Discover more from Agent of Weird: Exploring the Write Fantastic
How I Format a Comic-Book Script
The 'correct' way to lay out a script for your comic book depends on what you're writing and who you're writing for. Find out what you need to bear in mind for the sake of you and your creative team.
This piece on how I format a comic script (and – most importantly – why I format it the way I do) was one of the most popular posts on my old blog (over on my portfolio alecworley.com). But since writing it back in 2013, my comics scripting has evolved quite a bit. So it seemed only right that I update it.
For reference, I’ll be using the script for a Black Beth story published in Rebellion’s Scream & Misty 2020 Special with brooding black-and-white art by the incredible Greek artist Dani. I’d worked with Dani several times before, so do bear in mind that I could allow myself to be a bit less formal here than if I were sending this to an editor cold.
Here’s a downloadable PDF (which I’ve tweaked slightly from the original, just to give you a more generic example). I’ve also added the first page of finished art so you can get some idea of the finished piece.1
We good? Okay, let’s go…
Some General Thoughts
A comic script is ultimately a very hands-off way of writing a story – certainly when you’re writing ‘full script’ as I do for 2000 AD, and, well, pretty much every comic I’ve worked on over the last fifteen years. (The other general method of scripting a comic is ‘Marvel Style’2)
Getting to tinker with dialogue or sound effects further down the line is a luxury rarely afforded when writing full script. Once I’ve written the script, rewritten it and had it signed-off by the editor, I invoice the thing and start writing something else. By the time that script sees print as the finished comic, I’m usually so immersed in another story that I’ll have forgotten pretty much everything about the last one!
I might get to see designs, panel layouts or finished pages as they come in. I might not. Depends on the artist’s disposition, whether or not I’m in contact with them, and how tight the production schedule might be. I’ll often never hear from a story again until it’s been turned into a comic.
Should that be the case, I always make sure the artist, letterer and editor have got everything they need from me in a single document. I’ll add hyperlinks to certain bits of reference, emotional directions for the characters, any notes about specific lettering, etc., just to make sure everyone’s got what they need to build the story without me.
The Writer: First In, First Out
The script writer usually works at a remove from the finished comic. In this way, it’s a bit like directing a movie without ever being on set. Instead, you write a hyper-detailed memo to guide the cinematographer, the actors and editor in your absence. However – as with everything in this world – it’s a balancing act. You can’t make that script too prescriptive as everyone else on the team needs room to breathe and bring their own creative vision to the story you’ve given them.
I’ve had comics writers get huffy with me when I suggest that comics are ultimately the artist’s medium. But the writer always stands at the furthest remove from the finished product. Unless that writer is drawing from their own script, their vision will always be a compromise. Then again, if you’re a comics writer who doesn’t like collaborating, then you might wanna go write fiction instead.
“The ideal writing process occurs where the writer and artist are the same person. This, in effect, shortens the distance between the idea and its translation. It produces a product that more closely reflects the intent of the writer.”
Will Eisner, Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, 1996
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Despise Writers
Taking care with formatting possibly stems from me not wanting artists and letterers to hate my guts. Maybe this has something to do with personal insecurity or maybe the fact that I’ve worked for a long time as a subeditor. Having subbed various publications over the years, I know what it’s like to be last in line, racing against a breakneck deadline while struggling to make sense of copy that appears to have been written by a concussed chimpanzee with an amphetamine habit.
Seriously, kids. If you want to become a professional writer, you could do a lot worse than start out as a subeditor for a magazine, newspaper or website. It helps sharpen your grammar and syntax, and your ability to condense (a vital skill when it comes to writing comics). It also erodes any fears you may have about committing words to the page. “500 words on the Spider-Man menace by lunchtime? No problem, JJ!”
Most importantly, working as a subeditor will trample out of you every ridiculous romantic notion you ever had about writing. After several weeks of wrestling with copy that you’re pretty sure the writer came up with by merrily patting the keyboard like a toddler pretending to play piano then clicking ‘send’ with an invoice attached, you’ll have developed a healthy loathing for lazy writers.
Comics are a collaborative medium and if the writer can’t be bloody well arsed to do their job, that means everyone else in the chain has to pick up the slack. I don’t ever want artists or letterers to feel like jumping out of a window the minute they learn they’ve been saddled with me on a project. I know where my responsibilities lie, and within those boundaries I will take care to be approachable, adaptable and do my best to resolve any issues that might trouble the pencil jockeys and letter wranglers later down the line.
Boots on the Ground: Writing the Script
Formatting the script is an editorial thing. It gets done once the script is actually written. Formatting is usually the last thing I do before a final edit and proofread. I’ll give a quick run-through here on the overall stages of the writing itself.
Synopsis: I like to work from a detailed synopsis that includes a brief overview of pretty much every scene. This gives the publisher full proof of concept (and usually helps mitigate major editorial amends further down the line) and helps me work the majority of bugs out of the characters and plot before I’ve started. A lot of writers believe this approach takes all the spontaneity out of a story. Not for me. I still don’t know how characters are going to behave or react to a situation until I’ve put them in the scene. A writer’s plan rarely survives contact with their characters.
Scene Design: Before I write a scene, I want to know what each character knows, how they’re feeling, what they’re trying to achieve, and question whether this scene even needs to be here. I’ll usually write some notes asking, thinking through and answering all such questions. Once I’ve identified all that exposition, I’ll start roughing out a general flow of actions and exchanges that will bury all that story-info within the scene. This usually forms a general flow of beats, that is, roughly what happens and in roughly what order. I’ll scratch all this out on scrap paper and let the characters talk and act out.
Breakdown: Once I’ve got the flow of a scene, I’ll break it down into pages and panels. An establishing shot here. A close-up there. Scaling a story correctly is critical, since comics are a formal medium. The story needs to fit the pages and panels you’ve been given, not the other way around (unless you’ve got unlimited [maybe digital] pages or an unlimited paper budget). The breakdown is where I’ll find out whether the story’s too big and needs cutting. I’ll aim for five panels per page. Any more than that and the dialogue will need to be minimal. (Anything with more than eight panels and your artist may want to kill you.) When breaking down, convey everything visually. Exercise your knowledge of the sequential vocabulary of comics3 and condense, condense, condense. Once I’ve got a sequence that fits, I’ll lay that out on a fresh Word doc with placeholder panel descriptions. Something like this:
Establishing shot, landscape
Close on tree
Close on Beth, waking
Beth looks up, sees mob approach with Madelena and Soothsayer
Dialogue: Now’s the fun part! Let the characters talk and act out, then cut back to the bone. I'll write the dialogue under each of those placeholder panel descriptions (see above) and I'll do so in bullet points as it helps me keep it around 25 words per balloon (and three balloons max per panel). I’ll be constantly tweaking the panel sequence here to accommodate whatever the characters come up with. I won’t add dialogue attributions4 until I'm formatting. For now, it's good to leave the dialogue as is. Characters’ voices should be distinct enough that you know who they are just by hearing them talk. Leaving the attributions off for now helps me focus on the dialogue and tweak it when a line coming from a certain character sounds off.
Panel Descriptions: With the dialogue pretty much there, I’ll go back and write up the panel descriptions. A bit of a fine art, this, as you need to be crystal-bloody-clear in your instructions to the artist. There’s so much to say on this – and all these other stages – that I could probably write an entry on each one. And maybe I will, but not right now.
Formal or Casual?
For whom is your script written? Is it going to an editor? Or directly to the artist? Are you friendly with these people? Have you worked with them before? Or is this a cold submission that requires a degree of formality?
Your formatting won’t change, but your language should depending on how formal or casual you need to be. Don’t be overfamiliar with an editor or artist you’ve never worked with before. Don’t drown them with information either. Having a more established or collaborative relationship with an artist – as I have with Dani – allowed me to be a little more forthcoming with notes. Though I was careful to place this all up front so it didn’t get in the way of the actual script.
It’s Microsoft Word for me. No three-hundred-quid-a-pop screenwriting lifestyle software necessary.5
Font, Spacing, and Language Settings
I’ve taken a fancy to ‘Courier New’ at point size 11. I used to use ‘Verdana’ at point size 10 because it looked nice and readable. I dunno. Maybe I wanted to get myself in a different headspace when writing a script. Plus, Courier is like what proper screenwriting types use and I like the way it makes me feel a bit like Robert Towne clattering out a draft of Chinatown.
I set the spacing at 1.5, so anyone (including me) has space to scribble down any notes or corrections on a hard copy. Oh, and I set the spelling on UK English, of course, because Black Beth publishers Rebellion are as British as petty crime, doomed optimism, and eating a bag of chips in the rain.
Header and Page Numbers
An ancient publishing standard, this, a traditional safeguard against the possibility of some butter-fingered editor clutching several printed manuscripts tripping over a subeditor who has finally assumed the foetal position, thus scattering your precious pages all over the office. With a header containing your surname and story title, the editor can identify which submission is which, and know where to send your rejection letter.
Same goes for page numbers. Writers who don’t number their pages are lazy bastards in league with Lucifer. Ask any subeditor.
If I’m writing a series like Durham Red, I’ll have a header that includes the series title, subtitle and episode number. Like this: ‘Durham Red: Mad Dogs: Episode 1 of 12’. Just to keep everyone on point (including me) as to how much more of this stuff they’re expected to read. This Black Beth was a one-shot, so all I needed was ‘Black Beth: The Witch Tree’.
Name, Email, Phone Number, and Website
I add basic contact details as standard. If I’ve worked with the editor before, they’ll already have my contact details on file, but it doesn’t hurt to stick to the same formula regardless of who you’re sending to. If you’re sending this ‘on spec’6 you might want to add the address of your online portfolio, so the reader can take a gander at your other work.
By the way, a foaming-at-the-mouth Twitter feed is not a portfolio! It’s tough to convince editors that you’re a sane professional when you’re screaming at strangers to go f*** themselves with a c******w.
Title, How Many Pages, Who It’s For, and Submission Date
All self-explanatory, this. I’ll add all these whether submitting formally or casually as it helps keep me on point. If the script goes through multiple drafts, I’ll add a new submission date for each one so everyone knows which is the latest version.
If I don’t know the artist with whom I’ll be working, I’ll add a boiler-plate message along the lines of ‘Hi there! Please feel free to get in touch at any time if you need to query anything at all.’
If a project is particularly design-heavy with lots of make-believe environments or vehicles or weird characters, I’ll add notes briefly explaining the concept for each. That way, the artist has everything up front and I don’t have to clog up the panel descriptions with yet more detailed descriptions. Bear in mind, once again, that Black Beth was quite a collaborative project. So the depth of detail into which I’ve gone here won’t always be appropriate. If I sent a script this full of notes to an artist I just met, they’d probably run a mile.
Page and Panel Numbers
Think it may have been the redoubtable artist P.J. Holden, who advised adding the number of panels-per-page as this helps keep the artist on point with how many panels they have to juggle on each page. I won’t write ‘Panel’, just the number. Like this… 1.) If only because it’s bloody obvious you’re referring to a panel! It also keeps everything nice and tight. As a general rule, it’s good to see lots of white space on the page of a script.
Panel Descriptions, Again
Okay, a quick callback to panel descriptions
Keep these as short as possible. Aim for a line or two. Ideally, a panel description should sit in your head after a single read.
Watch out for the word ‘and’ in panel descriptions. It's often a tell-tale sign that you’re trying to communicate more than one beat of action.
Avoid metaphors and similes. Ambiguity has no place in panel descriptions. Give concrete details! If that means giving the exact height or width of something, do it!
Describe a camera angle (close-up, establishing shot) only when the required impact or information would be lost without it. Otherwise, default to a standard (implied) full shot. Specific instructions constrain good artists. Then again, lazy artists often need a bit more direction to keep them on-point. Make your own call here, guys.
Where possible, describe each new element on a new line, so the information is presented to the artist clearly and in order of dominance.
The character who speaks first in a panel is usually the character on the left. Bear this in mind when writing both dialogue and panel descriptions, or else your letterer may end up wanting to kill you.
Emotional directions help the artist get into the characters’ headspace. Add how your character is feeling, or what they’re trying to get out of a conversation, whether they’re defensive, uncaring, smug, whatever. That way the artist – like a good cinematographer – can emphasise that emotional state with lighting, dramatic angles, etc.
I’ll add character names in CAPS when they appear for the first time in a story. It’s a carryover from screenwriting that allows the script editor to find where a character first appears. Not sure how that applies to comic scripting, but there you go.
Dialogue and Attributions
Sure, this stuff’s pretty self-explanatory too. Except for a few things. If a character is yelling particularly loud, is delirious, speaking some kind of magic language or is barely audible, I may want the letterer to emphasise this in the text by using bigger letters, whacky fonts or whatever. When I want to do this, I’ll add the direction in brackets after the speaker’s name, i.e. ‘BETH (yelling):’. However, the letterer will usually ignore me, and I can only respect them for that.
I spell out numerals (‘twenty-three’ and not ‘23’) and underline any words that need vocal emphasis. I rely on my ear for this, and the less underlining the better. I would have bolded these emphasised words, as they would appear in the finished comic, but underlining looked better and created a clearer hierarchy among the script’s components.
Read the dialogue through, find the music and underline the words that matter. There’s a difference between ‘you must be crazy’, i.e. you’re the only one who’s crazy, and ‘you must be crazy’, i.e. there was some doubt as whether you were crazy, but now I’m certain that you are.
I generally use an ellipsis (‘…’) for a pause in mid-speech (character takes breath, struggles for words, pauses for effect) and a double hyphen (‘--’) to denote an interruption, a longer pause or for establishing a connecting link when speech continues over several panels. I also use double quotes when spoken dialogue either precedes or follows the panel in the form of a caption in a different scene.
When I started submitting Future Shocks back in 2007, the submissions editor advised me not to break panels and dialogue over two pages, as the artist or letterer might think the page stops there and miss what else your characters have to say. I used to solve this problem by shuffling the entire panel down onto the next page (or chiselling at the panel description until the thing fits), then adding a ‘[Contd…]’ or ‘[Page continues…]’ note at the bottom.
One of my current editors found this annoying and recently told me to stop doing it. So I did. But I’ll still add a page break for each new page. So there.
It turns out letterers do not share a comprehensive grimoire of sound effects containing the correct spelling for every sound from ‘slapped face’ to ‘bowling ball landing in a bath full of eggs’. So I generally come up with these for myself, and attribute them in exactly the same way as I do dialogue, e.g. ‘SFX: KERSPLAT!’
I’m of the opinion that, as a general rule, SFX shouldn’t stand out, that they should be absorbed subliminally by the reader. Therefore, I’m usually happy with the universal language of ‘blam’ and ‘kaboom’, with a few more unusual effects like ‘fwommph’ (bursting into flame) to add variety. Sometimes the letterer will – quite rightly – omit a sound effect that I’ve included when the image clearly speaks for itself.
And that’s pretty much it! If I’ve missed anything or you want me to clarify something, then please feel free to let me know in the comments and I’ll get back to you (hopefully soon).
These are all general guidelines and I’ll adapt them from project to project, or else they’ll evolve over the years. The eternal aim, however, is to present the information as clearly and neatly as possible. Common sense rules.
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To find out more about me, my books, comics and other projects, click right here on my LINKTREE.
This story’s available in all its glory in the collection Black Beth: Vengeance Be Thy Name, the purchase links for which you can find right here. Just scroll right down to the bottom.
With so-called ‘Marvel Style’, the writer submits a synopsis, which the artist then breaks down into pages and panels, and then returns the finished artwork to the writer who adds the dialogue. Full script gives the writer the lion’s share of control over the story, while Marvel style gives more authorial control to the artist.
You’ve read and studied Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, right? This is the comic creator’s bible!
Character attributions are the character names that appear before each line of dialogue. ‘LINK’ means the character who spoke last is still speaking.
Okay, so I got a subscription to Final Draft, but I don’t use it for comics as not every editor uses that software.
‘on spec’ is short for ‘on speculation’, meaning material submitted at your own expense and which an editor is under no obligation to purchase.