TUTORIAL: Shanley on Writing for Comics

Shanley on Writing

Shanley on Writing

As a writer, I’m usually working on scripts for visual media such as films or comics. I’ve never been paid to write a comic and probably never will. Despite this, I still put a lot of thought into what I’m doing when I’m writing scripts for comics. When I’m working on a project I think of the medium and how best to use it to tell my story, portray my characters or convey an atmosphere. I make sure I have a grounding in the rules of that medium and it is only then that I feel I have the confidence to get started. Of course, rules are made to be broken but you can’t really break the rules unless you know what they are. Here are some very basic rules of comic script writing for you to abide by, subvert, or ignore.

I format my comic scripts like film scripts. Under a heading saying what page we are dealing with (remember, it may take more or less than one page of script to describe one page of comic) I describe the panels as I would film scenes but with the word ‘panel’ written where ‘scene’ would be. I put character names in capital letters so it is easy for the artist to glance at the scripts as they are working and know who is in each panel. I think it’s important to make things easy for the artist. I inset slightly for dialogue. The pros do it a bit differently. Here’s a link to some examples of comic scripts:
“Show Don’t Tell” might seem a hackneyed maxim but that’s because it’s true. A script for a play, film or comic is not a finished work. It is an instruction book for a predominantly visual medium. Write as if you are describing a picture (“There is a clown in the foreground. Behind him there is a big-top tent and next to that there is an elephant. The elephant is dead”). A script is not a novel. You can’t write instructions for the artist like “Jim is sad because his dog died”, you have to write instructions like “Jim wipes away a tear as he stands over a small grave. A wooden cross reads ‘Rover’”. This is visual exposition. Have confidence in the medium and the artist to tell your tale.
Comic Script Page 1

Comic Script Page 1

Try not to have characters say what they are feeling (Batman to Alfred: “I’m really fed up about Joker kidnapping Robin again”). Try to show what the character is going through in an engaging and evocative way. Let the reader decipher the content and don’t bore them with reams of text. A good exercise is to write a wordless comic and discover how much you can reveal visually. Another exercise is to look at a picture and write down what you see. Then give what you have written to a friend who has never seen the picture and ask them to draw what you have written. You will notice if you left out important details in your description, like neglecting to say what is in the foreground or background for example.Also, don’t go writing in the narrative panels what can be seen in the pictures. For example, imagine a comic where Green Lantern and Snoopy are going into a swingers club, there is no need to provide a narrative caption that says: “Green Lantern and Snoopy go to a swingers club”. You should just leave the art do the storytelling for you. However, you might decide to have fun with the narration, writing something that adds humour or an extra lair to the visuals without repeating exactly what is in them. As in, “Snoopy and Green Lantern decide to let off some steam.”
Always describe what you see in the panel – the setting and the characters. If a new character appears, describe this character for the artist – age, sex, height, distinctive accoutrements, etc. The amount of detail you go into is up to you. I like to just put in the important stuff and give the artist as much freedom as possible.
Instead of writing everything into the script, you might decide to provide the artist with a story-bible that contains descriptions of the most important characters and settings. This leaves the artist cross-referencing documents though and there is only so much room on a desk or so much minimising and maximising you can do on a screen before it gets tiresome.

For the most part, keep the amount of panels between four and (at most) nine (Ditko and Satrapi are good examples of artists who get away with densely panelled pages but this doesn’t suit everyone). Don’t cram the page.
Consider pacing. What tempo are you trying to achieve? A splash panel is good to emphasise significance and/or immensity (be it physical or psychological) – everyone is used to splash panels and they seem to be all the rage but there are more subtle ways you can manipulate the reader. A uniform lay-out (three rows of three panels on a page – Ditko style) can mesmerise the reader, then you pull your splash panel or do something that knocks the reader out of their spell. This could be used to build tension and then have it explode. It’s as if you are reciting a scary story, you whisper some parts and then roar the scary ending. If you roared the whole story the importance of the separate events would lack context and you would just end up being obnoxious. It would be the same if your comic was just a heap of splash-panels or dynamically canted angles for the sake of it. Don’t show off. Serve the story.
Finally and very important: Is your panel a close-up, medium-shot or wide-shot, etc.?
Eisner - Spirit

Eisner - Spirit

Keep the word count low and keep your characters on the move. Don’t have the X-Men sitting around discussing Magneto over coffee (“Storm fidgets with her Blackberry by the counter-top”). Keep them on the move. Have them make their plans as they do something else (like seek cover from a squad of Sentinels or something). Condense and combine events.
Many comics, particularly the alternative variety, are made up people discussing their lives as they sit around. This risks being off-putting, unless you’re doing a Harvey Pekar and the normalcy and/or mundanity of life is something you wish to convey.
OK, that’s enough from me about this for today. I hope I have been clear. Judging from what I see of Irish comics, most creators instinctively know these rules anyway. You don’t need to be able to recite the rules of grammar to speak a language, likewise with the rules of comics. The rules aren’t even rules, they are really common conventions. However, some discussion and examination of comic strip conventions might be interesting and lead to new ideas and approaches. Hopefully that can happen on this site.