Here's an old journal from 2010 about storytelling. Because I have a lot more readers these days, I think I'm going to start reposting some of my earlier posts for my newer audience. So for you old timers, feel free to skip.
In full disclosure, I slightly edited this journal to make it a little more balanced (while also fixing a ton of typos).
I feel like the word "storytelling" gets thrown around a lot in our industry. Yet when I look out there at some comics, I don't always see a lot of evidence for it.
It feels like people in comics pros--myself included--often use the word only because we feel like we're supposed to. Over the years enough professionals have been accused of being poor storytellers to the degree that everyone is now afraid of being a pinup artist as opposed to a bona fide storyteller. But it's not enough just to claim you're a storyteller.
Most people reading this probably have a few artists in their heads right now that are probably awful storytellers—some we don't agree on, but some who are so notoriously bad that very few would defend them (it's funny how we train each other to agree on trends). Even though most artists own books by Will Eisner and Scott McCloud, many don't seem to understand them on that deeper level.
Or maybe they have read them, but they haven't utilized the information. They're fans of the IDEA of storytelling and they honestly believe that they ARE storytelling, but they're not internalizing it like I think they should. Of course, much of it is subjective--often what successfully emotes one reader will completely lose the next. In other words, there aren't many rules, just guidelines. And because I spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff, I've found it helpful to divide "storytelling" into four categories so it becomes an easier concept to employ.
Traversive isn't even a word, so I'm inventing it. Have you ever climbed a mountain? Then you've traversed it. You've gone from the beginning of the trail of the mountain, up the side, to the top, and back down on the other side. Storytelling works in much the same way. And your panels should be visually traversing people through the story. Is it clear where Logan is standing? Did you introduce that doorway before he walked through it? Why did that beer he's drinking come out of nowhere? Where's the bar? What kind of bar? What are you drawing that clearly indicates this stuff? If a reader can't get SOME sense of what's going on without the word balloons, then you're not telling a story. But this one's a no brainer—even most editors look out for this one. At least during portfolio reviews.
Remember how Scarface had that cut over his eye? It wasn't just
there to look cool. De Palma was also telling us something: Scarface is permanently wounded, scarred, and he can't hide it. That scar reflects something about that character. But that's an obvious one. We often see obvious symbolism through storytelling: rain=sadness, autumn=death, snow=a blanket. Or a character is drawn really small to show how large and scary his world is. But some directors push it further. In THE ROAD TO PERDITION, Mendes linked water with death. Young Michael witnesses death paired with ice at a funeral, rain at an execution, and a lake when his father is shot at the end (spoiler alert). Anything can be used as a symbol if you set it up properly. Symbolism isn't necessary to a story—it's just the gravy. And the guys who use it stand out, so we should all be using it.
The way you draw you characters acting and interacting is a huge help to the dialog. A stone-cold Punisher face is awesome, but what else can you add? How is he moving? How is he standing? Are his arms crossed? Is he ever so slightly rolling his eyes? Acting is a form of action, so don't get bored in those talking-head scenes. There's a lot going on that you can play with if you're smart enough to pick up the ball and run with it. Human beings read body language and faces more than they realize, so be mindful of what you're directing your characters to do. If done right, readers will be getting more from your art without being conscious as to why.
Ever see that commercial with Michael Bay blowing stuff up while he's saying "I demand everything to be awesome"? It stands out, doesn't it? Whatever your opinion of Bay is, I think he's making a valid point: people want to be moved, and excitement is a huge part of comics.
One of my favorite movies is T2, and T2 is far from a perfect movie. But the reason I love it so much is because Arnold is awesome on that motorcycle. In one scene he pulls out a shotgun from a box of roses—THAT'S awesome. He lifts John from his dirt bike onto his Fatboy—THAT'S awesome. He's wearing one leather glove to cover his metal hand. –THAT'S awesome. So why all this talk about "awesome"? The more fun you're having in a story, the more invested and emotionally committed you are. Having something impact you is important—even if it's just cheesily "awesome". But there's a fine line between being an "awesome pinup" artist and throwing someone an "awesome camera angle" every now and then. You can be an "awesome" artist and still be all the other things I mentioned. Sure, drawing the SWAT team in the foreground wasn't in the script--but fuck it because SWAT teams are awesome! Comics are a visual medium that can't always compete with novels, movies and video games—so there are times when it MUST be about the artwork. So give the people a bone. No editor is ever going to make you redraw that SWAT team into the background because you drew it overly awesome. (Here's a short list of "awesome" things in comics that you should try to draw the fuck out of ever chance you get: guns, cars, leather anything, swords, anything Japanese, explosions, alleyways, bricks, boots, and anything angry.)
For me, these are the tenets of storytelling. I'm sure I've missed a few, and I know a lot of these overlap. Storytelling isn't a science and it doesn't happen completely on the page; it mostly happens in the reader's head a thousand miles from where you're standing. So I make it a goal to do my best and be as clear as possible. Not that I'm an expert—I make plenty of mistakes and am still learning. I'm actually hoping to spark some debate so I can hear your thoughts and make my process better.