“The worst thing you write is better than the best thing you didn’t write.”
—Unknown

What I’ve Learned About Writing From Comic Books

Many an expert has prescribed voracious reading as a way to improve your writing.

But don’t just read anything, they warn—read quality in addition to quantity. Read the stories in styles you adore, the plots you wish you’d come up with yourself. It’s by reading what you love and admire, say the experts, that you will improve your own writing the most.

Well, I love comic books.

What I've Learned About writing from Comic Books

Photo by JD Hancock (creative commons). Adapted by The Write Practice

 Can You Really Learn How to Write from Comic Books?

Comics may not seem like a good go-to source for a writer—there’s hardly any writing on the pages of a comic book, right? But hear me out.

Comic books have indeed improved and inspired my writing in a number of ways. Here are my top three:

1. Focus on the visual

A book may be only words, but we’re in a visual culture. Consuming stories that do rely on that visual element helps me remember the power of paining a good visual picture.

This goes beyond the setting. Next time you’re looking for inspiration on how to get the most from symbolism for your theme, just pick up Alan Moore’s Watchmen or Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.

2. Max out your dialogue

Comics don’t have the benefit of paragraphs to give background or describe what’s going on in a character’s mind. It’s all image and the dialogue.

Meanwhile, the characters keep propelling through the plot at full speed, from on-the-street sleuthing to back alley fight scenes. This means tight, high-pace talk in the midst of tight, high-pace action.

When is this not a good approach? I’ve fixed several high-dialogue scenes by using this talk-interspersed-with-action tactic.

3. Get comfortable getting weird

Comic books routinely get weirder than Wonderland, and it’s my absolute favorite thing about them. For proof look no further than Superman’s myriad strange powers, or flip through The Umbrella Academy.

Any time I start to worry that my fiction is going too far off the deep end, I remind myself that there’s tons of comic book readers out there just like me that love to take a dive into a strange tale.

Comics are an excellent source of inspiration to improve your craft.

But these days, you don’t have to make a trek to your neighborhood comic book store to benefit from it—comic books are everywhere these days, from your television screen (The Walking Dead, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) to the movie theater (X-Men, Superman).

So why not embrace it and take a page from the comics for inspiration?

Do you gain inspiration from comics?

PRACTICE

Embrace the comic books! Write for fifteen minutes, letting the weird, high-action, visual style of comics inspire you. Share your work in the comics, and be sure to give some feedback to others, too.

About Emily Wenstrom

By day, Emily Wenstrom, is the editor of short story website wordhaus, author social media coach, and freelance content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstrom, a sci-fi and fantasy author whose first novel Mud will release in March 2016.

  • Love it! I read comics long before I read books. 🙂

  • Emily,
    I love comic books too. And, they are my favorite way to tell a story. Drawing and writing. Weird and wacky and wonderful. Now to check out your blog. 🙂

    • Thanks Pamela — I find that weird factor is what draws me to my favorite movies, tv shows, and books too, and I totally blame comic books for that.

  • Krithika Rangarajan

    It’s funny you wrote about learning from comic books today – my husband doled out the same advice last night!

    Thanks Emily for a timely and highly relevant article #HUGS

    Kitto

    • Thanks Kitto! Your husband can probably help you find some to match your specific tastes, but I always recommend Saga. And as I stated to someone else in the comments too, a couple fantastic girl-power comics just released in the last couple months, so you can still jump in before the story really starts–Lady Killer, and if you like pulp style, Bitch Planet. Hope you find something you love!

  • Keontez George

    Eesh, this is really raw and I don’t know if I succeeded in this practice or not but here goes.
    Old Paran could hear the monk laughing top his cart as he
    came down the steps. “You are a fool, boy,” he said. “The man is still the King’s
    Champion, even in his old age. But, don’t worry I’ll carry your body off just
    as I do all of the young fools that come here to challenge him. That man is
    blessed and cursed, and no one will take his place until the Gods so see it
    fit.”

    He
    hated that monk, but he was right. When he asked the gods to bless him and to
    make him the greatest swordsman in all of the land, they did just that. But the
    gods play cruel jokes, they made the man unable to die and unable to have a bit
    of peace. You see, when the old king heard of such a great swordsman he asked
    the man to be his champion. And when the man had spent over forty years
    fighting for the king’s entertainment and fighting his son’s battles, the man
    sought to retire.

    So the king gave Old Paran a tower
    high in the hills, another blessing. There he thought that he could live his
    life in peace. Until the new king said that he wouldn’t take on another
    champion until the old one was defeated. For the past ten years, Old Paran woke
    up from his peaceful naps to fight young boys and fools who wished to challenge
    him.

    Paran walked out of his tower,
    strapping his baldric to his waist. The boy standing across from him wasn’t
    built like a boy at all. He had to be all of seven feet and was liken to a bear
    standing up on his haunches. Old Paran wiped a gloved hand through his grey
    beard and sighed.

    The monk began to hoot and holler
    as Old Paran walked towards the boy. “The greatest swordsman that ever lived!”
    he yelled. He smiled his toothless grin took another sip of his wine. “Hurry up
    and kill this big ox, Paran. You’ll make quick work of him yet and then I may
    need your help putting him in the casket.”

    “You can load him up yourself,”
    Paran said.

    He watched the boy slide into a
    fighting stance. A sloppy one, his feet
    were too wide apart, his body left open to several attacks, and he was focused
    on what the monk was saying instead of focusing on his opponent.

    “Are you sure that you want to do
    this, boy?” he asked. “I mean, look at you. You’re clearly not ready for this
    fight and I, clearly, don’t want to take your life. Let’s end this now and you
    can go back to your family and live a prosperous life.”

    The boy was taken with surprise at
    the offer. “Unsheathe your sword, sir,” the boy said.

    Old Paran straightened up at the
    boy’s command. “Pray, young sir, who are
    you to give me commands? I take orders from no one but the king.”

    “My father has paid a fortune for
    me to be taught by the best swordmasters of the western plains,” the boy said.

    “You father has wasted his fortune,”
    Old Paran said tugging at the gloves on his hands.

    That caught the ire of the monk, “Ha!
    Old Paran! I say, give him the tip of your sword; this should be quick and
    easy. He thinks skill paid for, can best the skill given by the gods.”

    Paran saw the boy was tightening
    his grip around his sword. He watched as he stepped forward with his pace quickening.
    The boy swung and Paran felt his feet shift making the boy miss his mark by
    several inches.

    “Why do the gods keep teasing me
    with such actions,” Paran said.

    The boy looked to Paran,
    eyes wide as melons.

    “I told you, you won’t be able to
    lay a finger on him,” said the monk.

    “Not even if I wanted you to.”
    Paran said.

    “Deviltry,” the boy said.

    “I would think you all to be the
    devils and not me.” Paran said. “All I ask for is peace in my old age.”

    “Then you will have the peace of
    death,” the boy said swinging his sword up towards Paran’s head.”

    Another miss, Paran had ducked the
    blow and rolled on his old shoulder listening to it crack and pop, like small
    bits of thunder.

    “You are all monsters,” Old Paran
    said. “Your family tells you the only thing you can do to honor your family is
    to gain an office in service of the King. So they send you to try to defeat me.”
    This was making his old blood boil. The boy swung again, Paran let the gods
    control of his body take over has he felt his hand swing to pick up his
    parrying knife. His arm went up and wrapped around the boy’s trunk of an arm
    and pulled it close to him, holding the blade’s point at his side.

    “How are you…” the boy said, “so
    strong?”

    “You should’ve listened to the
    priest, boy,” Old Paran said, “I am cursed.”

    The boy’s eyes were wide with
    amazement. He could fell the boy tugging to get his arm free.

    “I won’t kill you,” He said. “I’m
    tired of killing.”

    Old Paran saw the boy close his
    fist and felt the muscles twitch, he prayed the gods would understand his plea.
    He closed his eyes and felt his body move. He felt two cracks that were quickly
    covered by a high shrieking scream cracked through the air, followed by the
    laugh of the monk.

    He opened his eyes to see the boy
    writhing on the ground. His arm was twisted and disfigured where Old Paran and
    snapped his forearm and bicep.

    “Take this as a lesson,” Old Paran
    said. “Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. You now have something that a lot of boys
    your age don’t have and that’s life experience.”

    The monk ran up to the boy and
    looked at his arm. “Looks well enough,” he said. “He won’t be fighting any more
    that’s for sure.”

    “Good,” Paran said. “I don’t expect
    to see you back here with a sword in your hand.
    If you want to earn some prestige for your family, maybe the monk has a
    spot for you in the cloister.”

    And with that, Paran took a deep
    sigh and returned to his stone tower ready to return to his nap.

    • christih

      I really liked this! It may not be as action-packed as a comic book, but I think there is a really good plot here!

      • Keontez George

        Lol, I guess I fudged this one just wrestling with the story. Thanks though.

    • I really enjoy the trash talk interspersed with the action here, and also the contrast between these two characters, one young and over eager and the other old and jaded and just so over the fighting.

      • Keontez George

        thank you!

    • EndlessExposition

      I think your practice was successful! What stood out to me the most actually was the monk. His interjections were hilarious. I’m not sure if that’s what you were going for, but it worked well in the scene. Good job 🙂

      • Keontez George

        Thanks! That’s exactly what I was trying for 🙂

  • christih

    Ace ran into the burning building as the people tumbled into
    the streets from their dark homes behind him. He could hear the screams as
    people inside the building realized that the heat was dangerous and the light
    was flickering outside their doors. He rushed in to the first level and saw 8
    or 10 doors down the hallway. He rushed in, kicking down doors as he went. This
    he could handle! Pure strength and quick reactions were all he needed. He
    grabbed a family, tossing them onto his back like rag dolls. He ran them
    outside, dropped them unceremoniously, then ran back in. As he rushed through
    the three stories of the building he could hear the sirens coming and knew his
    time would be up soon. He didn’t want to be celebrated as a hero or have to
    answer questions so he quickly broke into the last few rooms, grabbed the
    people he saw, and as the building crashed he ran through the front doors. He
    dropped them the same way he had dropped his first load, then with a mighty
    plie pushed off the cement and took off into the sky. As he flew away the
    people’s gaze went from the fire to the lone figure drifting towards the moon.
    As they cheered he sped towards the sky—as high as he could go. Because they
    didn’t know that he had actually set the fire.

    • Helaine Grenova

      I love this imagery and fast packed action. I’m really curious about Ace, is he good or bad, or somewhere in the middle?

      • christih

        Thanks Helaine. This is my first time writing this style. I haven’t decided for sure, but when I wrote this he was bad.

    • Keontez George

      You win. The imagery this showed was pretty awesome. Well done.

      • christih

        Thanks Keontez! I really did like yours a lot. I wanted to keep reading!

    • Oh I’m so intrigued! Great action and tension here, I was really gripped from the first sentence. And fun reading 🙂

    • EndlessExposition

      Great twist at the end! I’d love to know more about Ace and his duplicitous plots. Are you going to continue this?

    • Well done. I did wonder what a plie is, though.

  • Helaine Grenova

    Generally I don’t read comics, though I have read books that are heavily dependent on them, such as Gamer Girl by Mari Mancusi. I probably should try to start reading some since I love watching all of the new superhero movies, from Avengers to The Amazing Spiderman

    • There a couple great girl-power comics that just launched this year, so you’d be getting in at the beginning. Give Lady Killer a try, or if you enjoy pulp style, Bitch Planet.

      And Saga is a great one, too. Though if you’re into the superheroes, you may want to check our the new line DC is about to launch. Hope you find something you like!

      • EndlessExposition

        Saga is amazing! Just finished Vol. 1, love it 🙂

    • I was looking for a practice like Endless did.

  • I love comics. well, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, Chinese, and eastern comics. (Translated into Manga, Manhwa, Manhua ) I’ve recently started reading Wonder Woman comics, although I’ve been fascinated my DC and marvel movies and shows all my life. This all equals to, a bigger wider range of creativity and formats for me to enjoy and try to engrave into my writing. I love trying to incorporate them into my writing style. <3 So for anyone still not on the Comic book train. Check out all these different types of comics and styles of drawing. They're so different that you can literally tell they're origins apart. I'm sure you'll find one or two to your liking. And big thanks to Emily for this post! I hope you do more like these in the future as well!

    • Wonder Woman! I haven’t read much of her but I think I’m going to check out DC’s new relaunch when it releases.

    • EndlessExposition

      If you’re interested, The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore is a new book recently out about Wonder Woman’s creator and her role in the feminist movement. I keep meaning to read it myself – the guy who made the original comics was one whacked out dude.

      • Thankfully you segued to an actual Practice.

    • Write for fifteen minutes, letting the weird, high-action, visual style of comics inspire you. I would have loved to have read something more to the point.

  • Chloee

    The faint smell of hotdogs and garbage lingered in the air as the girl walked. The city’s traffic mixed in the background of Central Park. Little kids raced by as they tumbled from the monkey bars, sweat running down the face as the sun beat down on them, random tourist with cameras hanging around their necks, wearing hideous novelty shirts wandered around, and the seniors played chess or talked about the good old days.

    “Help my purse!” An old lady shouted. Her voice pierced the bustle of the park.Everyone stopped and stared at the figure running by, hands clutched around the purse as he ran away but no one tried to stop him. She watched him run towards her not really caring what happened.

    No one else does why should she? He was coming towards her so She stepped sideways, keeping distance between his path of crime. She stared at him as his feet pounded the pavement and zoomed by. Sighing she finally took off after him.

    • Who isthe “she” in this piece? Great interspersing character info with the action here. Personally I’d love more information about our POV character.

    • EndlessExposition

      Some interesting characterization of the “she” watching this scene. Like Emily said, I think knowing more about her would help get the reader involved with the action, but good work regardless.

  • I like to wait for the graphic novels that combine several issues, and then borrow that from my local library. Best way to read comics, if you ask me! Binge reading comics… what a lovely way to spend a golden {or dreary grey} afternoon…

  • EndlessExposition

    As always, reviews are much appreciated!

    Jackson scuttles further down the alley and presses himself against the wall. The alien
    stops at the mouth of the alley and sniffs. Jackson stops breathing. The Necroid looks directly at him and steps into the alley, shrinking its frame to squeeze into the narrow space. Jackson backs away, hyperventilating, tripping over his own feet. The Necroid advances. Jackson stumbles into a wall. He’s trapped. The Necroid towers over him. It reaches out. Jackson holds up his hands, as if to ward it off. Blue light explodes from his fingertips. The Necroid is thrown backwards, out of the alley, and slams into the building across the street. It slumps to the ground, unconscious.

    JACKSON: (staring at his hands in disbelief) Woah!

    EMMA: (off-screen) C’mon, over here!

    She and Eric step into the alley.

    EMMA: Jack! (She notices the Necroid unconscious on the other side of the street) Holy shit! (She looks at Jackson curiously, who is shaking in the corner) Did you do that?

    JACKSON: I – I –

    ERIC: I think that’s a “yes”. (Gesturing to the alley) It’s too closed off in here. If another one finds us we’ll be alien hors d’oeuvres.

    EMMA: Jack, come on!

    Jackson stumbles after them. They race down the street together and turn the corner.
    They are confronted immediately with a Necroid coming towards them. They turn to run – and another is approaching from the other direction. Eric and Emma exchange looks.

    EMMA: (sighs) Damn, I really like these shorts.

    She screws her eyes shut in concentration. A black substance seeps from her pores. It
    accumulates and begins to shape itself and grow, tearing her clothes. Within seconds Emma is three times her size and every inch of her skin is covered in sharp, black crystals.

    EMMA: (to Eric and Jack) You guys should get out of the way. This is about to get messy.

    ERIC: Be careful!

    EMMA: Aren’t I always?

    Eric grabs Jackson’s hand and drags him off the road. The two Necroids are circling Emma, knives in hand.

    EMMA: For fuck’s sake, I haven’t got all day.

    Both of the Necroids lunge at her. She takes a swing at one, landing a right hook on its
    head, and spins in time to kick the other away from her. They charge again and she keeps them at bay. The brawl is fast and confusing, sparks flying as the knives slide against her crystals. Jackson and Eric watch from the sidelines, Eric shouting random directives and Jackson once again slack jawed. Emma trips one and it crashes on the ground hard. She stomps on it and it convulses in pain as its armor crunches against its abdomen. Emma blocks the other’s knife attack, twists its arm and the weapon clatters to the ground. She head butts it and it drops with a crunch. The other gets to its feet.

    EMMA: Nighty night, ugly.

    She punches it once in the face and it slams into a parked car, flips over and drops with a thud. It doesn’t get up.

    • Keontez George

      This wasn’t a comic book, it was a cartoon! The imagery and the visuals you called forth were good. The dialogue worked really well and I got the feeling that they were young. Good job. It’s rare that I read descriptions and imagery so clear that when the action starts going, my heartbeat becomes faster! Would definitely read more.

    • Not a cartoon, but well thought out strip with one exception, who is Eric and why was he with Emma?

      • EndlessExposition

        He’s her best friend and another super-powered kid. This is an excerpt from a larger screenplay, so some details might be a bit confusing without prior context.

  • Andrés Pedraza Granados

    Well, this is in fact the first article I read from your blog, and I totally agree with you. The thing I love the most about comic books is the crazy storytelling. My favourite series are Morning Glories, Avengers and Y, the last man. All of them have intricate plots that let you wanting more. That’s what a book should do too.

  • I love comics. But what I dislike most about most mainstream (Marvel & DC) comics these days is that I always feel like they lack structure. Take, for example, the recent reboot of The Amazing Spider-Man #1-14. There are interesting moments, however because of the comic book medium (meaning the limited number of pages) everything always seems rushed and underdeveloped. Graphic novels pack more punch and are better plotted and paced.

    Even the rave about Saga is something I can’t seem to relate to. I mean, at first it was great. But as more issues came out, they eventually lost me. Maybe the best comic book series I’ve read so far that really had me hooked and entertained for long stretches were Fables, Y The Last Man, and certain Manga.

    I think comics (particularly superhero comics) would do better if they practiced better pacing and story structure. Sometimes it feels like they rely too much on gimmicks (Oh, let’s include a team-up between Spider-man and Wolverine in this issue… Aha! Why don’t we kill Batman and resurrect him again at a later date), rather than tell stories that drive deep and hard.

  • Prince A.

    I love comics, especially manga. It’s really great when you find one that you can’t put down because the story is written in such a way that doesn’t allow you to put it down. Descriptions is something that I think I can learn to do better for sure. I did 15 min practice and this is what I came up with:

    The night fog was thick and murky as young Oswald rushed through the crowd. His fear revealed itself as beads of sweat playing connect the dots with his freckles. He was forced to wipe his flooding eyes with his trench coat’s sleeve, but this distraction got him caught within the performance of the acrobats. As the trapeze artists flipped within the air, his body halted and his eyes were in a trance to follow their movements. The flips led him to view the moon’s pulsating glow. The red sands of his flask, hanging by the chain of his coat pocket, began to rise before him to the beat of the eerie moon. With a simple swing of his hand, he commands the sand back into the flask and takes off through a small opening into an alleyway.

    “You don’t have to do this!” Oswald says in a loud roar as he focuses in on his destination.

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