How To Write A Comic Book Script and Other More Important Things

how-to-write-a-comic-book-script-chrisoatley

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.

Tyler's emotion graph for the first few scenes in "Greg The Megabeaver's Prehistoric Sideshow"

An Emotion Graph can help you chart where your characters are, emotionally, at each point in the story. Keep the characters in motion, emotionally and you’ll keep your readers engaged.

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.

Comments

  1. says

    Actually I write in a more loose “screenplay” style first as well too, Chris. 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.

    • says

      Ha! We must have been on a wavelength here, both mentioning the page to page story and the cliffhanger page breaks. Great minds ;)

      I tend to avoid full on “drafts” as it feels too much like a rewrite to me. That said, I tend to have a “rolling draft” process when I script. Every time I open the document (or begin a new page) to work I’ll reread either from the beginning of the issue or the most logical previous break point and do spot editing throughout the writing process. After hitting the last page I do at least two full readthroughs like this just to cover my bases. So while I never have a “draft1, draft2, draft3″ I still manage about the same amount of editing, just in a different order.

  2. says

    Having written for other artists, I’d say my style in terms of formatting is largely dictated by the artists I’m working with. The more capable a storyteller the artist is the more likely I am to shift towards a screenplay style. The less accomplished they are at story telling the more I’ll give panel breakdowns. I always do page breaks as in any printed comic these are absolutely CRUCIAL for reveals. The page turn is a mighty force for tension and you want to make sure it is preserved as much as possible. I also time scene changes this way, and try to make most large scene changes on page turns just like a standard reveal. It’s not always possible or necessary, but I think it very subtly sinks in with the reader as they go, “Every time the page turns, something happens or I go somewhere new.”

    Beyond that I prefer to work without panel descriptions, instead giving a brief summary of the primary action of the page (each page should have it’s own narrative, beginning, middle and end) and list any secondary actions taking place (for talking head scenes this is usually to activate an otherwise stale scene action wise) and then list the dialog screenplay style with notations referring back to the initial summary for when action beats occur. The one thing that I would caution about working without at least page breaks is that it’s very easy to paint your artist (or yourself) into a corner with too much text in dialog heavy scenes. Keep in mind that the average comic page has about 500 characters of text, and the heavy dialog pages range up to 1000. Past that you are treading into Alan Moore territory (and you’re not Alan Moore, stop trying to be Alan Moore, no really, just stop) and the art is going to be further and further complicated by the wall of text. Usually some serious “kill your precious babies” editing will solve this, but it’s an easy hard and fast check to make sure you haven’t just tried to do straight prose in a comic book.

    I’d recommend checking out some of Robert Kirkman’s script pages as many of them are reprinted in the various trade paperbacks of his work.

    Aside from the 3 act structure I’d take it a step further and check out the “Hollywood formula” version of this. I’ve mentioned it here before but you can find out more about that here: http://www.writingexcuses.com/2011/10/02/writing-excuses-6-18-hollywood-formula/

    I can’t tell you how much of a help that outline has been to me writing my current story. It’s really helped to crystallize what was at first a very sprawling, disconnected tale and turn it into a much tighter, more character driven story.

  3. says

    Right now, I have to admit that I don’t have much of a process when it comes to writing scripts, which is something I’m really trying to work on. Since I’m just drawing the prologue of Everdusk right now, I think I’m also going to use this time to plot out the main storyline very, VERY thoroughly in an outline so I don’t get lost and have some sort of “home base” to make changes from. Having an emotional timeline is also an excellent idea, something I hadn’t really thought of–I think that should help me figure out where to insert more character-/emotion-based scenes.

    One thing that I notice I have a problem with when I write anything is I just want to get all the information out there at once! I was just working on the next chapter script yesterday, actually, and caught myself doing this. I think having an outline will help this–by knowing when characters are introduced and certain events happen, I can more efficiently plot out when information is introduced to my readers in a (hopefully) sensical way.

    However, even though I’m definitely trying to revise how I approach my script-writing, one thing that probably won’t change is how I envision the pages as I write. I definitely write first and then form the comic pages around what I write; I typically don’t attach words to panels until I start thumbnailing. I may make script changes from there to better fit flow and such, but nonetheless, my script is generally written without initial regard for panelling.

    • Chris Oatley says

      That’s a real challenge – trying to resist doing a big “information dump” at the beginning. But all of the good “fantasy world” stories just drop the audience right into the story and they learn as they go. As long as you don’t alienate the audience, I think that’s the better choice.

  4. says

    I just write everything in Word. I learned about proper formatting in college but it always felt clunky to me, worrying that everything looked how it was supposed to, that I was using the right type of font or terms. Now I don’t worry about it, and the writing comes faster. Having a program like Final Draft might help, but I don’t have anything like that.

    I have an overall outline that I’m still tweaking, divided into chapters or where I’d like the chapters to break. Then I just write out the chapters, divided into pages, and those pages divided into panels. I even tell myself which page is the right or left page, as if it’s printed, so I can add those mini-cliffhangers too and pace accordingly. I have a brief description of action or emotion for each panel, and any dialogue I just indent. I even change the font of dialogue to the one I use in my comic so I can easily read how a conversation goes.

    It’s not at all conventional (I don’t even use that typewriter font), but it’s quick and fluid and it works for me. Sometimes pages still change even while I’m drawing them. Definitely one of the best parts of doing webcomics is writing and formatting and planning however you want. :D

    • Chris Oatley says

      Yeah, I would only use a screenplay format if that’s already what you’re used to. I think Lora writes in Pages for the Mac. Joel, Zach and I have done a bunch of outlines in Google Docs.

  5. says

    Before I dive into a new chapter I try to isolate the theme I’m exploring in it, as well as the major events. However, for the actual scripting, I never write more than a scene at a time.

    The reason for this is that it keeps things fresh for me. When I first started trying to write comics in…uh…2000 (I think?) I tried to follow the “professional” standard. The result? By the time I finished the full story, I no longer wanted to draw it. It didn’t hold any surprises for me anymore.

    I write by scene, but with the benefits of a very significant buffer (up to 3+ months of material). This means that if I discover something that needs changing, down the line, I still have a good window to fix it before it goes “live” online. Case in point:

    http://leylinescomic.com/archive/c03p33-whats-wrong-little-guy/
    On this page I originally had no dialog. 20 pages later, I realized I’d wasted an opportunity to characterize one of my villains. I was able to go back and change the scene before it ever hit the web.

    This method has worked very well for me for several years, but the dangers are that it makes writer’s block even more excruciating. I can’t work ahead, or skip a section and come back. I am bound to figuring things out in a linear fashion. When the flow is good, it makes the process a grand adventure. When the flow stagnates…It’s like being stuck on a raft in the middle of the ocean.

    • Chris Oatley says

      Robin, you might just try outlining in 25 page arcs. Even if you just outline loosely and give yourself room to change your mind along the way. You might find that you write more decisively. Just a thought…

      • says

        It’s definitely worth a try. When I first start a chapter and lay out my theme & timeline, it’s akin to an outline, but not as structured.

        It’s easier when the character groups are smaller. Right now I’m juggling a cast of seven different characters, most of which are paired off in sets of two. Some of them I know really well, but others are fairly new to me and the readers. I’m running into the issue of “What to characterize NOW?” Do I find a way to show that my hardened assassin has a weak spot for kids, or highlight his cavalier attitude towards conflict due to his POW experiences? Can I do both? SHOULD I do both? What might fit in better in a different setting?

        Having written this out, I think I need to re-focus on the themes I set out for this chapter at the start, particularly as they relate to the MAIN cast. The order of events is less important than the progression of my main characters, yet I have lost track of that a bit in recent script drafts.

  6. Daz Awisreu says

    I have a master-outline divided into “chapters” with mini-outlines, and I fully write chapters/scenes as I’m in the mood to. Whenever I get around to fleshing out a scene, I’ll describe the setting first with any objects/persons that’ll be important to the scene or for foreshadowing. And then I’ll write out the dialogue only. I’ll act it out as I go along, revising it for different characters, adding in beats for pacing, making little mini-cliffhangers for the end of pages. I’ll just get all the dialogue down first, act it out over and over again, in front of a few people, get feedback, edit, edit, spellcheck, edit, and get a “final-ish” version.

    Then I’ll decide what shots will fit with the dialogue, which character’s face I want to show, what angles to work with. I’ll make two or three thumbnails of possible panel placement and work with my favorite to make the final page. Sometimes seeing the character’s pose or facial expression helps me to come up with a better line, so, nothing is ever really final.

    As far as my actual format goes, it doesn’t look anywhere as neat as the both of yours. A line or two describing the setting (if it has changed from the last page), dialogue with vague acting cues, and changes in shots marked with “//” on a separate line, haha.

    • Chris Oatley says

      Daz, I often draw thumbnails and expressions right on my script. Or I do post-it sketches and stick those to the script.

  7. says

    I have found that I focus on writing the script with the page/panel in my mind. It slows down the writing process down considerably as I have too much to concentrate on at once. It’s a habit as I’m always thinking about how to visually tell the story. I’m going to try and just get the story written down and then start to edit & figure out panels/page layout after.

    I also think from reading finished comic scripts where it’s laid out in terms of “Panel 1, Panel 2 etc” I figured that’s how I have to write.

    • Chris Oatley says

      I completely agree, Leigh. It’s amazing how much more flow I find when I resist thinking about the visuals for as long as possible.

  8. says

    I never used to bother with “scripting” until I started as an apprentice with Lora and saw how integral it was to plan for pacing and readability. She’s very conscious of the amount of action on each page, where each individual page is within a scene, and how to use the last panel of each page to pull into the next. I’m still not as calculating as her –– I think it’s second nature to her now, and I’m still getting the hang of it –– but it made a huge difference.

    Before, I estimated that my book would be about 20 pages per chapter because I didn’t know how to pace properly… but when I started writing things out, I realized I had a lot of dead space and most of the chapters now average at a lean 14 pages. Crazy! I think if I didn’t figure that out, the story would really drag, and now it’ll take me much less time to complete it.

  9. says

    Inspiration conversation you have here! I have never written a script for comics or a graphic novel, though I have written scripts for theater and film (a treatment). I love the ideas listed here and I’ve been toying with a storybook idea which I may produce in the future. If so, I’ll definitely keep my process loose and incorporate some of these ideas. Thanks!

  10. says

    When I write scripts, I break everything down piece by piece.

    1. I use the outline to pace out my chapter and plot out the major points I want to cover (Note: this thing is fairly mutable and often changes in the next step).

    2. I take each bullet point of the outline as a scene description and write out each scene in the chapter as a part of a whole to be pieced together later. They’ll fit into the script based on the pacing in the outline.

    3. As I write each individual scene (which I often do out of order), I just plot out all the dialogue I want first before I stop to think about visuals or page count.

    4. Once I’ve got dialogue I’m happy with, I begin going through the dialogue and establishing page breaks. Like Lora, I try to find the big “cliffhanger” moments for page breaks. I keep my eye out for key revelations in the scene or high tension moments like “You are a cylon!” or “Luke, I am your father!” In comedic scenes I keep my eyes out for snappy come backs between characters to end the page on a sort of “punchline”.

    5. Finally, I begin to think of the visuals. I dice up the panels and add short panel descriptions to give me an idea of what the heck I’m going to draw when it comes to execute page. Lesser conversation can be thrown into one panel whereas big reveals or reaction shots are given their own panels. This is also the time to figure out establishing shots.

    **My Golden rule of establishing shots: every time I change the location, the first or second panel of the page should be an establishing shot. Readers need to know where they are at all times.**

  11. says

    You can’t believe how timely this post is for me! I’ve written both novels and screenplays before, but I’m just getting started on developing plans for my first webcomic, and I plan to start writing the script during Script Frenzy in April. I’m excited and nervous about it, but it’s good to know that Paper Wings has a bunch of folks who’ve been through it before… and succeeded. :)

    I’m not exactly sure how I’ll approach the writing process this time. Since I’m familiar with screenplay formatting, I may lean toward doing it that way, though I’m sure I’ll experiment with different styles before I finally settle with one.

    Right now I’m focusing more on character development and plot brainstorming. For some reason, even though I’ve successfully completed many stories, every time I start a new one, I feel like a total noob.

  12. says

    In response to signing up for your newsletter, I asked about script writing…and here it is, already. Amazing. It’s like you guys knew what I wanted in the future and made it for me in the past. Thanks!!!

  13. Atiya says

    Wow! I’ve been studying a lot about scripts and for some reason page numbers tend to mess me up, I’m not sure why.
    But this really helped!
    I never considered keeping notes of the characters emotions on paper, however; I have made an interesting “Emotion graph” of how I want the story to play and how I want the readers to react and/or enjoy the story. Except my “emotion graph” looks more like a heart rate monitor that hospitals use XD LOL

    I jot down words I want my stories or chapters to define, like; action, adventure, drama, suspense, comedy, light romance, EPIC, genuine, etc. You know things like that. I use these words to help me keep constancy ( unless I want to deviate ).
    I always go back to basics during my free time, so this really helped. :)

  14. Kurt Hathaway says

    As a long-time comics letterer for just about every publisher out there, I’ve seen thousands of comic scripts come across my desk. The good ones all have a few things in common….one is clarity. For this reason I wrote a Comics Format guide a few years back. It covers how to format panel description, various balloon styles, plus a chapter on common typos and mistakes. It doesn’t cover story, but covers how to format your story so editors can read it with maximum reaction. You may be surprised by how many sample scripts are unreadable…I know I was. The writer knows what’s going on, but he doesn’t put it on the page. Anyway, the PDF is absolutely free. Anyone who wants it can reach me at: khathawayart@gmail.com
    Ask for the Comics Format Guide.

    Kurt Hathaway
    khathawayart@gmail.com

  15. says

    All your posts are so helpful! I’m a new subscriber and have been chewing through articles and podcasts over the last couple weeks, and I feel like I’ve learned more about storytelling in these two weeks than I did in three and a half years in film school (didn’t have to take something useless to me like Sound for Film, either). I’ve looked around for a few different ways to write a comic script and had no idea what I’m doing. Chris and Lora, thank you so much for taking concepts vital to comic production and translating them to stuff I understand.

  16. says

    I tend to draw the comic first and then figure out the scrip out after. Although I like doing things this way and find it more free and organic for me, I have noticed that it does mess with characterization. But this post has offered me some more insight into writing a comic script, beyond what had gleaned from watching other artists in livestreams :)

  17. says

    Usually I just start writing down ideas or story elements in a list, then I expand on those ideas, move stuff around and refine.

    As far as writing the actual script, I’ve been using Celtx and their comic book script feature for years. I guess it breaks down more like a
    “Big 2″ script when all is said and done. I break it down by page and panel plus add in descriptions for myself so I can remember what I was thinking when I go to thumbnail everything. Since it’s really only me looking at the script, as long as it makes sense to me it’s all good :).

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