Monday, August 4, 2014

Writing Comics - Managing Beats

Last week we introduced the essentials to writing a script for a comic book. It’s been pointed out that scripts these days are taking the shape of modern screenplays. This is because a comic book script has to evoke not only visual but auditory cues the progress the story. I touched on this in my example layouts for the sample script presented there.

I also mentioned something called a “beat,” or “beats” as they are referred to in plural. These comprise the meat of the comic script, as well as the content of today’s post.

A comic beat is a little known asset that has made this style of narrative so iconic. Alan Moore is a master of the “beat,” which he uses to pace his stories and build action through the issues. Think of these as scenes in a play. Within the act are extended conversations and moments of rising action, which likewise occurs in comics. In the comic Justice, Alex Ross depicts Clark Kent watching television, until an enraged Bizarro breaks through the wall and forces Clark into a confrontation. This is a beat within the larger scope of that issue which focuses on the JLA being taken down by various rogue members of the Legion of Doom. This particular beat is only a few panels. Some beats though can extend for a few pages.

The thing about beats is that everyone is familiar with them. They are so common that many readers don’t even recognize them and how they frame the story. As I said before Alan Moore is a master of employing the beat for narrative effect. In The Killing Joke, the Joker arriving at the conclusion of Gordon and his daughter Barbara punctuates the scene. It’s a narrative gasp that causes the reader to stop and pay attention, as well as anticipate the conflict that will ensue on the following pages. I call these “reveals,” a moment where the reader in let in on a secret that the author laid out for them to discover.

I particularly haven’t mastered the beat yet. I feel that their usage in the comic medium can be compared to the way people write their sentences in papers and articles. Being an editor, I see many cases where someone is clearly trying to impress their prospective readers with flashy diction or complicated sentence arrangements. What they don’t realize is that in their efforts to do so, they have made their writing harder to understand. Simplicity and directness is power when it comes to writing. A beat can be employed in a very contrived way, like at the very end of an issue (i.e. the cliffhanger). Few look at them as opportunities to wow and surprise readers though, which is a shame. A beat can end on a pause, or a moment of realization, or even a surprise attack. Each way can elevate the action in a story, or augment how it proceeds. Clearly though, the best use of managing beats and illustrating how they move the story forward is when they are employed in straightforward, direct fashion.  Read anything by Alan Moore and you will see what I mean almost immediately.

Consider the “beat” from now on as a tool for pacing and storytelling. I hope it helps you and your story crafting like it has helped my own.


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