How to get your story ideas across for beginners and non artists
You can be a storyteller, no matter your skill level. Even if you’re experienced, it sometimes helps go back to basics and have things spelled out in black and white instead of relying solely on instinct.
For myself, I often feel that my own drawing ability is below that of my peers and that can sometimes cripple my work output or even hurt communication with others.
I get past this speed bump in productivity by educating myself on the things I can improve and I try to focus on the number one objective we should have as storytellers:
Usually, my finished comic work is done by other artists that I supply with thumbnails (or storyboards) of what I want them to create for the final product. These thumbnails are often crude, small and far from attractive. But the important thing is that these thumbnails get the job done.
To do that, the thumbnails need to be as clear as possible.
Here’s an example of a typical thumbnail I would give to an artist to create a finished comic page from:
This is the first page of a short 8 page Spider-Man comic I wrote for fun. Here, on the first page, we can see a lot of things that are helpful, no matter if you are making comics or storyboarding. My drawing is small, maybe just 4 inches wide and 5 or 6 inches tall.
Considering all of the panels contained in the page, the drawings are much smaller than a typical storyboard. So how do I get enough detail in there to achieve clarity?
The answer is I forego the details!
If you notice in the second and third panels, I’ve actually labeled some of the drawing. To the right of the steps of the building, you’ll notice the letters ESU, that stands for the name of the school. In the third panel, I’ve labeled all the characters, instead of trying to draw them. Simple and effective, that equals clarity.
Here’s another example:
This is the next page, where I show off most of the main cast.
The story takes place in Spider-Man’s formative years, with his college buddies. They all have a well established design that I simplified and boiled down to the basics. Peter / Spider-Man, is a head with glasses and a black sweater vest. Flash Thompson is the jock and wears a letterman’s jacket. Harry Osborn is nothing more than that very distinct hairdo. Mary Jane has the curvy, sultry (albeit simplified) body. Gwen Stacy is the goody two shoes with the black headband.
With a few key design choices, I was able to differentiate the large cast of characters in these small drawings.
You, no matter your skill level, should do the same and try to boil down your character to their essence. I’ll never forget the first time I saw my buddy and StoryboardArt founder Sergio. Sergio draw Yoda in like, three strokes. It was masterful in its simplicity.
I don’t want you to think that we aren’t putting effort into the drawing either, I want you to become economical in your approach to storyboards.
You have to draw the same thing over and over, you need to find ways to speed up the process. And for artists with a little less skill, this helps you to focus on what’s really important. Once you have a simple character, focus your efforts on the acting of the character.
In the page I posted above, I was able to draw Peter as attentive, surprised and bashful, with very little effort (I even used an exclamation mark to further press home the emotion).
Side note: Anime and Manga are great at showing character expression with minimal effort and have even created visual short hands like sweat drops and pulsing veins to get their point across.
I know, I know….you’re sitting there thinking, “yeah, I still can’t draw and this doesn’t help”.
But honestly…think of it more as communicating rather than drawing.
If it’s your story, you have an idea you want to pass on. I’m saying get past the things that don’t matter as much. This is not the finished product and I don’t want you falling into the trap of over rendering or over thinking things.
I want you to be clear and economical.
The important things to relay to the person doing the finished work are ideas of staging, emotion, camera angles, lighting, etc. If you look at the examples above, most of my lighting is flat and my camera angles are too.
The important part of the first two pages were introducing the cast and location and getting the acting across.
When I do need to make a choice on a particular subject like lighting or perspective, I make it a point to get across. Like this example from a little later in the story:
In this sequence of panels, there is a blinding light and I actually put a little shading in the first two panels.
Very simple stuff.
I also want you to note that the floor of the second panel doubles as a perspective grid. That’s as simple a solution to camera angle as can be. Not every floor or ceiling on earth is made of tiles, but they sure are in storyboards! You want to convey an angle, add the appropriate perspective grid. The lighting in this example is also simplified as I just basically blocked in the foreground character on the second panel. In the first panel, the important message I wanted to get across is that the character is blocking the light with her hand, so the emphasis is on the cast shadow across her face.
And while staging, emotion, camera angles and lighting are important, you don’t need to emphasize all of these in each drawing.
If it’s important, then add it, like the lighting in the above example. Otherwise I focus on what is important in the frame, like the acting and setting in the first couple of pages. Speaking of setting, can any of you guess what particular class our characters are attending, just by looking at the drawing?
My drawings are crude and simple, yet get the point across. If you’re struggling with where to start, think about what the important things are that you want to convey. Get your setting and characters established as quickly as possible and go from there.
In my comic series, The Society of Unordinary Young Ladies, I established a shorthand for all the characters and made very simplified acting to convey the emotion of a scene. I do little lighting and stage a bit of the camera angles, but otherwise, the artist for the comic, Joel Sigua, got the idea and ran with the rest of it.
In this sequence from issue #4 of Society, you can take a look at how little I draw and what gets conveyed in the final product by Joel Sigua:
Some things I want to point out here:
From the thumbnails to Joel’s amazing work, very little has changed. That’s in part, my ability to give Joel what he needed in the thumbnails and on his end, his ability as an amazing artist to add to that.
Where I think about foreground separation / lighting, the effect is usually very minimal. The story itself isn’t heavy in mood and reflects that in the sparse lighting choices. Usually, I’m just using silhouettes, as shown in the examples above.
On the last page, the important shot of our hero emerging from the rubble is the only shot that really needed to be an upward angle. It’s very subtle, but conveyed enough by both myself and Joel in the finished product.
The acting is on point.
If you notice, I even use the pigtails on Punky to convey emotion, as shown in my thumbnails, when she’s excited, the pigtails stick out a little more. As shown in the third panel of the first page.
Finally, there’s simplified character design.
Check out that last panel on the last page. Joel never needed to ask, who’s who, even though the characters are drawn in two to three scribbles.
Joel is a master class artist to work with and I couldn’t be prouder, but I also know that my effort in the areas noted, made his job a lot easier than just being handed a script.
Like I mentioned at the beginning, I don’t draw as well as some of my peers (sometimes I can be pretty good, though!), but I know what I want to say with my stories and I’m able to focus my efforts in the areas mentioned.
That should be the job of any storyteller, no matter the skill level in drawing!
Story never ends!
PS: You’ve heard my take on this. What are your tips or tricks for conveying story in the simplest form? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.
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