A Picture is Worth 1000 words – how to write a comic script that your artist can use Part 1

If, as the title suggests, a picture was worth 1000 words then every comic script would be the size of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke script (this is a joke you will understand in part 2). But as the writer, and the creative genesis, you need to write each panel so that every person after you (editor, penciller, colourist and letterer) can get what they need from it. Sounds like an oxymoron, but don’t worry. The first part of this article deals with what you can do to make this process as easy and effective as possible. The second part is where we will examine some comic script samples from some of the greats and dissect them to find out what makes them tick.

Everyone writes comics differently (much to the disdain of editors) but for us writers, the art of the well written comic script is wonderfully diverse. This article is not on the right way to write a script, as there is no such thing, but an effective way.

Let’s break it down to its base form. What does each member of the team need to do their job effectively?

Editor – The editor/writer relationship is often the most heated since they work so closely. The editor (as well as checking your grammar, spelling and general dialogue) needs to know the story. Each panel needs to clearly define its place within the story. This is where your own voice will come through strongest. A strong sense of story can allow the editor to pick up on plot holes, contradictions in dialogue and make recommendations on panel size, angle of shot etc.

Penciller – To accurately bring your vision to life the penciller needs to know setting, choreography and expression. These are the three base directions that they need to know. Of course, there are more nuances to this we will explore but make sure that amongst all the story these 3 things are covered.

Setting – Where are we? Has there been a change of scene?

Choreography – Who or what is in the panel. Where are they situated in relation to everything else in the panel?

Expression – How is the characters expression complimenting the dialogue and/or story?

All three aspects do not need to be in every panel. When in a scene the setting should really be established at the start of the scene and small details leaked into the script as the scene progresses.

Colourist – The Colourist will be able to gain a strong indication of what needs to be done through the groundwork laid out for the penciller. However, additional information regards to lighting and time of day will be a big help. Before getting to this stage, you would have discussed colour schemes of all your major characters.

Letterer – The letterer will be able to see the page, rather than reading the panel descriptions so all the hard work you put in with the artist will pay dividends here. The panel will already be set up to impose dialogue (just be wary of spacial limitations). You can always put specifics in brackets (singing), (whisper), etc just to hammer the point home.

So let’s look at a comic page panel and it’s respective scripting. The following 2 examples are from separate issues of Uptown Chronicles.

Panel 2

We are in Lawman’s office. The lights are on which is illuminating the office but the windows are dark because it is night outside which is making them more like mirrors than windows. Lawman is in front of his desk as he paces back and forth. He has the phone in one hand and a glass of scotch in the other. His mask sits on his desk on top of a stack of papers.

LAWMAN:

Don’t get all righteous just yet.

LAWMAN:

There was more to our Deputy Minister of Health than just a con-man with a fancy title.

This is a pretty straightforward panel but there is a lot here to analyse. So first off, the setting is established. Next, the lighting and time are laid down clearly. Next the choreography (who is in the room and where they are they standing?), then a brief description of what the character is doing by mentioning the scotch and phone.

I did not mention an expression because I didn’t want to be close enough to detail his face. But even if we were, I wouldn’t need to. The dark setting, glass of scotch and dialogue give a sense of professional calm.

So Geo (the artist) took all this information and created this panel.

Combining the script with the black and white panel, it was easy for the colourist to do their job and bring out a mix of sombre tones.

Finally, Geo left a large “dead space” for the lettering to go in above the character. Up there the speech bubbles wouldn’t interfere with anything. Although nothing particularly exciting is happening in this panel, it is still important to ensure speech bubbles don’t cover anything.

Now let’s look at a more difficult panel.

Panel 6

A more experimental panel. The Archbishop will be pressing himself to the opposite door of the taxi as if he is trying to get as far away from that mask at the window. His feet are up on the seats as he pushes himself back against the locked door. Mix this with a struck match if you can, like have the match in front of this panel as if we are layering it.

ZT:

A flaming car has about three minutes until the tyres explode and fan the flames, roasting you inside.

ZT:

You must confess all of your sins since taking up this holy position. If you can, then we will save you.

ZT:

If your sins are too numerous, we will let the fire cleanse you.

Straight away I warn Geo by stating this is an experimental panel, which means I have an idea in my head but don’t know how good it will look when drawn. Thankfully this was one we pulled off.

Because I haven’t choreographed the panel, just detailed some images, I left it entirely in the hands of the artist. You may also notice there is no mention of setting, lighting or expression. That is because all these things have been either been established in previous panels.

Geo added in the closeup of the vigilante mask to give it more intensity and help establish who was holding the match. He placed it on the far left side because this is a page wide panel and creating this focal point draws the readers eye to where we need it to go first. We move from the closeup to the car window, to the dialogue and finally to the frightened archbishop. The result is this layered panel that more easily guides the eye from left to right in an uninterrupted flow.

Although this was a large panel, placing the wordier speech bubbles was harder, so it was important for the artist to utilise the angle from inside the car to make it work. The script presents an almost impossible angle to work with. To be able to see two people facing each other means they would both need to be in profile. So the dialogue would go in the middle. But then where would the lit match go?

These are the types of scenarios writers put artists in and it is a solid measure of an artist who can manoeuvre them to benefit both parties.

So there you have it! If you learned something, give the article a like. If you want to follow Uptown Chronicles, my other work or know when I put up a new lesson, follow me on Facebook or @author_richard_mooney on Instagram

Thanks everyone. Have a great day and keep writing!

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