This is part two of Dave’s guide series on how to write your first comic, which will cover all aspects from getting your story down on paper, to raising funds on Kickstarter.
In part one we looked at the important of creating a lore bible and fleshing out your story arc before drafting a script. You can read it here.
Guide #2: How to format your first comic script
1. Before you script, ask yourself ‘why?‘
Although creating a lore bible, character bios and a clear, concise plot arc seems like a lot of work BEFORE you even write a single page of script, trust me when I say that it’s essential.
Don’t fret about it, JUST DO IT – because if you do, the actual script will show a marked improvement.
It will help keep your ideas funneled within a set of world rules that make sense, reducing the risk of gaping plot holes and inconsistencies of character.
If you’re about unsure about a plot point, world lore component or character bio/motivation, try using the ‘three-question’ method to flesh it out more.
Here’s an example of this method using Wake, the hero of my fantasy comic series Vessels (above):
At the start of Vessels #1, Wake is living homeless as a drifter, wandering the land of Cairnthala.
Because she’s connected to the Eye God and has to avoid cities.
Because the Eye God follows her wherever she goes and destroys everthing in its gaze. She feels responsible for it killing so many people.
Because she’s compassionate and wants to help people, not see them destroyed. She loves her home and will fight to the death to defend it. She’s a proud warrior who wants to end the suffering she’s brought to the world.
See what we did there? By digging deeper and deeper into the ‘why’ of Wake, we’ve established several key character traits:
- She is burdened by guilt caused by the Eye-God’s destruction
- She feels duty bound to protect her world and end its suffering
- We can also assume that she’s tired, weary and running short on hope as a result, after years of living alone in the wastes, away from other people.
- This also means she is lonely and out of step with current events, which also allows us to feature scenes where people explain the world to her, without fear of it being blatant exposition, because we learn this information when Wake does.
This might sound like a tangent on how to format at our script, but you can see how by just questioning your own logic and lore, you can second guess plot holes and questions your reader may have.
We’ve just fleshed Wake out massively just by asking ‘why?’ three times, and the answers will help us determine her demeanour, her tone of voice, her facial expressions, how she acts under pressure and much more.
In my previous guide I introduced the concept of plot ‘beats’ – key macro and micro events that help guide your whole plot from start to finish.
The ‘why?’ method can help you get to the finish faster and infinitely more coherently all by taking time to question your own story.
Because if you don’t question these things, you can bet money your readers will.
2. How to format your script: layout
OK, enough stalling. The best way to format a script is to keep it clear and easy to navigate for your art team.
That means making it clear for your art team and publishers to read, by clearly labelling each panel and page break, using a clear font and breaking up disconnected text.
Here’s a page from Vessels #1 to show you how I do it:
Notice how I distinguish between pages by using bold and underlined text for pages, bold for panels and centre aligned text for in-panel dialogue or boxes.
You want to clearly distinguish between these elements. I’ve seen scripts that were written in plain text docs before and let me tell you, they were a total headache to read and I kept getting lost.
In short: keep it clean and clear – your artists and their sanity will thank you!
The final page from the script above looks like this:
3. How to format your script: terminology
You’ll notice that I used the tag [Box] in the above example.
This tells Vessels artist Rafael and letter Garrett that I want the text to go in a box that can either stand for:
Narration (image from my short series Feather)
Scene Changes or passages of time
There are a few other shorthand terms that may come in handy when writing your script, such as…
[OP] – which stands for off-panel, but use this sparingly as it can look awkward.
Here’s some [OP] examples I’ve used where the characters are talking off-panel:
Bust #2 stars Jack and Lily commenting on Lily’s bike off-panel
A scene from vessels #1, in which G’Dala shouts to Wake off panel.
Then there’s [Thought] – which, as suggested, means the character isn’t saying the text and therefore requires no speech bubble tail (because they’re not saying it out loud!) and if possible a different box style or colour to distinguish it from your narration boxes.
And please for the love of goodness sake, don’t use the cartoony ‘cloud’ style thought bubbles, unless you’re making a comic for kids. It’s just too corny.
And lastly, I use [SFX] for sound effects, but I don’t add these in the dialogue component of my scripts like many people, as this can confuse artists.
This is because the artist may not know exactly what in your panel is making the sound, and they could place the SFX incorrectly as a result. So instead, I add this to the panel descriptor, right after the thing making the sound.
Example: Jack bursts into the room and fires off his gun [SFX: “BLAMM!”] as the people inside cower in fear.
Theres no mistaking that it’s the gun making that noise.
And always remember: you’re not just the writer of the story, you’re its director too, so you need to tell your art team how you see the scene looking, from the placement of sound effects to the ‘camera angle’ of the panel.
Here’s some more examples of how I’ve used [SFX] in the past:
Wake is sacrificed to the Eye God in Vessels #1. The large letters emphasis the severity of the act.
A raider triggers a tripwire/nail bomb in Jack’s hideout in Bust #2.
Hopefully you can see how these elements go from script to finished page, and hopefully this helps you understand how to use them properly.
As always, if in doubt ask another creator for advice, ask me on the Card Shark Comics Facebook or consult a guide online – there are many!
4. How to format your script: panel layouts and word count rules
When it comes to script formatting these two are the grandmaster mistakes I see so many creators making – and yep, I’ve been guilty of them too.
We all do it, and you’ll never – repeat – never catch all instances of these mistakes first time, so chin up, stay positive and have people review your script.
l’ll break panel layout and word count into two sections here as they are both vitally important to the success and reception of your comic.
I even typed that in bold so you know I’m deadly serious. Mess this up and your book will suffer.
Treat this part like you only have one chance to get it right!
4a: Word count
When writing scripts, I always stick to these rules:
- No more than six panels to a page
- No more than 25 words to a panel
This is not a hard rule, but I’ve seen scripts that have well over a hundred words on a page that has eight panels. That’s way too much.
You need to consider your weighting between dialogue and visuals. For example, if you’re showing an epic fight scene with lots of cool visuals, you don’t want to hide it all behind text boxes. That will only annoy your artist and detract the reader away from the action.
Writing a comic cannot be done in a silo away from the artistic process, and you can never just give your artist a script that is too long, or gives no consideration to their craft, and say ‘here, make this work.’
That’s a good way to sour a working relationship and your book will look cramped and unprofessional as a result.
So think: ‘Can I get across what I need to say in 25 words, rather than 50, and four panels instead of eight?’
Ask yourself this constantly. You want your book to be punchy and not a slog to read. Be ruthless about your own work and cut out anything you feel is unecessary or that bloats the page.
If you have a full page panel (called a splash page) then yes, go nuts and add more text, but I’ve seen 50 words to a panel before – it just doesn’t work, trust me on this one.
Note the level of detail I go into when describing my scenes.
4b: Panel descriptions
I also see a lot of scripts where the writer gets super descriptive on the shape of panels. Something like:
“Page one, three panels.
The first panel is long and thin – longer on the bottom side, and runs only two thirds of the way across the panel, but parallel to panel two, which is slightly fatter on the horizontal sides.”
Can you see how confusing this is if you are an artist. In short: don’t do this.
Unless you have a genuine stylistic or narrative reason for dictating how panels should be laid out, then just trust in your artist to place the panels int he most logical place for them to make the best of their art.
There are some exceptions however. For instance, if I have a page with three panel of different sizes, I might say:
Panel one (full third of the page)
This is a big action shot, where we look up at Jack as he burst through the door, firing his shotgun, holding it in both hands [SFX: “BLAMM!”]. To the bottom of the panel we see people cowering as he charges at them.
Panel two (rest of the page)
We see over Jack’s shoulder now, into the room, which is a small bar with upturned wooden tables and empty beer bottles everywhere. We can see into the room, at the scared thugs holding up their hands in self-defense.
Panel three (small panel in right corner of panel two)
Close up view of Jack’s finger on the trigger as he’s about to fire, creating a moment of suspense that he might just kill these scared people.
An example from Vessels #1 of how angles can create dramatic effect. Here we see Wake rushing towards the reader, getting ready to throw a church spire.
You can see that I’ve not labelled in mega detail what these panels should look like, but I have given details on the ‘camera angle,’ surroundings and other characters in the scene.
I say looking up when the ‘camera angle’ looks up at a character, which suggests dominance over the scene. In this example, it makes the character Jack look like more of a threat, as he charges into the room, making the reader feel small and at risk.
Then in panel two we see over his shoulder, into the room full of his potential victims. This now lets us see from his perspective, up high, as if we’re the ones towering over the cowering people in the room.
Angles matter, so use them wisely and to provoke a reaction from the reader. It works, trust me!
5: Don’t be vague
Lastly: Another common issue I see in scripts is vague descriptions. This includes:
- Not explaining what the scene looks like
- Not explaining what characters are doing
- Not explaining their facial expressions
- Not explaining their demeanour
- Not explaining what characters are wearing
- Not explaining the atmosphere in the panel
I often see descriptions that read along the lines of, “We see Jack and Lily standing talking to each other in a room.”
And that’s it.
Are they having a heated debate, are they opening up their hearts to each other, are they discussing a plan of attack.
What does the room look like? Where are they?
Don’t leave your artist to guess this sort of stuff, because the art may come back and it’s not what you had in mind. Really put yourself in the panel and explain in detail what you see in your head.
I’ll close this guide with a list that encompasses all of the lessons above.
To recap that’s:
- Detailed descriptions that explain the scene – thereby making the world feel more believable and with more character
- Short, punchy text that doesn’t obscure the imagery
- Clear direction in the descriptor for your artist
- Clearly labelled SFX, captions, thought and narration
- Clearly formatted script that is easy to understand
- No more than 25 words to a panel
- No more than six panels to a page
I hope you have enjoyed the second in our series of comic creator guides. Stay tuned to the Card Shark Comics Facebook page for new entries, and if you ever want to get in touch for advice, or to get feedback on a script, please contact us direct by email on: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks everyone, hope this was useful.
Until next time!