap helps establish which direction you the viewer are watching the conversation from (notionally in the middle, and you’re turning to look to your left then your right).[god some of this stuff really needs an illustration to help it make sense-apologies!]

Inset panels an inset a panel within another panel, used to good effect to highlight an action – for example, a large panel with two gunslingers, and an inset panel of a close up of one of the gunslingers hand over the holster) and bleed panels (where the art bleeds off the page)

Birds-eye view A view looking down on the scene- great for supplying information (where we are, who the characters are, how close they are standing, where the gold is…)  for example a stampede of wild animals from above them will show the reader the variety of wildlife running, but it will also distance the reader – they won’t feel endangered – because they’re not part of the story)

Worms-eye view A view looking up usually from the ground. This is great for making the reader feel like they’re part of the story, and feel imperilled – so the same stampede shown from the ground up immediately makes the reader feel they’re about to be trampled. The trade off here is that it’s pretty low information density.

And when you’d mix them for in this example: a variety of inset panels of close up of hooves, as animals stampeded, layered over the top of a full bleed page of a birds eye view of the stampeded is a great way to both show everything and get a reader invested

That all covered, the second part of the talk was really about finding a theme for your story. This is stuff I’ve blatantly stolen from conversations I’ve had with Rob Williams (so thanks Rob!)

Once you’ve written a draft zero (a first draft to just get all the ideas down) it’s a good idea to start asking yourself “What is this story about?” – and if the answer is “Well the character does this then this then this” you’ve not really answered the question (because what you’ve done is explained the plot). The Godfather, for example, could be boiled down to trying to escape your family. Alien could be about fear of the dark. Sometimes you’ll find the theme you hand in mind in the beginning of a story (if you had one in mind) turns out to NOT be what the story is actually about, that’s ok. Roll with it.

Once you’ve answered the question of “what is the story about” it’s time to start looking at the script again and figured out how you can really enhance the theme, get rid of things that muddy the thematic water (if the story is about greed, do we really need a sequence about how cute rabbits are?) and then ramp up things that bring the theme into sharper focus.

So, say we come up with a simple story:

Man steals rocket ship to leave earth and lands in moonbase.

What’s it about? Well, it’s about “Man steals rocke” let me stop me there, nope, that’s the plot. What is it about?

Is it about someone’s need to escape? (they escape earth?)

Is it about someone’s greed? (they stole the ship)

Is it about their need to be alone (they land on the moon?)

Figure out your theme, here I’ll take “They want silence” – now, the course is really about future shocks so I’m always looking for a twist in that. So, the story is they want silence, looking at the plot again it becomes:

Man steals rocket ship to leave a noisy earth, they fly to a newly established – empty moonbase- and land the vehicle.


As soon as they enter the moonbase an deafening alarm sounds “INTRUDER ALERT! INTRUDER ALERT!”

No we’re getting somewhere.

Ok, keeping the theme – he wants silence. What does the earth look like? Make it noisy, overcrowded, buildings painted in dazzle camouflage, the ship – let’s make the ship this incredible soothing – Steve Jobs like dream vehicle, that he steals. It’s comfort but not the real aim, the real aim – maybe not a moonbase – the real aim is a second earth. One that has a small base that’s established with enough resources to last a crew several years the crew will be sent to terraform the planet to make its air breathable. BUT as soon as he lands – no wait, the ship has to crash, but that’s ok, he thinks because I’ll be alone on this planet, this beautiful, noiseless planet. He walks in Intruder alert Intruder alert! No! Wait, second twist, he figures out if he can hack the building to convince it he’s the crew that’s supposed to arrive, the alert stops. Blissful silence… until the terraforming machinery starts and it’s insanely loud.

So we’re building out from a simple story idea, figuring out a theme and then using that theme to help strengthen the story (and it, in turn is sparking other ideas). The theme has helped decide how the props look, buildings, etc. It’s helped double up the twist, and you know, you’d have to think about establishing why our protagonist wants silence so much. These can all come from the theme (and if they do so they help reinforce the theme)

Anyway, that was mostly what I can remember from week 2. Hopefully that’s interesting/useful to someone!





Author: PJ

PJ is a Belfast based comic artist, and has been for some time.