How to script a comic

In his notes accompanying the extras in The Sandman Library III: Dream Country, Neil Gaiman talks about how he learned the basics of comic scriptwriting from Alan Moore; who explained the process on “one side of notebook paper”. The reason he could do this is because comics are scripted in a remarkably simple way.

A collage of different scripting methods.

There are various methods of comic scripting. Use the style that best suits your needs.

Of course Neil then goes on to say that of the thousands of people writing comics these days, none of them will write in quite the same way he does and that is very true. Although the basics are very simple, every person adapts the process to suit their own needs. The end result is that there are several methods of achieving the end result, and I’d like to discuss what I feel (after talking with numerous other webcomic writers over the years) are the main three in use today.

The Film Script Method

First and foremost, we have the script format that pretty much anyone will recognise. It’s the format Neil Gaiman uses for the script accompanying his notes in the Sandman book I mentioned earlier, and it’s the format I started out using when I eventually started scripting my comics before drawing them (more on that later).

The film script method splits the script into pages, then frames and finally into two portions for each frame. The first portion deals with setting the scene. Here the scriptwriter tells the artist what he or she needs to draw, and sometimes how to draw it. For example:

Page 1 Panel 1

This should be a full-page image. Embed the other two panels inside this one, like in the sketch I’ve attached to the script.

It’s a cloudless night on Rhodicorn Prime. The twin moons hang low on the horizon and laser fire covers the sky, criss-crossing to form a net of warfare. Captain Jawbone is laid on the muddy battlefield, his uniform torn to shreds. He’s covered in a caked mess of mud and gore, and he’s bleeding out fast. A medic is knelt over him, trying to stem the blood loss while two marines guard the area.

Notice the layout for this piece. It’s basic but it’s important. On the first line, we tell the artist which page and panel we’re talking about. Next, I’ve included some notes for the artist on frame positioning; saying the panel should be the main focus of the page and that while there are other panels to draw, this one should dominate; with those two embedded in it. If I’m doing this kind of instruction, I’ll usually enclose a sketch of the panel layout with the script, so everyone’s clear what I’m talking about.

Next there’s the scene description. How much detail you go into here will depend on your audience. If you’re writing this for another person, put as much detail in as you need to make sure they can produce what you’re wanting. If you’re writing for yourself, just go with as little, or as much, detail as you need to remind you about what you were aiming for.

The important thing is that you mention everyone who needs to be seen in the panel, and what they’re doing. The rest is often window dressing, and can probably be left to the artist.

The second portion deals with dialogue. There are two camps on how to handle this: those who follow the film script style guides, and those who come from a traditional comics background. It’s important to remember that dialogue is meant for the letterer, not the artist and so it needs to stand clear on the page so everyone can find the part of the script they need more easily.

This is usually done through layout and capitalization.

In film scripts, the dialogue portion is designed to be read by actors; therefore it is written in standard English layout. As a result, the first portion of the script (the bit in our script that’s telling the artist what to draw but, in a film script, deals instead with a description of the action) will usually be in ‘all caps’. The dialogue is then either indented or centred on the page; further differentiating it from the scene description. This is fine in comics too, and if that’s how you want to write a script, go with it.

The alternative is to remember that comics have traditionally lettered in all capitals, because it makes the hand-lettered dialogue easier to understand. Comic scripts have therefore traditionally embraced this all caps for the dialogue portion; rendering the scene description in plain English style and indenting speech in all caps, like so:

CAPTION: RHODICORN PRIME, JUNE 18 4227.

CAPTION: THE BATTLE OF PRITEEN LANDING.

MEDIC: THIS LOOKS BAD. TRAVIS, CALL THE MEAT BOAT.

TRAVIS: BASE, THIS IS THE FIFTEENTH. WE HAVE A MAN DOWN! AMBULANCE REQUIRED!

Again, the point is simply to differentiate the dialogue from the scene description but in this case, the dialogue in the script looks a lot more like it will in the resultant comic. However, which layout style you decide to go with is really a matter of preference.

The Sketch Script Method

A notebook page full of sketch scripts

A notebook full of sketch scripts is an excellent way of preparing a buffer.

In webcomic circles, for the majority of the time the scriptwriter will also be the artist. Because of this, a style of scripting involving a simple sketch of the comic with dialogue noted onto it will serve just as well for scripting as a fully written-up script ever would.

The level of detail necessary in a sketch script will depend partly on the complexity of the comic, and partly on how much you want to leave your script up to your own memory. For a simple gag-a-day comic where the important parts are who is in the comic and what the jokes are, a sketch script will work incredibly well.

I use these all the time for All over the house because the majority of those comics require a simple lay-out/build-up/punchline format, usually involving two people talking. Simple layouts mean simple sketch scripts are perfect.

The Seat of the Pants Method

Finally, there is the seat of the pants method. It’s as close to freeform comicing as you can get while still having a plan. I used to use it all the time for The Life of Nob T. Mouse because when you’re only dealing with one-page stories that are written in one sitting, it’s easy to keep the whole story in your head.

If you have everything you want to do worked out in your mind, there’s no need for an actual script – it takes time away from drawing the comic, right? That’s where the seat of the pants method comes in.

A script-comic produced using the seat of the pants method.

The seat of the pants method is excellent for producing wacky comics.

Essentially, the comic and script become intertwined; forming one being I’ll call the script-comic. You might begin by sketching out where all the panels are going to go, or you may start by drawing the first panel. Whichever way you do it, a script-comic begins with art; not words. You put pen to paper, and you draw who is going to be in the comic.

If you’re good at using the seat of the pants method, you’ll remember you need dialogue while you’re drawing, and you’ll either sketch in the speech bubbles at the initial sketching stage; or you’ll leave room to put them in later. If you’re like me, you’ll keep forgetting that speech bubbles take up some room and you’ll end up having parts of your characters obscured by dialogue.

Either way, once the art is finished, the dialogue is written in. This has the advantage that the dialogue can be tweaked so you tell a lot of the story with the actions shown in the artwork but let’s be honest here, a good scriptwriter and artist can do that anyway. The real advantage to a script-comic is that it’s quicker to get from initial idea to end result, because the script-writing stage is left out.

So there you have it: the three main factions in comic script writing. There may be others but these are the ones that crop up the most often. Whichever you choose to go with will usually depend on what you’re doing at the time and there’s no reason you can’t employ all three where and when you want to. The trick is, as always, to experiment and find the style that works best for you.

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