WRITING A COMIC BOOK SCRIPT
The first hurdle for starting an Epic book is the script. Every project starts not just with a writer and an idea, but a full script. If you’re an aspiring writer, you have to submit a first script.
That doesn’t sound so bad, but there are plenty of people reading this who have never read one, much less written one. That’s where this week’s column comes in. This installment is dedicated to explaining to wannabe Epic writers how they can put together a script.
There are two types of scripts, generally-speaking. The first is generally referred to as the “Marvel style” script, so named because it’s how Stan Lee wrote a bunch of books at the same time for Marvel in the early 1960s. He’d develop a basic plot and hand it off to the artist, who was in charge of pacing, scenes, and so much more. The writer came in afterwards and wrote dialogue to match the scenes the artist constructed. Sometimes, the artist would throw in some surprises for the writer. That’s how Silver Surfer was created, for one example.
Ironically enough, this is NOT the style you want to use in creating a pitch for an Epic book. You want to write a full script. This includes details page-by-page, panel-by-panel, and balloon-by-balloon. The Epic web site gives a brief example of this, and it’s generally fair. I’ll write one of my own to give you an idea:
PANEL 1: Establishing shot of Aunt May’s house.
CAPTION: Forest Hills, Queens.
PETER PARKER: [From inside house] Aunt May, I swear to you I wasn’t
bonking Mary Jane.
AUNT MAY: [From inside house] Riiiiiight, young man.
PANEL 2: Inside of Peter’s bedroom. Peter is clearly agitated, but Aunt May stands
resolute inside his door frame, arms crossed in front of her.
MAY: I may be old, but I’m also frisky.
MAY: Why, Nathan Lubinsky and I used to do things that would make your hair curl.
PETER: [screaming] Nooooooo!
Break the big script up into smaller pieces. Chunks of script called pages include pieces called panels, which have parts called balloons that might contain dialogue, captions, or more. Essentially, that’s all you need. The decision to describe panel shapes and arrangements is up to you. Some artists might be insulted by it, while others might appreciate the help. Others, still, will ignore you for an idea they like more. It’s a collaborative medium, so none of these ideas are necessarily wrong. As long as the writer, the editor, and the artist have an idea of what’s going on, the rest is up to creativity and skill. Alan Moore’s scripts are notoriously chatty, stretching out for dozens of pages for a single 22 page script. Brian Bendis’ POWERS scripts are much more pared down. It’s all business. Let’s face it — when you have a dialogue scene that goes on for five pages and takes place at the same table, you’re not going to have many directions to give to your artist.
There is no standard format for a full script and you’re free to do whatever you want. Just keep in mind that you want an editor to approve this script and an artist to draw from it. Write a script with enough direction and detail to be clear, but not so far detailed as to make it impossible to draw. Remember, also, that there are certain things an artist can’t draw. The most famous example of that is having a character with his back turned toward the reader and a devilish smile on his face. Also, don’t try to compress two or more actions into one panel. It’s not possible. You can’t have Spider-Man grab Electro, throw him to the ground, and kick him in the groin all on the same panel. Read UNDERSTANDING COMICS by Scott McCloud or COMICS AND SEQUENTIAL ART by Will Eisner for a more thorough understanding of the concepts behind sequential art.
You can capitalize names in the script, or not. You can capitalize important people and places in your panel descriptions, or not. You can capitalize the dialogue, or not. Warren Ellis, for example, prefers to capitalize the dialogue in his scripts to give him an idea of how it will look on paper. Since Marvel letters exclusively with mixed case these days, that might not be an issue with your Epic script.
Some writers start a new page of the story on a new page of script. Others don’t. Some label their panels with numbers while others do it with letters. I can’t think of any cases of a writer labeling story pages with letters, though. I’d stick with numbers there, if I were you.
Some writers use programs written for other purposes to create their scripts. The best-known example of that is Brian Bendis, who uses the movie scriptwriting program, Final Draft, for creating his scripts. Check out his POWERS SCRIPTBOOK to see the results. Some use MicroSoft Word, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that some use something as simple as Notepad to write theirs.
The most important thing you can do in trying to find your “voice” is to study what others have done. Even if you’re not studying it, at least take a look at some of the options available to you. See what others have come up with. While being original and unique in your story content is a great thing, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel in formatting your script. Nobody will think any less of you for copying someone else’s formatting tricks, if it works for you. In the end, all that counts is that the story is good and that people can follow it on the page.
RESOURCES IN PRINT
The good news is that in this day and age of trade paperbacks fitting in as much bonus material as possible, there are plenty of script samples up for grabs on the bookshelf. You probably have a few examples sitting on your bookshelf already that you might not have realized.
Here are some books that I’d recommend for script excerpts and examples.
The first of the category came out in 1999 when Larry Young’s book, THE MAKING OF ASTRONAUTS IN TROUBLE, hit the street. It compiled all of the scripts to his original AiT mini-series, along with the two-page stories that were backups in those issues and some behind-the-scenes sketches. It proved that such an idea could sell books, and there’s no doubt in my mind that it spurred on others to produce such books.
AiT/PlanetLar also produced one of the funniest comics of the past year with THE ANNOTATED MANTOOTH. It reprints the three short stories of Matt Fraction and Andy Kuhn’s manly gorilla spy. The trick here is that the story pages are on the right side pages, with the original script (fully annotated) shown on the facing left-side pages. It’s an invaluable tool for seeing how a comic develops from writer to artist.
In 1999, Titan Books came out with a book written by Mark Salisbury called WRITERS ON COMICS SCRIPTWRITING. Along with its sister book, ARTISTS ON COMICS ART, it’s an invaluable source of insight into the different ways that creators work. The writing book features interviews with a diverse sort, including Dan Jurgens, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miler, Peter David, Kurt Busiek, and more. The interviews explore how the writers got into comics, what their working methods are, and what their advice to aspiring writers would be. Short excerpts from produced scripts are included with each interview.
Nat Gertler compiled two books filled with comic book scripts for his About Comics label. They’re called PANEL ONE and PANEL TWO. Both are in print and available today. The second one is a relatively new release, and includes scripts from CBR’s own Gail Simone, Peter David, Judd Winnick, Otto Bender, Mark Evanier, Scott McCloud, and more. Each script includes a short introduction and, where appropriate, some closing comments from the artists who had to develop those scripts into the final pages. I’d like to see even more commentary in the book, but for now you’ve got the bare bones of what you’re looking for.
I mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: Brian Bendis’ POWERS SCRIPTBOOK is a doorstop of a book, reproducing the original scripts to the first 11 issues of the popular Image series of police in a superhero world. You’ll get to see how someone with a film point of reference constructs a comic script. Just remember that Bendis could take some shortcuts with these scripts. He always knew who his artist would be (Michael Avon Oeming) and what he was capable of. I’m sure the two also talk all the time about the series. Each knows what the other wants. It’s that rare kind of chemistry on a comic that you can’t expect to have right off the bat at Epic. Err on the side of over-description, I’d say.
One last book recommendation that has nothing to do with formatting your script: Robert McKee’s STORY. It’s the Bible out in Hollywood. It’s not a book that will provide you with a single formula to write stories with, but it is invaluable in teaching you some very basic concepts of storytelling, as well as why certain things work and don’t work. You’ll have new ways to analyze your story after reading the book.
There are a bunch of magazines that could prove helpful today. The biggest one would be Danny Fingeroth’s WRITE NOW! Magazine. It has script excerpts in each and every issue to identify storytelling concepts and to sometimes illustrate their interviews. Also, SKETCH Magazine includes a column by comics dialogue masters Tom and Mary Bierbaum. While they’re not so script-heavy, they do provide plenty of good advice every month. Perusing other magazines like COMIC BOOK ARTIST and DRAW might also help you to understand the art of sequential storytelling. You have to have an idea of what the artist faces in order to write a script that can work in the comic book medium.
RESOURCES ON THE WEB
If you don’t want to blow your budget buying a big stack of books, you can also surf the web. Many of today’s major comic book writers have personal web sites that they post script samples up on. Here are some examples:
Chuck Dixon: The “Dixonverse” includes script samples for WAY OF THE RAT #1, BIRDS OF PREY #19 and #21, DETECTIVE COMICS #738, and more. WOTR #1 is in Word format, and you can see how Dixon uses bold fonts to emphasize dialogue, page breaks to begin a new page, and capital letters to denote breaks in segments of the script.
Warren Ellis: Ellis’ samples include unpublished stories, treatments, and full scripts. Here you can find the “Better Living Through Chemistry” story that Brian Bendis illustrated for NEGATIVE BURN.
Devin Grayson: Grayson’s web page includes the script to GOTHAM KNIGHTS #15, as well as handouts used in writing instructional programs for Wizard’s conventions.
Jay Faerber: You can find a Marvel-style plot here for a NEW WARRIORS issue, as well as a full script done for Faerber’s own NOBLE CAUSES series. You can see where he uses all-caps to emphasize dialogue, and indicated word balloon features such as “tailless” right next to the name of the person doing the speaking.
Augie De Blieck Jr.: What? What am I doing on this list? Well, some time ago I wrote a few short comic book scripts and made them available on-line. These are basically fan-fics for Erik Larsen’s beloved FREAK FORCE series. While I cringe at some of them, I take comfort in the fact that I’m a much better writer today than I was six years ago. You may take this opportunity now to belittle me.
Those scripts were written using a template for Microsoft Word that Steve Gerber developed. While the template is available from another page on my personal web site, it hasn’t been updated in years and won’t work on any of today’s versions of Word.
I have no doubt that there are more creators with script samples up on their web sites. If there is a creator that interests you, try running their name plus the word “script” through a Google search to see what you can find. I found a couple of the web sites mentioned above that way. I knew those creators had such sites, but I didn’t know the URLs. Google is handy for that.
Marc Fluery’s Writing For Comics features essays on all angles of comic book writing. Topics include script rhythms, formats, and readability. It hasn’t been updated in years, but it does make for interesting reading.
JMS on writing features a thorough archiving of J. Michael Straczynski’s on-line postings from the Babylon 5 era on the topic of writing. You won’t find anything about writing Spider-Man in there, but you will find a lot of inspirational messages and helpful advice on the art of writing in general, so I include it here.
Here are some hard and fast rules for writing your script for Marvel Epic:
Type it up on a computer and print it out on a decent printer. OK, the printer isn’t all that important. It’s not like dot matrix printers are all that popular anymore. Just be sure the ink cartridge is fresh enough to print out your twenty-two-plus pages of script in a legible manner.
Double check your spelling and grammar. Go through it with a fine tooth comb. As in any writing, you want to look professional. Including typos and horrible manglings of the English language will not help. The editor will not look favorably upon your script if you’re misspelling words all over the place. Yes, Bendis’ scripts are notorious for horrible spelling, but he had already proved himself before Marvel ever asked him for a script. You haven’t. If you don’t like it, then self publish.
Follow the directions on the Epic web site to the letter. Include the legal papers that are required of you. If you don’t, they’ll shred your submission and you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.
Staple your manuscript together. You don’t need anything fancier than that. This isn’t Hollywood, so put your brads away. Put a one-line header atop each and every page of the manuscript with your name on it. This way, if the staple does fall out and the pages fly all over the place, the submissions editor will know which script your pages are from. It might not hurt to put page numbers for the script at the bottom of each page, to keep from confusing the reader as to whether the number refers to the script page or the story page.
Mail it in a manilla envelope, or one of those Tyvek envelopes. Don’t fold it into three pieces and cram it into a letter-sized envelope. I don’t know if it would even fit. If it does, then your script is probably too short.
Most important, be sure to include your contact information with the script. The script won’t stay with the envelope it came in for long, and you don’t want an editor to be wowed by your script, but have no idea who you are or how to get in contact with you.
After all of that, I have nothing left to say besides, “Good luck!”
COMPLETELY OFF THE TOPIC
It’s a matter of timing, so I have to include it here.
Rich Henn is working on a comic book documentary movie. He has filmed far too much material to squeeze all the good stuff into one movie. To fix that problem, he’s beginning to release some of the raw footage to DVD. The first one, SCENES FROM THE SMALL PRESS: MAINSTREAM RAW, will arrive in comic shops shortly.
However, you can pick up a copy if you visit Henn’s table at the Pittsburgh Comicon this coming weekend. He has raw footage of interviews on the disc with Frank Miller, Joe Quesada, Colleen Doran, Matt Wagner, and Dave Gibbons. Plus, the preview trailer he showed at last year’s convention is at the beginning, and Miller’s infamous Harvey Awards WIZARD-ripping keynote address is included at the end. It’s worth the price of the disc just for that.
The video and audio quality isn’t quite anamorphic 16×9 beautiful here. It’s passable, and often annoying. When Quesada is interviewed on the roof of the Marvel Comics headquarters, the wind competes with his voice at times. Even the Miller keynote address looks like it was captured from two home video cameras. Still, it’s all very interesting stuff that’s worth a watch if you’re the patient type.
If you’re not in Pittsburgh or your retailer isn’t getting any stock in, you can go to Henn’s web site at TimeSpell.com to order it.
Next week: Back to reviews.
Various and Sundry has been updated all week with the mandatory look at the week’s DVD releases, thoughts on the milestones of life, Why A TiVo?, a review of Trigger Happy TV, thoughts on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, news of Rowan Atkinson’s new movie, the new Kelly Clarkson album, and a complete rundown of the week’s Billy Joel-themed American Idol. There’s more than just that. It was a very busy week. Scroll through the page to see it all.
Nearly 500 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They’re sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page.
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