Writing a script for a comic is an unusual thing. It’s not like a screenplay for a film, nor is it a piece of prose. It’s something of a hybrid of the two, while also being its own thing entirely. Below you will find five things to bear in mind when approaching writing a comic script.
Some may seem obvious, and there are countless others I could probably list, but these will hopefully stand you in good stead - especially if you're thinking about participating in Talenthouse's Comic Book Brief.
1. Plan out a structure before you do anything else
Image by Talenthouse Creative Andy Xavier
This may sound obvious, but all stories need a beginning, a middle and an end - even comics. If there’s no development then there is no story, which means nothing to interest the audience, and they may not carry on reading.
Structuring your story can be as simple as introducing your characters at the beginning, presenting them with a conflict or issue in the middle, and then resolving it at the end. Of course it may be more complex than that. Either way you need something to catch the reader’s attention to begin with before you take them on the journey through your story. No matter how complicated your story is, the outcome is still the same, you’ve written something that develops and will have something to hook the reader and keep their interest.
2. Show, don't tell. Keep the wording light.
Image by Talenthouse Creative Ignacio Zurita
Comics are not novels. By their nature they are a visual medium, sometimes known as sequential storytelling. Writing the script is only the beginning of a comic, it will then be taken and turned into a series of narrative images by an artist, so it’s important that your story is shown as much as possible. Dialogue between your characters and the odd bit of narration is fine, but too many words can overwhelm your panel and it runs the risk of becoming illustrated prose instead of sequential art.
Generally the rule of thumb is up to 35, and certainly no more than 50, words per panel, assuming 6 panels per page. This ensures that there will be space for your artist to draw your comic, without each panel being overwhelmed. It is possible to bend or break this rule, but it’s a good guide to start with.
3. Be flexible - the visuals might not look how they did in your mind
Image by Talenthouse Creative Luis G. Moreno
When writing comics, especially if they are going to be drawn by someone else, you have to be prepared for things to change from what you originally had in mind. Perhaps you envisaged a panel in a certain way, the framing, composition etc, but if you work with a different artist or a team of creatives, they might have something else in mind that may improve upon your original vision. With that in mind, try to keep your panel descriptions as simple and clear as possible. That way there is room for the artist to interpret as needed.
Creating comics is a collaborative process, and there needs to be give and take on both sides. But remember the previous point, without the art, all you have is a script.
4. Think about your audience and how you want them to feel
Image by Talenthouse Creative Bill Masuku
Consider what effect you want to have on the reader. What emotions do you want to make them feel with the story you are telling? Working this out is going to have a direct impact on the way you tell the story, and how you write your script. If you want your readers to be drawn into your story to identify with the emotions of your characters, then you will likely want to use more close up shots in your panels, so that the reader can see what the characters are going through.
On the other hand, if your comic features a lot of action scenes then you will compose panels that are wider, and more distant, to encompass more of what is going on.
5. Stick to one action per panel
Image by Talenthouse Creative Anush Singh
This is a mistake I’ve seen a number of times from first time writers, a panel description says “Elizabeth makes a cup of coffee in the kitchen and then carries it to her laptop”. That’s not possible in a comic.
Each panel of your comic needs to be a single image, a frozen moment in time. It is not possible to show characters doing more than one thing in any given panel. The art can show some movement in a panel, but if you want to show the character performing more than one action then you will need to break it down into multiple panels.
For example, you would write it so that in the first panel you describe the character making the cup of coffee and then in the next show them sitting at a laptop, with the coffee cup prominent.
Clare Hemsworth is a long time comic fan and reviewer turned freelance editor and proofreader who has worked with a range of independent comics creators. You can find more details about the services she offers on her website www.comicscout.co.uk, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.