I get asked about writing comics all the time. Here’s some common questions and my answers.
Do you write out all the descriptions for the images portrayed within the panel, such as character placement and positioning and “camera” angles?
Yes. Some writers will go so far as to include thumbnails instead of or in addition to their written descriptions to help make things more clear. I would do that myself, but I know they’d be so bad it would only make things more confusing. Twice now I’ve made top down maps to help when a particular scene had a variety of set pieces where their locations relative to each other, the characters, and the camera position were important.
You should basically talk about everything you want in the panel. A quickie guide:
What kind of lighting do we have? Where and when are we? Is it indoor or outdoor? Day or night? Who is in this scene? Which characters are speaking and what are their names? How are the characters dressed? What are their moods? What are they doing or what are they preparing to do? Are there specific items within the set that the characters will interact with, and if so what and where are they? Answer those questions and you’re done!
Usually you’ll do that for each panel unless of course little or nothing has changed between panels. There’s no reason to describe the same laboratory three times in three different panels. Personally, if I know the same set is going to be used for one or more pages, the script for that page will start with a “big picture” description of the whole set even if some elements don’t become important until later. For example, if a particular painting isn’t referenced by the characters until the end of their conversation on page 12, it had better be goddamn visible on page 11 when we see the wall it’s on in the background.
How much of the script is dialogue, and how much is description of action?
As much as you need for each. There’s no magic ratio. In general, an action heavy scene will have more description than dialog while a character or plot heavy scene will have more dialog than description. But even this isn’t necessarily true depending on your action, your characters, and your execution.
Sometimes I’ll have a panel description that’s a single sentence. Sometimes it’ll take up half a page. On average, the longer Scott and I have worked together the shorter my descriptions have become. We’re more comfortable working together now, so we know what to expect from one another. Earlier in our partnership, if I wanted a scene in a laboratory I’d have gone into detail about how organized or disorganized it ought to be; if it appears clean, well-lit, kinds of equipment and so on. Now I can just say “mad scientist lab” and I know what I’m getting. Not specifically, of course, but we’ve done enough mad scientist labs that I have a reasonable expectation. For example, look at the script for FCBD ’08.
PANEL 1: COMBOTS start pouring down the cliff.
PANEL 2: COMBOT vs ROBO action.
PANEL 3: COMBOT vs ROBO action.
PANEL 4: COMBOT vs ROBO action.
Hell, if a particular sequence is just a lot of talking, I’ll describe the scene and then just give the dialog broken down into panels with no descriptions. But I also do this knowing that Scott can reach me immediately if he has a question or wants some direction. If communication with your artist is limited, err on the side of giving too much info. They can just ignore what they don’t need!
When you’re writing dialogue, do you keep it separated from the description (on its own line), or do you integrate it with the description (right in there with the block of text)?
This is one of those questions that pops up way more than I would have thought, but then again I learned about screenwriting format long before I tackled my first comic script so it was a natural decision to keep descriptions separate from dialog. Every line of dialog and sound effect gets its own line so it’s easier for everyone to ignore it when they don’t need it and to find it when they do.
PANEL 3: Side view. This panel is probably shot from the shoulders up, KOSHCHEY is leaning in to ROBO’s face. KOSHCHEY: You do not know who I am, do you? ROBO: I know you’ve got the best clubhouse on the block. KOSHCHEY: That is funny. Tesla made you funny? ROBO: No, I use humor as a ploy to distract maniacs like you from the fact that he did make me super-strong!
PANEL 3: Side view. This panel is probably shot from the shoulders up, KOSHCHEY is leaning in to ROBO’s face.
KOSHCHEY: You do not know who I am, do you?
ROBO: I know you’ve got the best clubhouse on the block.
KOSHCHEY: That is funny. Tesla made you funny?
ROBO: No, I use humor as a ploy to distract maniacs like you from the fact that he did make me super-strong!
For your standard twenty-two to thirty-two page comic, how long is the written script?
Again, as long as it needs to be. You will most often find that a single script page can contain about a page and a half of comic. Don’t do that. What I mean is, if you’ve finished, for example, the script for the eighth page of your comic and you’ve still got half a page to go, do a page break and start the ninth page on its own, fresh page. It’s okay for you to take more than one page of script to provide all the information for one comic page, but I think if you go over one and two-thirds pages, you’d better have a damned good reason or think about being less verbose. A big wall of words is a great way to make your artist lose track of everything you’re trying to tell him.
A standard comic book is advertised as 32 pages long, but they have 22 pages of “story”. The rest can be a mixture of ads, bonus material, letters pages, etc. I advise against going over 22 pages. Editors want to know they can depend on having X pages for ads without having to worry about suddenly having X – 2 pages for ads. It also keeps things simple when it’s time to collect the series in trade. It’s just a matter of 22 x Issues as opposed to 22 x (issues – 1) + 2. Or whatever.
How much interaction is there on the writing half between you and your artist?
In general, Scott and I will talk about the overall theme we want to tackle in a mini-series. Then we brainstorm on how that can be broken down into individual issues, how many issues we feel the concept can carry, how each issue will lead to the next — this part is a little more complex for Atomic Robo than most comics because we’re free to jump around in time so thematic associations aren’t necessarily linear. Then we hit the major moments of each issue. Sometimes all that’s fleshed out at this stage is the central conflict for that issue, sometimes we’ve got an idea of where it starts and where it ends. Throughout this process Scott has a tremendous amount of input.
When it comes to the actual writing of an issue, I do that without input. Sometimes I’ll ask if he’d rather draw X than Y or how angry he’d get to have to draw X, Y, and Z. It’s my job to put together the ideas we came up with. When Scott gets the first draft, we talk about it, make sure everything we discussed is hit upon and that everything makes sense, etc. Then he starts drawing the pages and this is is basically Scott’s version of what I did above — it’s now his job to make our ideas look better than they are. Sometimes the panel layouts as I describe them don’t work as well on the page as they do in my head. Sometimes I’ll ask for too much. Or too little. Sometimes Scott will just flat out think of a better way to do what the script asks for. These changes often require a change in dialog, sometimes major but usually minor, and always in the spirit of the original intent we had from the get-go.
How much does the artist call into question or debate points of writing?
Scott thinks absolutely nothing about drawing what he wants as opposed to what’s exactly in the script. So, in that sense, he does it constantly. But since he’s just taking what’s in the script and making it better, which then makes me change some dialog to reinforce the improvement even further, I’m not sure that qualifies. Especially since I doubt he considers that a minor change, like a slightly different camera angle, will sometimes call for a line of dialog to be adjusted. His thinking probably begins and ends with “It’ll look better this way.” I remember that he specifically called me out on The Letter from Volume 1, Issue 2. He said it was too sappy. And it was, so I changed it. The version that made it to print is so much stronger I ought to have been embarrassed to have typed the original. Those kinds of moments are pretty rare, so if he brings up a specific point about the dialog I’ll listen and give it serious consideration…even if I decide against making the change as in The Great Coconut vs. Rocks debate of ’09.
Conversely, how great is your involvement with the artistic side?
Depending on how you look at it, I either get a lot of input on the art or none at all. On the one hand, there’s no point where I’m making or suggesting changes to the art that parallel the changes to the script that Scott makes necessary. On the other hand, everything he’s drawing is based on what I wrote. Even if what he draws for a given panel is nothing at all like the script’s description for that panel, whatever he draws was in some way informed by my script.
Really, we cross-pollinate each other with ideas to the point where making distinctions becomes meaningless.
Not every team is like this, but there’s no reason for independent creators not to be. I mean, hell, why are you working together if you don’t trust each other to bring out the best in each other?
Is there any literature for writing comic scripts, either online or in stores, that I should pick up if I’m pursuing this? Would you recommend any of it?
There really is no one “way” to write comic scripts. It’s not like a screenplay where several teams of dozens of people will each need to schedule months of their working lives around the script, the weather, and one another. Screenplays need to be in a standard format for the sake of efficiency when working on that scale. You’ve got to worry about lighting, catering, bathrooms, animal trainers, sound crew, and guild regulations for each, etc. But a comic script is a much more intimate thing. It needs only to be understood by the writer and the artist. Consequently, what works for one team may not work for another.
There is some standardization. For instance, if you write a script for Marvel, it has to be according to a specific format. Atomic Robo is written with a light and more informal version of the Marvel format. I assume DC has their own format as well, but I don’t know for sure. But as an independent team you should pick a format that works for your team and stick with it. Or, if you must change it, do so between issues and make sure everyone on the team is aware of the changes. Never change your conventions in the middle of an issue, that’ll just frustrate everyone.
Anyway, so you don’t have to re-invent the wheel, check out some professional scripts to find a format you can use or adapt to your purposes.