Writing Comics! POW!
By David Noe
First oﬀ, there are a number of folks out there around my age who HATE that I POWed the title. There were literal decades of newspaper and book and TV articles that came out after the Batman TV phenom that used that cliché. We knew that comics were a legitimate art form. We knew they could be on par with “real” literature. It just took until the 80s to prove it to the world. Secondly, if you want to write comics, I mean if you actually want to make comics because you want to WRITE them, then you already know this.
There are certain things to keep in mind when scripting comics. Writing a comic book story and scripting it are two diﬀerent animals. Scripting is diﬀerent from prose or poetry but is related in key ways. You don’t count words; you count pages, and whether you have a single-page ﬁller or an eight-page short story or a twenty-two-page comic or a hundred-plus-page graphic novel, you are a slave to the page count. You still MUST have a beginning, middle, and end no matter the length of the story. Even continued stories must have proper arcs. Even if hardly anybody will ever read it, you need to do it right. If you don’t take pride in your work, you shouldn’t even be doing it.
I’ll avoid the many other aspects of the business to focus on just the scripting, but you should keep these other things in your thoughts, especially if you are going the self-publishing route (if you are going the work-for-hire route, you have other problems to deal with). You need to organize talent, deadlines and schedules, money and lack thereof, intellectual property, copyright and registration, interpersonal squabbles, and a host of other tasks that make it like herding cats. Onward to the nuts and bolts.
Just exactly what IS a comic book script? Well, you take a movie script or a play… and you throw it out the window. There are actually NO galvanized accepted ways of scripting comics. This is actually a good thing in most cases. If you are a writer only, you need to ﬁnd the best way to communicate with the artist the things you want on the page and the order you want them. Really, that’s it as far as the actual physical structure of a comic book script. Now, there are generally accepted ways to write a script, but they are general. You must choreograph every panel in a way that progresses the story, has the proper ﬂow and visual impact. Keep in mind that you want to be able to have the artwork tell part of the story too. Don’t try to get all the info in the panels, but have the two merge together to make something that is better than the sum of its parts. Some writers produce reams of description. Some writers draw little sketches for their artist. Communication is the most important thing, communication with the artist and colorist and letterer and publisher, communication and clarity in the script, communication on the page and in the story. That being said, there is another method of comics writing called the Marvel method, that I will not get into here.
There are also things to avoid. As a writer, you are going to want to use ALL the words. Do not do that. Learn to let the pictures tell part of the story. No reader wants a text-heavy comic. There needs to be a balance, and ﬁnding that balance comes with time and experience and many hours of failure and also talent. Panels. So many panels. If you want your artist to hate you, try making a story full of nine or twelve-panel grids. It’ll look crowded and muddy. It can be done, but only if it is used deliberately and rarely. Talking heads are the same way. Depending on the genre, you need to be very careful with a lot of talking head panels. Again, this can be used artistically, but you need to be sure that’s why you’re doing it. Try to keep your panel count down to six or fewer, depending on what the story needs.
Coming up with ideas is the same as any creative endeavor. Try to be original or add your own spin to something. Do not despair! This may be the actual hardest part for some people. If you have that idea burning a hole in your brain, you need to do some basic homework. Always keep in mind that you have to get it exactly right on page count. Not only does the story have to rise and fall in the right places, but it has to end on the exact right page on the exact right panel. Work on your characters, their motivations, look, backstories, etc. It’s the same as any story writing. You need to know your character. You Pantsers out there may have a little more diﬃcult time, if only because of the structure of the scripting. It’s hard to meander when you have to make it ﬁt (but that’s what ﬁrst drafts are for, right?).
My advice to script layout is to make a very clear delineation between your pages and panels. Use bold letters for panel description and regular letters for panel dialogue. Make your pagination larger so that it stands out on the scripted page. Always remember to put your name on the script. It’s also a good idea to put at the beginning how many pages long the story is, if you are dealing with a book that has diﬀerent lengths of stories.
You will be surprised when you start to see the art. Sometimes the artist will get exactly what you were thinking and portray it perfectly… and it may stink. It might also be a remarkable, intense, elevating moment in your life when you get to see another creator examine and interpret your material, and then present it in another format than how you ﬁrst created it. Other times, the artist may totally miss the mark or not obey your directives, or go oﬀ on his or her own tangent. How you react and what you do about it will have to be dealt with early. You will need to decide how you will handle this. It may ruin or enhance your story, but writers can be as wacky as any other type of creative individual. You have to remember that the artist is interpreting your words and is not inside your head. Make yourself very clear. Some artists need that and some artists resent that. Writers and artists both can sometimes have diﬃculty dealing with diﬀering points of view or constructive criticism. However, you must remember that this is a collaboration between two diﬀerent art forms. That’s what makes comics an art form, a POWerful art form.
David Noe is the cofounder of InDELLible Comics, publisher of full-color graphic novel anthologies (all available on Amazon). He also writes novels and other sundry books.
Visit InDELLible Comics:
Comics available on Amazon. com
PopCom1 by Steven Butler
PopCom2 by Marvin Mann
PopCom3 by Kevin Frear,
Tomb1 by Paul Rose,
Spades1 by Josh Deck