We all know what a comic book looks like when it’s finished, with its beautiful art, carefully structured panels and logical text placement all working in subtle harmony to provide a great reading experience. But what does a comic book script look like before it’s turned into a finished comic?
Star Wars and The Rise of Itza author George Mann joins us to explain all…
George, before we get into the nuts and bolts of script writing for comics, can you tell us a little of where your love of comic books and graphic novels comes from? What was the first one you ever read…?
GM: Oh, man! I’ve been reading comics for about as long as I can remember.
I guess it started with the old UK comics like The Beano and The Dandy, which were like little anthology comics, featuring a number of different strips with recurring characters each week. Mostly designed to give kids a laugh.
From there I progressed to the UK reprints of Marvel comics, such as Spider-Man and the original Star Wars comics. And then I was in, and later started getting the imported American comics, including a mix of stuff from Marvel and DC. So it’s been a long-term love affair for me.
You’ve written a good few comic book scripts in your time. What was the first one you wrote and what was the most difficult aspect of it from a writing perspective?
GM: The first one I wrote professionally was actually the first issue of Newbury & Hobbes: The Undying, based on my novel series. It didn’t come out for several years, and during that time I cut my teeth writing a lot of Doctor Who comics, and in doing so realised all the mistakes I’d made in that first script!
I think the most difficult aspect of transitioning from writing prose to comic book writing was understanding the nature of the collaboration.
Writing a novel is a very personal experience. Writing comic scripts is a proper collaboration. You’re not actually writing the script for the reader, but for the artist to interpret and evolve.
There’s lots of other stuff too – learning to be much more economical in your storytelling, and adapting to how to write action.
In a comic, you rarely show the punch being thrown, for example, but instead show the fist going back, and then the person reeling from the blow. You’re writing a series of stills that help to tell a story.
Dragonbond Legends: The Rise of Itza is your latest comic book creation. Compared to that first one, how did writing the script pages for this story feel? What was the hardest part?
GM: It was a great experience, getting to delve into this wonderful, rich fantasy world that Draco has created. It was also a privilege getting to add something new to that world and explore it in new ways.
The hardest part was getting my head around the depth of the lore. This is a setting that’s already had years of development, so there’s so much to soak in.
I really wanted to do that setting justice, and honor the work of the people who’d already put so much time and effort into building the world of Valerna.
You’ve also written a lot of novels. What is the format of a comic script and how does planning one differ from writing a novel?
GM: As I mentioned above, it’s a lot to do with economy. You’re working in a very confined space, so it’s always a balancing act to make sure the story doesn’t become too dense. One issue is only 20-30 pages at the most, so you have to try to think about the purpose of every page.
In terms of formatting, it looks very much like a screenplay format, but with more description to help guide the artist.
I tend to use scriptwriting software such as Final Draft when I’m working on a comic script, as opposed to the usual desktop writing software.
So, what does a comic book script look like? Can you show us some examples and explain a bit about them?
Here’s an example of the sort of collaboration that happens between a writer and an artist, as the script gets adapted by the artist into the visuals that the reader will eventually see.
If you look at the script above and then the image below, you can see that Mariano has combined several panels to reduce the overall number of panels on the page.
What this does is give him more space to work, adds more clarity to the page for the reader, while still maintaining the essence of the script and the events/dialogue it describes. This happens a lot, especially when you’ve developed a good trust between you as a creative team.
The artist is the main visual director here, after all, and if they can see a way to combine panels for a better reading experience, I’m always happy to see it happen!
The other thing you’ll see here is that I’ve added a fair amount of description to the panels. This is to help guide Mariano in this new setting we’re introducing.
Later, when/if we revisit the location, the panel descriptions will be much shorter. Here, I’m trying to help set a scene and mood. You can also see how I’m trying to communicate the story visually, like how the scene of a movie unfolds: starting with the low down shot of the boots, moving along a tight corridor shot, and then opening up into a much wider shot where the full impact of the setting and characters can be felt. Mariano’s edits to combine the opening panels still allow this to play out to full effect.
I like throwing in opportunities for the artist to create, too, wherever possible, and Mariano’s done a fantastic job bringing Adrael’s throne to life, adding in the dragon, Nagasha and really helping to capture the dark, brooding, vampiric nature of the scene.
How closely did you have to work with artist Mariano, colourist Carlos, and letterer Andrew when writing the script? At what point do conversations with the other creators start?
GM: I’ve had the pleasure of working with the whole creative team several times before, so we all knew what we were getting into!
With Mariano, I know I can trust him to do something remarkable, and so I always try to find ways to push him, and leave space for him to create some magnificent double-page spreads to really let his artwork sing.
The process was pretty much that I would write a script, send it in, and then Mariano would give me a call to talk it through, discuss any ideas he had for the art or any changes that he thought could improve the flow of the story.
That’s one of my big comic writing tips – if the artist has feedback, it’s best to listen!
They’re the ones who are going to be living and breathing that story for at least a month, and if they can see something clearly, I always want to try to find a way to do it.
So me and Mariano would talk stuff over, and then he’d get to work. He’d submit thumbnail layouts/sketches of each page, and me and the team at Draco would comment, and then he’d go ahead with the pencils.
Mariano was the one who worked most closely with Carlos and Andrew in this case, flowing the pages through to them as he got done. But I’m super happy we were able to bring this team together again for this project.
Finally, how do you write a comic book script – what’s your writing process? For those of us just starting out, what are the basic steps in writing a script?
1 – Planning
GM: I’ll start by working out the overall beats of the story, across the full extent of the series. So if it’s four issues, I plan the whole story at this stage, without worrying about what goes in which issue.
2 – Outlining
GM: Once I have the full story, I then break it down into an issue-by-issue plan, figuring out what parts of the story go in which issue for maximum impact. This is where you also start to think about cliffhangers, too.
3 – Issue Plan
GM: Of course, I’m sure every writer does this differently, but my next step is to take that issue-by-issue outline, and do the same thing but page-by-page.
So I sit with a notebook and sometimes even rough out layouts (which are so super rough that they then get destroyed so no one can ever see them).
By the end of this process, I know what has to happen on every page of the issue. It also allows me to plan pacing, and allocate those art opportunities for the artist to really spread their wings.
4 – Scripting
GM: From the issue plan, I can usually get stuck straight into the script. Sometimes I start with the dialogue and flow conversations through the page, then go back and fill in the panel descriptions.
Other times I start with the panel descriptions, especially if I’m asking the artist to try something different or unusual, or I have a really clear image in my head that I want to communicate.
I’ll often make tweaks to my issue plan as I write, too, combining some panels or adding extras where needed for flow.
5 – Editing
GM: Once I have a full script, the real work starts.
I go through it line by line, polishing the dialogue in particular, and making sure the whole story flows. Then it’s off to the editor for feedback, before heading over to the artist to start drawing!
So, now we know…
Thanks to George for that terrific interview and for the insight into what it takes to craft a finished script. I hope you learned a lot and feel inspired to try making your own comic.
For all things George Mann, head over to his website – looking at everything he’s done, I genuinely don’t know how he manages to create so much great work!
And if you enjoyed this article on comic script writing and are keen to hear more about how comics are created, then check out our interview with artist Mariano Laclaustra, where amongst other things, he tells us his favorite piece of art from The Rise of Itza issue 1 and shares his best tips for any aspiring comic book artists out there…