Future Shocking Week 3

(To catch up: teaching a class in Dublin on writing / drawing short stories – specifically around “Future Shocks” – four page shorts with a twist in the tail, but that spine lets me build out how to tell stories visually, and how to come up with ideas)

So, week three, by this stage everyone has something scripted. Week three was about taking those scripts and making thumbnails. The course was broken down into six very specific steps, but there’s lots of bleed through on each element.

This was also the first week I got everyone to actually workshop – drawing out their own stories. From here on in the course is about drawing. For some I think this is probably the most terrifying part of the course (oddly, for me, this is the easiest part).

The concern, I think, most people have is “if this doesn’t look like a comic I would buy then I it’s not worth doing”. I think that’s pretty much wrong. I think, as long as the art is consistent, and tells the story you intend (and consistency I think is more important than some quality of “finished”) then good lettering will make any comic very readable and enjoyable. (Lettering is much undervalued, but not in my workshop!)

Anyway, on to layouts.

And to save my fingers, and sanity, I’ll preface this entire thing by saying – this is my opinion, and as such it’s subject to change (based on counter evidence, whim and the direction of the wind) and it’s largely subjective, but it’s what feels like has worked for me (and I have a good reputation for clean story telling).

So, for building layouts/thumbnails

Step 1: read the script. Read it real good! The thumbnail stage, for me, is partly about figuring out what the writer has written so I can understand it and partly to figure out what I need to draw to communicate the writer’s story in as visual and exciting way as possible.

There are levels of composition to consider when thumbnailing/drawing a comic, there’s the very top level – which is pages over a story, then at the page level, there’s the composition of panels on a page, and then down to a panel by panel level.

Since we’re concerned with four page stories the composition over a story has a certain feel – opening page, two pages of things happening, and a last page. I find some compositions work better on opening pages, some on the last page and the filler middle pages can be a little more pedestrian (I mean in an ideal world, you don’t need that, but those pages aren’t often what the read

The vast majority of books about composition are really talking about that panel level – the composition of a single image within a frame.

Comics require broader thinking. There are innumerable ways to place five panels on a page (ignoring the content of the panel), but straight off the bat some of those panel arrangements are a little dull and don’t really do much. It’s a good exercise to draw out various panel arrangements at thumbnail sizes for different numbers of panels.

Here’s a few – there are, of course, an infinite amount. For my money, and for reasons that I are mostly intuitive, and will depend on the script, but arrangements like A – are the most dull, and would tend to suit the middle of a story better than the start. B, C, E, H feel like a good opening page, D has the feel of an ending. As does I.

I always think of panel arrangements over pages as opening and closing of a pair of brackets – or the word I and a full stop at the end of a sentence (or, you know, the top and bottom of a burger bun, whatever anology works for you).

Of course, ultimately, the arbiter of how the panels will be arranged will fall down to the script, and I have a few rules in that regard.

I’m always looking at the density of text/captions – lots of dialogue? this needs to be a big panel (regardless of what the writer has decided, and sometimes they get this wrong… “Small panel. Ext of house. Captions ……. page after page of captions…”)

No dialogue? this CAN be a small panel, but that’ll be dictated then by storytelling. Is it an action beat? Is it something percussive that needs a big panel to sell what’s just about to happen. There are a million ways to figure this stuff out.

I’m also trying to frame the important element, with the set around them,

Panel example: A sargeant shouting to the crew of a dropship. Framing the crew around the Sarge keeps focus entirely on him.


Here’s two versions, the top version is maybe a filmic version – character front and centre, the bottom version is more comic book. Leaving lots of room to the left of the character for deadspace/dialogue (I’ve shown that in green here). But the silhoutted crew at the front are framing the sarge, he’s still the main focus (in either version) and the background of dropship/remainder of crew give you a sense of scene (mise en scene, if you’re fancy)

(And obviously this is a panel on its own without the context of other panels around it)

Panel example: Someone waking up, here the elements that are important are the calendar/lamp – but pushing them to the foreground but using them as a framing device around the sleeper makes it feel like they’re still part of the background while at the same time letting the reader know exactly what time is on the clock.


Other things to consider, you want to try and avoid repetitive panel designs, in the same way you want to avoid repetitive sentences (unless it’s intentional) if you’ve got a few pages with the same layout consider tipping the table over and trying something outlandish, that’ll often help unblock other ideas.


Panel example: here the script called for a single solitary small planet out in the depths of space. By moving the planetoid to the bottom right, I’ve made the distance the reader has to cross the largest possible distance (remember we read from left to right) thereby enhancing the sense of vast empty space.

My preference is for uncomplicated story telling, as fancy as I get might be art breaking out of panels (if a) it only happens occasionally, b) it really warrents it and c) it doesn’t get in the way of the flow of storytelling).

This will do for now (this turned into much more of treatise that I’d intended!)


Author: PJ

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