B&N Week 7: Scripting Methods

| February 8, 2011 | 15 Comments

Welcome to the jungle….

Sorry. Wrong place, but right time. Welcome to Bolts & Nuts, where we finally start talking about what you’ve been so patiently waiting for: scriptwriting!

Ah, but we still have the preliminaries of scriptwriting to go through, first. This is all about setting a foundation so that you can write scripts more effectively. So, with that in mind, let’s get started.

There are a few things you have to take into account before you can start scriptwriting, and I want to go through them. This is after you’ve done all of your considerations for story format [single issue, limited series, graphic novel] and plotting [so you can determine how much story you have and the pages needed]. You’ve already written your pitch, so you know the story you want to tell, and now, you’re almost ready to write.

The first question will be whether or not to write in full script or in the plot first/Marvel method. There are advantages and disadvantages to both.

Most writers today prefer the full script method, so I’ll go into that in detail next. First, we’ll go over plot-first, also called the Marvel method. The two names for this method are interchangeable, so if you hear it called one or the other, just realize it’s the same thing. The Marvel method was developed by Stan Lee as a way to get a lot of work done in a little amount of time. Stan was very busy with editing and running Marvel Comics that he didn’t have a lot of time to write. So what he’d do is give a plot to the artist, who’d then work up the pages to their preference, and give them back to Stan, who’d then put in all the dialogue. This method takes a lot of control out of the writer’s hands and gives it to the artist. You can give the artist a two or three page plot for a twenty-two page book, and you’ll have no clue as to what you’re getting back in return. What if the artist isn’t a strong storyteller? What if you wanted to delve more into a particular aspect of the plot? You can’t, because you’re now locked into the art. The best you can hope to do is write around it and hope it makes sense.

Then there’s the time lag. Creating comics takes time. Using this method, you’re more than likely not going to see the pages until they’re ready to go to letters. The comic has been drawn and inked, and is now ready for colors and letters. If you’re lucky, that was about a month ago. You’ve scripted other comics since then. You’re now expected to remember that particular story in detail so you can write the story you intended. This can be a hard thing to do, especially if you’re a prolific writer.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not a fan of the Marvel method. I understand the necessity of its evolution, and am grateful for another way to tell a story if I need to, but there are too many things going against it for me.

Full script takes longer, but you have a LOT more control of what goes on in your pages [assuming the artist follows the script, which is not always the case. There are horror stories of artists not following what was scripted, and the writer having to rewrite in order to try to make sense of the art]. With the full script method, it’s almost as if you can write it and forget it [except for script notes from your editor and any last minute tweaks once you get the pages back]. You’re writing each page of the comic, putting in everything the rest of the creative team needs to do their job.

The artist has the panel descriptions and dialogue, so they know roughly how much space to leave for letters as well as a pretty good description of what happens in each panel. The inker then lays down permanent lines in ink [trust me, it’s not just tracing!], and in today’s computer age, the files can then go to both the colorist and the letterer.

The colorist will have what they need from the script because you should be indicating time of day or any other type of lighting effects [or lack thereof], and that’s magic in itself. Then there’s the letterer, who gets to put your words on the page for all to see. [Seeing as how I’ve already gone over the particular jobs of the creative team, you should know all this already.]

From your full script, the entire creative team can do their job, with few questions for you. Any questions they do have, you’ll be able to readily answer, because with the full script in front of you, you’ll be in a better position to remember exactly what it was that you were going for, even if it’s months down the road.

Yes, I am a big fan of full script. It cuts down on any frustration I might have in trying to remember stories so that I can script it later, and it also serves as a reminder for other things that may happen in future issues that haven’t been produced yet. Using the full script method, you can work weeks to months in advance without having to worry about anything else.

The way I write is not the way you write. My preference isn’t yours, and I don’t want it to be. I’m just laying it out on the line for you as to your options. There are variations of both methods, and various ways to get to the final product–the comic–in the reader’s hands. Just because I advocate one method over another doesn’t mean you have to. I’m not trying to make Steven clones. I’m just trying to give you as many tools as possible so you can tell your stories.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about computer programs for a while.

Now, I’m a decent typist. I can get up to 65wpm when I’m on a roll. My handwriting is considerably slower, and LOTS sloppier. What I used to do when writing my scripts was this: I’d write it out by hand first, and then type it up in a word processing program [usually MS Word], doing a lot of editing as I typed it. I felt that by writing it longhand first, I’d be able to slow down enough in my thought process in order to get out everything that I wanted. It also ended up frustrating me to no end, because I was literally doing the work twice. I’d see some improvement over the finished product, but it was still a long process.

Finally, I started to go straight to the typing. I found that the training I’d given myself by doing it longhand had allowed me to write faster when going directly to the computer. I still had to go back and edit it in a few days, but it wasn’t the maddeningly drawn out process that I’d started out with. It was a lot better, but I still had the job of putting in all of the characters one at a time. Remember the example I gave a few weeks ago about Character 1: character dialogue here ? Instead of Character 1: it would be Spider-Man: or some other character, and I’d have to do it for every time I had a character speak. Not as frustrating, but still not something I wanted to do if I could help it.

Then I was turned on to Final Draft, and my prayers were answered. I was given a homemade comic template, and was able to change it up to fit my general desires.

(Steven, what are you saying? I need Final Draft in order to write comics?)

Nope. Not at all. What I’m saying is that there are programs out there that can assist in the comic writing endeavor, and that different writers use different things. Some people cannot stand formatting programs, and others love them lots. There are trade-offs for each, and you should be aware of them when choosing which program you want to use.

With a word processing program, you have a LOT of freedom to put anything you wish wherever you wish. You can have notes all over the place for different parts of the creative team, and it’ll all make sense. You can easily use a numbering system which can help the letterer know which balloon will go before or after another, or when to place a sound effect in a sequence of dialogue. Some writers and editors advocate the numbering of every balloon, caption, sound effect and thought bubble consecutively, and then starting over the sequence on the next page. A word processing program like Word will do that, for you, no problem. When it comes to format, a couple of tabs (or you could set up your own template), and you’re done.

With a formatting program such as Final Draft, which is a screenplay writing program, you trade that freedom for format. The program can have something they call smart type, where you’ll start typing an element such as Panel 1 or Character 1, and it’ll give you a list of element names to choose from. For example, if you’re on panel 5 on the page, when you start to type panel it’ll give you a list of panel names that you’ve already put in, such as panel 1 through panel 6 or something like that. It will do that for all elements of a comic script. The drawback? The numbering system, or notes, if you choose to use them. If you have Charlie 1 then Annette 2, and then switch them in the next panel or page, you can’t easily do it with a formatting program. Actually, it’s near impossible to do it with anything approaching a modicum of ease.

In the end, it’s a matter of personal preference. If you don’t mind having to re-type script elements in order to have the freedom to do anything you want within the script, then use a word processing program. If you want the speed of having the elements pop up for you in a formatting program, then something akin to Final Draft will do it. Your choice. You already know my preference.

One other thing you want to do is to learn comic scripting terms. Doing a Google search will give you some sites that list and define these terms. Personally, I suggest you print this out and keep it handy while writing your first few scripts, just so you have a handy reference while you become familiar with the process of scriptwriting.

While on the subject, I’d be remiss if I neglected to mention some books. The first I’d like to mention is Denny O’Neil’s The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics. Denny is a former editor and writer, mainly with DC, who’s had seminal runs on Batman and Green Lantern. His book is a great primer, and gives a lot of information in its pages. Also, if you buy the book, you don’t have to print out the glossary of scripting terms, because they’re already right there for you.

Another book I highly recommend is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. After that blows your mind, you can also try ReInventing Comics. All very good books, but I wouldn’t read ReInventing Comics until you’ve gotten a few scripts under your belt. You have too much on your plate already before you start worrying about advanced comics theory, which is what ReInventing Comics is. If you get these two books, I suggest the DC Guide first, and then Understanding Comics second. There will be others who will recommend other books as well, but for newer writers, I want you to focus on learning the lingo and how to move about scriptwriting first. I want you to walk before you try to fly.

Now, most of what I just said is dependent upon the decision to write in full script. I’ve never tried writing a plot-method style comic in Final Draft, and while I suppose it could be done, I don’t really see the point of it. A prose story [because that’s what plot-method is] in a scripting program isn’t really worth it. It’s like using a vacuum cleaner on hardwood floors. It can be done, but not to best effect.

That’s about it for this installment. Next week, we talk about scripting in earnest. Just a little bit more to go through as a preliminary, but we’ll be there. Next week. Unless I get sidetracked. [It can happen.] I know the installment feels a little light, but I don’t want to bog you down with a lot of stuff all at once. Manageable chunks, folks.

Your homework for this week is to do some research. Find some plot-first scripts, as well as some full scripts, and see if you can tell the strengths and weaknesses of both. If you wish, I also suggest picking up the two books I mentioned. I think having those two books are as important as having a dictionary.

See you next week!

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Category: Bolts & Nuts

About the Author ()

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 stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

Comments (15)

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  1. Kristoffer Peterson says:

    I am loving the site, been lurking for a couple weeks, and it’s all been fantastic. I really appreciate reading about things from an editorial perspective and would actually love to help in that regard. Also… love the Prince references.

    • Glad you’re enjoying it, Kristoffer.

      I’d be listening to Prince right now, if I could. I’ll fix it later, though.

      If you really want to see things from an editorial perspective, may I suggest The Proving Grounds?

      Keep posting! We’re all here to learn and have fun!

  2. John Lees says:

    For those looking to research how scripts are constructed, this site is a great resource:


    It has a great collection of scripts from a variety of comic writers. Hope you guys find it helpful!

    • Thanks for the link, John.

      One of the things that we’re going to be doing within the next few months is compiling a list (ever expanding, of course) of resources for creators to use. Links to everything. It should be a good time. (Just a pain to compile it, check the links, and so forth.)

  3. Tyler James says:

    If you don’t feel like shelling out for Final Draft, but want to try out a screenwriting software program, check out Scripped.com. It’s an online screenwriting software program that has a built in comic format. There are free and paid plans. I’ve used it to write a screenplay. I tend to prefer the Google docs for my comic scripts, however.

    • Yep. Final Draft is expensive. And I’m lazy, so it kind of pays for itself with the tradeoff I get in speed and ease of use. Just remember that it is NOT that friendly for scripting, if you’re trying to use different things in your format. But, like I said, I’m lazy.

      I haven’t tried Scripped.com. I might have to give it a whirl, see how it works. (I have a couple of things coming up that need to be written.)

  4. I’ve been meaning to get Denny O’Neil’s book for a while now. I’m glad to hear it’s as good a reference as I thought it was!

    Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics is a great read. It shines a new light not only on the way you write comics but also on the way you read them. This book is what got me to look into subjects other than superheroes.

    However, the first book I’ve ever read on the field is Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art. Fantastic introduction to the world of comic creation and it’s been revised for more modern audiences in the last editions. His Graphic Storytelling And Visual Narrative is sitting right next to it on my shelf and it’s my next “required reading” material.

    Right now I’m plowing through Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics. I might have gotten a bit ahead of myself by jumping into this before more traditional authors, but it does have a very particular effect: it makes you question what you want to be as a writer more than it really teaches you how to write.

    • That, Yannick, is a very good point to discuss.

      I don’t think there are many people who would disagree that Moore is a master. But his book doesn’t really teach you about writing, it tells of HIS APPROACH to writing, as well as his observations about the medium and the stories he’s told.

      Now, with that in mind, when you see everything that he puts himself through in order to tell a story, it makes you wonder “Do I have to go through all that in order to tell my story?” And then, right on the heels of that, “Do I WANT to go through all of that in order to tell my story?”

      Interesting question. And it’s nothing but a different approach to storytelling.

      • The question is intimately linked to where you perceive yourself to be in your learning of the craft. I guess someone who really knows his way around things faces a lesser risk of “buying into” Moore’s approach.

        For my part, I’ll see this reading as an explorative foray into another writer’s mind. I’ll pick up a few pointers, be intrigued by a couple conundrums, but it won’t become that much of a learning tool.

        In short, I’ll read the title as “Alan Moore IS Writing Comics” rather than “How to Write Like Alan Moore”.

        Besides, I’d get itchy under all that beard.

        • So the next question is this, then:

          How far do you personally feel you have to go in order to create a “complete” world?

          How far do you think is far enough, and how far do you think is too far?

          (This is open to everyone.)

          • I don’t think a complete world is required, only a complete story. As long as I have all the elements I need at hand to tell my story, I won’t go further.

            However, it’s not because I feel something is necessary to the story that it will end up in the script. For example, if my main character is part of a certain organization, I’ll keep some notes on that organization and faithfully refer to it in order to preserve my world’s consistency. What I won’t do is stop my narative every couple pages to dump that info into my dialogue.*

            *This is known as the Dan Brown Method.

          • THAT is FUNNY!

            I’ve only read a couple of books by Brown. He did that in The DaVinci Code, but not in another book (whose name escapes me at the moment).

  5. Tyler James says:

    Dealing with this problem right now in fact. I know the story I want to tell. I know a bunch of the major plot points, the general theme, and have sketched out the roster of characters. The problem is, there’s a lot of them, and I’m finding myself struggling to figure out how much time I need to spend fleshing them out.

    Plus, it’s dealing with essentially the disassembling of a team. To do it and have any resonance, there’s a lot I need to figure out about what caused the team to band together in the first place. It’s a lot of work!

    Still, I find that sometimes I have to just start throwing script on page before I can make any breakthroughs. The most important thing really is forcing butt in chair and doing what’s required to move things forward. Sometimes that’s research. Sometimes that’s backstory. Sometimes that’s outlining and index carding. And sometimes that’s getting your scripting on.

  6. Thanks for sharing this Steven. When I was studying for my Diploma in Creative Writing I ended up going for full script method. I found the attention to detail and focus to be a natural fit. I will definitely check out some of the books you listed here.

    • Great, James! Happy to have been of service.

      Check out tomorrow, when I go a little more in depth with scripting, and come back again next week, when I talk about panel descriptions and camera angles. Don’t forget to click the link next week, too!

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