Outlines And The Shape Of The Page

Orbital Operations for 31 March 2024

Spring is properly coming in now, thank god. The mancub cat is dancing in the grass and the fruit trees are unfurling leaves. It’s warm and everything is buzzing with potential glory. Hello from out here on the Thames Delta.





Letters about the creative life by Warren Ellis, a writer from England. Was this forwarded to you? Subscribe.


🎞️ The experimental short films of Ed Emshwiller are on YouTube - here’s a playlist. Emshwiller started out as a sf magazine illustrator and became a filmmaker in the 60s. He came to mind because an early review of Coppola’s MEGALOPOLIS cited Emshwiller as an apparent influence. 📖 Lavinia Greenlaw’s THE VAST EXTENT (UK) (US): “Colour was expensive, and could be so flat and crude that it made things seem less real rather than more so. Black and white was authenticating, documentary. Newspapers and textbooks were black and white, and I believed them.” 🎙️ Laura Cannell’s RIVERLORE. It is the sound of my part of the world in the past. These are the ghosts we hear in the misted fields of the east of England.



So I wrote this on LTD the other day:

I have the first script of a new thing in front of me, and I’m feeling my way into the tone. You can outline all you like – you’ll not find the true sound of a thing until you start writing the script.

I worked with a certain film director several times. Lovely guy. I learned new things every time I worked with him, and I’d do it again in a second. But he had this one tic. Every time I showed him an outline, he would say “but (item) is missing,” and I would say, “that’s a script note - that’s the (beat or reaction or whatever) that I find in the scripting.” And he would without exception reply, “Why do writers always say that to me? I want it all in the outline!”

Well, if one person tells you you’re drunk, you might not be, but if everyone tells you you’re drunk, go the fuck home, you’re drunk.

Because an outline isn’t really writing. It’s construction, assemblage of elements in order. It’s structural. It’s finding the shape of the story. It’s not writing. Writing happens when you’re telling the story: it’s the human breath inside it, it’s finding the interactions and responses around planned events in the moment of living them in the story, it’s the act of discovering all the nuances and sounds of the story as you fully tell it. MOBY DICK is a straightforward outline but the outline doesn’t prepare you for the qualities of the story as it is told. You cannot predict every second of what the story will tell. And if you try to? You’re just transcribing a technical document. Insert previously machined “emotion button” here.

I can show you the frame of a story in advance, but I can’t tell you what colour the wallpapers will be until I’ve started living in the place. You live it in the telling, and you can’t plan it all out in advance without ending up with a lifeless story.



What’s wrong with this picture?

Well, nothing. It’s one of the most thrilling double page spreads from the unjustly forgotten RONIN by Frank Miller. I can’t tell you the excitement that roiled around this book in the Eighties. In the months preceding, DC comics had a glossy insert in the middle advertising it. Miller wasn’t yet thirty, coming off DAREDEVIL, and this was his first major original creator-owned project. Miller was one of comics’ great synthesists, and RONIN was where he really unleashed his love of manga (as well as European artists - it’s where Moebius and Druillet starts to leak into the work). And this panel is where you know he was looking at a LOT of untranslated manga. Because this spread appears to read from right to left. It goes against the page turn. All the big action points backwards from the Anglo reading flow.

Look what happens when you flip it.

It’s still a bit janky - what becomes the last panel on the right, on the page turn, has actions that point backwards away from the page turn. However, the big energy is with the Ronin and the horse and the arrows, and in the flip, all that goes from left to the right hand page edge, where you turn the page.

But. Go back to the first version. Miller points you from right to left, and you have to follow the panels on the left down to the bottom after you take in the Ronin - you follow the arrows he’s loosing.

You get to the bottom left - you’re on the opposite side to the page turn. But - the cops are firing tasers towards the right. You follow the taser lines - and you reach the bottom right, which is the page turn. The original, which looks wrong to the Western eye, actually does an eye-track like this:

That is some comics voodoo.

The direction of travel on the page is important. If you’re going to pull people away from the page turn, you need a good reason, and you need to be aware of how the whole page flows as well as the composition of each individual panel.

This is shit you have to think about. Larry Hama had a great cheat for this - he would always make sure the last line of dialogue on the page sat in the bottom right corner, on the page turn. This is something that people still do: check out this simple page from SAGA:

That page-turn call to action is practically subliminal, but it’s there when you look for it. Comics are always harder than they look.

Side note: as an illustrator, Miller’s ELEKTRA LIVES AGAIN with Lynn Varley was the high point, and if you’ve never seen it, you really need to - he does things in there that amaze, and he gave them up in the early episodes of the first SIN CITY in favour of the brutal marks that became his current superflat Ugly Cartoon style (which I actually enjoy, and I wish people either knew how to colour it or wouldn’t even try).




A second genus of creatures that could have embarked on the journey towards modern-day intelligence (according to an online commentary posted by Alfred. BOT .de, much admired in China) is the medusa jellyfish. They possess cells that are presumably crossed with quantum pairs found in one of the early clusters of galaxies within the Coma Berenices constellation.

I forgot to post the links for Kluge’s KONG’S FINEST HOUR last week. They are (UK) (US).

WARRENELLIS.LTD is my personal notebook, updated daily. If you use a RSS reader, it generates a feed at https://warrenellis.ltd/feed/ .

This letter has been zapped to you via Beehiiv, preferred newsletter host of all kinds of weirdoes.

And that’s me wrapped for this week. That was a rambly braindump, wasn’t it? We’ll see if I do better next week. Always trying to. In the meantime, relax and take a breath. Nothing gets better if you run yourself into the ground with worry and stress. Sometimes you can just close your eyes for five minutes, rest your eyes and be where you are for a bit, and things get a little bit better. See you next week.


I’m represented by Angela Cheng Caplan at the Cheng Caplan Company, Joel VanderKloot at VanderKloot Law and David Hale Smith at Inkwell Management. Please add [email protected] to your email system’s address book or contacts and move this to your primary folder when you get a minute, thanks.