Someone asked me about writing comic scripts in email last week, which was a surprise since really there have to be better people to ask. But still, I thought about it and tossed out a decent answer if a bit standard. You know the normal advice, really:
* Read as much as possible, especially things that aren’t comics.
* Write a whole bunch.
* Study the form.
Etc. All normal stuff that I’m sure we’re all sick of hearing. But one thing popped out at me and I realized I hadn’t talked about it here ever or seen many other, if any, people really dig into it. So I decided I wanted to. If you want to write, scripts, novels, anything at all – study music!
I don’t mean learn to play, though that will certainly not hurt either. I mean learn to hear music and to understand it. Really understand what it’s doing. Because music can be key to your story.
All good stories need pacing. Without good pacing your story will be unbalanced and wobbly. A good controlled hand at pacing can make or break a story, frankly. Knowing how and when to speed up, slow down, circle a point and everything else you can do with a steady hand is so incredibly key.
Musicians, of course, have known this forever as well. Listen to any pop song. It’s a very standard bit of pacing that happens. You have the intro, the verse, the chorus, the bridge and the ending. Each section is used in its time and for its length. Those exact timings will change, but as they change the song, obviously, changes as well.
Your story has much the same parts and beats. This is, hi how are you, why we call them story beats in the first place. In comics, this is even more important to remember.
A comic story is a selection of frozen moments in time laid out in a pattern. You can repeat panels, make them bigger or smaller, and all of these effect the passage of time in a story, as does the use of gutter space – the space between panels. Go read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics for a real good, easy to understand and enjoy, lesson of how that can all work. But the key thing we’re looking at here is how it can mirror music.
When I write I try to find music to listen to that has similar beat structure to the overall story I’m writing. I find it keeps me grounded. I never listen to movie scores, though, because those were created specifically to be the beat pattern of a story already told and I don’t want to retell that story. I just need a reminder now and then in the form of music to keep me steering straight.
Search different types of music and different musicians until you find something that has the same tonal feel and beat structure that your overall story should have, when you think of it in your head. Then look at how the music achieves that structure – when do they pause, how does it rise and fall, all of that. And then apply it to your story. Not necessarily on a one-to-one basis, of course, but as a guide.
Now, think of your story that way, with the pauses and swells in place, with the blank moments and the circles and restated themes. Just tell yourself the story, but with that pacing applied. If you like it, write it!
So, yeah, if you want to write, I really do suggest listening to a lot of music, a lot of different types of music, and breaking them down until you can hear a song and understand it from a structural viewpoint. Because the structures of music are the same as good pacing. Unless you’re listening to a mess of a song, in which case, you know, don’t do that.