There are a plethora of resources both online and offline that will teach you how to write and format a screenplay but few people know how to write a comic book script.
Though many of the comic writers who work for the big publishers format their comic book scripts in a similar way, there really is no standard.
Those of us who write our own indie comics (webcomics or print) have even more freedom with the script format. It’s our own dang comic and we can write it any way we dang well please.
In this post I’ll share a bit about the pseudo-standard approach to comic book script writing and then I’ll share my own crazy approach to give you an idea of how flexible this process really is. Also, Lora and I have provided samples of our comic scripts via the links below.
…but our regular readers won’t be surprised to hear me say that there’s no point in starting a comic script unless you have addressed these 5 things. Authority brings with it responsibility, right?
So, assuming that you have a cast of compelling characters, a brilliant, surprising idea and a solid plan for the story you want to tell, I’ll proceed…
Outlining A Comic Script
You should definitely not start the script for your comic without a rock-solid outline.
A rock-solid outline includes a clear plan for the beginning, middle and end of your story. To learn more about this, listen to Lora and I talk about The Ocean and Structure of a story.
The most important parts of your outline are the arcs for your main and secondary characters. Those should be clearly mapped out. I recommend creating an emotion-graph for each character.
I also recommend including the timing of vital set-ups and pay-offs for both plot and character.
Regardless of whether you’re writing an individual issue of a mainstream, ongoing, serialized comic like Ultimate Spider-man, a five-book story arc for one of those same ongoing series or a one-shot indie graphic novel, I recommend using a traditional three-act structure.
There are a bajillion books about three-act story structure and of those, my personal favorite is Save The Cat by Blake Snyder.
As a side note, the book about storytelling that every comic creator needs to read isn’t about three-act structure as much as it is about coming up with a good story and telling it well. That book is called Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald.
Three-act structure is great because it is flexible enough to work for basically any story and it scales to fit the length of the story. You can apply three-act structure to an animated short, an entire season of television or to a trilogy of epic novels.
You will probably deviate from the outline during the writing process.
Every long road-trip needs a map so the driver doesn’t get lost along the way. And the crafting of any script, any good story well told is a long, long road-trip.
Sure, you might find some interesting stops and detours while you’re out there. You might even change your mind about your ultimate destination at some point. …but you won’t get anywhere if you just start out wandering aimlessly.
…and your passengers (readers) will eventually get tired, smelly, hungry and grumpy. They’ll think twice before going on a road trip with you again. Plus, the gas station bathrooms are really gross.
When You’re Ready To Write The Script
You have to decide what format you’re going to use. (Actually, you should probably have decided this before you started outlining.)
Are you going to format your comic script in the pseudo-standard “big publisher” format I mentioned at the beginning of this article? …or are you going to try something different?
Whatever you do, please write more than one draft. Write as many drafts as you can. Rewrite the script as many times as you can before the writing deadline. You can always make the story better.
Download Our Comic Script Samples
Lora uses a pseudo-standard “big publisher” format to write The Dreamer.
Again, there is no absolute, standard script format like there is with screenplays. But if you want to see what Lora’s script for The Dreamer looks like: Download The Dreamer Script Sample Here
If you want to see what my script for Greg The Megabeaver’s Prehistoric Sideshow looks like: Download The Prehistoric Sideshow Script Sample
In both downloads, we included the actual comic pages which correspond to the script pages so you can look at them side-by-side.
Story First, Layout Second
Because I come from a film background, I’m more comfortable writing in screenplay format with the Final Draft screenplay software I’ve grown accustomed to over the years.
I like a movie style pipeline where I can focus entirely on the script until it’s done. I don’t like to have to start “filming” the story until after the script is done. Also, there’s a rhythm and a pace that I can capture with the standard screenplay format that I just can’t seem to capture with a more common “comic book script” approach.
I prefer to have my pages and panels formed by the writing and not the other way around. That said, I do make a final pass of “visual rewrites” where I discover better ways to tell the story while I’m drawing the actual comic pages. (I do start to think about comic page breaks during my final drafts of the script, before moving into the drawing phase.)
If you compare my comic script to my comic pages, you’ll notice some things that I changed in the actual drawing phase. I liken this process to that of editing film that I’ve already shot. I’ll change dialogue, pacing or even cut entire scenes while drawing. The scenes that were cut are then removed from the working version of the script for continuity purposes.
If you’re curious, the screenplay pages equal between two and four comic pages.
Lora approaches the first few drafts of her script in a similar way, but she will eventually break the script all the way down to individual panels.
Here’s what she had to say about the process she uses to write her comic scripts:
After have what I think is 25 pages with my beginning, middle and where I want the story to end for that issue, I go back in and begin breaking it down by pages and panels. I try to find those “cliffhanger moments” for page breaks and figure out what pieces of dialogue belong in the same panel so each panel is mini-story, each page is a small story and each issue is a complete story.
What you see here is my final draft, and believe me, a lot of edits go into every script. I just make my edits in Pages, not on paper, so there’s no real way to show you that.
There is a reason that I letter my own comic. It’s my last pass at the script. Even in this sample you’ll see that the final page has an extra “joke” in there that wasn’t in the original.
How About You?
Okay, so I’ve talked about the importance of outlining, three-act structure and the various format choices for writing your comic script. Oh, right, and I got a little passive-aggressive about the whole “tell a good story” thing…
But now it’s your turn to share!
How have you approached the writing of your own comic scripts and do you think you’ll stick with that or try something new?
Share in the comments below.
Everyone reading this will benefit from your insight. So don’t be shy.