Teaching Comics: Getting Past The Blank Page

Earlier this week, Tom Hart did a great blog post over at the Sequential Artists Workshop site called “Oblique Strategies for Comics.” Tom’s got a great list there of unusual constraints (or parameters maybe?) that one can use to “kickstart” a comic. It’s posted without much further explanation, but the items on that list are exactly the sort of thing that I’d employ when teaching to get past one of the biggest hurdles facing any teacher staring out at a classroom of cartooning students: getting past the blank page.

(Cover of a class anthology – class taught at The Sawtooth School)

The best way to learn how to make comics (and to get better at doing so) is to… MAKE COMICS. Yet, as a teacher, you really can’t just hand everyone a piece of bristol board and say “get cracking!” This is particularly true for me, since I used to teach a lot of workshops for younger students where we were pretty limited time-wise and couldn’t really do a lot of story and character development. Consequently, over the years I’ve developed a number of different methods for very, very quickly getting students putting pencil to bristol board.

Quick Character Generation

Here’re a couple of methods I’ve come up with for super-quick character generation. For both of these I use a stopwatch to limit the time each student can work on a character.

Silly names: In this first exercise, the point is to generate a ton of characters very quickly. Basically, I just call out a ridiculous name off this list and then each student has one minute to draw the character on a half of a 8.5 x 11 in sheet of paper. Here are a few examples, but the Word doc linked below has a whole bunch:

Mazzi Spazzi
Viceroy Fizzlebottom
Hypnotic Otter
Alouicious Q. Jebb
Flowbo Hobo
Inky Boodle
Vermack the Annoying
Sauce-a-roy Cheepers

Here’s the whole bunch from my classroom “cheat sheet” (although, obviously any preposterous name you come up with will work fine).

(Cover of a class anthology – another class taught at The Sawtooth School)

Character combo cards: This is a slightly more involved method, so I’ll usually give students a minute or two for each character. For this exercise, there are three columns of character traits–an occupation, a personality trait, and a physical description–and the students generate characters based on random combinations of these traits.

To use, print out this page and cut out each square, making sure to keep the squares from each column separate from one another. Put each group of paper slips in a cup (or hat, or whatever) and have students pick a slip from each. They’ll wind up drawing characters based on descriptions like:

Self-centered robot fighter-pilot
Evil ninja octopus
Two-headed slacker surgeon

Here’s the master sheet you can cut up–and as with the previous exercise you can just add any ridiculous stuff you want and it’ll work fine.

Getting the story moving

Once you’ve spent 20-30 minutes using one of the methods above (or something else similar) you should have a ton of characters generated. I usually let the students then pick one or two of their favorites to be the main character in a 2-3 page story. As with the character phase, when time is tight I want to get the students actually drawing as quickly as possible, so I have a few methods for quickly generating simple narratives:

Narrative = change: This first method is the most straightforward and it works really well with the randomly generated characters. It also has a bit of an underlying lesson as well about how stories work. First and foremost, it’s an easy way to get the students working on a story, but it also demonstrates that most narratives begin with a change in the main character’s situation. This is usually the “inciting event” in Act I. Whether or not you want to get into any of that depends on the age of the students and the time available.

Here’s how it works: it’s similar to the “character combo cards” above in that you need to cut out paper slips from a printed grid. In this case, though, you need to keep all of the rows together and in the right order (you’ll see why in a minute). I use this enough that I’ve made myself a re-usable set of cards by gluing the cut-outs to multi-colored index cards.

So, here’re some cards. For each row of the grid, I have a set of three cards where the first slip is on yellow, the second slip is on blue, and the third slip is on red. As you’ve probably deduced, each row of the grid represents a “story arc” for a simple story. The first slip is an “initial state” and the latter two cards are each a “change of state.”

When I do this exercise in a class, I usually add an element of surprise to the whole thing. I remove the third (red) card from each story, leaving just the first two cards–the initial state and one change. The students then randomly draw one of these two-card sets. Their assignment is to use their randomly-generated character and draw a two-page story based on the cards they’ve drawn. This often leads to zany combos that younger kids find pretty amusing, like:

At the beginning of the story, an evil ninja octopus is the best student in his/her class, then by the end of the story the evil ninja octopus is on Mars fighting a monster.

Once the students have completed this two-page story–filling in all the required narrative to do so–and are thinking they’re done, though, I then (time allowing) hand out an additional sheet of bristol board to everyone, along with the missing third (red) card that has yet another “change of state” on it.

Now they must extend the story by one page, incorporating the third card’s directions. So, using the example started above, the student must figure out a narrative that gets the evil ninja octopus from fighting a monster on Mars to being in bed at night… but with a mechanical arm.

Here’s the grid of story change slips.

(Cover of a class anthology – summer class at N.C. Governor’s School)

Quick story prompts: I generally use these with more advanced and/or older classes with students who are comfortable with a bit of narrative ad libbing. These are just basic story prompts that can be used with or without the randomly-generated characters. With these, I usually have the students randomly select a story prompt and then write out a quick (maybe 30 minute) story by hand on a page or two of paper. Then, we work on “translating” the story to comics form.

The prompts are all in the first person, so when working with students on he stories, I’m usually trying to get them in the mindset of “What do you do? … and then what do you do?” Here’re a couple of examples:

I thought that it was odd that there was an extra place set for dinner, but imagine my surprise when a huge monster walked in the front door, sat down with us, and started eating dinner…

I was sitting in class one day and the teacher just disappeared in a puff of smoke…I was sitting in class one day and the teacher just disappeared in a puff of smoke…

Here’s a document with the whole lot of them.


These are just a few of the ways I’ve developed over the years to “defeat” the blank page. I’m sure every comics teacher has a handful of them. Just in the spirit of throwing things out there, I’ll put one more item out there (one that actually doesn’t mesh very well with the character creation exercises, truth be told). This PDF contains a series of cut-out-able “cards” that you can use as story prompts. I developed these for a workshop I did for young (K-5th) students called “Myths and Legends.”

In the document you’ll find four types of story cards: (1) “create your own myth” cards, (2) Short summaries of individual Aesop’s fables, (3) actual myths to illustrate, and  (4) “make your own story” cards (for the rare student who has a fully-formed story ready to go!).

Here you go.

I hope you find these teaching materials useful. Please email me and let me know if you give them a go in the classroom and let me know how it went!

1 ping

  1. 9 Ways a Writer Can Get Past the Blank Page « Justin P Lambert – Writer says:

    […] Teaching Comics – Getting Past the Blank Page, by Ben Towle, comes at the problem from the perspective of a cartoonist trying to generate ideas to either start or move forward with a comic.  The principles can work just as well for writing fiction, however.  As a matter of fact, drawing comics may work for writing fiction… […]

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