Scripting a Comic: My Quirky, Yet Structured Process

So for the past few weeks I’ve been pretty much buried in the scripting and outline of the next six issues of our digital comic, IN MAPS & LEGENDS. Issue 2 came out last month, and issue 3 comes out on the first of December (I’ve seen the new issue’s art, and I must say — you’re all in for a treat! Niki has outdone herself once again).

Now that I think I’ve got the scripting process figured out, I wanted to share how I do it, in case other writers are struggling with this idiosyncratic style of storytelling. (If you’d like to read a sample of the script itself, go here.)

For me, it all starts with the structure.

Our first story arc is ten issues long, so there’s my first piece of structure. Each issue is 22 pages long, if you count the cover and back cover. So my challenge is to fit enough compelling story, dialog, and action into the 20 pages of the script to keep people coming back for the next issue.

I like having that structure. It forces me to be creative and not waste a single scene or even line of dialog. While a novel has a completely wide-open structure, limited only by page count, really (and with many 600-page books out there, even that’s not a hard-and-fast rule these days).

I’ve been reading some interviews and articles with comics writers, and this article from Comic Book Resources is a really good one — they covered a panel at the recent New York Comic Convention with comic writers Robert Kirkman (“The Walking Dead”), Nick Spencer (“Morning Glories”), Steven T. Seagle (“Frankie Stein”) and Ron Marz (“Artifacts”).

This quote from the article really describes the functionality of the comic script:

Writing comic book scripts is distinct from other forms of writing in the sense that these scripts are typically only viewed by artists and editors – the comic book itself is what the reader gets to see.

As a result, you get to make up your own rules for how you make the script, so long as the finished product makes sense to the artist you’re working with on the project. Nobody else is gonna see it (well, maybe your editor, if you have one).

Here’s what I’ve been doing to get our novel-length comic series into script format:

  1. Open up my “IM&L Pages Overview” document (right). This is more or less my outline document, and what I have pictured there is much cleaner than what I have for issues five to ten. Brainstorming and outlining for me gets… messy.
  2. Jot down what I think should go into each issue. This is just a bunch of ideas, questions, dialog, and seemingly random words right now.
  3. Keep adding stuff until I get to page 22.
  4. Move stuff around as needed — some scenes may require extra pages, others could be cut or moved to another issue (we’ve got 4-5 different plotlines going on, so I’ve gotta be organized so I can tie it all up by issue 10!)
  5. Once I’m happy with what should go on each page, I copy and paste that info into my master script file, one page at a time.
  6. Then I start fleshing out what goes into each panel of each page. Again, because of the format, I can’t do too much dialogue — all those dialog balloons take up precious real estate for the art. Dialogue also slows down the pacing. Plus, actions speak louder than words in comics. A lot of times I’m editing myself to cut down on wordage (leaving more room for the images). It’s a challenging balancing act. It’s also a lot of fun, maybe my favorite part of the process.
  7. After I have each panel set up, I review the whole issue again, making note of the panels per page (this is a weird obsession I’ve developed — I don’t want to make the pages TOO busy — which is why I list the panel # on my Pages Overview doc, pictured above).
  8. Copy the finished issue out of my master document and send it to Niki as an individual issue (I like having one big doc with all the issues so I can do quick searches).
  9. Start the next issue! Except in the case of this series, I’m doing a lot of the outline and “page breakdowns” in advance, to make sure the story doesn’t get away from me. This is still my first big comics project, you know. Don’t want to make too many rookie mistakes!

To my relief, I realized that my scripting process isn’t all that different from the other writers in that article at CBR, These writers covered in that article offer some great bits of advice of what should go into a script:

“You have to have some sense of what can fit on the page,” he [Ron Marz] said. He added that he tries to end each page with a question, especially the odd-numbered pages since those are the page turns.”

Marz said that he always starts with a germ of an idea, usually a visual that he wants to work into the front or end of the book. He takes a blank piece of notebook paper, numbers it 1 – 22 and gets a sense of what’s on each page. Then, he breaks the pages down into panels per page, with each page needing its own beat, visual statement and information to convey to the reader. If it doesn’t have those qualities, it’s not worth being a page. Marz explained that once he has all of that figured out, the rest is just “monkey work.”

I’m almost at the monkey-work stage of the scripting now. Pretty soon I’ll have my script looking like it does up there at the top of this page. Right now, I’m at the point where I’d be happy to know what goes on each page. From there, I’ll figure out what goes on each panel of those pages.

For another perspective, check out Jason Aaron’s excellent blog, also at CBR: “Where the Hell Am I?”He has a great entry about a typical week as a comic writer, including this section about how he scripts his comics:

I break down an issue of “Scalped.” I start by just numbering 1 through 22 and writing a brief description of each page. Knowing the beats I’m gonna need from each conversation or confrontation or whatever, I can usually guess how many pages I’ll need for each scene. Sometimes the scene changes as I write it though, and I reshuffle. Once I have my breakdown, I just start building from there. I go through page by page and break it down a little further, figuring out how many panels I need on each page and writing brief panel descriptions. When I come to a big conversation, I’ll write all the dialogue straight-through, in one big lump, and then break it up into panels after I’m done. I go through the whole script like this, and by the time I’m done, the heavy lifting of writing is pretty much done. Sometimes that process takes a day. Sometimes longer. Oftentimes it involves me wondering around the house, talking to myself, saying my dialogue out loud.

That’s us writers for ya — talking out loud to ourselves. It’s all part of the process.

I’d love to hear from you, if you’ve done this sort of thing. What’s your process?

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5 thoughts on “Scripting a Comic: My Quirky, Yet Structured Process

  1. Here’s a quick/cheap plug for one of the sites I run, The Comic Book Script Archive– it’s pretty much the biggest collection of Comic Scripts on ye ‘ole net:
    http://www.comicbookscriptarchive.com/archive/
    and because my site nav sucks, here’s the link to the boatload of scripts:
    http://www.comicbookscriptarchive.com/archive/?page_id=3

    If you check out a handful of them, you’ll quickly see that Michael is correct that no two comic book scripts are formatted the same.

    Thanks very much for this post! Being a big process junkie, it’s always interesting to hear how others go about their work– I usually walk away with something to try out as I’m always tinkering with my method.

    The list of 22 I SORT of do– mine is actually broken down to 11– where I’m thinking in story “beats” as opposed to pages. That’s something I developed on my own after going through an analyzing a ton of comics– 22 pages, 11 story beats.
    Naturally, it isn’t a hard/fast rule, there’s a lot of times when I get down to the point of scripting and realize I can trim one beat down to a page to allow another to breathe…

    Anyhow, back to the topic at hand, I just ran across Antony Johnson’s post on his scripting method: http://www.antonyjohnston.com/articles/process.php
    Really cool stuff– I’m nearly convinced it’s time to switch over to Scriverner.

    Like

    1. Thanks for all the links and tips, Tim! Good stuff. I’m still figuring out how to match up the dialog and action and art to make up a good “beat” (so I can dance to it…). And hey, having to reads lots of comics as research? Can’t complain about that.

      Like

      1. Also, I really wish I could use the Scrivener for Windows app, but the way it messes with formatting makes me nutty. I need to switch to all Mac, just for Scrivener. Someday… (Still need PCs for the day job, alas!)

        Like

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