Writing Comic Scripts for the Artist

When you’re a comic writer just starting out it can be a little tricky finding that style to use when writing scripts. You’ll also find that no single artist/editor/person likes to read scripts the same way. That would be too easy wouldn’t it? No, what it really boils down to is preference. But, there are some important things that I think you should always include in a script or keep in mind so consider this post a list of helpful tips. I’ll also strongly point out now, this article is being written from the artist’s POV.

I originally asked the internet to send in some questions but unfortunately I didn’t get too many responses… Have no fear though as I’ve read many, many scripts over the past decade and pretty much all of them were from creators just starting out.

So let’s start with some basic questions:

Do I make each comic page it’s own script page?

This one I didn’t really notice at first until I read one that didn’t do it. So yes, I think you should have a new comic page start on a new page in your document. Typically when I’m working on art for a page, I have the script on my desk as well. This certainly becomes easier when that “Page 5” is just Page 5 of the script and not Pages 5-6 or even 7. I find it easier to manage, print and the page typically has room to do quick thumbnails on it as well.

How much/little detail do you prefer in descriptions? How loose do you like scripts?

Since this one was directed to me — generally I like my scripts loose. My rule of thumb is to make it easy, let me figure out the scene. Although I will say if you (the writer) have something specific in mind then by all means express it. I don’t want to interfere with the project but I’d also like some breathing room or freedom when constructing a page. I know for a fact I would not survive a script written by Alan Moore!

But I find I’m generally happier being a part of the project if I get some sort of say– it feels less like a work for hire situation.

What’s the general consensus on how much art direction a writer should give regarding angles, pacing, design, etc?

Every artist is different. The best answer is to ask them what they prefer. Some artists like being spoon-fed information like this, others not so. I prefer being told what’s important and leaving it at that. But I can certainly see the value in depicting all this information, especially if you’re just starting out. It’ll get you thinking about storytelling very early on in your career and you’ll find you can visualize the story much more clearly.

Do you want to work with a writer who will actually chat with you outside of work or would you rather keep the relationship professional and about the work only?

An interesting question and a very valid one. Comics by nature are a collaborative experience. Outside of working for the Big Two, you should be in constant contact with your other creators. Nearly all of my collabs have started this precise way. These are writers who reached out to me at some point whether through an email, a post on a message board or by dropping a note on my website. These writers then continued to talk with me via chat, text, and social media. Most of them didn’t outright state all in the same conversation when we got introduced to one another, “Hey, I’ve got this super cool project I think you’d be perfect on.”

These are writers that got to know me as a person and vice versa. Sometimes it took a few weeks, sometimes months and if you can believe it, sometimes years. Artists are one of the most sought out creators in this business. That typically means they’re very busy people. A lot of projects on the go, a lot of people waiting in the wings and constant emails coming every day from other writers all wanting to work with them. The more you can make yourself known or by simply being friendly to an artist, the better. I’ve come to the point now in my career where I have little published work (so far) but yet I would never have to approach  another writer again. I’ve made a ton of contacts and guess what? They’re all writers.

But there’s something to be said about someone who is a fan and a friend first… someone who knows what’s going in my life or that I just had a child (hypothetically). These are people who know my interests, know my sense of humour or my taste in comics. The more you know about a person, the more you can tailor a project or find the perfect match. That winning combination.

Typically a work for hire project lacks passion, lacks heart. In independent comics, it’s all about that. You have to live and breathe comics because let’s face it, it can’t be about the money or fame.

Now, how about some suggestions from myself?

One big one for me is what I’ll call: Setting the Stage

I encountered this one a lot more when I was acting as a colourist but it’s equally important for the artist as well. Too often I see no mention of time of day or if time has passed from one scene to the next. After all you’d point it out if a scene was meant to be a flashback scene right? So make a point to say that the scene takes place at night or it’s just before sunset and the scene prior to that one was morning. It makes a world of difference to both your colourist and artist. An artist will draw a night scene differently possibly using harsh shadows whereas a colourist may colour a night scene utilizing blues or purples.

Multiple Actions

An artist can very rarely draw a character performing 2 specific actions in one panel. Meaning a character can’t possibly light a cigarette and raise a gun outward simultaneously. That’s 2 different actions which would require an additional panel. Common sense, right? Well, they get missed. After you’re first draft take a readthrough and look for this one specifically. Edit: I’ve already had one person cite issue with my example but regardless, I see these multiple actions in scripts ALL the time. Granted these are from novice writers, people still learning their craft. Don’t forget the main reason I’m writing this whole article is to point out errors I’ve seen in the past and to make things easier for you (the writer) and your team in the future.

Thumbnails

I’ve recently started writing again and one thing that’s proven to be valuable to me is doing my own thumbnails for the pages. I’ll point out though that this is in very basic terms. I’m not talking about actually drawing figures or even stick figures. I’m talking more about the design of the page. How the panels are arranged, their size comparison to one another on the page, etc. I find I love using a 3 tier grid for instance. So typically that means I’m utilizing panels that are equally sized and the layout becomes very important. At the same time I also love using pages that have 5 – 8 panels on a page. That could seem a little daunting to an artist at first so this way I can present them with an idea that they can visualize right away. It also becomes a great tool for laying out word balloons and caption boxes. I can see quite quickly how my script is taking shape. Whether good or bad. Maybe I’m being too talky in one panel and not enough throughout the page. The balloons being present on the page in this thumbnail stage will help point these things out.

For those that unaware a thumbnail is a quick, gestural pencil drawing of a layout. Although you could do this on the computer too if you fancied that sort of thing. Artists do thumbnails all the time before they start drawing their pages. It helps them figure out the layout and composition of the pages including panel arrangements, placement of figures, word balloons and other text.

Again, not all artists could care to have your thumbnail but it won’t hurt things. Some will even be grateful. Especially if it’s a complicated scene to try and visualize.

Alright I’m gonna wrap this one up.

I encourage you to comment below with any questions and to share this post back out to everyone around you. Like you, there’s many other would-be creators dying at the chance to learn something new about creating comics.

If you have any ideas for future topics, I welcome your suggestions as well!

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About Adam

Adam got his start in comics illustrating and colouring the book Shuddertown from Image Comics/Shadowline. He’s now concentrating his efforts on self-publishing and a larger move into writing novels and helping other authors get their work published. He recently launched his first small press publishing company, EnemyOne, which was realistically over 10 years in the making. He enjoys reading comic books and in particular old, pulpy, crime novels.

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  • anon penciler

    The better scripts IMO are those that “flow”, you can read them pretty much like you’d read a book. Some writers achieve this despite of barely having any formatting, with columns separating actions, narration, and speeches (just like a book doesn’t have them). They can be actually entertaining to read, not just faster.

    That’s opposed to some that, as opposed to telling a story, seem more focused on describing the visuals. You have to read those with more attention and effort in order to make sense of what’s actually happening, what’s the “acting” there, as opposed to persons just standing there in certain locations, in a certain camera angle. At the same time, the attempt of separating narration, speech and description without proper formatting in those cases makes the reading even less “flowy”. You got to get used to certain patterns of eye “jumps” in order to read with certain flow, emulating the overall reading you’d get from the other type of script, and actually understanding what’s the story.

    I find weird that even there are people who write like this, to me it feels very unnatural. As if the first draft was more book-like and them they also do their own thumbnailing, and the next step is to “scriptize” the thing in a way that turns out poorer than their first drafr + thumbnails, as a guide to the graphic artist. Perhaps that comes from a misapplication of the concept of “show, don’t tell”.