Comics, Part 1: Writing in Two Dimensions

A confession for my writing group friends: I tried my hand at prose in middle school, starting my own fantasy series with sword fights, strong women, and shamefully overwrought love stories. Eventually I realized that I would have to start writing political intrigue, this being a fantasy story, and the thought of writing political intrigue was distasteful enough for me to abandon the project altogether.

About the same time I stopped drawing swords, I started reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. With comics, I could tell stories, but I could tell them visually. Before you think your story would never work as a comic (or think that comics are just for superheroes), let’s look at some of the advantages to telling your story in two dimensions.

Point of View

Consider the problem of “head-hopping”, when an author constantly switches between different point-of-view characters. It’s very difficult to keep the distinctions between the characters clear enough for the reader to follow. In David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp, each character’s point of view is drawn in a different style, showing very literally how people “see the world” differently.

There is also the possibility of giving each character a distinct font to speak in, which help the reader keep track of complicated, even overlapping, conversations.

Quick! Set a scene!

Setting a scene in prose can be difficult, since you don’t want to spend too many words or too much momentum on it. A skilled writer can make the description interesting enough to hold the reader’s attention, or weave details throughout the story. Let’s take a look at how we could set a scene in, say, a pink, shining clockwork palace on Mars in a comic: (yes, a wallpaper site, I’m sorry.)

You’re on Mars! OK, that’s a silly example. And I am not trying to say that writing a beautiful passage is any easier or more difficult than drawing one. Look at those clockworks in there! This is taken from writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons, and colorist John Higgins’ Watchmen.

While big panel like this does function as a “pause” in a story, people can read images quickly.  The artist doesn’t have to waste panels or beats establishing the scene, and the reader can spend as much time staring at this panel as they like, and move on whenever they’re satisfied.

Especially fun is how an artist can put in details people know by sight but don’t necessarily have the vocabulary for. If you’re an architecture buff who loves writing about Gothic buildings but get frustrated at the average reader’s mental image of “Gothic,” an image can be as specific as you need it to be without spending words on it.


Changes in style, color, and framing accomplish complicated tasks like flashbacks with ease. Lucy Knisley’s autobiographical webcomic, Stop Paying Attention, is full of stories aobut her childhood and adolescence. In “Think Back,” I count three ways she draws flashbacks. The comic is very big, so I’ll use a link for this one.

How many flashback techniques did you find? I found these:

Panel 6: 22-year-old Lucy, with slightly shorter hair, stands in the same panel as 25-year-old Lucy.

Panels 11-13: The flashback panels recede inside each other, each receding memory drawn with lighter, washed-out lines.

Panel 15: Lucy sits on a bench with a transparent self in the same place, seven years earlier.

Check out Lucy’s other comics while you’re there!


Of all the image-word interactions in comics, my favorite is how the images can either support or hold a debate with the words.

Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes occasionally switches to a “serious” soap opera style, the joke being the splendid dissonance between the pictures and the words.

Sometimes the contrast is a bit more subtle. In Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, a sad story about two painfully shy men is set against the 1889 Chicago World’s Fair and the 1989…Michigan.

The story is a long series of awkward encounters and heartbreak, but the backgrounds are drawn in such gorgeous detail that the reader might decide that, despite everything, the world is still a beautiful place.

So what do you think? What tricks do prose and poetry have up their sleeves? What tricks in comics would you like to try?

Next week, the difficulties of comics! How do you “show, don’t tell” when comics are all about “show”…but don’t always have a lot of “tell” to back it up?


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