A plethora of resources both online and offline will teach you exactly how to write a screenplay but good luck trying to learn how to write a comic book script.
Though comic writers who work for the big publishers typically format their comic book scripts similarly to screenplays, there is still no official industry standard.
And if you write your own independent comics—either webcomics or print—you have even more freedom with your script’s format. After all, you are the only one who ever has to use it.
Working with separate members of a team requires a tighter, more standardized approach if the writer’s intent is to be fully realized by the artists.
We’ll begin with a pseudo-standard approach to comic book script writing. Then we’ll share our own crazy approaches to give you an idea of how flexible this process can be.
And to show you what this looks like, we (Lora and Chris) provided samples of our comic scripts via the links below.
Our regular readers won’t be surprised to hear us say that there is no point in starting a comic script unless you have addressed these 5 things.
Outlining Your Comic Script:
Do not start writing a script for your comic without a rock-solid outline.
A rock-solid outline includes a clear plan for the beginning, middle and end of your story.
To learn more about this, listen to Lora and I talk about The Ocean and Story Structure.
The most important parts of your outline are the arcs for your main and secondary characters. Those should be clearly mapped out. We recommend creating an emotion-graph for each character:
Be sure to include the timing of vital set-ups and pay-offs for both plot and character.
Regardless of whether you’re writing an individual issue of an ongoing, serialized comic like Spider-Man, a stand-alone graphic novel, or a five-volume series, we recommend that you use a traditional three-act structure.
There are a bajillion books about three-act story structure but we recommend Save The Cat by Blake Snyder as a great, practical way to get started.
Three-act structure is versatile because it is flexible enough to scale to fit the length of whatever story you are writing.
You can apply three-act structure to an animated short, a trilogy of novels or an entire season of television. Even scenes within stories have three acts.
At least the good ones do.
You will deviate from the outline during the writing process.
Every long road-trip needs a map so the driver doesn’t get lost along the way. And the crafting of any script, any well told story is a long, long road-trip.
Sure, you might find some interesting stops and detours while you’re out there. You might even change your mind about your ultimate destination.
But if you are just wandering aimlessly without a plan, your passengers (readers) will eventually get tired, smelly, hungry and grumpy. They’ll think twice before going on a road trip with you again.
Without a map there is no answer to, “Are we there yet?”
Good stories tell you when you have arrived at the destination. Don’t leave your passengers guessing about whether you’re getting close.
Stories with a point are like the signs along a highway counting down the miles until you’ve reached your destination. They give you a sense of scale and a growing anticipation that the end is nearing.
Suddenly all of those gross gas station bathrooms were worth it.
When You’re Ready To Write The Script:
You have to decide which format you’re going to use.
Are you going to format your comic script in the pseudo-standard “big publisher” format we mentioned at the beginning of this article?
…or are you going to try something different?
Whatever you do, write more than one draft. Write as many drafts as you can before the writing deadline.
Download Our Comic Script Samples:
I (Lora) use a pseudo-standard “big publisher” format with page and panel breakdowns and descriptions when I write The Dreamer.
Again, there is no absolute, standard script format like there is with screenplays. But if you want to see what my script for The Dreamer looks like: Download The Dreamer Script Sample Here.
I (Chris) format my scripts more like a traditional screenplay. If you want to see what my script for Greg The Megabeaver’s Prehistoric Sideshow looks like: Download The Prehistoric Sideshow Script Sample.
In both downloads, we included the actual comic pages which correspond to the script pages so you can look at them side-by-side.
Story First, Layout Second:
Because I (Chris) come from a film background, I’m more comfortable writing in screenplay format with the Final Draft screenplay software I’ve grown accustomed to over the years.
I (Lora) work similarly—one long script independent of pages or panels at first—using Scrivener instead of Final Draft.
Like a movie-style pipeline, we recommend you focus entirely on the script until it’s done. One thing that Hollywood has proven thousands of times over is that the final work almost always suffers if you begin “filming” the story before you have a solid, finished script.
There’s a rhythm and a pace to the standard screenplay format that gets interrupted if you start by thinking about your scripts in terms of panels and pages too soon.
The story should form your script and the script should form your pages and panels.
While writing the final draft of your script, begin planning your page and panel breakdowns before moving into the drawing phase.
If you are both writer and artist on your story, no matter how polished your final draft is, you will inevitably make a pass of “visual rewrites” while actually drawing the comic pages.
You always discover better ways to tell the story once pencil hits the blank page.
Edit heavily as you go.
If you compare my Greg The Megabeaver’s Prehistoric Sideshow comic script to my comic pages, you’ll notice things that I changed in the drawing phase.
I liken this process to that of editing a film that I’ve already shot: I’ll change dialogue, pacing or even cut entire scenes while drawing. The scenes that were cut are then removed from the working version of the script for continuity purposes.
If you’re curious, in my script, the screenplay pages equal between two and four comic pages.
Or plan well, then execute quickly.
Lora approaches the first few drafts of her script in a similar way, but once she is happy with it, she breaks her scripts down into pages and individual panel descriptions.
Here’s what she had to say about the process she uses to write her comic scripts:
After have what feels like roughly 25 pages worth of content, with a beginning, middle and end, I go back in to find “cliffhanger moments” within the script that I wrote. I use these to determine my page breaks so that whole issue is a “page turner.”
I examine the pieces of dialogue and begin to group them into panels so that each panel is mini-story, each page is a small story, and each issue is a complete story.
What you see here is my final draft, and believe me, a lot of edits go into every script. I just make my edits in my Scrivener document, not on paper, so there’s no real way to show you.
There is a reason that I letter my own comic. It’s my last pass at the script. Even in this sample you’ll see that the final page has an extra “joke” in there that wasn’t in the original.
How About You?
Okay, so we’ve talked about the importance of outlining, three-act structure and the various format choices for writing your comic script.
But now it’s your turn to share!
How have you approached the writing of your own comic scripts and do you think you’ll stick with that or try something new?
Share in the comments below.
Everyone reading this will benefit from your insight. So don’t be shy.