On Comic Scripts

This morning, I posted the following on Twitter:

It prompted a further conversation with a friend about how I handle scripts, so I thought I’d expand on it here.

Let’s get the obvious difference out of the way first: with a script, it’s more about art direction than painting the picture itself. Prose can create atmosphere and mood and paint a picture in a reader’s head, but in most cases, the only people reading a comic script are the artists and editors. (And I will say here, “artist” includes penciler, inker, colorist, and letterer, sometimes even the cover artist and the book designer. Anyone doing anything you actually see in or on the book? Artist.) There’s no need for all that detail, and aside from dialog, there’s a lot less laboring over word choice and sentence structure.

That said, the writer should accept the fact his art direction may be limited. Sure, I can drill down to camera angles and hyper detail, but a good artist can usually do all of that better. This is where the conversation comes in: I explain what’s happening, and he (or she) shows me how to best present it to the reader. If I get to see layouts and thumbnails, great, that’s a conversation. If it’s someone I trust, they may go straight to work, and their response is still via their brush.

It’s also important not to put ridiculous demands on the artist. The comics page is so big, and the artist only has so much room. When he’s done, the letterer has even less room. Cramming a massive crowd scene or a long conversation into panel six just isn’t going to happen.

Understand, too, that comics are single frames of action. When scripting, the writer has to be aware of spatial relationships between characters and/or objects. An artist can draw a character walking and chewing bubblegum at the same time, but he can’t draw the character running across a room to a table and snatching a knife off the table in the same panel. If the artist cheats it with a blur or similar effect, it looks like the character’s running at super speed. If he just draws the guy with the knife on the other side of the room, it looks like the character teleported.

In the end, this changes the language of the script. In prose, one might say, “Jimmy sprinted across the room and snatched the knife of the table.” In comics, I’ll break it into two panels:

  1. Jimmy is running across the room toward the table.
  2. Jimmy has snatched the knife off the table and turned back.

I might get a little flashier to convey feeling or extra detail (is Jimmy scared or angry?), but the idea is these are in present tense. Jimmy is doing this. Jimmy has done that, thus is doing this. If we previously established the knife is on the table, we know what Jimmy is running for, whether or not the artist decides to show us the knife in the running panel. In panel 2, a simple motion line can show the snatching of the knife, or the artist might even break it into an additional panel with Jimmy grabbing the knife and then turning back in a third.

Finally, don’t be a dick. The script is not written in stone, nor so precious that it shouldn’t be deviated from. All I ever ask is my artists not alter my plot or dialog. If he wants to rechoreograph an entire fight scene, cool. Just don’t kill a different character. If a page of conversation is too boring and full of talking heads, and he condenses it into two panels, then I hope he left room for all the dialog that went with it.

That’s my take, anyway. The easiest way to learn this is to collaborate with an artist. They’ll tell you what they need to know, or what does and doesn’t work, because they need the book to look good, too. If the artist ragequits and goes back to work at Home Depot, then you definitely asked for way too much and need to back off.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

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