And there shall be, A SCRIPT!
I know, I know, there’s been a lot of buildup to this, and there is a reason for it. I don’t want you to be like all the other writers out there, getting in front of a computer, banging away at it, and then coming away with a “script” and thinking that you’re a genius. For the bulk of us out there, that’s just not going to be the case. I want you to be as prepared as I can get you for the task you’ve set before yourself.
Hello, and welcome back to another installment of Bolts & Nuts! This is the installment you’ve all been waiting for. Here, we actually start talking about scripts themselves. There are a TON of moving parts, and they all work in tandem. If even one part is off, your entire script can fall apart.
A few weeks ago, I gave an extremely brief example of a scripting format. Here it is again:
Panel 1: panel description goes here
Character 1: dialogue goes here
Character 2: dialogue goes here
SFX: sound effect goes here
Those of you who have been diligent will notice that this is a full script format, not plot-first. This is the script format [or approximation thereof] that the bulk of you will be using. I think a more in-depth overview is in order.
Page 1. A simple heading, sure, but necessary. You don’t ever want to forget to put the page number on the script. (Well, duh, Steven! Say something meaningful, whydontcha?) I will.
Now, there are two types of page numbers for the script. You have the number of pages of the script [we'll use twenty-two as a default], and the number of pages the script takes up. It’s not impossible for a twenty-two page script to take up thirty-five sheets of paper. It depends on the number of panels you have per page, and how much of a panel description you give. We’ll get into that in a little while. Right now, we’re talking about the Page 1 heading.
There is only one other thing that should go on this line, as a general rule, and that’s the number of panels on the page. It’ll look something like this:
Page 1 (four panels)
There can also be page layout notes on this line, but I really don’t recommend it. The more information you put here, the more restrictive you are to your artist. If you’re going for a certain feel, that’s fine, but if you’re not, I don’t recommend doing it. Leave the page layouts to the artists. You have more than enough to worry about.
No matter how many panels you have on the page, if it’s one panel or if it’s ninety, when you start Page 2, you want to have a page break and then go to that page. Notice, I didn’t say hit “return” until you get to the next page. I said a page break. Whenever you start a new page of script, you want to start on a totally new page. Wasteful? Maybe. But this way, there’s no confusion that there’s a new page started, and if printed, there won’t be anything funky going on with the formatting. It should stop Page 2 from appearing halfway down the page, or something like that.
One other thing before going on. Have a header for every script you do. That bears repeating. Have a header for every script you do. In your header, have the following at a minimum: your name, your contact info [phone number and/or e-mail address], the name of the title you’re working on [to include issue number], and the page number. This will save your life. Let’s say you have an editor who’s printed out your script, and happens to drop it [along with other things]. By following this advice, yours is the script that will be the easiest to put back together, or to notice that a page is missing, or whatever. Say it with me, one more time: have a header for every script you do. Got it? Good.
Panel 1. This is where you put your panel description, and here is where we’re going to take some time to explore what actually goes in here.
The basic thing I want you to understand is that there is a difference between a static panel and a moving panel. I did a little elaboration before, but here’s where I’m really going to explore it.
First, some definitions, so we’re all on the same page. A moving panel is something that describes movement, and a static panel is something that describes something that is still. Comics are static, and should be written as such. (Duh, Steven, I know that!) Like I said before, no, you don’t. If you did, I wouldn’t have to say this next piece.
Comic writing depends on your ability to think in frozen frames while giving the illusion of movement. You cannot have “Johnny draws his gun, fires, and rolls out of the way” in one panel. That cannot be drawn. [Well, it can, but you're not ready for that yet. Baby steps.] This can be three panels, but no less than two. Drawing the gun and firing can be one action, and rolling out of the way is another action. When you get more comfortable with writing within the constraints of a comic script, you’ll be more aware of what can and cannot be drawn. The only way to get more comfortable is to write, and the learning curve for a brand new writer to get really comfy is anywhere from two to five years. Yes, that’s a lot of writing. You want to be Published, or do you want to be published? Put in the work, and you’ll get to where you want to be.
Anyway, on static panels. For me, the method that works is to view the scene in my head as a movie, and then freeze the action at a crucial point, and describe everything in that frame as the panel description. Yes, this is sometimes harder than it seems, and it takes a knack that has to be learned and honed. This may not be how you do it, but the end result should be the same: a panel that can be drawn, evoking movement without actually having it.
Beware of trying to show things like flickering lights, breathing, stuff like that. Also beware of trying to show certain emotions. Sure, you can show fear and terror, but the more subtle emotions such as love or fear laced with determination…no. You might be able to get away with some of it depending on how strong your artist is, but others—no. For an action like a flickering light or breathing, you need at least two panels. For emotions, the “cleaner” the emotion, the easier it will be to draw. [There are emotions that can be built upon as a function of storytelling and narration/dialogue, such as love, but as a standalone panel, it's not going to look like the emotion. It's going to look like something else. Something to watch for.]
I also want you to write the panel descriptions from left to right. (Steven, I know this already.) Again, no, you don’t.
We read [American] comics from left to right first, and then top to bottom, in a Z pattern. Your panel descriptions have to follow the natural flow of our eyes. Left to right. Left to right. Then, as a test, write it from right to left. See how the meaning of the panel changes? Left to right, folks. It’s important. Left to right means you’re being clear to the artist, and clarity is extremely important. Left to right. Left to write. Left to right [correct].
Dialogue. There are unwritten rules to dialogue that you generally won’t find in books. The first thing to keep in mind is that dialogue covers artwork. (Steven, you keep having “duh” moments. You’re worrying me.) Trust me, if it were that obvious, I wouldn’t have to say it. It’s really simple. The more words you have in a panel, the less artwork that shows.
Some people will tell you that you should only have so many words per balloon, per panel, per page. I’m going to tell you something a little different. Write only what’s comfortable on the page. You’re going to get more out of that then trying to remember how many words per panel. However, there are a few things to remember.
The more panels you have on a page, the less dialogue you can fit per panel. The inverse is also true: the less panels you have on a page, the more words you can fit. Simple, I know, but I couldn’t tell you how many scripts I’ve read where there was a hundred trillion words for twenty panels on one page.
Comic dialogue is an art unto itself. You have to give the illusion of having a full conversation with only a few words. Hard. You not only have to give that illusion, you also have to give each character their own voice. Hey, I never said this was easy.
The other thing you’re not going to see much of in books is the unwritten rule that there generally shouldn’t be a lot of back and forth between characters in a single panel. I’m talking about Bill talking, and Rose responds, and Bill responds to Rose, and Rose responds back, and then Bill responds again. That’s six bubbles in one panel, and if it’s a lot of talking, there’s no artwork being seen. The unwritten rule, when two characters are talking, is that there is the initial person talking, a response, and one more response to that. Bill talks to Rose, and Rose responds, and Bill responds again. That’s all you want, at most. Are there times when you can get away with more? Sure. But I wouldn’t do it often. Most writers don’t. Don’t believe me? Go pick out five comics from your stack. Count the number of back and forths in a panel for those five comics. You’ll find that, generally speaking, you’re going to get the number three. I’m not talking about captions or thought bubbles—I’m talking about characters speaking back and forth in one panel.
There are also notes you can make in the script to the artist so they know when a character is actually not on panel, or to the letterer so that the font of the dialogue is special. For the artist, it’ll be simply by putting an (OP) after the character’s name.
Billy (OP): I can hear you!
This’ll let the artist know not to draw Billy in the panel, and to leave some space for his dialogue. OP means “off panel.” (Steven….) Okay, that one was just to get a rise out of you. Heh.
Okay, notes to the letterer are the same, but a little different. They’re going to go in the same place, but they can sometimes be a little more than one word. Some of the more commonly used are whispers or yelling, electric and burst [which can be the same thing]. But you can also do things like this:
Billy (small): Jerk.
This will tell the letterer to use a regular sized bubble, and to make the font small. Whispering will get you a “broken” bubble, yelling will get you a more strident bubble, and so forth.
I’m not going to talk about captions. Not really. I don’t have anything against them, it’s just they’ve taken the place of thought bubbles over the last few years, and while I don’t agree with it, I also understand the convention of it. Captions fall under the heading of dialogue because they’re in a place that readers can see. It can be of a few flavors. The first is the omniscient Narrator, such as you’d find in any book. This is where you get things like “Meanwhile, in another part of the city…” or “Later.” Things like that. The second is an internal monologue of a character, generally your main character [or the main character of that scene/issue]. The third is the voice-over, like in a movie. There is a person talking who’s in a different location. These will be delineated by quotation marks. (Duh, Steven.) I’m telling you, if I didn’t have to say it, I wouldn’t. Honest.
Sound Effects. Writing sound effects is both easy and hard. The decision to put them in or leave them out can be tough, though. For years, sound effects have been the symbol of everything that was “wrong” with comic books. A stigma that they were children’s fare, foisted upon the medium by the 60′s Batman show with Adam West. [A show that was loved by young and old, by the way. Don't get me started...] Even today, when a “real”magazine wants to do something concerning comic books, you’ll get a large BIFF! POW! WOK! or somesuch. Sound effects can be pretty hard to come up with—you have to turn a sound into a word that approximates the sound. Guns and such are easy, but sometimes you want something a little more complicated. I heard one writer say that they try their best to slow down a sound effect and sound it out, and then write it out over and over until they got it just right. If this works for you, go for it.
Like dialogue, you can also make notes to the letterer about the sound effects, especially if there’s a lot of things going on in a panel. If you want that creak to go to a door, then make a note, just like a whisper or if someone is off panel. It’s performed the same way, and no, it’s not always needed.
And those are the basic parts of a script. Get to know these intimately, because these are the elements you’ll be using to write your masterpieces.
Homework? Write a three page script. Beginning, middle, and end. No more than three pages. It can be less, but I don’t want any more. [There's a method to my madness.] I don’t care about the subject matter. Post them here for all to see. I’ll make notes on all of them.
Next week, we’ll talk about pacing–what it is, how it’s used, what’s good pacing, what’s bad, and my pet peeves.
And that’s it. See you next week!
Category: Bolts & Nuts
About the Author (Author Profile)Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at [email protected] for rate inquiries.
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