Keith DeCandido: Writing in Different Sandboxes

Thanks to all the bells & whistles,  story comes in so many forms now that its hard to believe we were once relegated to only reading books pumped out by some old printing press.   From web series to comic books to novels to media tie-ins to radio to television to films and onward, you can access pretty much any flavor or medium you like through the Intertubes, the Kindle, the iPad, etc. Plenty of writers are taking advantage of the opportunity to move through the different mediums – from Joss Whedon (television, film, comic books) to Eric Wallace (writer/story editor on Eureka and writer for several DC titles)

The trick is understanding how to write for each medium.  Author Keith DeCandido — a good friend and someone whose writing I’ve enjoyed for years! – has offered to share his thoughts on the topic.  You might recognize his name for his dozens of Star Trek novels or his terrific writing on the Farscape graphic novel series.  He’s penned plenty with plenty more to come.


After having written (and gotten published) almost 40 novels, in 2008 I was hired to script a monthly Farscape comic book for BOOM! Studios.

This wasn’t my first comic book work; that distinction went to a Star Trek: The Next Generation four-issue miniseries Perchance to Dream in 1999. However, I hadn’t done any comics work since then, and sitting down and rereading PtD, I winced. Looking back on it almost a decade later, I realized that I suffered from Prose Writers Disease (PWD). I wrote the comic very much like it was a prose story, with way too many words often crowding out the art. And many of those words weren’t at all necessary.

In the 1990s, I edited a line of novels and anthologies based on Marvel’s superheroes—45 novels and 9 anthologies published between 1994 and 2000—and I worked with several comics writers jumping to prose for the first time, and there were several mistakes that were common to almost all of them. They had trouble dealing with point of view, the character voices were surprisingly undifferentiated (I guess they relied on the word balloon pointing at someone to indicate who was talking), and the narrative voice was sometimes stilted.*

* They also had a tendency to end most dialogue sentences with exclamation points, but that was how they were trained, and more forgivable. For a long time, comics were printed on cheap newsprint and hand-lettered, and as a result, a simple period often couldn’t be seen, so scripters would often use exclamation points to denote the end of a sentence. However, when rendered in prose, it make it seem like everyone is being played by Brian Blessed.

Transitioning the other way as I did, the problems were much different. The narrative caption has fallen out of favor (though I did occasionally use them anyhow), which removes a major bullet from a prose writer’s gun. You have to rely on the artist to handle the description and the action.

The real trick, of course, is that it’s more than that. The artist is telling the story with you, not just illustrating your words. You want to avoid suffering from PWD and let the artist do their job.

You also have to think in terms of what makes a good visual scene. If you’re doing talking heads scenes, you have to find a way to make them dynamic visually. (One thing I liked to do was a three-rows-of-three-panels nine-panel page, which would enable a talking-heads scene to move along quickly.)

But perhaps the biggest challenge when you’re doing a comic book as opposed to prose is the page count.

Your average comic book is 22 pages, no more, no less. You have absolutely no wiggle room there. You need to tell your story in precisely that amount of space. It’s a tremendous challenge to pare your story down to its essentials. With prose, you don’t have any kind of limitations on space. A novel can be between 40,000 words and 200,000 words, and anything in between. Even short stories have a level of flexibility. That goes out the window in a monthly comic book. It forces you to seriously consider what needs to be in the story and what doesn’t.

Going back to prose was occasionally awkward, as I’d sometimes forget to put in proper descriptions, expecting the artist that didn’t exist to fill it in.

What’s been fun about going back and forth is the challenge of remembering the different needs of the media.

Of course, the final ironic twist is that my comic book work didn’t involve superheroes—it was a continuation of a TV show. Meanwhile, one of my most recent novels is SCPD: The Case of the Claw, the first in a series of novels about the Super City Police Department, the cops who work in a city filled with superheroes. It’s kind of fun to be writing superheroes in prose after writing a television show for a comic book.

Getting to play in different sandboxes is, after all, all part of the fun.

Keith R.A. DeCandido is the author of more than forty novels, the most recent of which include SCPD: The Case of the Claw, Unicorn Precinct (the sequel to the high-fantasy police procedural Dragon Precinct, which has also been reissued), and Guilt in Innocence (part of the Scattered Earth, a shared-world science fiction project). He’s hard at work on the sequels to all three, and has also contributed to two forthcoming shared-world projects, Steven Savile’s thriller series Viral and Jonathan Maberry’s unique take on vampires in V-Wars. Find out more at, which is the gateway to purchasing those books, his Facebook and Twitter feeds, his blog, and the various and sundry podcasts he’s involved with, including his own twice-monthly podcast Dead Kitchen Radio.