On Writing For Comics

25 years ago (ulp) I edited a project for Marvel called OPEN SPACE, a shared-universe science-fiction anthology written by established SF prose writers and drawn by comics artists. It didn’t last very long, but it was very enjoyable (and stressful) to do, and brought me in touch with talented people I’m still working with today, including Alex Ross and Richard Starkings.

Because I was working with writers who, for the most part, had never written comics before, I had to teach them. I didn’t have to teach them how to write a story, since they already had plenty of experience at that—I had to give them the basics of the comics format, so they knew what to think about in telling a story visually and writing a comics script.

So I wrote a memo about it, and sent it around. For years, that memo was on the ‘net, at a site that’s long been closed down, and I just now finally got around to putting the text up here rather than saying, “Hey, I should really do that someday.”

So here it is, for whatever interest it is to others. It’s pretty basic stuff, but I can remember a time when pretty basic stuff would have been very welcome to me, so it might be helpful to others. Plus, one of the writers who worked on OPEN SPACE, Garfield Reeves-Stevens, went on to write animation, and invited me at one point to write for a show he was story editing. I told him I didn’t know how to write for animation, and he told me, “Are you kidding? You’re the guy who taught me to write animation; it’s pretty much the same stuff you told us for OPEN SPACE.” So I must have done something right.

A couple of notes:

This was written in 1988, and comics have changed a lot since then. In the memo I make assumptions about static panels, hand-lettering and other things that would make people laugh today. But hey, take it for what it’s worth.

At the time this was written, the series was called AD ASTRA. By the time it came out it was called OPEN SPACE. To this day, Bob Wayne probably thinks we changed the name because he constantly referred to it as ED ASNER when we’d meet on the commuter train, but it was actually a trademark issue. Sorry, Bob.

At the end of the memo, it mentions a couple of attachments. These are, of course, not attached. But it wouldn’t hurt, if you’re interested, to get a copy of DAREDEVIL: BORN AGAIN to see how Frank Miller used the various techniques, and, since you don’t have the sample script I gave the OPEN SPACE writers, to get a copy of PANEL ONE, edited by Nat Gertler, which shows a variety of script by a variety of writers.

In the opening remarks, it says you can call me with any questions. If you really need to, please call me at the Marvel offices in the late 1980s. I’m sure I’ll be very helpful.

Memo begins after the break.

From: Kurt Busiek
To: AD ASTRA Writers
10/25/88

== OPENING REMARKS==

This memo is designed to give you the basics of how to use the comic book format. Some of this may seem extremely obvious, but I’d rather say something you already know than forget to say something important. On the other hand, some of this may seem obscure and confusing, and you may wonder how you’re expected to remember all of this stuff while writing a script The fact is, you’re not expected to remember it all; don’t worry about it. This will just get it all down in one place, so you have a handy (and hopefully concise) reference to check when you need it.

You’re also not expected to read this, sit down and write a finished script. If you have any questions, give me a call. If you’re not sure how best to handle a particular scene, how to make a plot more visually oriented or how to handle anything you have questions on, just give me a call and we’ll figure it out.

==PLOTTING==

=== Visual Nature ===

The single most important factor in plotting comics is the fact that the comics medium is a visual one. The stories are told through pictures. Each story is made up of a certain number of pages, each page is made up of a certain number of panels and each panel holds one illustration. The captions, dialogue and so forth augment the picture in each panel, but it’s the pictures that are the primary storytelling element. Therefore, the stories have to be visually interesting, and since you, as writer, are going to be telling the artists what to draw, you have to plot your stories with that in mind. Some pointers:

• long conversations don’t generally have much to them that’s visually interesting. For that reason, it’s usually best to make sure that whatever characters you’re using in whatever scene you’re plotting out are doing something more than just talking. And whatever they’re doing should be something that carries the story along, allows the characters to express their particular personalities, or something that uses the pictures to help tell the story.
• similarly, internal monologues are generally even less visually interesting. If you take what would ordinarily be an internal monologue and rework it so that action that complements it accompanies it (for instance, if in a short story you’d write an internal monologue in which the lead complains about how his wife left him at a time when he really didn’t need the extra pressure, you could do that in comics by having the guy thinking about this stuff while he tries to get the kids ready for school, find his briefcase and assure his boss over the phone that he’ll be in on time for a change all at the same time), you can get the same stuff done in a visually-oriented manner.
• if you do have to have a visually static scene, and you can keep it down to two or three panels, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
• if the scene absolutely has to go for longer than that, there are ways to work around it. For instance, a long and essentially static scene of a cop waiting in his car for the guy he’s been tailing to come out of an apartment building might be intercut with other, more active scenes, so no one page is solidly made up of essentially the same picture of the cop in the car over and over again. Or if two people are talking about events that took place earlier or people that aren’t there at the moment, you could flash back to those events or cut to those people and continue the conversation in overvoice, so that artist will be able to draw something other than two people at a table chatting.

=== Breaking Down a Plot Into Pages and Panels ===

Asking how much story goes into one single comics page is a lot like asking how long a chapter should be. The correct answer is “However much works,” and it’s no help at all.

There two major factors determining what you can fit into a page. The first is that there’s only so much room on the page. No matter how much story information you cram into each panel, there are physical limits to how much you can get on a single page. The second is the more aesthetically- determined matter of how to pace the story.

As a general rule of thumb, you can figure that the average comic book page has six panels on it. For whatever reason, it’s generally accepted that your basic average unexceptional panel takes up about a sixth of the page. Naturally, you can fit more panels on a page if they can be smaller than average, and fewer if they have to be larger than average. Some examples:

• a tight shot of something simple can usually be smaller than normal: A shot of someone’s head with no important background, a hand opening a door, etc.
• a complicated panel or a panel that needs to carry a lot of information usually has to be larger than normal: An establishing shot of a location, a panel with three or more characters that have to be shown clearly, a shot of two armies engaged in combat, etc. Those are the purely physical factors. What you can fit on a page is also affected by questions of pacing, and what kind of effect you want to have on the reader. For example, the bigger a panel is, the more important it seems.
• If the “hand opening the door” panel mentioned above, for example, is a dramatic and important moment in the story, making the panel bigger will increase its emotional effect on the audience. Similarly, a simple head-shot of a character talking doesn’t need to be all that big, but if the character in question is shouting out some vital and telling piece of information that shifts the plot movement of the story in an entirely different direction, well, maybe it should be bigger. A full-page panel carries about as much impact as is possible, but even a 1/3 to 1/2-page panel will have a lot more impact than other, smaller panels on the page.

Along those lines, the size of the panel carries indications to the reader of how much time is passing in the story. Generally speaking, the smaller a panel is, the “faster” it happens, much the way a short, blunt paragraph “moves” faster than a long paragraph full of description and detail.

Some writers like to construct each page so that it works as a unit, so that the structure of the individual page is as important as that page’s contribution to the structure of the story as a whole. This isn’t necessary, but it does carry some benefits, most notably that it gives the artist, who of necessity has to construct each page as a separate structure, some organizational hook to build the page around visually. It also allows the writer to concentrate on smaller pieces of structure at any one time, just as structuring a novel a chapter at a time allows a writer to keep from being overwhelmed by the major structure of the novel as a whole while he’s working on line-by-line details. However, there’s no need to feel you have to think about the structure of each individual page if that’s going to make writing the script more difficult.

All the above said, there are two basic ways to break a plot down into pages and panels so it can be scripted:

• you can break down the story so that you have a full page-by-page, panel-by-panel outline before you start scripting. The advantage of this is that you know everything’s going to fit from the moment you start the actual scripting. The disadvantage is that you get locked in, and if along the way you discover a way to handle a scene better that takes up more (or less) space, you’re going to have to rework the balance of the script to fit it in.
• you can go ahead and start scripting without an outline, breaking down pages and panels as you go and keeping a general eye on how much space you’re using (for instance, if you reach page 6 in a 12 page script, you’d better be about halfway done. If not, you’ll have to speed things up or slow them down in order to finish the story on page 12). The advantage of this is that you’ve got the looseness to take advantage of any structure ideas you have while writing. The disadvantage is that you may run out of space before you run out of story, and have to go back and rewrite to fix it.

Naturally, there are any number of working methods that fall between these two poles–some writers do a rough page breakdown and figure out the panel structure as they write, for instance. It’s the same old question of outlining vs. not outlining, with the one added element that you have an exact page length you have to meet, not a rough wordcount.

=== A Couple of Items Of Note===

Splash Pages: One page in each comics story, usually but not always the first page, is the splash page. It’s a full-page panel that holds the title of the story and the credits (which usually credit the writer, the artists, the letterer, the colorist and the editor). Since the splash page is the artist’s opportunity to hook the reader into the story with a dynamic and compelling illustration that will make the reader want to read that story, there are two things to keep in mind about splash pages:

• the splash page should be designed to have a lot of impact. It’s a whole page, after all, and you don’t really want to waste it on something that could be just as effectively done in half that space or less. If you can come up with an image that will really start your story off with a bang, that’s the one to use as the splash page.
• the splash page is traditionally the first page of the story. The reason for this is that it gets that impact right up front, where it’s the first thing the reader will see. For that reason, most comic book stories start off in high gear on page one—and thus the plot has to be structured so that it can start off with a moment of high impact. In recent years, a lot of writers and artists have chosen to delay the splash page in order to start off with a scene that can build up to the splash page, giving it more impact than it’d otherwise have. If you choose to do that, you must make sure to make that initial scene an effective buildup to the splash page and that that buildup starts with the very first panel of the story—starting off with an unrelated scene and getting around to the splash page when you get the chance will result in a weak and disorganized opening.

Setting A Scene Visually: In any scene in a comics script, you have to give the artist a chance to show the reader where it’s happening. If your script calls for a scene that runs six panels, all of them close-ups on someone’s face, the reader will never be able to tell where the scene is set; unless you specifically want to keep them in the dark, that’s a bad idea. The most straightforward way to establish the setting is to make the first panel of a scene a medium or long shot that shows the reader the setting as well as the players. That’s not to say you have to do things straightforwardly, however. For instance, let’s say you have a scene that begins with a corporate exec firing an employee. You could begin the scene with a shot of the exec’s office and the exec telling the employee he’s fired, then follow it up with a close-up of the employee’s stunned reaction. You could start with a close-up of the exec delivering the bad news, then follow it up with a medium shot that establishes the office as the employee reacts. You could even start with a long shot of the building, then cut inside, to the office, before getting into close-ups on the characters. Each of those choices emphasizes different characters and different images and each could be the “best” choice depending on how you want the story to read. It’s the same kind of thing as, in prose writing, deciding whether to lead off a scene with description, or to lead off with dialogue and get the description in later, but it’s done with the art rather than text.

== THE SCRIPT ==

===The Format===

A comic book script is very straightforward; it looks a lot like a screenplay or stage play. The story is broken down into pages and panels. Each panel is described, so the artist knows what he’s supposed to draw. Immediately after the panel description, the text that goes into that panel is listed, whether it’s a caption, dialogue, a sound effect or whatever.

Like so:
PAGE [Page Number]
1. [Panel Description]
Caption: [Narration]
Character: [Dialogue]
FX: [Sound Effect]
2. [Panel Description]
Character: [Dialogue]
Other Character: [Dialogue]
And so forth. Each part of this format will be discussed and described below, and examples of finished script pages are attached for your reference.

=== Panel Descriptions===

The panel description tells the artist what to draw. The first thing to remember is that each comic book panel is a single, static image. If you make it too complicated, the artist can’t draw it (for example. calling for a shot of two guys arguing in a crowd on the sidewalk as seen from the tenth floor of the Chrysler building, the two guys will be too small to be drawn in enough detail to know they’re arguing). Similarly, any panel description that calls for a two-part action runs into trouble. It’s easy enough to write “He picked up the football and threw it,” but in a comic book panel the character can be either picking up the football or throwing it. The artist will only be able to draw half that sentence in one panel.

The next most important thing about panel descriptions is that they should be complete. This doesn’t mean that they should be crammed with exhaustive detail—the simpler the description is, the more latitude that artist has in drawing the page and the better results you’ll get. However, you do need to include everything the artist needs to know to draw that particular scene. For instance, if you call for two men to enter a lush office, it’s probably enough to call it “a lush office,” and add one or two details to give the artist an idea of what you think of when you say “lush” (leather conference chairs? mahogany desk the size of an aircraft carrier?). However, if in two panels one of those men is going to pick up a heavy pewter paperweight and beat the other man’s skull in, you’d better let the artist know that such a paperweight is indeed sitting on the desk when the two men walk in.

In addition, if you have some particular special effect or impact you want the panel to provide (if you want a particular sequence to go by very swiftly, or if you want a sense of looming menace—or good cheer, or bland lifelessness, or whatever), feel free to include that in your panel description to let the artist know what effect you’re striving for. He may well be able to draw the panel in such a way that it’ll bring the effect through. On the other hand, he may not, so don’t depend on it. But it never hurts to ask.

C. Captions

Just for the record, captions are those rectangular boxes with words in ’em. They’re used for narration.

And they’re used pretty much the same as narration in prose fiction. Captions can be written in third person omniscient past tense, or first person subjective present tense, or whatever approach you like. You can switch from viewpoint to viewpoint if you like—in fact, it can be easier to make viewpoint-changes clear in comics than in prose, since you can have captions written from Character A’s viewpoint lettered normally, and captions from Character B’s viewpoint lettered in a markedly different style, so it’s immediately obvious that a different “voice” is at work here.

A few pointers about captions:

• visual descriptions are usually redundant. That’s what the pictures are for. If the script calls for a foggy day, you can trust the artist to draw fog and don’t need to have a caption stating that it’s foggy.
• captions are great for establishing non-visual information, however. If it’s not only foggy but smells bad too, a caption is the appropriate place to establish the smell (that is, provided one of your characters isn’t saying, “What’s that horrible stench?” or some such line).
• captions aren’t bad at setting a mood, either. If you mention that “the fog had swept down from the mountain like a shroud being draped over a corpse’s face,” you might be guilty of writing purple prose, but you’ve certainly told the reader something he can’t get from the artwork.
• captions, like anything else in a comic book, take up space. The longer the caption is, the more artwork it covers up. That doesn’t mean that shorter is always better—a 15 word caption that accomplishes something is better than a 3-word caption that accomplishes nothing—but space is always at a premium. The longer the captions, the less room you have for other things.

Captions are indicated like so:

CAP: I felt like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir were all doing the rhumba inside my skull.

D. Word Balloons

Word balloons carry the dialogue. Anything you’d put between quotation marks in prose goes in a word balloon, and the “he saids” and “she saids” are handled by those little pointers that point to the character doing the talking. That’s about all there is to word balloons, aside from a couple of pointers:

• word balloons take up space too. As a result, you want to make whatever point you want to make with the dialogue, but do it quickly and crisply. As with captions, this doesn’t mean that shorter is better, but a short word balloon that gives the same effect as a long one gives you more space for other things.
• if you do have an overly long word balloon that can’t be cut, or if you want to provide a break or a pause in the dialogue, you can break up the text into two or more balloons. For instance:

Bob: Buster —
Bob: –you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

has a different rhythm from:

Bob: Buster, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

E. Thought Balloons

Thought balloons function just like word balloons, except they indicate thought rather than speech (I did say that some of this would be extremely obvious, didn’t I?). They’re those bubbly ones.

Some writers prefer not to use thought balloons at all, using subjective narrative captions to do the same thing. The only difference I can find is that the thought balloons read more “comic-booky” and the captions more “literary.” It’s entirely up to the individual writer which method he uses.

A thought balloon is indicated in the script like so:

Bob (th): This hamburger tastes funny.

F. Sound Effects

You know what sound effects are. POW!, WHAP!, BAM! and like that. The only important things to remember about sound effects are:

• use them judiciously. Using KLIK KLAK KLIK KLAK to indicate the sound of a woman walking in high heels can be used well—if the woman in question is walking down a deserted side street after dark, it underscores that she’s alone, or if she’s a secretary in an over-efficient and restrictive office environment, it emphasizes the silence of the place. But if she’s just walking somewhere, it’s a pointless distraction. Sound effects provide the noises that the reader is expected to focus on (sirens, explosions, whatever); unimportant backgrounds noises are best left out.
• keep them simple. BLAM! is perfectly acceptable. BA-WHOCKA-WHOCKA-KABOOM! is ludicrous.

Sound effects are indicated in a script like so:

FX: POP!

Some writers use SE or SFX or some other abbreviation to indicate sound effects. It doesn’t matter which you use, as long as you’re consistent.

G. Silent Panels

Panels with no copy in them whatsoever, no captions, no word balloons of any sort, no sound effects, have a peculiar power to them. Panels with words in them convey a clear sense of subjective time passage to the reader—the events of the panel take as long as it takes to read the copy. But a panel with no copy whatsoever is static, and often seems frozen in time. A large silent panel usually has much more impact than it would if it had copy in it. A series of small silent panels detailing a series of actions focuses the reader on those actions, and as a result they seem more deliberate and time-consuming. For example, four silent panels of someone staring out a window will seem to take forever. Those same four panels, with conversation in them, will move much faster. (Of course, a single panel of somebody staring out a window with a caption stating “He stayed there, staring, for three hours,” will do the trick as well, though it won’t build the tension that the four silent panels would.)

A silent panel is indicated in a script like so:

NO COPY

H. Special Lettering Effects

The standard comic book lettering “typeface” is block capitals. Captions are lettered in italic block capitals, and sound effects and titles are lettered in “display lettering,” open lettering the style of which is usually left up to the letterer (although either the writer or artist can specify a particular style if he or she has one in mind). There are a number of ways to modify that standard style, some used in almost every line, some used very sparingly:

Bold Lettering: You’ll notice in almost any comic book that some of the words are lettered in bold face. This is generally used to indicate speech rhythms; which words are stressed in speech or narration. Some writers use a lot of bold words, some very few; there are no hard-and-fast rules to follow. Bold words are generally indicated by capitalizing the words to be lettered in bold, like so:

Bob: You did WHAT to my mother?

Italic Lettering: Bold face lettering is used for most of the purposes for which italics are used in prose (and then some). However, the italic face is still available, and some writers prefer to use it in place of bold face on occasion, or in places where bold face wouldn’t be appropriate. Words or phrases in foreign languages are usually lettered in italics, for instance. Italics are indicated via underlining, as in prose, like so:

Bob: Buenos dias, senorita. Did I get that right?
[2014 note: In the original document, this was underlined. I don’t know how to do that here. Pretend.]

Note: There is no need to underline captions; they’re lettered in italics automatically. Anything underlined in a caption will be lettered in plain block capitals, so it contrasts with the other lettering in the caption.

Oversized Lettering: If someone is shouting, and you really want to emphasize it, or if for any other reason the lettering should be larger than the normal size, the letterer can letter it larger. Oversized lettering is indicated like so:

Cabbie (BL): HEY, MAC!

The BL stands for Big Letters, in case you wondered. Note: This technique should be used sparingly. It loses its effect if it’s done too often.

Undersized Lettering: Something said in a very weak voice or in an undertone can be indicated through using smaller than normal lettering. Undersized lettering is indicated like so:

Lou (sl): uh, how fast was I going, officer?

Note: Again, the more this is used, the less well it works.

Splash Balloons: Word balloons with jagged outlines instead of the normal smooth ovals indicate intense shouts. They’re indicated like so:

Ben (SB): ELAINE! ELAAAINE!

Note: Some writers call these “Burst Balloons,” and use (BST) to indicate them rather than (SB). Makes no real difference.

Whispered Balloons: They’re just like ordinary balloons, except that the balloon itself is a dotted line rather than the usual solid line. It means that the speaker is whispering, and is indicated like so:

Bob (wh): Psst! Hey, kid — want some candy?

Electronic Transmission: Word balloons that come from telephones, radios, televisions, tape recorders or anything else along those lines have a jagged pointer. It lets the reader know that it’s not normal speech but electronicallly transmitted or reproduced speech. You might wonder why it’s necessary, and outside of affectation, it usually isn’t; after all, if the word balloon’s coming from a TV, that tells you all you need to know, right? However, in some situations it does help—for instance, if you have a panel of someone talking on a walkie-talkie, both the character’s dialogue and the responses coming from the walkie-talkie are going to be coming from roughly the same place, and the jagged pointer will make it easy to tell who’s doing the talking. As you can probably already guess, it’s indicated like this:

TV (elec): Babysitters who kill. All this week, on “Oprah.”

Titles: Titles are titles. They’re generally lettered in some open-face style selected by the letterer (unless the writer or artist specifically requests one), and are indicated like this:

Title: GONE WITH THE WIND

Credits: Somewhere on the splash page, you’ve got to leave room for the credits, which will consist of a list something like this:

Writer: Barry N. Malzberg
Penciller: Tom Grummett
Inker: Willie Blyberg
Letterer: Bill Oakley
Colorist: Marcus David

You probably won’t know which names to put in the credits, so you can leave it all blank and the editor will put them in; just leave room for him so he doesn’t have to scrawl it in the margins. Typically, comics also credit the editor and the editor-in-chief, but I don’t think we’re going to be doing that in AD ASTRA.

Special Requests: The modifications listed above are by no means the only lettering variations open to you. Let’s say you’ve decided that the narrative for a particular script will be done as excerpts from the lead character’s diary, and in order to reinforce that image, you’d like the captions lettered in longhand script rather than block capitals. Or the story involves a computer with with a voice simulation program, and you’d like to have the computer’s word balloons lettered in a computer-like typeface. You can specifically ask the letterer to letter it in that style. If the special style you want is only used once, you can describe it at the appropriate spot in the script. For instance:

Sign On Door: GenEleven Hypertronics
[Note: Please letter the above in some appropriate hi-tech typeface. Thanks.]

Or, if you want to use some special lettering style at various points throughout the script, you can describe it once, and set up a special notation to cover it, like so:

[Note: Captions marked CAP(D) are diary entries, and
should be lettered in longhand script rather than block
capitals. Thanks.]

CAP(D): Dear Diary: Today we invaded Monaco.

You don’t want to call for more than one or two special styles per script (if any), for a couple of reasons: First, a plethora of lettering styles creates a visual jumble that’s hard to read (and hard to proofread), and second, your letterer will hate your guts. Similarly, you don’t want to call for a lettering style that’s overly ornate or complex, because (a) it’ll be hard to read and (b) the more complicated it is, the greater likelihood there is that the letterer won’t be able to do it well, and it’ll come out looking lousy.

For the record, the lettering key that all AD ASTRA letterers will be given and will be working from is this:

CAPITALIZED………………..Bold Lettering
Underlined…………………….Italic Lettering
(BL)……………………………..Larger Than Normal Lettering
(sl)……………………………….Smaller Than Normal Lettering
(SB)……………………………..Splash Balloon
FX……………………………….Sound Effect
(wh)…………………………….Whispered Balloon
(elec)……………………………Electronic Transmission
Anything not listed in this key will have to be specially requested in the script.

IV. ATTACHMENTS

Included with this memo should be a couple of examples that will show you how all this theory works out in practice:

A. DAREDEVIL: BORN AGAiN

The trade paperback reprints a series of seven DAREDEVIL issues written by Frank Miller and drawn by David Mazzuchelli. The reason we’ve chosen this particular book is that Frank makes full and extensive use of the various narrative approaches available to him, and the book thus shows off a greater variety of scripting techniques than most other available examples.

B. Sample Script Pages

The sample script pages, which should include at least a couple of pages of a Frank Miler script, as well as any other examples we can get our hands on, will show you what a finished script looks like, and should help to makes sense of all the information above.

4 thoughts on “On Writing For Comics

  1. Ah, I remember that memo well! I circulated it (with your permission) to SFWA members who thought they might want to try writing for comics. It was much appreciated.

  2. Pingback: Kurt Busiek: Writing for Comics.. | DARK CHILD STUDIOS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Prove you are human, mortal: * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.