There is no “right” way to format a comic book script. Cullen Bunn’s way will differ from Jim Zub’s way, which will differ from the Frank Gogol way. What’s important when finding a scripting style is that it’s functional for you as a writer. What I mean by "functional" is that it makes scripting—your leg of the comic book creation process—easy for you. Some writers, for example, prefer a screenplay-style format and use the Final Draft scripting software because it remembers style patterns and makes it so that they don’t have to do a lot of manual script formatting. Figure out what makes scripting an easy and efficient process for you, and implement that in your writing.
What’s equally important, though, is having comic book script format that is functional for your collaborators as well.
Comic book scripts are, for all intents and purposes, functional documents, a set of instructions for your collaborators (artists, inkers, colorists, and letterers) that tells them your vision for a story and that gives them insight and information into how best to bring that story to life.
Think of it this way: your comic book script is a Lego set, and your story is the image of the completed set on the front of the box. Your script, then, is the instruction booklet that comes with the set, and it tells your collaborators how to assemble all of the different pieces to create the image on the front of the box.
And, like when you’re building anything, the better the instructions, the easier it is to build and to build well. Below are four tips you can use today to make your script a more functional document for your collaborators.
1. Keep one page of story to one page of script.
When formatting a comic book script, keep the number of story pages to script pages to a 1:1 ratio. Part of the reason for this is visual organization. If all of the information an artist needs to draw a story page can be viewed on a single script page, it will be that much easier for the artist to process and to draw.
Another reason for the 1:1 ratio is that it’s a handy rule-of-thumb to keep you from over-writing your script. Beginning comic book writers tend to write sprawling panel descriptions and have characters have lengthy conversations in each panel, and a single six-panel page of story can go on for three script pages or more. This is a comic book artist's greatest nightmare and you should do everything in your power to keep it from happening to an artist with one of your scripts.
One of the easiest ways to make sure you keep your story pages to a single page of script is by writing lean panel descriptions.
2. Write lean panel descriptions.
One of the biggest areas where beginning comic book writers struggle most is with writing panel descriptions. Specifically, they overwrite them. Ideally, though, a panel description should tell an artist which characters are in the panel (who), the action taking place in the panel (what), where the panel is taking place if it’s an establishing shot (where/when), and any important emotions involved with the action (how).
There’s a famous story that Dave Gibbons tells about drawing Watchmen from Alan Moore’s scripts. Moore is a notoriously wordy writer (legend has it that the script for Watchmen is over one thousand pages long). And if you have ever read Watchmen and understand what it achieved at the technical level, you can understand the Why Moore's panel descriptions were so long.
But, do you know what Gibbons did with the scripts before he started to draw them? He highlighted which characters were present and what they were doing so that he could know what to draw. And this goes to show that even the best scripts from the best writers aren’t necessarily the most efficient or functional documents for their collaborators.
Keep it simple and stick to the basics. Any information beyond this, can be given in supplemental pages.
3. Use synopsis, characters, settings, and other supplemental pages.
If you don’t already, start using supplemental pages at the beginning of your comic book script. There are a couple benefits to doing this. First, it will help you keep your panel descriptions lean by giving you a place to talk about what your characters look like, the specific emotional beats a scene is supposed to be hitting, or what the kitchen or the forest looks like.
Second, if all of this crucial information is at the front of your script, your collaborators will read it first. And if the artist or colorist knows the entire story and who all of the characters are before reading the Page 1, Panel 1, they can focus on the technical aspects of the script—like the character action of the mood of the story—as they read your comic book script.
4. Number your lettering elements on each script page.
For each page of story, number your dialogue, captions, sound effects, and any other lettering elements you use on that page. And then, on each new page of story, beginning numbering again. When the time comes, this will give the letterer a clear map of what lettering elements belong on what panel AND in what order. This is a simple organizational trick that all but ensures that the lettering makes it onto the comic book page right the first time. It can also serve as a warning sign that you may have over-written the page if there are too many lettering elements (15 or less is a good benchmark). And if you need to communicate with the letterer about lettering changes, it gives you a nice shorthand to go by. Rather than saying, “On page 1, panel 1, balloon 2…” you simply write, “1.1.2."
The best time to number your lettering elements is after you’ve finalized the script. Unfortunately, if your number as you go, and then change your script even a little bit, it can throw of the numbering entirely, which will confuse, rather than help, the letterer.
If you just make these four small changes to how you approach your comic book script formatting, you’ll find that not only will your scripting become tighter and more efficient, but you’ll also find that your collaborators will be able to navigate your script easily and to bring your script to life more accurately. Like I said at the start of this post, there is no “right” way to write or format a comic book script, but there is a functional way.
Beginning with this blog post, and moving forward, I’ll be including a “Write Now” section. This is an activity focused on the lessons in each post that you can put into action right now to start becoming a better comic book writer.
For this week, if you’ve finished a script already, pull it out and apply the tips above. If you haven’t finished a script yet, apply these tips as your work through your first one.