This site was updated May 2006
When writing for comic books, I tend to work in a three step process: idea, outline, and execution.
The idea is just that: the basic concept or hook that is at the heart of the story. In the professional world, the idea is presented as a springboard or a proposal. As they are used to present your ideas to editors, I will cover them in a later chapter about selling your work.
The execution is the physical writing of the script, including all of the panel descriptions and dialog (if full script). That is the focus of the next chapter.
This chapter is about the outline, often referred to as the page breakdown or PBD. For an example of the three step process, you can read my Scooby-Doo story "Psychic Psyche-Out" which includes the springboard, page breakdown, and final script. This will give you an overview of the steps I went through in writing the story. It will also show that even when a springboard and page breakdown have been approved, there is still room for change. The story was published by DC Comics in Scooby-Doo #19 (and reprinted recently in Scooby-Doo TPB Vol. 4--"The Big Squeeze").
The page breakdown or outline is the basic blueprint of your story. I feel very strongly about the use of outlines when writing for comics. As mentioned previously, the biggest limitation in telling stories in the comic book medium is space. There is only so much material that will fit on a comic book page, and only so much that will fit in a panel. When working professionally, you will usually have a set number of pages in which to tell your story: 5, 8, 10, 12, 22, 28; whatever the number you are assigned, you have to hit it. You can't turn in two less or three more. It simply doesn't work that way as there is a set number of physical pages in the publication, and most publishers have to reserve some of that space for advertising. Once in a great while, a publisher might allow you ONE extra page for a month, but that is rare as it often represents an additional expense for them (they have to pay the creators for the page) and the loss of advertising revenue. The rule of freelancing is you deliver what's commissioned in the format in which it was commissioned.
With space being the main determiner of pacing and the amount of content, working with an outline will help you stay within your confines. If you map out your story before you begin to script, then you are less likely to go off on space-consuming tangents. I can't tell you how many scripts I had to grade as a teacher at the Joe Kubert School where students, who had not worked out the pacing of their story before they began writing their scripts, discovered that they had run out of space on the last two pages of their story and tried to wedge six pages worth of story material into two pages. It doesn't work, and it can be avoided by starting with an outline.
Below is a cramped map you can use for thinking out a standard ten page comic book story. The image is very small and hard to read (as if you needed me to tell you that). It is, however a link to a full-size 11 x 8.5" PDF version that you may print out and keep as reference (it's a handout I created to give my students at The Kubert School). The theory in terms of pacing remains pretty much the same for any length of story as it is based on the 25%, 65%, 10% structure. However, keep in mind as you expand a story that your audience usually has limited patience for waiting for a story to begin. If you are creating a 64 page graphic novel, it may not be wise to keep the reader waiting 13 pages (25% of story by volume--settling may occur in the shipping process) for the plot to kick into gear. I try not to make the reader wait more than five pages for the first kicker when writing stories of 22 or more pages.
Let's start with some of the basic assumptions with which I work.
A good average for the number of panels on a comic books page is five. Five allows your artist room to work and maximizes panel layout possibilities. I say average--don't make the mistake of falling into a cadence with five panels on every page. I once worked with an editor who strongly believed that every page should be a five panel page. Some of my scripts were rewritten by the editor to fall into that vision, sometimes taking a six panel page and combing two panels in order to make five. This sometimes destroyed the rhythm I was attempting to create and I felt that the stories that were mandated at a five panels per page rate felt very mechanical.
Any rigid format in terms of panel numbers may become repetitive and boring to the reader, even if they don't recognize how or why on a conscious level. (Exception one: sometimes the cadence can become a powerful rhythmic device--if you are using it for effect, then it's perfectly acceptable. This goes back to my assertion that if you are going to break rules, break them with a purpose, not out of ignorance. Exception two: Steve Ditko used the nine panel grid throughout his Marvel career, and it's hard to argue with his Spider-Man or Dr. Strange pacing. More recently, David Lapham uses his eight panel grid very effectively in Stray Bullets, although even he sometimes breaks with the number eight.)
Sometimes a six or nine panel grid will be an effective tool for pacing (although don't ask for a crowd scene in each panel of a nine panel grid unless you want to give your artist heart palpitations). As action gets bigger, especially in the superhero genre, then fewer panels on the page will allow for big, dramatic shots. The more panels you ask for on a page, the less information you should ask for within each individual panel.
At the other end of the spectrum are splash pages. I tend to be very cautious with my use of splash pages. One or two per 22 page story is the most I will (usually) ask for. If you overuse them (or any other device), they will lose their impact. When I employ them, it is for dramatic purpose. Many young artists in the industry like to throw in multiple pin up pages because they're fun to draw and they can be sold for higher prices in the after market. As a writer, my primary focus is the storytelling, and multiple splash pages decrease the amount of storytelling space and can disrupt the flow of the story. (Besides, we writers don't get a piece of that after market, so it doesn't become a motivating factor for us.)
I often use a splash page at the beginning of the story as a place to introduce the initial dilemma and/or key character(s) and as a place for the title and credits. The best placement for the introductory splash is generally on page one or page three. Right hand pages are usually seen first by Western readers when casually flipping through the pages of a publication (which is why magazine publishers can charge a premium for ads placed on the right hand pages of their publications), and the placement of a big, dramatic image at the top of the story on the right hand page can be an effective sales tool when a consumer is leafing through the comic at the store. Again, don't feel you MUST always place the splash on page one or three. Sometimes is a good idea to move it around so you don't become predictable.
The other place I might use a splash page is at the climax of the story, to present the big action that resolves the core conflict of the story. As the biggest, most important part of the story, it may deserve the biggest, most dramatic image--especially when writing an action/adventure story. (An interesting exception to that theory is when a small decision might have the biggest impact. Using a small panel to convey the decision and then opening up later panels to show the weight of the impact can be an effective device.)
I may sometimes use a splash page in the middle of the story if I am introducing a key character or concept, or introducing a crowd of characters (as in a team book). I try to be mindful that nothing that happens in the middle of the story overshadows the climax, though. Otherwise, the story will feel out of balance.
I try to make sure that every panel carries important information about plot, character, or story. Every panel should exist for a reason. I also try to make sure that something significant happens on every page. A complication or reversal should happen every two or three pages to keep raising the stakes and hold the audience's attention.
One additional element I'd like to address at this point is the use of the end of page hook or question. Some comic writers, especially those who work in the "slice of life" genre, feel that this is an artificial device. I can't say that they are inherently wrong, but it CAN be an extremely effective device. At the heart of the concept is that you end each page with an unanswered question or unresolved action that will cause the reader to want to turn the page to find out what happens next. As all narrative is driven by unanswered questions, I think that the end of page hook can be employed well, as long as you don't use the same type of hook at the end of every page. As with every other tool and trick, vary how you employ it.
Some examples of end of page hooks include: