Writing on Writing

I have been around writers all my life. Both of my parents used to teach writing (my mom still does, actually), and many of my relatives are published authors, most notably my uncle Tobias Wolff, who has been called a master of the modern short story, which is both awesome and would be incredibly intimidating if he wasn't such a cool guy.  While I feel fairly comfortable writing about a specific topic in ways that I hope hold the reader's interest and create food for thought, I am less comfortable when creating characters, putting them in difficult situations, then getting them out of those situations in ways that engage and captivate a reading (or viewing) audience. I am quite in awe of writers, and while I tend to gravitate more towards artists when discussing comics, for a variety of reasons I have been thinking a lot about what kind of person is able to look at a comic book and go, "You know what? I wanna write one of those."

I was at a birthday party for a friend of mine's kid this weekend and was introduced to a guy who has actually written quite a few comics, and our discussion was the inspiration for this article. We discussed many different ideas, concepts and personalities, a few of which I will talk about here.  Hopefully, this piece will encourage you to share your stories and observations about writing, comics and otherwise. The urge to write is an incredibly private, oftentimes terrifying and usually very lonely one, so let's enjoy this opportunity.

First off, 22 pages ain't a lot of room.  One thing I am sure you have noticed as you slog through your comics is just how many stories are parts of longer two and three and six issue arcs.  There are obviously solid economic reasons behind stringing the reader along over a multi-issue arc and there are as many obvious creative reasons why a writer would want to tell a story over 44 or 66 pages–you just have a little more room to let your story breathe. You have the opportunity to illustrate relatioships over a longer period of time; while we all enjoy action sequences, it is the characters and their relationships that we take into our hearts, you know?  The flipside of this is the stark realization of just how hard it is to make a single issue sing.  Over the years we have been fortunate enough to have Paul Dini on Detective Comics, whom I would argue is one of the great masters of the modern "one and done" issue. Darwyn Cooke is another name that comes to mind and, of course, we have Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, who have made Jonah Hex notable for so many reasons, not the least of which is that most of the issues are standalone triumphs.  (In your comments, I hope you can share other authors whose single issues are worth mention!)

My friend, Jim, was laughing at how 22 pages was so short that it was not even a sentence–it was just the intake of a breath to say that sentence!  He told me that his old friend Paul Pope (how apropos!) says "When working in comics, every act is the third act."  Comic book writers just don't have the luxury of, say, having a guy walk into a bar, order a drink, pay for the drink, take off his coat, stir the drink look at a lady, take a sip of his drink and talk to her.  You have to basically show the bar and cut to him drinking the drink and talking to the lady.  Yeah, you have a panel in between, but you can see what I am talking about–you have to keep things moving.  Every page, every panel, is there because it must be there, otherwise it really is just taking up space.  

Jim discussed how writing for comics was a balancing act. If you write too much, then the artist has to use more panels to tell you story, which can compress the art, which impacts the artist's ability to tell the story graphically. I really hadn't thought about that–I mean, it's obvious, sure, but it's just this other aspect of comic book writing that really blows me away. You have to work with an artist so closely to get the story in your head down on the page for the readers' brains to absorb.  In is excellent book on writing, entitled On Writing, Stephen King likened writing to a telepathic link. When I write about a red mug of coffee sitting on a table, with a crumpled up newspaper next to it, a half eaten piece of toast askew on the plate, all placed on top of a rickety table, I am describing a scene that you are then building in your head. It is my job as a writer to keep that imagery consistent–I can't refer suddenly to the blue mug or a half-eaten banana–to maintain that storytelling link. 

Consistency is so important in writing, but in comics, there is the extra consistency of the artist thrown into the mix. When I think about Ultimate Spider-Man, I think about Mark Bagley–his work, the way he draws Bendis's characters talking to each other, is so consistent that all of it just works, regardless of if you are fan of the art or not. Books that have long runs with writer and artist (Bendis and Maleev on Daredevil, Brubaker and Sean Phillips on Criminal) are so special (in every sense of that overused word) precisely because the team knows how to work wither each other so cohesively–so coherently.

Back to the "third act" concept. Brian Michael Bendis has said that when writing comics you approach a scene by "coming in late and leaving early," and that has really stuck with me, because it's a great way to make the limitations of the form really work.  I felt this the other day in my own screenwriting. Without getting into too much detail, I was writing a few scenes that set up two characters, how they went through their morning ritual, getting up, making breakfast, reading the paper, that kind of thing. I thought it would be nice to show the audience who these characters were (two old men, basically) before kicking off the main story, which took place later in the morning, in front of a fountain, with one character saying to the other, "I feel old."  My manager looked at the script, and proceeded to cut those 8 pages of setup and just started the whole thing with that one line in front of a fountain.  Wham! Totally worked because he was really thinking about the picture of the moment–two old men sitting in front of a fountain, looking tired and worn out–and the imagery and the characters just supported the line so well that all that work of those 8 pages was done in one line. It was awesome.

My gut tells me that writing comics is probably like that for each page.  Writing is constant distillation — telling the backstory is never going to be as fun as showing the results of the backstory, whether it be the way a character talks or dresses, or the anecdotes he shares, the art that he shows on his walls.

While "coming in late and leaving early" does help a story move a long, especially for an action oriented book, my favorite comic book moments tend to be quiet, often wordless, moments between characters.  As much as Bendis is a master of long, scenes of clever dialogue, I think those scenes only help to make his quiet scenes that much more impactful.  It seems to me that those scenes are when the voice of the author really comes out, because he or she is putting his faith into spaces that are basically taking up room, compressing other moments that happen before or after within the confines of 22 pages.  Acting legend Sarah Bernhardt once said, "Act in your pauses."  Anyone can say words. It is up to the actor to inhabit those moments when he is not speaking, when the job is to express a moment in time without words, that an actor is both most alive and most important. Acting is reacting–if you watch TV, try noticing just how many times the camera cuts to someone listening.  Happens a lot.

There are many aspects of comic book writing that I notice, but dialogue has to be the one that I am most aware of, probably because good dialogue brings me great joy.  While I appreciate Bendis's ability to write scenes that sound like real people talking, there's another aspect to dialogue that I think is more subtle and arguably more important: consistency of tone. Most of the time, Batman sounds like Batman.  Superman sounds like Superman.  Spider-Man, same thing. Let's not even get into Thor!  Okay, I am joking, but, you know, Bruce Wayne can't suddenly start sounding like Clark Kent or Peter Parker. There's a tone in his voice, the words that Wayne might use are going to be different than Oliver Queen. Now, of course, I think that the role of the editor is to make sure tone is consistent across writers, but the more I read comics, the more I appreciate how writers work hard to make a character sound consistent.

Comics are a wonderful example of a rigid form as a venue for great creativity.  I can imagine that comic book writers are often frustrated by the limitations of 22 pages, but given how good comics have gotten, they are certainly doing fine with it. Interestingly, even when creators get a chance to do a book that can be much longer, you'll see them break the story up into chapters (Darwyn Cooke's Parker: The Hunter and Asterios Polyp by David Mazuchelli come to mind).

Comic book writers are a very rare breed–they have to collaborate, closely, with others to get their story across. They have to think not only in terms of character and scene, but of page and panel.  They are often working to tell new, exciting stories with long-established characters who have had every kind of adventure…many times over. Writing comics, as many of you can attest, is not convenient, it's not easy and for the most part, it's not lucrative, but it is most clearly a labor of love, and this expression of this passion is definitely one of the reasons comics remain such an important part of my life.


Mike Romo is an actor and writer in Los Angeles.  Email him here, twitter him there.


  1. Man, terrific piece, Mike. 

    In college I got the opportunity to talk to a lot of professional writers, from novelists to poets to journalists, screenwriters, and playwrights. Early on I was worried that seeing too much of the action behind the curtain, getting elbow-deep in all the mechanics of writing would erode the mysticism of the experience. That I wouldn’t be able to enjoy just sitting in a theater or paging through a book because I’d be too busy counting out the act breaks or thinking about the process of the artist responsible for the work. But these days I’ve found that it only enhances the experience.

    Where am I going with this? Well, it’s just fun to talk to other writers and to read about their discoveries in craft. And to read about your perspective as an actor is just as illuminating. Bookmarking this one to revisit in the future.  

  2. Holy shit, Mike. I didn’t realize your uncle was Tobias Wolff! I love his stuff. He wrote one of my all-time favorite short stories, "A Bullet in the Brain."

    Great insights into writing. This is one of my favorite pieces you’ve written. I really like the "every act is the third act" concept. That gives me a lot to chew on. 

    I totally relate to your anecdote about the screenplay. It’s amazing when we actually do allow ourselves to cut something out and realize that the piece is that much stronger. I’ve been doing a lot of writing, but I’ve also spent recent years editing other peoples’ scripts, and I do see that it’s often that outside perspective that helps you see that you can strip away alot and actually ENHANCE the feeling by doing so.

    Anyway, tremendous piece. Nice work. Thanks for giving me a lot to think on.

  3. Great piece! Very interesting, and helpful to me right now as I’m thinking of taking the Script Frenzy plunge in March to finish the miniseries I’ve been slowly writing. Thanks for writing it!

  4. I love that Bendis quote. I remember him saying that a while ago, and it’s amazing to see how it applies to all kinds of writing.

    Great article!

  5. You’re on fire these days Mike, great article. I love reading about writing and this was no exception.

  6. Great column, Mike! Lots of fantastic thoughts and ideas here.

    I only started reading comic books a few years ago, but I’ve been a writer for long before that. What really attracted me to writing comic books was their extraordinary — and extraordinarily unique — structure. Not only is a standard comic book 22 pages long, but each page is its own, unique product (for artists who sell their work, it’s literally a unique product). And so each page has to be interesting, serve a function, tell a story, illuminate character. There’s no other medium like that.

    For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing a one-page comic book script every day. A one-page one-and-done, every day. It’s a great reminder of the importance the page plays in comic books.


  7. Fantastic article, as per usual.

    Just a thought on other writers who are good with "one and dones": Bryan Wood (looking specifically at Local here, Demo too).

  8. Wow, thanks for the comments, guys!  @pdallor – what a great exercise, creating one page comics.  It reminds me of an acting exercise that my old old old school acting teacher told me about where you would rehearse a scene by entering on each line.  Each line would be the first line of the scene, just for fun. This totally changes the impact of the line, totally focuses the intention, which helps later when you do the scene normally.  By focusing on a single page you can make sure that each page can exist on its own when in a book. Very cool idea!

    @daccampo – yeah, that’s one of my favorites, too! There’s a theatre group in San Francisco that actually made a play out of "Bullet"–I remember when I read that story in The New Yorker and realizing that it represented a new level of his writing. Fantastic piece…


    @paulm — I think you bring up a good point, and I was worried that discussing writing, even generally, might be kind of boring, but what I am beginning to think is that any time we get a chance to share thoughts about how we engage the work, something good has to come up.  

    I am just so pleased that you guys liked this one!

  9. Heh, small world… I first read that story while I was studying Creative Writing at San Francisco State. I just loved that story. I think I’ve probably used it as the basis for many writing exercises.

    And it probably won’t surprise you that every once in a while I find myself muttering, "They is, they is, they is.

     (for everyone else — you must read the story!)

  10. @mikeromo Great article! Curious how your acting experience helps with your character writing. Are there certain acting tricks that help you get in the mind of the characters that you’ve used in your writing?

    @pdallor Cool idea. May borrow it! 

  11. Nice post, Mike!

    That’s an intesting point about allowing the artist to tell their part of the story and writing with them in mind. So often writing is done in a vaccuum, and often with no artist attached.

  12. I dunno, 22 pages is a fine amount of time to tell a great and gripping story. Alan Moore did the "Anatomy Lesson" in one issue; it was a full story and changed comics forever. It just depends on your storytelling style and how much of the page you want to give over to your artist. In the age of decompressed comics, granted, 22 pages might seem like a lot less than it used to be. But even some silent issues, like Morrison and Quitely’s "Nuff Said" issue of New X-Men, can do a hell of a lot without m/any words and with only 3-4 panels on a page.

    Good article, though. Very thought-provoking.

    I think it’s important to consider how there are a lot of different philosophies of writing, all of which can work. Just find the one for you. Personally, I think Stephen King and Brian Bendis are pretty horrible writers; the things they do in their writing are not things I value. But on the other hand, it’s obvious to me that they do what they do very well. They connect with an audience and can influence aspiring writers in positive ways, undoubtedly. What I’m saying is, I think you have to pick your influences. If you like King and Bendis, then, sure, see what they have to say about writing and see if it works for you. There’s a million different ways to write a story that could connect with a million people, but if you heap all sorts of rules and preconditions are how you’re going to calculatedly try to write that successful story, then it’s never going to happen, because different philosophies of writing don’t work well in consort. You have to pick your influences, decide what’s important to you, and go for in.

    The best advice I have, though, is for writers to take more of their inspiration from life in general, and not to mold themselves too much on the writing of others. There’s a whole world out there apart from the various aspects of media and entertainment that we love so (too?) much, and that’s where the real artistic gold is to be found, if you know where to look for it. But I guess that advice in itself is a particular philsophy of art, and on the other hand a lot of people find success by just repeating the tropes of other writers, simply because those tropes have worked before and audiences are used to them. It’s a crap shoot, but as a writer–and as a person–you just have to decide what you want to do and what you think is valuable. Because life is limited and so is what we can write.

  13. Great article Mike. I love the whole "Come in late, leave early" idea. In improvisation there is the theory of all the best stories start in the middle. See characters go ‘hi’ ‘How you doing’ Nice weather etc. is generally pretty boring unless there is some sort of subtext underneath it. Having your scenes start in the middle really brings things right into the interesting part of the story. I use this a lot in my writing, which is usually sketch comedy not comics, but it still works.

    Speaking of sketch comedy. That getting the one and done in 22 pages reminds me a lot of sketch. Finding that perfect sketch and saying all that you need to say in only a couple of minutes is truly remarkable when it happens. So many times sketches go on too long. Or they are just one joke sketches in the first place and don’t really have anywhere to go after the sketch has been "tipped" but everyone now and then you come across one that is the perfect lenght and the jokes and characters work with the appropriate timing. God I love sketch comedy. 

    Again fantastic article. 

  14. Wow, Just wow. This was REALLY good, that Bendis Quote about writing comics as "coming in late and leaving early," really put alot of what I read week to week into perspective.

    And like your points on the one and done type of stories. Although I think a better form of comic writing is writing longer, more insular stories. I recently read Geoff Johns "Green Lantern: Secret Orgin" and aside from being a gem of storytelling its the perfect example of something you can hand to someone without them knowing anything else about the sorce material. Other examples could be Jeph Loebs "The Long Halloween", Mark Millars "Old Man Logan", Bryan Lee O’malley’s "Scott Pilgrim series, or the trade paperbacks of Brian Bendis early work at Image like "Jinx", "Fire", or "Goldfish".

    As far as one in done single issues I could not agree more about Palmiotti and Grey’s "Jonah Hex" series. but other than those I cant really think of any others. Unless you count that Rhino issue of ASM by Joe Kelly(I Kill Giants!).

    But once again Mike, Great article as always.  

  15. I read Bullet in the Brain in collage and is my faverit short story.  That is realy cool that your uncle wrote that pieace.  Kind of scary sometimes how small the world is.  Great article Mike as always.  Wrightings great, its tarrafying, its infureating, its wonderful, and when you can’t spell "like my" it aften sucks.

  16. Wow Mike that ‘s your best article yet! I remember when Bendis said that on the Wordballoon podcast. I think that it’s true for comics, short stories, and probably TV and movies too.  As for "act in your pauses", I think that is someone artists should take to heart.  There are many panels in comics where the artist needs to convey emotion even if the character isn’t speaking.  I think Gary Frank is a great example of this and it can be seen in his recent work Superman Origins.

    I just watched JLA New Frontier for the first time the other day and a featurette on the disc talked about what you mention here in the article.  It pointed out that in the golden age at DC many characters were interchangable. In other words, they all sounded the same.  Another good example of that is the Superfriends cartoon.

    So you looking for some good examples of one and done writers.  Jason Aaron does great Wolverine one shots from time to time. Also he did a Punisher Max X-Mas Special that is probably my favorite thing he has written.  Scott Lobdell came out of no where and did a great one and done featuring the Riddler in the Gotham Sirens book a few months back.  If you haven’t you should check out Paul Jenkins Captain America Theater of War one shots.  They are all spectacular.

  17. Very good article.  I am getting ready to finally (after months of procrastination) start outlining my first comics.  As a writer I think its important to be cognizant of strengths and weaknesses which brings me to ask the following.  I am good at creating worlds and good at developing stories of ideas.  Dialogue makes me nervous as hell.  When I was taking creative writing in college I was constantly afraid that my dialogue sounded false…and probably it often did.  Mike or anyone else, any helpful hints on how to develop your dialogue skills?  Many thanks.

  18. @kmob181 – Read your dialogue out loud. That’s one of the first ways you can see if it reads smoothly or not. You’ll generally know if people actually "sound" like that when you speak it aloud. It also sometimes helps to have someone ELSE read it aloud. It shows you how they are seeing it on the page.

    Also remember that dialogue is an action. It’s a thing people DO to each other. That sounds funny at first, but it’s true. When a character says something, they’re actually taking an action. They could be defending themelves, passively agressively attacking someone’s viewpoint, they could be probing for some kind of assurance. When you really consider the emotions and the motives BEHIND the line of dialogue, I think i’ll start to feel more authentic.

  19. @daccampo – Many thanks.  This was really helpful.

  20. I really enjoyed this article. Reminded me alot of josh’s fear vs will.