How to Write a Comic Book Script

Written by Martin Shapiro on Tuesday, 16 September 2014. Posted in Comic Book Writing

How to Write a Comic Book Script

A comic book script is a set of instructions for the artist and the letterer. It's intended to present the mechanics of your story with the greatest possible clarity. Adhering to a precise format, as in screenwriting, is not necessary. When you write a comic book script, you don’t have to worry about using special software like Final Draft. Any basic word processor, such as Microsoft Word or Google Docs, will suffice.

In many ways, writing a script for a comic book is more difficult than writing for film. With a screenplay, the writer leaves a lot of the detail to the director, the actors, and the crew. It is a very lean form of writing. Less is more, some pundits say. Film is a very collaborative form of art. Lots of people's fingerprints end up on the final product the audience sees.

This is not the case in comic books where it's only the writer and the artist who see the script. The writer tells the artist what to draw, usually with a lot more detail than a screenplay. The artist does have leeway to change things and add his own ideas, but his job is primarily to draw and intensify what you the writer have decided to show. You have to think in pictures as well as words.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

To hone your visual thinking, I suggest you read several popular comic books with a critical eye, thinking about the visual choices made by writers and artists – what's shown and not shown, and how it's depicted. Try to imagine how the writer described each image in his or her script before it was given to the artist. As a practice exercise, writing your own descriptions of the characters and scenes you see in a published comic book will help too.

To think like a comic book artist and communicate your vision of the story, you have to break your scenes down into panels, which are a series of sequential camera shots. You tell the artist what to draw in each panel and you decide in which shot your character is going to say a certain line of dialogue or voice-over. This, in essence, makes you the director of the movie, and you might think of the artist as the cinematographer who brings your vision to life.

The amount of detail and scene description on the page varies tremendously from writer to writer. Some creators like Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta) write long paragraphs of novel-style description where they describe the clothing each character is wearing, the vehicles, the set design, and even the camera angles because they want more control over the end result regardless of what artist gets hired to draw it.

Other writers write very sparsely, not much more than what could fit in a text message, because they don't know exactly what they want or don’t care. They let the artist fill in the details and interpret the scene how he envisions it.

Both methods, and everything in between, can work depending on the relationship you have with the artist. Keep in mind some artists, especially those who are very talented or highly experienced with lots of published credits, don’t like to be micro-managed by a writer, particularly a rookie writer who they’ve never heard of before.

Any pro artist worth working with will know the art of sequential storytelling and will have an artistic vision that could be better than something you come up with. So, you might want to let your colleague work his magic. It’s about manipulation of the artist. I know that sounds sinister, but the trick is to get the artist to like it. Woo them with your words and personality. Inspire them to do their best work.

A bored or uninspired artist will deliver pages that look like turds. Is that your fault or the artist’s fault? Food for thought.

About the Author

Martin Shapiro

Martin Shapiro

Martin Shapiro created the horror comic book series Chopper, and sold the movie rights to it. The prequel to Chopper was produced as a web TV series starring Tyler Mane (Halloween, X-Men). Mr. Shapiro’s action-thriller screenplay Lair of the Fox was optioned by Ilya Salkind (Producer of Superman). Mr. Shapiro has written and developed projects for MGM, HBO and numerous production companies including an adaptation of Dragonlance, the New York Times bestselling series of fantasy novels with sales of 22 million copies. He received a Master’s Degree in Screenwriting from UCLA and now teaches classes at New Hampshire School of Film and Television.

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