This article, written by Jennifer Stevenson and illustrated by Elizabeth Person, is from the May 2019 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
With graphic novels and comics all the rage, I worked with Elizabeth Person, an illustrator, animator, and comic book writer-artist on a three-panel experiment. This will show you how author and artist collaborate, a different exercise from drawing one’s own.
Original 250-word story
At three in the morning of March first, 1893, the moon rode high in London’s sky over the old mansion in Grosvenor Square. All was still: no hansom cabs rumbled over the cobblestones, no policeman’s whistle sounded, and even the gas lamps burned with a fainter hiss, around which bats flitted noiselessly. No house thronged with a private party, no orchestra was heard behind the tall, darkened windows. The only sign of a disturbance was a window ajar on the ground floor at number 12, its curtain blowing outward.
Inside the darkened drawing room, Miss Emmeline Moriarty stood behind the curtain, her pistol raised, listening for telltale sounds of the householder’s return. It had been simplicity to enter. She knew Lord Jowles to be at his club that night, celebrating the success of his plan to seize her father’s criminal empire. The servants would be in their attic rooms. The square was silent. She hadn’t even had to break the glass.
Lord Jowles was still drunk; he had walked all the way home from his club and the unseasonably warm night air had nearly put him to sleep. He never noticed the curtain blowing out of his own drawing-room window. He had spent the evening drinking whatever friends bought for him, eating roast duck and oysters and pudding and everything his medical advisors had forbidden him, accepting congratulations from his cronies until they had tottered home one by one, the slackers. Unsteadily, he now paused on his own doorstep and scrabbled at the keyhole with his wayward key.
Let’s turn it into a script in three panels. In my directions to the artist, I sent the following:
- Establishing shot: London city scene, full moon in a starry sky, and below, small, a house lit in front by a street lamp. On the first (ground, if you’re British) floor front, a casement window (door-style, not opening up-and-down) is a little open, and the tail of a light curtain is hanging out and fluttering slightly in a breeze.
- Interior closeup shot: Mostly dark. Half of a young woman’s face illuminated by moonlight from the window. She is standing behind the curtain inside that room, but all we see is half her stern, lovely young face, perhaps a curl beside her fiercely narrowed eye, her small hand raised, holding an enormous service revolver circa 1893, pointing up, and perhaps a bit of the street, sidewalk, streetlamp below. If you can’t fit all that in, just give us a bit of her face, the hand holding the revolver, the curtain, and maybe the moon beyond it.
- Interior closeup shot: A bit lighter. All we see is Lord Jowles’s plump bare hand trying to thrust his key into the keyhole. The key is attached to a fancy key chain with a fob and a couple of other keys dangling on it. Lord Jowles wears a gaudy man’s jeweled ring. Small speech bubble comes down into the picture: “Damned keyhole moves around on a feller.”
I also told Elizabeth “There’s no room for her clothes as you’re showing how tiny a keyhole image an artist can work with to create the mood, illustrate character, set the time of day and setting. You’ll notice the backstory doesn’t mention whether she’s working for her father’s criminal empire or working against it, so the artist is at liberty to make her look villainous or virtuous, as well as pretty and young and well-bred and determined.”
Elizabeth then sent me some draft images.
At this step, as the author, I provided the following feedback: “This is lovely! Street and house are the right kind of architecture. Emmeline looks ladylike, resolute and fierce. The revolver is terrific—huge in her hand, and clunky like army revolvers of the period. The doorknob & keys are excellent. Also, Lord Jowles’s hand is nicely masculine without looking ‘stevedore.’”
I then gave her more specific feedback on what I had envisioned:
- Panel 1: I had imagined looking down on the house from up above, but this works fine! When you polish, might add a tiny bit of light from the streetlights, and a sliver of a moon above, to help signal “nighttime.”
- Panel 2: I imagined this closer up. Perhaps show us maybe less than half her face, and the revolver in her hand or even just part of the revolver (barrel & cartridge-cylinder), the rest of her face partly concealed by the edge of a closed curtain. Because you’ve made her hair, face, collar, hand, and revolver perfectly signal all the things I wanted, if you zoom in, you will still give us everything we want, nice and large, without wasting extra space on the room décor or much of the street view. Also, Emmeline should be behind a curtain. Probably not behind the one that is blowing open. Although it adds continuity to have her standing beside the open window we saw in panel 1, it isn’t logical. The implication being, she is waiting for Jowles to enter the room, and she expects to ambush him when he is inside it.
- Panel 3: The third panel, another extreme closeup, brings the promise of the waiting menace of the revolver-holding woman closer to a moment of actual conflict. Lord Jowles’s hand is just right. How about you take out his thumbnail and add a seam on his thumb and a button at his wrist, to indicate a white glove (surely a sign of the upper class!) and add his ring.
Elizabeth responded that she could see what I meant in the wider shot feeling less intimate and dramatic. She then offered her thoughts and sent a cropped copy of the second panel that approximated what she had in mind for my feedback.
At this part in the process, I found what she had done interesting, and let her know that the shorter, wider frame looked better. I also noted that perhaps we needed to consider putting the door on her right so doesn’t have her back to the door and that the view through the window of the buildings across the street confused me. Logically, I knew that the houses across the street very likely look like that, but my immediate assumption is that she’s in a window across the street from the house with our blowing-curtain-open-window. This is because I am a lazy reader. Since there’s no action or dialogue, I think we should expect lazy reading.
I then proposed some solutions, giving her three possible solutions. She chose the third, which was to use the short, wide panel-view she’d sent, and changing it to put her behind the curtain and shift the camera angle toward sky.
After a bit more back and forth emails, Elizabeth sent me the cleaner versions of panels 1 and 3, and three compositions for panel 2:
Panel 2, three versions:
- Top: The same as before but with the door right next to the window on the right. Architecturally, this might seem weird, but visually it read well.
- Middle: The view from a lower camera angle with the door closer the reader. The light draws reader eyes to her immediately before seeing the door, so it works narratively.
- Bottom: A lower camera angle, but parallel to the wall. It’s dramatic but the door is a bit hard to read.
The minute I saw panels 1 and 3, I knew we were good there. I also thought the second of the three options for #2 was most effective, because she takes the eye! But I thought that she should have the pistol should be bigger, and she should give the reader a stern eyeball.
I also noticed what seems to be a pole in the room, because the view is of being in the room looking out. As we discussed this, Elizabeth realized the lamp post didn’t have a grounding point in the image, which made it look odd. We decided adding the moon might give a better idea of the camera angle without mistaking the lamp post for some kind of indoor pillar.
Here is the final shot for panel 2:
The final series of images comes out like this, then:
A few takeaways from the process
- Your story shifts shape on its way out of your head and onto a page. First, you imagine a series of images and words. Then you convert those images and words into fiction. Then you revisit the fiction to convert it into a comic book script. So your story moves a lot between right brain and left brain, and you may find that what you imagined when you originally wrote the story is not on the page, perhaps has never been on the page.
- Don’t be afraid to try drawing your comic book yourself first, using stick figures, to block out the story you want to tell. “Thumbnailing” your script like this will help you learn about communicating with the artist…and learn about your story as well!
- Listen to the artist. You have your expertise and they have theirs.
Jennifer Stevenson is the author of five series, nineteen novels and twenty short stories. Her story "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" appeared in Jam! Tales from the World of Roller Derby, a graphic anthology. Her paranormal women's fiction series Coed Demon Sluts was nominated for the James Tiptree Award and featured on John Scalzi's "The Big Idea" blog. She lives in Chicago with two cats and a stagehand.
Elizabeth Person is a freelance illustrator and graphic designer. She graduated from Allegheny College in 2017 in fine arts & computer science. She has been illustrating covers, maps, and characters for writers since 2011.