Writing a comic book script is all about telling a story visually, with words. That means you have to get the reader’s attention and keep it. You have to be concise and engaging, but also descriptive enough to paint a picture in the reader’s mind. You’ll need to write dialogue and captions, and you’ll have to set up the scene. The goal is to communicate the beat of a story in such a way that the reader sees it through the artist’s interpretation. It’s a lot to balance, but the reward of seeing your vision come to life in a new and unique way is worth the effort.
Research how to make comic book
You need to know the basics of what goes into making a comic book before you can pitch your story, and there’s no better way to get an idea of how it works than by visiting a professional studio. How often is your artwork going to need to be revised? Are they able to use your format or will you need to change it? How long will the actual creation of the art take? Who will handle the coloring, if not the artist? Make sure you allow for plenty of time to go over the proofs with your artist before the printing begins. Step up to the silver screen. The first step in making your comic book is producing the screenplay, but you can get a lot of visual inspiration from films. Watch movies, TV shows, tribute YouTube videos and more. Study the progression of shots and how they move the story or theme along. If you’re writing about faster-than-light space missions, watch Star Wars and Star Trek to get your lens flare on. If your comic is a period piece, study the photography of the era and buy the movie versions of books that serve as the basis for your comic to get lenses and films, as well as framing and sunlight, just right.
There are some basic things to know about how to write a comic script. You’ll want to figure out how much text you need and how much is too much because teen readers will be flipping back and forth constantly. Don’t go two or more pages with no image at some point in your comic as it is not easily read and will turn your reader off. Use up close paneling to make a moment stand out without relying on dialogue or word bubbles slowed to effectively tell the story. Comic book artists like the cinematic effect created by this so don’t be afraid to use it.
Break down comics into their basic elements
One of the biggest elements of how to write a comic book script is learning how to write dialogue. Unlike with prose, in comics, there’s no room for subtleties in tone, pacing, or particularly, reading between the lines. You can’t just say that Al said “yes,” and expect the reader to infer the inflection in his voice or think he’s maybe slightly curious and also disappointed that his body is about to turn into stone. He just said yes. Comics are a lot about what’s not said. You have to decide whether you want to illustrate the reactions of characters and narrate their thoughts, or if you’ll just describe what they’re doing and how they’re moving. Speedy gesticulation? Slow, drawn out movements? Make a choice and stick to it. Lastly, keep it readable. This is vital for everything about how to write a comic book script. This includes paragraph length and content, wordiness, jargon, and onomatopoeia. Simple is the most direct route to a good comic script — and it’s the smartest choice for beginning writers, too.
Dialogue isn’t the only element that makes comics feel unique. They’re also drawn! Whereas English-language writing catches the reader’s eye with sentences and grammar, dialogue, and punctuation mark placement, the writer of a comic’s script must learn how to communicate important plot elements visually. If something is about to happen, often it’s better to use an arrow or a curved line in the same panel — or one of herring — to show the audience that something’s about to happen. If a character is whispering something to another character, consider underlining the narration box. It’ll still read the same, but it’ll serve as a visual barrier and a warning to the reader — a clear sign that some forthcoming information is meant to be secret. Note any examples in comics you’ve already read, so that when you’re writing your first comic book script, you always know how visuals and dialogues can work together instead of against each other.
Figure out what the story is. What’s the main hook?
The cornerstone of any successful comic book script is the story. It’s a competitive industry, so you’ll need to wow your potential buyers simply on the strength of your idea. So, your first priority is to figure out what readers will be talking about when they leave the theater, or put down your comic. What will they be taking away from the story? Great comic book scripts always have a really strong premise. If you don’t already know what that is, you’ll have to work a few things out. How many issues does your story need to make sense? What spin do you want to give the genre? Superhero comics can follow almost any premise, but in most cases they’re used for metaphors about heroism, and not actual stories about… heroes. Let’s say you have a really good idea about slavery and 19 th century America. This idea needs to fit into the outline you figure out next.
Once you figure out the barebones concept of your comic, you’ll need to figure out a lot of the details. A strong comic script is paced well, but strong pacing needs a strong concept. How does the universe operate? What roles do less prominent characters play, and how often will they appear? Keep going until you’ve got a solid plan for every major role and theme in your script. Figure out where you want your story to open, what information you need, and which action should reveal that information. For example, if you’re considering a scene that begins with a standoff between two lawmen, one of the men may need to be talked into going after criminals. The audience should leave the scene with an idea of what’s going to happen.
Develop one idea at a time
The rules for how to write a comic book script are exactly the same as for writing a novel or screenplay. You have to create a storyline and create smooth transitions and pacing. In essence, you must make each panel move the action forward for the reader. As with creating a comic book, the best idea for a story continues its development with each panel. While you don’t have to write the final words of a script right away, you do need a basic idea of the action, including how to describe the action, contain the action in a panel and how each panel will advance your storyline. You should have not only the idea of the comic but how to put all the panels together that make up the story.
Look at the story from each character’s viewpoint and break the storyline into scenes that represent different opportunities for each character. Having each character speak at the beginning of each scene is a good way to recognize the scenes for the audience. It also helps to introduce the characters and their feelings, during the beginning of each scene. If a major character doesn’t appear during a scene but you know they will appear in the next one, write two lines of dialog that indicate their presence instead of writing the word “appeared,” then the reader will know when the character can show up. Write down a list of potential scenes based on the action you have decided to include and the characters’ mood or emotions.
Research similar comic books
Before you write your comic book script, you’ll want to study some of your favorite comic book stories and creators, to see what works for the medium. The standard unit of writing for comic books is called a panel, and it marks the edge of an action and, therefore, a speech balloon. If the panel includes a character speaking, there will be a little empty bubble. If the action is a sound or a reaction, rather than a speech, the bubble is invisible. Sometimes the bubble contains dialogue, which is words that characters think to themselves or, more rarely, narrate to the reader. Ideally, your comic book script is written with 12-24 panels per page. The panel that finishes a page also finishes a story beat.
By studying the structure of elements like story beats and panels, you’ll learn the fast and efficient way to write a comic book script. However, there are other elements of comic book scripts that require deeper study. The goal of comic books is to accurately depict a world populated with talking, thinking characters. Characters that speak and think in 1st or 3rd person do not lend themselves to this format. You need to write your comic book script in 1st person, as though it were an oral retelling of a graphic novel. The effect and utility of 1st person narration in a comic book script doesn’t stop at character speech. All narration also needs to be written in 1st person. This may seem technical, but it’s actually quite straightforward.
Magnify the drama
One way to follow the script format yet also rethink the traditional comic book script paradigm is to emphasize and magnify the drama. One of the reasons people are drawn to comic books, after all, is the use of dialogue and silent illustrations to increase drama. Why not take this to its logical extreme and focus only on actions and actions lines? Yes, you’re telling a story, but all your independent readers are expecting is an exciting fight or an engaging chase. If those readers expressed their expectations of you with verbs and dialogue, it would probably sound very repetitive. Using a script format that magnifies only actions and lines can help you achieve a similar monotony in a visually compelling manner. In fact, now that you’re thinking through a comic book script format, you should probably ask yourself if you want to be a drifter writer or writer-for-hire. The former might allow you greater artistic freedom, while the latter might give you a steady paycheck and a career.
But you’re not there just yet — you want to learn how to write a comic book script, not have it commissioned for you by a publisher. Even if you end up taking the drifter route, it’s up to you to impress a publisher. Which brings us back to the question at hand — how do you write a comic book script? Well, if you want to frame your story in such a way that motivates only action and words, it’s advisable to begin your script at a really exciting part of your story. If you start the script by hinting at greater mysteries or backstories, your reader won’t immediately see the point of your comic book script, because they won’t know yet what those questions are driving them toward. Parleying your script that way will only make your reader disengage.
Draw or storyboard your work-in-progress
As great as your ideas for the story may be, it is important that you can actually draw your comic book script or storyboard it. You need to be able to show your publisher and future readers what the story is about. This step is not necessarily mandatory and not all comic writers use specific drawings or storyboard sketches. Do you have any skills as a visual artist? If so, then you can begin drawing your work. If you don’t then you can simply spend the time writing it out instead and look at producing the artwork at a later date.
By drawing or drawing your comic book script it will also allow you to get a better sense of proportion and scale for the events and characters. It will also allow you to develop your visual style and tone for the story. Draw the comic book pages the sequence they happen in the story. Consider the setting. Does it take place in an office building? What room? Does it take place on a farm? Imagine the background you want and place the characters in them.
Break the story into acts and chapters
In comic books, the action is often broken up into episodes, which pair down the story to its core moments, and sum up the plot in a single page. Begin with a “Previously…” story summary that gives a brief recap of what came before. Then each individual episode begins with an introduction that describes the main players in the scene, including where they are, what the stakes are, and where we left off in the previous episode. An offer includes exposition, action, and dialogue — this is where the characters begin to make choices which will determine where the story will go. When the offer is accepted, the climax kicks in with more epic action than the first offer. In the resolution, the main characters lay out the outcome in the final panel, summarize the themes of the story in a phrase or a line that will resonate with the reader.
Comic book scripts typically have 22 panels per page, or 5-7 word balloons and captions per 6-8 panels. Before you write a comic book script, make sure you can keep the action and dialogue concise so that your storyteller and characters can share enough information that gets the audience to sink into the story world without needless exposition. The page layouts can vary from full-page images to a single image can be paired with text, but since each panel is static and perfectly aligned with borders between panels, you know that as a comic book writer, you’ll get to control both how the reader experiences the story and the pacing of that experience.
Convert sequential art to page layout
Writing a comic book script is going to require more layout planning than a typical script because comic book pages need to clearly depict the story through pictures as well as words. You’ll need to plan out all the panels and caption boxes to make for an effective story, and the comic book script format has spaces to help you plan it all out. Three-panel pages, for example, are typically reserved for short non-dialogue scenes, whereas the larger six-and-a-half panel format is used for scenes that require a lot of space. Feel free to explore different layouts, though, even if they don’t fit into typical structures — that’s why comic books are so fun! Just remember that if you venture outside of the standard formats, you may need to get artist confirmation on how to format the layout.
Most comic book scripts are arranged in a pencil layout, also known as camera angles. Most of them begin with small, stackable boxes arranged as word balloons, which allow the reader to imagine the story from an aerial view. Writers generally complete this top bar of boxes, which typically contains the hero’s name, the artist’s name, and other story background information. This design then slides down the left side of the first page, exposing the next panel and filling in additional boxes. It can sometimes fill in subsequent pages in the same way, until every panel and box is laid out on the page in its place.
Believe in yourself and your product
No matter how confident you are in your artistic ability, it helps to be a believer. Know that you are talented, know that your story, characters, artwork, and script are worth money. Especially if you want to self-publish, you need to be able to tell yourself that people are going to be interested in your work — even if you’ve never actually written a comic book before. So when it comes to writing a comic book script, don’t beat yourself up too much if you’re not a die-hard comic geek, or if your artistic style doesn’t look much like traditional comics — we need the Michelangelo’s of comic books just as much as we need the Caravaggio’s. Don’t talk yourself out of using a pen name that takes this into account, either. Comic book editors are probably your most direct customer, unless you’re creating your own comic book for your own property, so it’s like talking to fangirls and fanboys, and you’re going to be super focused on just getting them to buy it. Nail that and you’ll do well.
When all is said and done, writing comic books is an art form. As with most any creative endeavor, it’s not something you’ll ever stop learning. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun playing with your own creativity as you go along. When it comes to comic books, the only true rule is that there are no rules. So, if you want to write the next big superhero blockbuster, or invent your own unique genre, that’s the beauty of this area of writing. Try your hand. You may be surprised at how much you enjoy it! Happy creating.
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