Now, this post was originally going to be in a thread of Gamers With Jobs, which is a frequent and several-years-deep virtual hangout for me, a place where I discuss all manners of things geeky but (mostly and unsurpisingly) game-related. Since this damn thing got away with me -- close to 2000 words -- I thought I'd spare the thread and bring it over here. Notice, please, that it took on the shape of a post in a thread on writing in a geeky gaming forum, so it's bearing that stamp as written.
I'm going to wade in here, not only because comics-scripting is a passion of mine, but also because I did spend much of my creative writing energies in college on learning how, and my only notable creative writing success had to do with it. That said, keep in mind -- like most of us in this thread, my bona fides are thin-to-non-existent, but I've been down the road of taking a concept from rough-shape to fruition, and actually had it drawn, lettered, published, and received a check for my efforts. So the advice is coming from a direction that has some experience, even though I'll be the first to acknowledge that my experience is a raindrop in an potential ocean of experience.
All of that, of course, is the prelude before I start talking like I'm King Shit of Awesome Mountain or whatever, so grain-of-salt-it, please. I mean, I know you merely know me as the loudmouth from the comics-thread with the Lost avatar, so to whatever degree that's a help or a hindrance, take it for what you will...
I've never had to write a comic script for anyone other than myself, and while a lot of comic scripts I've seen outline panels per page pretty precisely (how's THAT for alliteration?), I feel like I would be limiting my artists a bit. That, and what I plan out could end up looking pretty shitty in the long run. So I figure I'll write first, then work with the artists and see what they come up with.
My biggest advice here is go full script, and I'll tell you why: the most successful scripts I've had done (which I'll be liking to the twenty-odd published pages I referenced above, plus two or three-odd eight-pagers that were published on a very, very indy scale; but I worked with one of those artists on silly, college, dorm-room stuff that ran in the eight-odd page range, but never saw the light of day...thankfully) were the ones where I did work full script, and those worked much better and seemed to make my artists happier.
That said, if you've got an arrangement with your artist, great! Work how you guys want to work, in whatever way makes you most comfortable.
But if you want to hone your comics-scripting skills, going full script is absolutely the way to go. Here's why:
Those early, college scripts I worked on with my artist pal Reilly Brown were ones I wrote in a very loose, almost-hybrid form that was half playscript, half-screenplay. I described the action, wrote the dialogue and captions in lettering-ready detail, but I only broke it down page-by-page, with the action broken by dialogue and captions where appropriate. It worked well, but it also meant I was overloading the pages with material and, though my pacing was instinctive, I know it led to Reilly having to cut here, choose there, etc. We were both dumb, hungry underclassmen, so it basically worked out, but it also meant I was writing long dialogue scenes (which is what interested me), and the only help I was giving him was slugs with character names and little else.
Because the truth was Reilly was taking on the lion's share of the storytelling with that project -- the rhythms and the beats which are essential to conveying the story down the page.
Which leads me to:
2) The Script is Not Sacrosanct
It's that last part as the key.
That's what he can actually draw based on Moore's rambling, and it's the fusion of those two heads that make that book great.
So, short version: use the document as a way to convey to your artists what you're getting at in the best way possible; but if you keep it too loose, you can run the risk of boring your artist, or putting too much on their plate, when your job as the writer is to keep an overall vision of the pacing of the piece.
Which leads me to my last point which is:
3) The Story should work, at its most basic level, without your words.
This was the hardest thing for me to accept -- it took me most of my protracted college career to get, to be quite honest -- but in the same way that movies should be able to convey the very basic idea of the story if the soundtrack died out, comics function in the same way: because both are a combination of words and images.
Right now, as I type this, I've got The American President on in the background, sound running. I've seen the film several times (I'm a Sorkin geek), but the scene currently running -- Michael Douglas and Annette Benning the night after they first sleep together, with a stream of people coming in the door as she gets dressed and he looks out the window -- at least tracks, insofar as the two leads had a night together and business needs to be conducted with her absence, without any of that dialogue.
Now, the nuance of the scene -- that her having spent the night with the President, and her presence has caused a flurry of investigative reporters to pry into the president's private life, as the staff tries their damndest to put out the political fire immediately -- doesn't track at all, but the successive scene -- a montage of reporters hounding the couple and Annette Benning individually, a flag-burning photograph arriving on the mustache-twirling villain's desk, et cetera -- does track without sound.
That job, telling the story with images, making sure it hangs together without any words, could certainly be in the wheelhouse of the artist, and if your artist is comfortable with that share of the work, great! Go to town.
But consider what takes that artist eight-to-eighteen hours per page to draw. They've got on their plate:
- fundamentals of perspective, character-design, drawing on-model, drawing props, costumes, et cetera;
- distance to-and-from camera, and how that communicates to the audience;
- nuances of emotion, expression, body language, and other acting elements;
- simple cinematography techniques (180-degree line, lighting, framing balance, etc.);
- balancing all of those elements into a readable page;
- lots and lots of other things;
- drawing hands (Have you ever tried? Those bitches are hard to draw!).
I think, at the very least, part of the writer's job -- including being brilliant with the storyline, being inventive and naturalistic with the dialogue, making sure the pacing at the page-and-installment-and-overall-plot level works, and having all those other wonderful literary elements of theme, conflict, character, et cetera track -- part of that job just might include making sure that the story has an interesting visual through-line, and hangs together based on that same trait.
Otherwise, why not make it a book, right?
If the story must be a comic book, then your job as the writer -- particularly if you're not picking up the pencil yourself -- is to justify it in the script.
None of that's to say, of course, that what the writer has to do apart from that visual element isn't hard, or creative, or inventive, or anything else -- but it is to say that the medium is the message, so if choosing a comic as your form is going to be the best for the project, then them's the breaks.
That's my two cents.
So, now that I've gone and shot my mouth off, here's my example/template as a way that I've worked, not as a proscription for how everyone should (since the beauty of comics is there is no codified method of working). It's also not the only way I've worked, but it's the way I've felt most creatively successful, to be honest.
It was the spring of '07, and my aforementioned buddy Reilly got me involved with this project for the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, New Jersey. They were doing a retrospective on super-hero comics in the 20th Century and wanted a comic that would help explore the intersection between those comics and world events -- since that was, as I understood it, the thesis of the exhibit. It needed to be a) family friendly, b) involving some of the comics that were featured in the exhibit, c) tie in to major historical events (WWII, 9/11, etc.), and hopefully d) entertaining.
Some gears were already in place when I came on board, but this was my pitch document, which outlined the overall story -- some of which was restricted by the format (it had to be told in chapters, since we had a page length, and Reilly had the artists -- a slate of excellent dudes from Ten Ton Studios, including Jason Baroody, Aaron Kuder, Khoi Pham, and Chris Burnam -- pretty-much lined up to divide up the page count, etc.), and some of which was restricted by time (looking back through the e-mails, at the time Reilly approached me, they were hoping for a finished script in a week! I think I turned it around, soup-to-nuts, in more like a month.)
Once they liked the general synopsis, I made a point of writing a rough script in a panel-by-panel form with no dialogue, and I did this for two reasons: 1) because I wanted to make sure the script tracked visually; and 2) because it meant, to the extent that the rough draft tracked and was approved, the artists could get started drawing, or at least roughing, their chapters. Hope sprang eternal; it didn't quite work out that way, but that was the design. This was also to send in to the museum for, again, further editorial approval. The upshot was, I could read through this script sans dialogue and track with the story pretty well, since I was reassured there wasn't a wasted panel.
As I started to script it, my second draft was my first stab at all the dialogue, et cetera. Some sequences -- particularly the ending -- just plain didn't work, but I tended to resist messing with the panel descriptions, since those had already gone to the artists. This was the real meat of the work came for me -- the rough draft probably took an afternoon, and I know this draft was the better part of a day, which was probably compressed because of the timeline and my need to take a day off from the retail job I was working simply to get the draft done. It still stands as one of my favorite "working" days of my writing life.
My final draft was ultimately tweaks and changes made as the artists started working, and as Reilly and I kept futzing with various moments that needed special care and attention -- either because they didn't work quite right, or because we were dealing with some pretty sensitive material.
This is where we landed. Enjoy.
All the art above were done by members of the Ten Ton Studios collective, many of whom are currently making serious coin as working artists in the comics industry.
I can't stress this enough, but they're all good dudes, so I encourage anyone reading this post to check out their site and seek out their stuff -- they're brilliant storytellers, as you can clearly see.