My Comic Life Sundays: Family and Writing Comics 101

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Apologies for the delay on our Sunday post – our site was experiencing technical difficulties which prevented posting. We’ve now got the problem fixed.

Thursday, during our Weekly Visions post, we introduced our new staff and interns – Visionary’s biggest class ever! I actually got to spend some great quality time with all those fine folks over the last couple weeks.

Gary Cohn, our new Special Projects Manager was gracious enough to let me come stay with him in Richmond the night before the Hampton Comic-Con to help make the morning drive-in for the show a little easier. We got dinner with Aaron Riley, who’s done all the amazing covers for our Deadlands novels, then chatted about the future of Visionary. I also got the grand tour of the Cohn Archives, including original art from folks like Paris Cullins, Ernie Colon, Ron Wagner, Billy Tucci and others. Also got a chance to check out designs, sketches and other notes for projects that never were – but really should have been.

I then hosted our first full class Staff Workshop with our new interns Saturday. We did a training on comic-book coloring, self-promotion, and marketing, and talked about creative work for our new class, stuff we should be announcing something about by end of the year. What a crew!

So, while working in comics may just be the most fun job in the world, its also brought me a whole circle of wonderful people who’ve become such an important part of my life – from the full team at Visionary, to many of the great creators we’ve worked with, to the professionals whose work I’ve admired for years, that now invite me to their homes. That’s My REAL Comic Life and My Comic Life Family!

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My Comic Life Column 006: Writing Comics 101: The Script

C. Edward Sellner cropped

I’m going to use the next few columns to do a run on writing. Let it be said here and now, I’m doing this column for every aspiring talent, from the newest beginners to folks who’ve been at this a while. So, you’ll notice with every series, I start from a very basic viewpoint and get more into the fine art of each arena as I go.

However, as a word of advice, I wouldn’t skip reading a column and just assume, ‘oh, that’s pretty basic, I know all about that.’

I’m willing to bet there will be at least one nugget of wisdom in each that you didn’t know, even if you’ve been in this business a while. So, put that to the test and let me know how I do.

Writing: The Script

If we look at the most basic fundamentals of writing comics, you can’t get much more basic than looking at the form in which comics are written. You will find throughout the production process of comics that they have far more in common with film or television than prose. That commonality begins here. Comic stories are written in script format, much like screenplays, and that script, as I’ve mentioned before, will be the central tool everyone else on the team producing the book will use in their work.

Since this tool is so central to the production of a comic, there should be some care and consideration in how it is crafted. There is no universal rule of formatting for comic scripting but there are some pretty general and shared guidelines that you will find most companies either require or prefer. Following these guidelines not only makes you look better and more professional as a writer, it will also make things much easier for anyone working with you in producing the book, from the editor on down to the letterer. It will also help you in your own growth to focus attention on areas needed and be more cognizant of things you’re doing yourself – right and wrong.

All of which means any writer wanting to work in comics needs to have a good mastery of the technical form of the comic script. With that in mind, let’s look at the script and its format.

General Rules of Formatting

1. Keep your page margins at a healthy one to one and half inches.
Again, since multiple people will be using this, space for notations and edits is always helpful. Granted, a lot more editing is done on computer these days, still, an editor might prefer reading a hard copy and making notes in the margins to pass on to the writer. Likewise, many artists like having a physical copy of the script they can keep at their drawing board to use to jot notes on for ideas in layout, camera angles, colors, even thumbnails. Give them room to annotate for their own use.

2. Mark Page breaks in the Comic with page breaks in the script.
Most comic pages should not require a full page of text to setup in the script. Unless you’re putting a lot of detail into the art direction, or probably too much dialogue, most comic pages will only require a half to three quarters of a standard 8.5×11 letterhead page. You should still start a new page of the script for every new page of the comic. That way there is a clear distinction from one page to the next so that everyone else can see where one ends and the next begins.

3. If a page of the Comic runs over a single page of script, notate it accordingly.
In general, this is to prevent any confusion of what belongs on what page. If it runs over, the script page should have a note of MORE at the bottom corner, and a heading of PAGE # CONTINUED at the top of the next page, with the actual page number inserted. In these cases, hopefully the continued page will only be a small paragraph at best. Still start the next page of the comic on a new page in the script.

4. Use Numerals for Numbers to designate things in the script
PAGE 1 / PANEL 1
Never spell numbers out when using headers or tags. Using actual numerals makes it easier for artists and letterers to glance at them and get a feel for totals. The eye can pick out the numerals quicker than the spelled out versions.

5. Use Page Headers, include appropriate information needed.
If the script is a submission, then the main thing to include here is all your personal contact information so if the script is accepted, they can get in touch with you. If you’re doing the book professionally the company may have specific things needed, in which case, follow those guidelines.

In general a script Header should include the following:

  • Your name
  • Name of the series
  • Issue number of the series and total issues if limited (such as #1 (of 5))
  • Version or revision number or date (such as Draft 1, or Revision 3, or Revision 10/23/16), this can help ensure people know they are working on the most current version.
  • Script page number, and total script pages.

Pros reading this may think I’m being a bit anal in the amount of info included here, but, trust me, it doesn’t hurt. A well-established pro friend of mine just commented on his twitter that he needed to send an entire issue back to be re-lettered because it was done using an older draft of the script. Likewise, I’ve seen artists print a script, lose a page of it and not even realize it because of poor formatting and labeling.

Again, if this is a tool, then the easier you make it for everyone else, the smoother things will go. If any other member of the team is missing a page, or somehow jumbles the pages, and can’t determine what happened easily, it slows things down. Good, clean formatting can help people quickly figure out if something is wrong or make sure everything is indeed okay.

Breaking down the Script

The script, like a movie script, should properly be laid out almost in an outline form, so that various people know directly where to go for the information most pertinent to them at any given time.

PAGE 1

Every page of the script should have the comic page number clearly at the top and set off so it’s the most noticeable. Again, this tells each following person on the team what page they are actually working on and helps to make sure things flow smoothly.

If it runs over a page of text…

PAGE 1 (CONTINUED)

Again, always starting a new page of the comic on a new page of the script.

PANEL 1

Panels need to also be clearly designated so the story breaks at the appropriate moments, from penciling to lettering.

Now this doesn’t mean an artist might not add a panel, or combine two you mention, especially if they are strong storytellers themselves, but if they do, its usually for a good reason, and any script can be adjusted accordingly.

Art Description:

This is one of the key elements of a script and one of the main sections editors will look at to see how well a writer knows his or her craft. The art description should be formatted in more standard, single spaced lines, like a regular paragraph. It should also include full sentences that provide a brief, yet detailed description of the setting, characters, actions and interactions important to the telling of the story. These, obviously should focus on cues and details the artists need to know to include.

I generally like to describe the setting at the beginning of a scene…

Setting: This scene takes place outside, at night, on a street and a nearby alley in downtown Manhattan, one of the seedier parts of town, so some boarded up buildings, trash on the street, etc. Its pretty late, and no one except our characters are around.

This gives the artist the environment right away, let’s them picture the space the action is happening in so they can set up and lay out that space to use it effectively in the following panels.

Then each panel gets a specific art direction immediately under the heading…

PANEL 1

Our main character, Joe, is standing on the sidewalk, back to an alley, looking nervously up the street, waiting for his contact to arrive.

I will expand on this more when I focus more on the art of writing a good script, but notice the description very succinctly gives the artist the most important elements of the story:

  • Who? Joe.
  • Where? On the sidewalk next to the street his back to an alley.
  • Action? He’s looking up the street.
  • Feel? He’s nervous.

It also allows the artist to take cues in the script and add something of his or her own flair to help emphasize. Maybe Joe is sweating from his nervousness, maybe he’s tapping his watch. In other words, the art description should setup the scene, but not obsessively describe it to its most minute detail. Let your artist do some of their own storytelling, but do give them the cues they need so they know what will work and what won’t.

Obviously some scenes will require more detail if there is more happening than a character simply gazing up a street, but the writer should scrub descriptions down to the most basic level they can before moving on. Include what helps move the story forward and let the artist do the rest.

Now, sometimes a writer can include more specific visual suggestions to the artist as well. For example:

PANEL 2 (Largest Panel)

Joe is suddenly grabbed from behind by a huge, hairy werewolf!

Noting a specific panel is the intended focus of the page, or noting one panel should be an inset of another panel to more closely link the two beats are typical. Another good example of this is a more cinematic sequence where the writer suggests using two or more panels with the same camera angle, same view, but single, simple elements that change to really put the focus on that single piece of storytelling.

PANEL 3

We see the werewolf crouching over Joe, clawed hand poised to strike, as Joe is terrified, arms raised to protect himself.

PANEL 4

Same shot, same angle but the werewolf has paused, his arm half-lowered, Joe now looking up, his hands lowered as well.

The point here is most artists don’t mind some direction from the writer on layouts or camera angle, if there is a particular storytelling reason for it. To create a cinematic sequence that really emphasizes a critical moment, or a layout that makes a nice visual setup is something that a writer can include to help enhance the art.

The important corollary to this is that unless there is some specific reason for such direction, leave it to your artist. Let them pull together a layout, choose camera angles, how much or how little to include in the background. The better the artist, the better they will take what information you do give them and really play it out in a way better than you could have imagined.

I’ll focus more on this when I talk about the writer collaborating with the artist, but again, another good point to be mindful of.

Dialogue:

Under the art direction for each panel comes the dialogue section of the script. This section is set off visually to make it easier for the artists and letterer, but there are also several key things the writer should be focused on while drafting these sections.

1. Don’t overwrite – let the art tell as much of the story as possible and get out of the way.
The biggest mistake from most aspiring comic writers is some deep rooted need to fill a page with captions, dialogue, and text, sometimes to the point of cramping the art almost out of existence. Comic scripting is an art of minimalism – include what is needed to move the story forward, give the characters their own voice, and set the scene when needed. If something can be done in the art, use the Art Direction to set that up and let it work its magic. Much better to have the artist draw Joe as nervous than to have him say he’s nervous.

2. Be mindful of how much text you are putting on a page and how that impacts the room for art.
This kind of spins out of the first point, but needs to be considered for a whole page as well. You can’t have nine panels on a page, each filled with multiple speech balloons and captions. The more text per panel, the bigger that panel has to be.

This is important to the artist as well who needs to be aware of how much text is going in a panel in order to leave sufficient space for balloons and captions in the actual art itself. Lettering cannot go over key elements in the art, so, an artist will make sure there is enough ‘dead space’ to include the dialogue. A writer who is keeping that in mind as well makes it easier.

3. Be mindful of the sequence and flow of the dialogue and how that will work in the art.
For example, if you have three characters in a panel, and they are each talking, the ideal layout would be to have the characters go from left to right in the sequence they speak. So, if Joe speaks first, he’s to the left, then Mary second, so she gets put in the middle, and John speaks last, so he goes to the right, that way the sequence flows left to right with the reader’s eye. As a writer, make sure you aren’t giving conflicting cues for the artist to have to figure out.

Lettering:

It’s also the main focus of the letterer who will be translating the dialogue from the script to the actual comic page. Like the other sections, it should be setup to help make their work as easy as possible in order to help ensure fewer mistakes.

Lines of dialogue, narration and sound effects should be indented and double spaced between each, so they are clearly set off from one another. Each line should start with a tag identifying the source in all caps, and the text in normal type, like so…

PANEL 1

Our main character, Joe, is standing on the sidewalk, back to an alley, looking nervously up the street, waiting for his contact to arrive.

1 CAP:         New York, 10:30pm

2 JOE:        Man, I wish he would get here already.

Notice, I number my lines. This is not as important, but I like to do it so the letterer can easily glance and see how many lines, balloons, caption boxes etc. go on a page. It’s also a good reminder for me, because if I get up to 7, I know I’m starting to crowd the page and probably need to shut up more and let the art talk.

The tag at the beginning is set off by being IN ALL CAPS, identifying it easily so the letterer knows what the source of the line of dialogue is. Having the actual dialogue indented from the source tag and double spaced from other lines makes each bit clearly visible at a glance, so the artist and letterer can more easily picture the space needed and where to place lettering.

Also, note in the actual line of dialogue, some words are in bold, sometimes instead of bold, you’ll see words in ALL CAPS. These are called Stressors, and however they are noted in the script, the Letterer will then make those words bold in the final book. When we read a line of comic dialogue, we tend to emphasize the words in bold. By choosing certain words to be stressed, we help the reader create a rhythmic tone and lilt of voice that makes it sound more conversational or ‘spoken’ in the reader’s mind. This is a standard motif in comics that you don’t find in other mediums as much.

An alternative layout is more along the lines of how dialogue is noted in screenplays and works just as well.

PANEL 1

Our main character, Joe, is standing on the sidewalk, back to an alley, looking nervously up the street, waiting for his contact to arrive.

CAPTION:
New York, 10:30pm

JOE:
Man, I wish he would get here already.

I’ve known a number of writers who feel the formatting and layout doesn’t matter. They often put single line spaces and breaks and everything clutters together. The writers who feel that way are often not writer / artists, and usually are less visual in their thinking. Part of the reason behind the spacing, especially in dialogue, is that it helps an artist to glance at dialogue and get a feel for how the spacing will work in the drawn page. The more set off each line is, the easier to picture it in a balloon on a comic page and then leave enough room for it in the artwork. Same for the letterer as they are figuring how to approach placing these words in the art. When everything runs together, this becomes more of a challenge for both.

The source tag is important to the letterer for obvious reasons, such as ensuring the dialogue balloons point to the right person, but they also provide a wealth of other information for the more subtle aspects of lettering. Let’s review some common source tags.

CHARACTER’S NAME: Indicates the person speaking.

2 JOE:        Man, I wish he would get here already.

CAP: Refers to a caption box for narrative or internal monologues.

1 CAP:         New York, 10:30pm

CHARACTER NAME CAP: Distinguishes when more than one character has captions or any kind of narrative appearing in a caption. Letterer’s will often use different shades of color or effects in the captions to distinguish them so readers can more easily track who is talking. This motif is often used when the reader is hearing a conversation taking place somewhere other than the scene visible in the panel, or if the narrator of a story shifts during the story.

CHARACTER NAME (OP): Usually refers to when someone is speaking, so their voice would be heard in that scene, but the character is not visible, thus Off Panel. It will usually also include, either in the art direction or here, some indicator of where that voice is coming from so the letterer can place it.

3 WEREWOLF (OP from the alley shadows):         GROOOWWWWL

CHARACTER NAME (SHOUT) or (whisper): Indicates the voice tone of the character speaking, shouts are stressed with bold or all caps, whispers in smaller fonts.

SFX: Indicates the line is a sound effect. Important note here, and a distinction from screenplay work, it’s the comic writer’s job to give the actual sound effect (BANG!) not the classification or source of the sound effect (gunshot sound) as that shows the Letterer how they want the effect to actually appear.

DEVICE (Electric) or CHARACTER NAME (Telepathy): Such notations here help to distinguish when a voice is coming through a device, like a radio, or when a character is using telepathy. In these cases, it’s important to note, because the letterer will most often make the balloons for such dialogue distinct to stand out.

There are many others that can be used. Basically, the point I’m making here is that the source tag is a handy way to alert the letterer as to what they are doing with that line of dialogue. Is it a sound effect? Is someone speaking in a standard word balloon? Are there dialogues off panel that need to stand out in unique caption boxes? Is a specialized balloon needed to show the dialogue is different than normal conversation?

Clearly noting such things helps ensure the letterer can easily track what they are doing and plug things in accordingly. It’s also common practice to use abbreviations, or simpler notations if something is used often in a certain book. For example, PROFESSOR XAVIER could be tagged as PROF X, or XAVIER. A book that has telepaths reading each other’s minds might have a note at the beginning saying that an * next to the name tag means it’s telepathy. The important thing here is to be consistent and clear to make the letterer’s life easier.

A writer who leaves such to the guess work of the letterer can’t really complain when it comes back wrong.

And just so no one leaves worried for Joe…

PANEL 3

We see the werewolf crouching over Joe, clawed hand poised to strike, as Joe is terrified, arms raised to protect himself.

PANEL 4

Same shot, same angle but the werewolf has paused, his arm half-lowered, Joe now looking up, his hands lowered as well.

4 WEREWOLF:          Joe? Is that you?

5 JOE:                           Harry! You made it, you old dog!

In Summary…

Basically as a writer, keep in mind your script becomes the central tool for your entire team to create this comic book you’ve written. The more care you put into crafting that tool, the more professional you appear and the more the people working with you will enjoy the process. Not to mention the less chance of complications in the process.

When you’re reviewing a script you’ve written, try to look at it as your penciler, then as your letterer. Are things clear? Laid out neatly to be picked out easily? Is everything noted so they don’t have to go back and infer things? The more care you take in your scripting, the less likely mistakes will happen down the road!

To get a better feel for scripts, check out the Comic Book Script Archive, a site that hosts a huge collection of scripts from numerous writers. Its a great resource, with a simple caveat…

Everything I’ve mentioned above is the basic introductory tools for any writer to use when drafting a script, especially if doing so before an artist or letterer is even attached. Any creative team who works together on a regular basis will develop a number of mutually agreed shortcuts between them that are fine, because they know what those shortcuts mean. Don’t make the mistake of reviewing a script written by a professional writer, who knew the team doing the book a script is for, had worked with them for years, possibly on that very series, and thus took a lot of shortcuts in formatting, presentation etc. that his team would know, and think that undermines my advice above. Different beast.

NEXT:

We’ll start getting more into the actual mechnics of comic scripting, and start applying some of these basic principles.

NOW DISCUSS…

What are your thoughts on comic scripts and script styles and formatting? Is this what you expected, or were you surprised at the mechanics and logistics of the process?

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About C. Edward Sellner

A full-time professional freelancer, Sellner has credits as a comics writer, prose author, colorist, artist, and editor from multiple publishers. He is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Visionary Comics, one of the best known comic studios and digital publishers in the industry. The studio opened in 2006 and since then has published over 70 different titles in its digital line, and been involved in over a hundred different projects in production. Its clients range from Hollywood producers to international sports stars to other studios and publishers. It became the first independent studio to enter the licensing game with the announcement of its Deadlands license, which has since been published in comics from Image and IDW and novels from Tor Books. The studio also hosts a successful internship program where interns get practical, real-world freelancing experience, including paid work on actual jobs fitting their skill levels. Learn more at www.visionarycomics.com!

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