Benefit of Writing Comics: Writing Tight

April 17, 2015

It’s time for another installment in my ongoing series about the benefits that writing a recurring web comic have on prose writing. Today, I’ll turn my attention to the subject of tight writing.

Tight writing is writing without waste. It’s writing just enough to put a good story across and no more. It’s clear and concise. It can also be very difficult.

I like words. In my stories I like playing around with language. One problem with this is that it can lead to overly verbose writing. This is something I still struggle with in my prose writing, but writing comics has helped make me more aware of the issue.

[Cubes 151: People Ask: What Do I Do When I Run Out of Ideas?]
People Ask: What Do I Do When I Run Out of Ideas?

Most of the Cubes comic strips I write, like the one above, are four panels long. This format immediately forces a high degree of tight writing. The simple matter is, with only four panels to work with, there’s only so many words that can be crammed into a comic.

And don’t forget the artwork.

Comics are a combination of Words and Pictures. That means that you have to leave room for the pictures. In a typical Cubes comic, I’d say roughly two-thirds of each panel is given over to the artwork with only one-third left for the dialog.

Put another way, in a four panel comic there’s usually only about one and one-third panels of actual words. That’s physically not a lot of room to write a story in. And that’s basically what each comic strip is, a story.

When writing a comic strip, I try to keep in mind that it might be the first comic strip that a reader is reading. As a result, there are a lot of constraints on putting together any given comic strip.

  • It must be self-contained with a beginning, middle, and end.
  • It must have some sort of conflict in it, for without conflict there is no story.
  • It must, to some degree, introduce the characters (which is why characters refer to each other by name so much in my comics).
  • It must at least attempt to be funny because that’s what Cubes is or should be when it’s working well.

That’s a lot of things to do in only four panels.

Granted, some of that can be done visually. It’s a comic strip after all and, as I pointed out, two-thirds of the comic is given over to artwork. However, the nature of the humor in Cubes is mostly verbal. In the decade I’ve been doing the comic strip, there have been very few comic strips that are purely sight gags or slapstick comedy. Instead, many of the comics are “talking head” comics. Two or three characters talking to each other saying (hopefully) funny things.

So, in my rather long-winded way—the irony of which has not escaped me—this brings me to the core of today’s blog post. You may remember I set out to talk about tight writing.

What makes comics particularly good for practicing tight writing is the fact that they have a limited size. In my case, that size is four panels with only a third of each panel going to actual words. There is an actual physical constraint that forces me not to go overboard on the words. There simply isn’t the space to do it. I’ve had to rewrite parts of many comics—sometimes even whole comics—to get them to fit this structure.

Compare that to writing prose. I do all my writing on the computer in a virtual document. For all intents and purposes, I’m free to write an unlimited amount when working on the computer. There are no little boxes that force me to write tight. However, years of writing tight for the comics has influenced my writing style.

I still struggle with writing too much when turned free in a virtual document for a prose story. However, all the writing for Cubes that I’ve done has helped make me aware of the problem. Whenever I sit down and write, it’s always in the back of my mind to keep an eye on verbal sloppiness. It’s something I’m still practicing and probably something I’ll always be practicing, but twice a month (the release schedule of Cubes) I get good practice by being forced to fit a story inside four small boxes.

Next month I’ll have another installment on a subject somewhat related to writing tight, writing pacey dialog. In the meantime, why not check out the rest of the series?