09 June 2023
Antony Johnston looks at how writing graphic novels, games, and films made him a better crime writer
I’ve been lucky enough to have a pretty varied career. I’ve written books, videogames, graphic novels and comic books, screenplays, non-fiction, and short stories.
But it’s not only luck that brought me this eclectic range of work. I’ve consciously sought to write in different media, ever since my first professional writing gigs (which were for tabletop role-playing games, so add another to that list).
Why? The most immediate reason is simply that I like it. I enjoy creative challenges and new experiences.
But the main reason is a little more calculated. You see, while my output these days is mostly crime and thriller novels, I’m a firm believer that working across lots of different media over the years has made me better at it. In fact, I consistently encourage new writers to do the same if they’re given the opportunity.
Every storytelling medium has its own unique advantages. Novels allow you to journey deep inside a character’s mind and motivations; comics are a unique juxtaposition of imagery and text; videogames are an immersive and interactive experience; film and TV engage the senses with movement, emotion, and sound; and so on.
The flip side is that working solely in one or two formats means you risk only exercising the parts of your writing brain specifically required by those media. If you’ve never written a comic, you won’t be practised at combining images with text. If you’ve never written a novel, you won’t have the experience of spending hundreds of pages delving into a character. If you’ve never written a game, you won’t know what’s required to make an interactive story compelling.
Does it matter? I think so, because many of those skills can be carried across from one medium to another. I’ve spent years doing just that. My first jobs writing for role-playing games taught me how to build imaginary words that other people would want to play in, and how to quickly sketch out interesting characters. Those skills were useful when I began scripting comics and graphic novels, which themselves honed my ability to write stories economically, using as few words and images as possible in short, compressed scenes. That stood me in good stead for writing videogames, which can be more expensive than movies per minute of screen time, and require a ruthless narrative economy. Games taught me how to write for actors, and how to focus a player’s mind on the choices they (playing as a character) must make.
By the time I came to write novels and screenplays, then, all of those skills were in the bank. I endeavour to write briskly-paced page-turners with unique and interesting characters, not wasting a word or moment of the readers’ time. The lessons I’ve learned from other media give me a head start in achieving that.
This isn’t only a linear progression, either. It doesn’t just move in a single direction. I still write videogames, graphic novels, short stories, and whatever else grabs my interest that will fit in my schedule. So the things I’ve learnt writing novels have influenced how I write games; the skills I’ve gained from screenplays have helped me write better graphic novels; and so on.
Put simply, continuing to work across different media makes me a better and more well-rounded writer. How could it not? We all write from experience, both technical and emotional. Widening that experience, just as we might choose to broaden our horizons by travelling or taking up a new hobby, can only help.
If there’s one thing that unifies almost all of my work, though, it’s mystery. I’ve always been a mystery reader, thanks to a childhood spent devouring every Famous Five and Three Investigators book I could find, so it’s no surprise most of my work is in the same vein. I even once worked a traditional murder mystery into a Marvel superhero comic, and what is Atomic Blonde if not a grand mystery from start to finish?
My new book, The Dog Sitter Detective, puts all of this to the test. It’s a cosy crime, something I’ve long read (and watched on TV) but haven’t written before. Like I said, I enjoy a creative challenge, and writing the book – which I started during the first Covid lockdown simply as a way to cheer myself up – has been a further education. It’s light-hearted, even funny in places, with larger-than-life characters and plenty of twists. It wasn’t easy to find the right balance between comedy and caricature, between mystery and muddle, but having that broad experience to draw on helped me find it.
Seek out new writing challenges, and work in different media if you get the opportunity. You’ll be surprised what you learn.
The Dog Sitter Detective by Antony Johnston is published by Allison & Busby (£8.99)
Interested in creative writing that uses mixed media? Read this exclusive short story, 'The Bullies' by L.C. North.