This site was updated May 2006
(Note #1: to see some examples of scripts and plots, visit the sample scripts section of this website.
Note #2: even though this chapter carries the title "Writing the Script", a discussion of writing dialog will appear in the next chapter..)
DEFINING SOME TERMS
All right--we've covered characters, plots, and page breakdowns. Next we come to the actual writing of the script--except that before we can discuss the script, we need to define some terms.
Let's start with terms I will be using for the sake of this discussion.
Script - in the world of comic books, "script" can mean one of two things. There is the full script where the story is broken down page by page, panel by panel, with all of the dialog, caption boxes, and sound effects included.
The second meaning for script is the dialog script that is either written or tightened up after the pages are penciled. When you work in the plot-first style (often referred to as the Marvel style, even though it predates Marvel Comics and is not used by every writer or editor at Marvel). In the plot-first method, the writer breaks the story down page by page, and usually panel by panel (although it can be even looser than this). The amount of information provided is dependent upon the relationship between the writer and the artist (as well as the editor's comfort zone). It allows the artist the greatest amount of input into the story. Once the pages are drawn, they are sent to the writer to compose the dialog script. I will be coming back to this concept in a later chapter. This chapter will focus on the process of writing a full script.
Plot - in the course of this chapter, "plot" will mean a breakdown of the story in page by page, panel by panel format.
Manuscript - this is the script or plot as you turn it in to your editor. Remember, the manuscript is read only by the people invovled in the creation of the comic book. It is usually not read by the audience at large. The text that the audience reads is the copy.
Copy - all text that is published in the comic book and is seen by the readers will be referred to as the copy for the sake of this discussion.
WHICH STYLE DO I PREFER?
I am sometimes asked in which style I prefer to work--full script or plot-first? It all depends on my relationship with the editor and/or the artist. Often, when a writer turns in a full script, the copy placement is handled by someone in the editorial office, although it may also be determined by the penciller or even the letterist. I've heard some writers say that once they've turned in the full script, they've done their job and don't want to see it again, perfectly happy to let someone else deal with the copy placement. I'm not like that. I prefer to do my own copy placement whenever given the opportunity. Where the copy is placed on the page has a significant impact on the storytelling and page design, and I don't like to let go of the control of this element. I will discuss the theory of copy placement in a later chapter.
One of the strongest arguments for working in full script is that it shows the artist exactly how much dialog for which they need to allocate room in their compositions. When you work plot-first, you are at the mercy of the artist in terms of copy space. You may mention in your plot that a specific page or panel requires extra room for copy, but what you consider extra room and the artist considers extra room may be vastly different things. By having the copy in front of them, the artist should be better prepared to leave the required amount of negative space.
Another benefit of having the pages come back to me even when working full script is that it forces me to take a second look at the text I've written and it gives me the opportunity to make rewrites.
Because there is a gap between the time you turn in a script/plot and the time the penciled pages come back, it gives you the opportunity to forget what you've written. This is a good thing because you can come back to your work with fresh eyes and often you can catch things that got by you the first time around--missing words, clumsy dialog, unclear thoughts--and fix them.
To me, the biggest benefit of having the penciled pages come back to me is that it allows me to take advantage of opportunities presented by the artist that I had not expected. There have been many times where artists have added little bits of business or fun expressions on the faces of characters that have caused me to change or add dialog. It's great to have the chance to capitalize on these opportunities. And there have been other times where artists have not left the amount of space I'd needed for the copy or not drawn important elements, so I had to make adjustments to make sure that the story remained clear.
When you work plot-first, the pages HAVE to come back to the writer to finish the job by providing the dialog, so that is an advantage if you are a control freak like I am about copy placement.
EVEN MORE BASIC DEFINITIONS
Before we get to the nuts and bolts of writing a comic book script, we should define some more important terms that will make communicating with your artist much easier.
Comic book scripts borrow not only elements of screenplay format, but also the language of the screenplay in order to communicate to the editor the composition for each panel. When we describe a panel, we write as if the artist is taking a picture. We often refer to "the camera" with the assumption that the artists is the cinematographer (the person in the filmmaking process responsible for camera placement and lighting design). Therefore, it is useful for you to know basic filmmaking terminology. In this section, I will define some of the most common terms you will need to know.
Subject - the subject is the person or object that is the primary focus of the panel.
Shot - in filmmaking, this is a single camera set up. Each panel in a comic book can be considered a shot.
Cropped - when the subject of the panel is not completely seen, extending beyond the panel borders. A bust shot shows the subject's head and shoulders (get your minds out of the gutters, people), cropping the rest of the body outside of the panel.
Three planes of action:
In Chapter Four, I defined blocking and business. I think they're well worth mentioning again here because these are elements you will be using when writing panel descriptions.
Blocking - this refers to any movement that moves characters through space. Getting characters from one location to another is blocking. Fight scenes are blocking.
Business - this is any personal movement/interaction that characters have with props. Personal business should never steal focus from the primary action.
Ah--what does it mean to steal focus? This means that something is pulling the audience's attention from the main focus and distracting them from what they should really be watching. That's a great skill to have if you’re a magician--it's called misdirection in that case. You lead the audience's eyes to the unexpected flash of powder while pulling the concealed dove out of your pocket. It's not cool to do that to someone who is imparting important information about the plot or undertaking important action.
This is also called upstaging someone. This is a term that comes from the theater. The part of the stage that is closest to the audience is downstage (i.e. the foreground). Center stage is just that--center both from front to back and from left to right (the middleground). Upstage is the part of the stage furthest from the audience. Unscrupulous actors who want to steal focus will drift upstage so that the other actors have to turn their backs to the audience in order to interact with them. This is where the concept of upstaging comes from, and today it refers to anything an actor does onstage to steal the focus away from the other actors.