How do you write a comics script?

by Kirk Chritton
©2008 Kirk Chritton, All Rights Reserved

First, don’t get hung up on the script format. The first step to being a comics writer is to stop talking, stop dreaming, stop planning, and start writing. If you create intriguing characters in compelling stories, formatting is the least of your worries. 

That said, creating intriguing characters in compelling stories is an awfully large topic for an article on comics basics. So let’s devote a few minutes to the nuts and bolts of the format of a comic book or graphic novel script.

Comics scripts are the written plan for creating a finished comics story. They come in many formats. Creators, editors, and publishers use various standards depending on what gets the job done. There are three most common ways of writing a comic book: full script, plot first, and thumbnails. We’ll cover all three below with some helpful links to sites where you can see examples.

Full Script

This is the most commonly used form of writing comics for another person to draw. The script itself doesn’t have to follow a rigid format as long as the creative and editorial team find it useful. The script must describe the action in each panel so that the art team clearly understands what the writer wants them to draw. The script must include all of the text that the letterer will add to the drawn pages. The scripts typically look a lot like the script of a movie or play, but every action must be clearly described page by page, drawing by drawing.

Here’s an example: 

Page one (three panels each the same size):

Panel one: Black with two ominous red eyes peering out of the blackness. These are the eyes of the werewolf BLOODWYNE.

Caption:

FOR BLOODWYNE, THE NIGHT WAS ALIVE WITH PASSION.

 

Panel two: Pull back to reveal Bloodwyne’s eyes staring out from a dark grove of trees and brush along a park path. We can see a young woman jogging along a path toward Bloodwyne’s hiding place. She is clearing in danger. In the night sky, the full moon is large and looming. 

Caption:

FOR BLOODWYNE, THE NIGHT WAS FOR THE FEAST.

Bloodwyne (whispering):

Come… Come closer…

 

Panel three: As the woman reaches Bloodwyne’s trap, the werewolf springs from his hiding place with a snarling fury — his fangs and claws flashing in the moonlight. The woman recoils, screaming in horror. In the next instant, Bloodwyne is sure to be upon her. His unearthly snarl wraps around her as a sound effect.

SFX: ROOOORHRLRLRLRLRLLLRLRRLLLLLLLL

Woman: EEEEEEK!!!

Okay, that example isn’t going to win any Eisner Awards, but it shows the basic information that you as a comics writer need to communicate to your collaborators. The breaks of panels and pages are clearly marked. The action in each scene is clearly described. The captions, dialog, and sound effects are completely written out just as you wish them to appear. 

Plot First

This is really a two-step process for the writer who writes a brief synopsis of the story’s action without dialog and turns that over to the artist to draw. Typically the instructions to the artist aren’t nearly as detailed as in a full script. Once the artist has worked her magic, the writer develops the dialog to fit the pictures. 

This method used to be commonly used by creators at Marvel Comics, but it is rarely used by major publishers today. Today, the plot-first method is more likely used by collaborators who are developing their own works outside a strict editorial environment. It can also be useful for a cartoonist who illustrates his own stories, and prefers to work out the final dialog after the illustrations.

In the example above, the plot might read:

Page One: Start with a close-up on Bloodwyne’s fiery eyes peering out the darkness. As we pull back you see Bloodwyne hiding in a grove of trees waiting to pounce on a young woman running through the park at night. As Bloodwine leaps out to grab her, she recoils and screams in terror.

After the art is complete, the writer would write the dialog using a format similar to the full script method, but only featuring the dialog and any special instructions for the letterer.

Thumbnails

The thumbnails method requires the writer to draw a rough version of the story and write the dialog directly on the drawings. A typed dialog script is sometimes included along with the “rough draft” sketches,

Thumbnails can be a simple solution for creators who draw their own stories, but they are also used by teams of collaborators. Companies like Archie Comics and Western Publishing have made extensive use of thumbnails. The movie American Splendor depicts Harvey Pekar creating his comics stories using the thumbnail approach.

It can be tough for a writer who has almost zero drawing ability to create thumbnails, but stick figures may be all that’s required to get the message across. One big advantage of thumbnails are that they can force a beginning writer to break action up into an appropriate number of panels and keep the amount of dialog to a manageable level.

Examples

Thanks to the Internet, you don’t have to rely on my examples. There are a variety of comics creators who have posted examples of their scripts, plots, and thumbnails for others to review. Plus, there are some books that contain excellent script examples. Here are some excellent links to check out:

Books

Websites

  • Dwayne MacDuffie has an extensive set of scripts, plots, and series proposals on his site. They include some of his work on Static Shock, Spider-Man, Deathlok, and The Demon.
  • Marv Wolfman, creator of Blade, the New Teen Titans, and former editor at Marvel and DC has several articles and interviews about writing comics on his site. The articles include plot and script samples.